Night Music: Context and Retrospective After 20 Years

by Chad Feehan / Night Music
September 15, 2022

On the third Thursday of every month, a band takes the stage at The Ship Pub in an alley off Duckworth Street, runs through their set, and after a short break is joined by any number of audience participants for an hour of stream-of-consciousness improvisation.

It’s a format that’s been working for twenty years this month, and with next months performance already in the pipeline.

Born out of a history of late night jams and the programming of the bi-annual Sound Symposium itself, the perennial Night Music has been orchestrated and curated by Craig Squires in as far as improvisation can be either of those things.

“It’s a risk to get up on stage in public and just fly, you know?” said Squires.

Improvisation is the heart of Night Music. Playing unfamiliar music with unfamiliar people requires an attentiveness to what’s going on around you and a deep musical intuition about composition on the fly. Squires feels The Ship has been the perfect environment to facilitate this scenario all these years.

“There’s something about The Ship. That stage is a real special place. It’s extremely easy to hear what other people are doing on the stage,” said Squires.

In preliminary promotions for Night Music, there is an open call for the audience to bring an instrument for the jam sessions at the second half of the night. Squires will then arrange these musicians, if any, in multiple sets of jammers, based on tone, timbre, and other musical factors. The idea is that everyone can be heard, not to configure a certain sound. Throwing together musicians from disparate backgrounds is the name of the game.

“It’s my responsibility after the initial set to throw people off the deep end,” said Squires. “I wouldn’t hesitate to put Rick Bailey [a local electronic musician] with a folk person.”

The history leading up to the formal formation of Night Music is meandering, but traceable. Sound Symposium has long been a forum for improvisation, including late night jams in the LSPU Hall basement or other locations, with which Squires was involved.

In 2000, Sound Symposium founder Don Wherry programmed some local rock bands as well as some visiting artists at The Ship over several nights. This in effect solidified a relationship with The Ship that remains to this day.

The time Squires spent at John Oswald’s weekly improv sessions called Pool at The Cameron House in Toronto was another inspiration for Night Music.

What really kicked off the format that would become Night Music was a show at the Ship during the 2000 Sound Symposium featuring New York band What Is It Like To Be A Bat?, in which the duo did a prepared set with some local musicians in a “pick up” band, and then encouraged other local musicians to come up and jam with them. Prolific local musicians like Curtis and Duane Andrews, Neil Conway, Pat Boyle, and members of The Discounts and Buddhajuke were in the band and among the jammers. In the words of Craig Squires, “a seed was planted.”

The first iteration of Night Music was during the 2002 Symposium. The name of the event was coined by Sound Symposium founder Kathy Clarke-Wherry. In nightly installments over the course of the Symposium, the series featured acts including Trimmed Naval Beef, The Discounts, and The Black Auks, each doing a set of their own material followed by improv with other musicians well into the night. These shows proved to be smash hits at the Symposium, both among the musicians and the audiences, and a source of happy exhaustion for Squires. He decided he wanted to keep it going on a monthly basis. The Symposium agreed, as did the local artists. The rest is history.

“There was a culture of bands in St. John’s at the time who were really happening. Really amazing, inspired music by people who were clearly improvisors. This is a scene with a feel for improvisation,” said Squires.

Local musician Dan Keating was an early participant and performer at Night Music. During Keating’s time as a regular with the jam series, he felt as though anybody could express themselves. He says it gave his friends and he an opportunity to present performances that would not have happened otherwise.

“I believe everybody has a desire, a need, to turn on their creativity,” said Keating. “It is inspiring when country players play with metal heads and punk rockers.”

A fan of tradition as well as breaking boundaries, Keating spoke of the joy of jamming with bands you’re not a part of, and that inspiring creativity “is what it’s all about.”

It has been years since Keating has been a regular at Night Music. However, he intends go to again.

In fact, people have been coming and going through Night Music for the entire 20 year run of the series. What was intended to foster a dedicated core and culture of monthly improvisors instead developed into a persistent presence that would reach disparate groups of people as they would watch their favorite bands on a Thursday night. Attendance has always been middling, except during the bi-annual Sound Symposium. There was never more than a couple of improv-heads who would attend regularly. In times past, artists like Dan Keating or Cherie Pyne or Patrick Canning have made their way to the stage regularly. More recently, Doug Leeman or Rick Bailey or Michelle Lacour can be seen at The Ship on any given third Thursday.

You might have been walking past posters for Night Music on downtown telephone poles since the 2000’s, idly wondering what it is, then continuing on with your day. Such is the nature of a city teeming with music.

“Regardless, it’s been a really fruitful thing,” said Squires, who measures the success of Night Music by its impact on the community, and not on attendance numbers.

The risk musicians take in improvising new music with new people can also be attributed to the audience, who are at the mercy of the whims of the performers, who in turn are working on a momentary basis with their collaborators on stage. Anything can happen.

“We often get surprised happy reactions, but we also drive people out. I like that this is a risky thing for both players and audiences. From that standpoint, it’s always been a success.”

Night Music’s 20th anniversary show is tonight at The Ship at 9:30, featuring brand new act Loopstitch as the ‘anchor band’. There are rumors of a truly gigantic improv set after their performance. How many jammers can we fit on The Ship stage at once? Guess you’ll have to see for yourself.

You can find the link to the event here.