By Sheila Midgley

This article is about one of those rare relationships that works perfectly; the South Galiano Hall and music — especially classical music. We have on Galiano a very rare and special building that we should treasure – not just as a physical structure that serves the community well – but as an instrument. Almost every musician who has played in this hall has mentioned what a joy it is to make music in this environment – and although I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before, I’ve never tackled the obvious question – why?

Now a building can’t talk — but it can be heard. Think of nervously walking through an empty building, in the dark, and hearing the hollow sound of your footfall, the whistle of wind through a small crack in a window, the creak of shifting timber as evening falls and cools the air. Your whole body becomes so receptive to the ambiance every hair stands up on your arms, the small of your back feels vulnerable — a symphony of sound conjures up scenes from a gothic novel. In this state of heightened awareness, a shiver creeps up your spine.

The world renowned Evelyn Glennie, profoundly deaf since age 12, has capitalized on using heightened awareness and shown us that you don’t need ears to hear. Using her whole body as a sounding board this incredible 46 year old Scot has beat the odds of being deaf by getting accepted into music school, excelling in instruments dominated by males and becoming the 20th century’s first full-time solo percussionist in western society. Now Dame Evelyn, she performs as well as teaches thousands of people the art of listening. Her success is in part due to playing barefoot so that she can “feel” the music travel through the floor boards. She also picks up vibrations through her hands, arms, and torso and becomes one with her instrument. In the South Hall she could also
become one with the building.

Now what makes the South Hall an instrument? Why is it that, if given the opportunity and a little knowledge, we can actually feel/hear how the music is enriched or diminished by the building it is played in. For example, there are many violins in the world and they are fundamentally all made the same way – but only a rare few have the sound of a Stradivarius. So it’s a combination of design, construction methods, the wood and serendipity that made the South Hall play like a Strad.

Don Anderson kindly explained that the design was probably initiated by Paul Scoones, the community minded English immigrant who was one of the driving forces behind getting the South Hall built. The building was to serve as a community hall, a library, an agricultural hall and a place for recreation and the enjoyment of the arts. It’s interesting that music is one of the things that helped make it possible to build the hall. Scoones had music nights in his home where people could, by donation, come and listen to music on his gramophone. Maybe he had an intuitive sense of what type of building would have good acoustics.

The Hall, built between 1924 and 1926, started off 25 feet wide by 36 feet long. Later a 14 foot addition was added to the entrance end nearest the street, giving it a grand total of 50 feet. The foundation sits on cedar timbers fixed to concrete pads. The main hall is classic wood frame construction and the wood of choice was old growth Douglas Fir. Built before electricity arrived on the island the workers used only hand tools and nails. We are now on the second floor, but the original sits under the current replacement. The original Hall, built to last, contains no plastics or glues; the wallboards that line the hall are so dense that a nail can barely penetrate – and there is virtually no insulation. And yikes, I hope they don’t consider insulating until they find out if the absence of insulation is part of the good vibes!

The Hall’s acoustics are probably enhanced by two other factors: a high ceiling, topped off with an attic, and a basement. The high ceiling allows the music to soar and the attic probably dampens the sound’s ability to escape through the roof. The basement probably responds in a way similar to the design of violins and guitars with the “hollow” voice box allowing the sound to resonate. All very obvious you say. This is where the serendipity comes into play. Like a treasured Strad, the South Hall really is an acoustic instrument that stands out in the crowd. The sweetness of the sound may never be fully explained and I expect if we consulted three sound experts we would get three answers.

Thank goodness that the custodians of the South Hall have treated the building kindly and made changes carefully. That said, I’m sure that we are all glad of the addition of washrooms off the main hall — previously the only washrooms were at the back of the stage and access during concerts put a whole new meaning to performance art.

The Concert Society’s season is held at the South Hall I mention this because it is an incredible opportunity to listen in a whole new way. While I’m not suggesting that you throw yourself on the floor to listen, I wouldn’t be too adverse to the idea either. Evelyn Glennie’s deafness might be emulated with a good pair of ear plugs, but most important is taking the time to realise that at the South all there is always one more instrument in the mix – and you are sitting on it. Using this logic a quartet quickly becomes a quintet.

If the opportunity to walk in the South Hall when it is empty comes your way – take it. Maybe sing a few notes as you’ll probably never sound better, but even more wonderful is experiencing the amazing sound when there is a concert. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the medium translates the message or music into something more dynamic and richer than it would be if heard in only one dimension. You don’t need an altered state of mind to be receptive, but the 60s and 70s got it right when they talked about good and bad vibes. The South Hall is all good vibrations.