Newfoundland has a Sound Symposium: A Place to Play with Sound

Delf Maria Hohmann prepares for an outdoor concert as part of a previous Symposium: Hohmann will be the composer of this year’s Cape Spear Project. Photo by Greg Locke.

by Carey Rutherford

“I am the Artistic Co-director of the Sound Symposium. I’m also the host: I will be hosting most, if not all, of the evening concerts, and some of the earlier concerts; I may be introducing some of the workshops; I will be performing with 2 bands that I play with. And I might even be singing with my improv choir: I direct an improv choir, and there’s discussion underway now to have the improv choir involved in Improv Night, which is a night where artists and members of the general public (if they wish) can get up on stage and improvise.”

MUSICAlive! halts Mack Furlong’s growing list of choir-specific skills and we ask him if there’s any other aspects of the Newfoundland Sound Symposium, from July 5-15 this year, that he deals with.

“That’s not enough?” he quips, and we laugh.

And our lighthearted meander through St John’s wondrous sound landscape begins. We start with a clarification of how a choir can do improvisation: groups of people doing whatever they want?

“We have a Director, but the Director has no concept of a ‘piece’: in general, they’re happy to let the improvisational qualities of the singers take more weight than (other improvisational choirs). Our crowd is a little less involved in ‘making a piece’.. . . Our Directors generally shape the overall feel of an improvisation (and) ours is a little more informal and open to chance.”

MUSICAlive! makes the observation that St John’s, during the Newfoundland Sound Symposium (which happens every 2 years), is not unlike the Improv Night as Mack is describing it: “a little more informal and open to chance” than the average festival. He agrees.

“We’d like to become a part of the community (and) we like the community to become a part of Symposium. The environment and the place of St. John’s, and the surrounding area, have always been a large part of the Sound Symposium: not only for sound or sonic reasons, but for human reasons.”

Mack notes that performers are almost ALWAYS billeted with the St. John’s community, giving connection and context to both the creative elements of what happens in St. John’s musically and the local culture; a two-way learning curve to enrich the public as well as the creators.

“(The performers) stay for the whole event: they don’t just come for their gig and then go. They get to form a community inside Symposium, and then because they stay with people in our local, civic community, they also become a part of St. John’s.

“The Symposium is sometimes more structured; let’s say there’s less improvisation, and more written, created new music or new performances or new installations or new art; and other times it’s more heavily weighted towards improvisation . . . We want you to leave a concert at Sound Symposium listening to the world in a different way.”

Mack Furlong, as co-Artistic Director, conductor, band member, host and all-around enthusiast, will be everywhere at the St. John’s Symposium. Photo by Ellie Hynes.

The list of those performing at the Symposium is long indeed, and MUSICAlive! asks if they’re all performing individually? There’s just not enough room in St. John’s for all of those listed to present sound art to the listening world.

“(Some artists), like Andrew Staniland, a composer, isn’t performing, but several people will be performing his work.. . . Some of it is like that, and also our concerts are generally 2-3 hours: we try to get some very different artists in an evening concert. So there’ll be at least 2, sometimes 3, performers or groups of performers: there’ll be something local, something crazy and wacky, and there’ll be something that people will enjoy without knowing they’d ever want to see something like that! (we laugh again)

“It’s amazing how many people have come to see someone they know, and go away RAVING about someone they’d never heard of before: ‘The guy who played the bicycle? Holy Smoke! Wasn’t he fantastic?! I want MY bike to sound like that!’

“You expand your audience by putting together almost a variety show . . . For the most part it isn’t going to be new music performer after new music performer, or improviser after improviser after improviser. We’ll mix dance with vocal with music; we’ll mix spoken word with film with another band . . . The people who put the concerts together do a remarkable job, in my mind, of putting incredibly varied lists of performers into really intriguing concert events.”

Mr. Furlong also reiterates the importance, in the Sound Symposium’s unique role in connecting humans to their sound environments, of “putting the artist into the community (which) helps an awful lot towards openness: and when you stay with a family that cooks for you; or even just leaves the front door open so you can get in after the show at night; or gives you a key to their house; or ‘here’s my car for the afternoon’, it makes a BIG Big big big difference to your performance, and to your experience of the event.

“I like to think that we’re as open as you can possibly be to the performers that come: what you want to do, we can try and make this happen!”

Mack mentions among other things, a Stanford science department (CCRMA) who practically did backwards somersaults to be able to give a demonstration of their research at the Newfoundland Sound Symposium, and when they finally did in 2016 they also provided information about the massive technology and theory for other attendees to use in their performances.

As an exact example of the possibilities the Symposium creates for the universe of audio experience, Mack describes a magical event perpetrated by Richard Lerner, an American sound artist that has attended St. John’s wonderland several times.

“He hung 3 or 4 contact microphones from a clothesline. (A contact microphone) is just an electrical connection connected to (a small flat plate). It’s one of the earliest things that do-it-yourself people make when getting into sound. He made them out of 4 different kinds of metal, and then he got a Bic lighter, and he went around and he held it under each of the microphones. And as he was doing this he was describing (to the audience) what was happening: ‘with this heat I’m exciting the molecules in this piece of metal, and all of these metals are made up of different molecules, and they respond differently to the same heat: some will move fast, some will move slow; some will have deep notes, some will have high notes.’

“(The sound) started: ‘bing bing bing’ and you could hear the molecules in it, and the next one, and the next one. And then when he stopped, he said, ‘And now when they cool down, you’ll hear all of the molecules slow down, and eventually they’ll be quiet: they’ll get back to that state where the heat doesn’t have an effect on them anymore.’

“I think I wept in the audience. Because, I just listened to the universe: I just listened to the music of life. it was improvised . . . and it was absolutely beautiful! The quiet in the room afterward, . . . where people were listening to the very last little ‘bing’ . . . it was so simple , and clearly explained, and I know it had a deep and prominent impact on the way that I like to improvise, the way that I like to play. It was just a remarkable experience.”

Check out their site; check out a Harbour Symphony (the perfect metaphor for what Newfoundland Sound Symposium likes to do), check out an event that will change how you hear the world.