Nothing on Craigdarroch Castle’s official website will tell you it’s haunted. The 1890 treasure is simply hailed “Victoria, British Columbia’s legendary landmark.” It’s when you begin talking to the locals– and even people who work within its lavish walls– that you begin to hear secret tales of its 39 rooms, 87 steps, 4 floors, 18 fireplaces, tower, and tormented past.
In short, the castle was built for coal baron Robert Dunsmuir as an outrageous momument to his wealth, but he died shortly before building was completed. The architect, Warren Heywood Williams, who called Craigdarroch his masterpiece, also mysteriously died before the castle was finished. The widow Joan Dunsmuir lived there with her sons in a turbulent state. And in 1917, the structure was turned into a military hospital. There are tales of ghostly piano music along with the sudden smell of candle wax, apparitions of children and soldiers, icy drafts blanketing the stairways. (I remember visiting the castle several years ago as a tourist, and one woman refused to go up the steps in a certain area of the castle, sensing a strange presence around her.)
When producer/writer/filmmaker Jordan Stratford invited me to perform at the castle last month as part of his great Victoria Steam Expo, it fulfilled a wish I made when I first visited. This was an ideal location for my “spontaneous musical combustion”— composing works on the spot in front of the audience, manifesting the musical spirit within the location itself. Every place has a story, every object holds music. My job is to be the gatekeeper, and open the portal.
I talked with the compelling historian/speaker Chris Adams at the Expo’s opening night absinthe party. His family operates the long-running Victoria “Ghostly Walks“ tour. Later, I curled up in bed at Hotel Rialto skimming ghostlore and history books.
As always, when I channel music in unusual locales, I begin to familiarize myself with the back story. But, that’s the trick. I don’t want to know TOO much, just enough to whet my intrigue, and share stories with the audience– but NOT so much that I formulate ideas or draw conclusions. “Preparation” would ruin it. My actions must be genuine, immediate. I want to honor the fragility of time, emotion, and find the music hiding within that moment. I just immerse myself into it, I don’t question it. If you purposely go looking for it, analyzing it, and beckoning it, you’ve lost it forever.
That rule applies for many things in life…
I was drawn to one particular Steinway grand in the front parlour. I played other pianos in the castle, but I kept coming back to this one. I knew it. It was familiar. I saw Facebook posts the next day that said it felt like I had been “reacquainted with a long-lost lover, and there was a sense of almost voyeurism from those who watched me.”
I could feel the piano ecstatic to be played again–even the castle staff commented on an odd sense of elation in that room. It made me sad when they told me this piano is never played, and I vowed to give it the attention it needed. At one point during my set, unbeknownst to me, a small red lamp on a table behind me dimmed, and came back on several times. Two psychics in the crowd said they felt the presence of a woman sitting in a chair to my left.
Due to popular demand, I returned Sunday for performances throughout the afternoon. And in the end, I hated having to leave that Steinway– and Victoria.
My goal with “spontaneous musical combustion” (and Musical Seances with Paul Mercer) is not to communicate with the dead, as that is not what I do. If spirit energy makes itself present, as it sometimes does in these shows, that’s lovely. I believe music transcends realms and worlds beyond the flesh. Perhaps that’s why they call it the “spirit of the music.” I’m capturing the combined energy of our moment together in this place–scoring it– a piece of music that will exist for that moment only and then completely vanish. Nothing exactly like it can ever exist again. The fragile essence of Time. The marvel of being alive.
(Photos of Jill Tracy in Craigdarroch Castle by Maggie Binnie O’Scalleigh)