A Time to Hear for Here

Experience the Royal Ontario Museum in a new way with the Spirit House’s multidimensional sound installation

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) invites visitors to experience the Museum in a dynamic new way -- with sound. The Spirit House, considered the heart of the ROM’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal expansion, will be filled with the sounds of acoustic architect and composer John Oswald’s permanent sound installation, A Time to Hear for Here.

The Spirit House, where the crystalline shapes of the Crystal structures intersect to create an irregularly shaped interior atrium, was envisioned as an artifact-free meditative space, a very different kind of experience at the ROM. On each level, the Spirit House can be traversed on crisscrossing bridges that join Crystal galleries to the west with those to the east. From these bridges, visitors can best experience the magnitude of the Spirit House. From the top-most fourth level of the Crystal visitors can look down to Level B2, through the large, twisting volumes of the Spirit House.

"Our task is to paint this contemporary Sistine Chapel with a fresco of sound,” says Oswald. “The design of A Time to Hear for Here is monumental, but there's a natural and human scale to its content."

Floating subtly through every level, A Time to Hear for Here will interact with the architectural space designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, producing an auditory experience unique to the Museum, while touching on the dual mandate of the ROM -- culture and nature.

Working in six dimensions -- width, the illusion of depth, height, teleception (distances beyond the horizon of perception), and time, both chronometric and historical -- Oswald has created sound cycles and sound experiences throughout this very unique space.

"Everything makes noise: cultures, nature, but museums have traditionally be very quiet places,” says the ROM’s Director and CEO William Thorsell. “The Spirit House is empty, allowing visitors to fully experience a space where sound is as important as silence. John Oswald has found the balance needed to create an experience that is unique to the ROM.”

The sounds are all scheduled by a central computer; some are random and can be heard through one or more of the three-dozen loudspeakers located throughout the Spirit House. No one knows what comes next: hear a loon and a whale sing a duet, or a Chinese folk melody accompanied by a plaintive CN train whistle. Some of these chance juxtapositions will only happen once in a blue moon.

Other sounds happen according to a global clock, occurring at a particular hour, or shifting along from day to day as scheduled times of sunrises and sunsets on the other side of the world progress and regress through the year. Hourly soundmarkers are transmitted from different time zones in Canada and around the World; so at 10:30 a.m. one hears the distant noon gun of St. John's Newfoundland, in the East, and at 15:00 (3 p.m.) the first four notes of the Canadian national anthem sound from the noon horn in Vancouver, on the West Coast.

Dramatic moments will permeate the space. A cascade of harp notes may fill the space, or the 24-part canon titled Qui (Latin for “who”), inspired by the late 15th century choral piece Qui Habitat by Josquin Desprez.

For Qui, Oswald created a list of languages based on the 2002 census, proportionate to the Canadian populations that speak them. Not all, but many of the nation’s languages will be represented. Oswald also feels it is important to represent indigenous languages despite the small number of people who speak them. The voices behind Qui are not an existing trained choir. One operatic tenor sings in Korean, another tenor born in South Africa sings a second alto part in Zulu, while someone else may sing in Romanian or Finnish. Almost all the voices are singing in their mother tongues. Visitors to the ROM may wish to schedule a visit to the Spirit House at 17:17 (5:17 p.m.) when Qui occurs once a day.

As often as not the Spirit House is silent, except for half a dozen windows of sound which can only be heard when visitors stand in one of several sonic spots. The continuous sounds heard through these invisible windows issue multilingual greetings and aural indications of the global birth and death rates of human beings. And a gong sounds throughout the Spirit House on the extinction of another species on earth.

The space can be seen as a secular cathedral, offering those who listen to the sounds an idiosyncratic, personal Museum experience.

On Level 1, the Spirit House contains a contemplative lounge, containing Daniel Libeskind’s custom designed Spirit House Chairs and a tribute to the ROM’s New Century Founders, the most dedicated champions of the Renaissance ROM project.