Robin A. Grant  

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The 1996 Sound Symposium: A Review of Sights and Sounds
Granite Magazine

As interesting and versatile as the Sound Symposium is, I have decided to focus on a small but eclectic mix of events--each of them truly an adventure in sound, in and of themselves.

Perhaps one of the staple events for the St. John's Sound Symposium was the Harbour Symphony, organized by Paul Steffler. The Harbour Symphony took place each day of the Sound Symposium at high noon on the St. John's Harbour front. Each of the ships participating in the orchestra were equipped with two musicians: one to time and the other to "honk" on command. Of the symphony's written and choreographed, several were done by local artists. The Harbour Symphony I attended was written and choreographed by Liz Pickard. The day I approached the Harbour, pen and paper in hand, I was half anticipating a sound something like a bunch of boats at rush hour traffic. Instead I heard a symphony of horns rising in crescendos, ranging in pitch, dropping into lulls, and so on. The music continued for about 15 minutes while cars drove by and honked, and passerbys stood still, half grins on their faces, watching the seagulls swoop and swoon. Indeed the experience was captive and beautifully appropriate to St. John's.

Tom Hamilton's "Off-Hour Wait State" held at the James Baird Gallery (lower level of Word Play Bookstore) was a constantly changing electronic sound environment. Hamilton modeled this piece after the New York Subway System, using his experience of the "Etrain" route to his home stop to create his own electronically synthesized environment The sound was much like that of a subway on route, slowing down and picking up speed, and yet it intermittently reached airs of chaos, tranquility, and eeriness. The setting for the piece in the Baird Gallery was one to provoke the imagination. Coats were hung vicariously off the wall, coats that you could imagine all the different subway-goers wearing. Above the coats was a solitary dim light, and the room was otherwise dark. The music was ongoing and ever changing, almost permitting you to slip into a new, unimpeded existence. I bet Mr. Hamilton has never had a dull experience on his subway ride home since this creation.

Sainkho Namchylak of Tuva, with her training in the lamainstic and shamnastic traditions, as well as the khoomei (or throat) singing style, and Ned Rothenburg of New York, with his experience as a composer and performer on saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, and the Japanese end blown flute, seemed at first the ultimate odd couple.

Nevertheless, the two performed separately, marking their own distinctive styles, only to combine together beautifully in two final peices (for those who may recall, one of notable poignancy, "The Ancient Gardner"). During all the pieces Rothenburg used a variety of wind instruments, and Namchylak's voice, wordless though it was, seemed to have a vocabulary of its own. The two anists created a style that interlaced the modern and the traditional, the west and the east, and the effect was sublime.

Of all the events at the Sound Symposium my personal favorite was "The Cheat". Written and directed by Jillian Keiley, "The Cheat" was a comic piece that combined music and theatre based on natural movement. Set to Bach's "Fugue in G Minor," "The Cheat" was performed by the Artistic Frand Of Newfoundland Inc--a group which massed some 81 people staging the elementary classroom, in which all the school children collaborated to cheat on their exam.

The scene began with the school teacher hobbling on stage and the children filing out to their desks. The school children chattered and poked and played and the effect was quite amusing. Then the teacher did "roll call" by waving her hand in the air and humming, to which the respective student would answer a melodious "here". With the roll call finished, they proceeded to do some very cleverly choreographed pencil taping, exam passing, gasping and sighing, and, of coarse, cheating. Finally when the exams were finished, or should I say, everyone was done cheating, the school children threw their pencils triumphantly up in the air and the lights fell (I suppose I should add that the applause roared but that would be dishing...).

Rhonda Buckley's "Barred" was a unique glimpse into Newfoundlander's lives as they were viewed in the unimpeded, relaxed settings of bars across Newfoundland--bars where, as Buckley put it, "...people went to vent their voice...". Local artist Rhonda Buckley travelled everywhere from East Port to Bay Bulls to Cape Royal and finally, back to St. John's, gathering snippets of taped conversations. Along with conversation pieces, Buckley also recorded a variety of "bar sounds", including folk, country, rock and alternative music performances; the clanking of pool balls; the whirling of lotto machines; and the laughing and carrying on of bar-goers in general. Many of the conversations involved complaining about politics and the economy, but most were of people simply having a good time.

Photographer Justin Hall accompanied Buckley to various bars and took the photographs that accompanied the display at the Ship Inn during the week of the Sound Symposium. Buckley had 4 tables reserved, each equipped with 2 sets of head phones, a half hour tape, and a photograph laminated to the table top. Though the tapes and sound gear were dismantled at the close of the Symposium, the photographs are still on display, laminated to the tables at the Ship Inn.