From The Sublime To The Ridiculous, And Back Again

by Sound Sym Office / 2018 Sound Symposium XIX, All News
July 10, 2018

Clockwise, from upper right: Payton MacDonald, Rokkur with local knitters, Payton MacDonald with a volunteer from the audience, and Sarah Albu of Rokkur. (Photos: Greg Locke)

By Sarah Gordon

My favourite forms of experimental art are those that walk the line between the sublime and the ridiculous, that make me laugh or squint or cringe in the moment but have me reflecting on them after the fact, taking note of the nuances too subtle to register in the moment. With that in mind, this night at the Sound Symposium was the night for me.

The bookending acts, an opener by Hildegard Westercamp and closer by Doron Sadja, were both abstract sound experiences, though their similarities end there. Westercamp’s Sensitive Chaos was more sensitive and less chaotic than its title suggests. The carefully-layered sounds, most–if I remember correctly–recorded from natural occurrences, shifted subtly through the piece, transporting me first into a leaky boathouse after the rain, then into an expansive underground cavern, across into an abandoned and decrepit industrial space, and sunk into a full, muted bathtub. Sadja’s The Building Blocks of Losing One’s Self, Oneself was louder, bolder, more demanding on the eyes and ears. In the heart of it, I imagined it to be the audio-visual equivalent of physical immersion in a 90’s cyberpunk novel: garish, overwhelming, thrilling, at times a little scary, and oh-so-impossibly cool. To be clear: I love 90’s cyberpunk novels. I’ve read most of William Gibson’s bibliography, some of it twice.

Payton MacDonald’s Sonic Divide hit home for a different reason, familiar to anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a bike. Ride far enough on the same one and it becomes imbued with more meaning than the aluminum and rubber suggest: it becomes your companion, the only thing that travels every inch with you. My bike’s been with me for ten years and thousands of miles, and I’d be happy to ride it for the rest of my life; if I had the skill or wherewithal to make music on it, I would, if only because the sound would be impacted by every tree I’ve leaned it against, every time I’ve tuned it up, and all four times I’ve crashed it. MacDonald’s music was personal and earnest, the songs knit together to tell a fascinating story of travel and a mountain bike bringing together a diversity of musical voices.

And with that keyword, knit, I come to the stand-out act of the night, third in the line-up but the closer for this post: ROKKUR’s untitled set of, and about, knitting.

I love experimental art that walks the line between the sublime and the ridiculous, but most artists, I think, are wary to embrace the ridiculous. “Funny” and “irreverent” aren’t adjectives I’d apply to many Sound Symposium acts. But Sarah Albu and Reuben Fenemore, supported by a wonderful cast of St. John’s knitters (and kudos for this local collaboration, which brought an otherwise esoteric evening a little closer to the ground for awhile), seem to understand that the ridiculous is not unimportant, or without merit; to make an audience smile and laugh does not detract from the seriousness of the art. The women onstage made music, collaboratively, with mic’d knitting and spinning tools, grinning the whole time. They told stories from their own lives, laid overtop of musical scores performed by Albu and Fenemore. I was struck, almost immediately, by the fact that I couldn’t remember ever seeing so many women over the age of 40 given the centre of a literal stage, let alone one where their stories are treated seriously without sacrificing any of their style. I loved every second of it.

Sarah Gordon is an Assistant Professor of Folklore at Memorial University. She is interested in the creation of place through stories, especially in northern Canada. Once in awhile, she branches out and dabbles in writing about creepy clowns.