'You know if I were put down in the inferno, and was told that for all eternity I was going to be listening to this, I would repent me of all my sins."
American author Harold Bloom looks as though he'd like nothing better than to rip the big, black earphones from his head. He's been persuaded by one of his former students, Paul Festa, to listen to a 10-minute piece of music and be filmed talking about it - and it's killing him. "How long does this go on?" he asks, frowning. "It's making me very unhappy."
Bloom is one of 31 individuals - playwrights, filmmakers, musicians, performance artists - that feature in Festa's Apparition of the Eternal Church , a documentary receiving its Canadian premiere in Vancouver this week. The film may run just shy of an hour but its impact is proving far greater: "Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience," said The New Yorker; critics from The Village Voice to The Chicago-Sun Times have all raved about it. Some are claiming it to be one of the best films ever made about how people experience music. Not bad for an experiment begun on a whim.
A San Francisco-based violinist and graduate of Yale and Juilliard, Festa took his brand new video camera to New York in 2003 on one of his regular visits to his old music professor, celebrated harpsichordist Albert Fuller. (Fuller died in 2007 and Festa has dedicated the film to his memory.)
"I had fallen under his spell at Juilliard," Festa recalls over the phone. "He would invite us back to his studio after class - it was the apartment featured in All That Jazz - pour champagne, light a joint, put on some music and then talk all over it, describing how it made him feel. He called it the 'theatre of his imagination.'"
In the habit of playing pieces of music to his mentor, this time Festa showed up with Olivier Messiaen's fire and brimstone-laden, cacophonic organ work Apparition of the Eternal Church and asked Fuller if he could record him as he listened - without divulging what the piece of music was. As soon as the music began, Fuller looked at the camera and smiled: "I was the first person to ever play this piece in Washington, D.C., on the organ at the cathedral," he said.
Over the next three years, Festa asked friends, and friends of friends, to go through the same experience. In all, he filmed 115 people listening to the Messiaen, eventually editing together 31 of the participants. Those who made the cut include Shortbus director John Cameron-Mitchell, playwright and actor Eisa Davis, Scissor Sisters' lead singer Ana Matronic, Justin Bond a.k.a. Kiki DuRane of Kiki and Herb, and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl. Professional fire-eater Shanti Carson is filmed wearing a flaming crown of antlers. "She melted the headphones," notes Festa with a giggle.
And so this hour, watching headshots of individuals listening to music we can't hear, is entirely absorbing, moving - sublime, even. From invocations of religious imagery and howls of pain, to ecstasies of both the divine and the sexual, the immediate responses to the music are consistently hilarious, intelligent and primal.
For himself, Festa admits some of the responses took him aback. A self-styled Messiaen evangelist, he was surprised so many people hated the music (the older they were, the more strongly they rebelled, he says); a confirmed atheist, he admits he blanched somewhat when one participant was moved to recall a formative sexual experience that took place in church.
The positive audience and critical reaction - from screenings in America and Europe, in cathedrals, concert halls and cinemas - has, he says, been overwhelming. "The reason the film is fun is, I think, the same reason that people thought it was fun to take part," he says. "And that is because, for most of us, musical response is such an interior, hidden experience. We sit in a concert hall and we are expected to be quiet. We have to save up our emotions to the end, and the only way to express this incredibly varied experience we've had over 30 minutes or an hour, or four hours, is to shout. It's not very articulate.
"But when people can express what they are feeling as they are feeling it, it's so much more satisfying and illuminating."
Apparition of the Eternal Church screens as part of Summer of Sound: Music on Film at Vancouver's Vancity Theatre on Sunday and Aug. 9 at 7 p.m.