Sound Symposium XX In Review

by Chad Feehan / Uncategorized
August 2, 2022

Gordon Monahan and Bill Coleman in “Sound of Mind and Body”. Photo by Greg Locke.

Open Ears, Open Hearts
Sound Symposium
July 15-23, 2022

The twentieth iteration of any symposium should be a cause for celebration, but when that event is Sound Symposium XX happening after a prolonged, pandemic hiatus you know there is going to be a loud and joyful noise unlike any other.

The wake-up call for every Sound Symposium day is the Harbour Symphony where guest composers conjure primal sounds from the mammoth horns of boats in St. John’s Harbour. But on the first day of this year’s gathering there was a unique call and response between sea and sidewalk, with the more sprightly saxophones of Ouroboros. The harmonious counterpoint in scale and sound was evidence of connection, which was most welcome after two years of tension and separation. The balance of the Symposium’s presentations, workshops and concerts would be permeated with a spirit of collaboration, cooperation and improvisation.

At Eastern Edge Gallery musicians Michelle LaCour, Dustin Fewer, Gabriela Sanchez and Hannah Boone interpreted Katelyn Dobbin’s fibre installation “You can’t drink the sea” as a graphic score. The
sculpture referenced Newfoundland’s cultural icon of drying codfish. The musicians responded to the subdued palette and textured forms with empty tapping keys, breath sounds, sloshing water and muted melody. The effect was at once both nostalgic and elemental.

The evening concert presented a very full programme played by violist Kate Read, in the first half, and TorQ Percussion Quartet in the second–for a total of eight world premieres. Kate Read is well known
to St. John’s audiences for her work with the Atlantic String Quartet and the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra yet this evening she brought a new facet of her creative practice into the spotlight. Pedals and
looping, diffusion and improv electronics figured in Read’s three pieces. It was gratifying to hear the viola’s voice and range without the usual accompaniment of strings.

The theme of SSXX was percussion and surely this was brought to the fore by TorQ Percussion Quartet, one of Canada’s most expressive yet precise percussion ensembles. Can you imagine the sound of two black
holes colliding? Combine the calculations of astrophysics and the immersive sounds of chromatic progressions and you get the sense of two of the pieces composed by the quartet’s members. The other three compositions alternatively recalled musical gatherings between friends, the frantic frustration of composition (through paper sounds), and echo and syncopation through long melodic lines.

The day was capped off by Night Music at the informal setting of The Ship Pub. This format of six events and full length concerts each day typified the musical marathon of the Sound Symposium, which defies detailed reviewing. Thankfully, archival video tape and recordings will be available. And Day One of the symposium did offer themes that organically evolved throughout the eight days.

The Eastern Edge Gallery special project and the premiere of Andrew Staniland’s “Blackwood Sketches”, composed for Kate Read, both cast visual art into a pivotal role as inspiration. Composer Staniland says of David Blackwood’s mythic and mysterious etching that, “the piece immediately jumped out at me and I could almost hear the scene – low tones of an enormous whale in the cold sea, creaking ice formations, clear and starry sky, and a fishing vessel ablaze. Most of all, the familiar and permeating feeling of the smallness of humanity against the vastness of the world seemed to come to life in my ear and imagination.”

On Day Two of the symposium, musician Amy Brandon described her sound as characteristically rounded like the large forms created by sculptor Henry Moore. On Day Three, percussionist Beverly Johnston performed Holly Winter’s composition “Wild With the Music of Color” that was inspired by the life and career of painter Georgia O’Keefe. It ranged from the ethereal to the ecstatic. Also on Day Three, Kathak dancer Bageshree Vaze’s codified vocabulary of gestures personified the flute playing form of a temple statue of Krishna. On Day Five, The Harbourlight Quartet presented Duane Andrews composition “Devil’s Blanket” accompanied by projected images from Newfoundland artist Marlene Creates studies of ice  “Brickle, Nish and Knobby”.

Music is often described as the invisible art as it conveys intangible thoughts and our innermost lives without leaving a trace. At the risk of simplification, visual art represents the tangible – the external world of ships, whales and flowers. Yet historically, one has inspired the other in complement resulting in a satisfying and at times unexpected fullness.

The Sound Symposium affords opportunities for unexpected pairings through programming and unscripted collaborations. EEGs, brainwaves and tap dancing, walkie talkie transistors and hurdy gurdy, viola cases filled with wood shavings and a vacuum cleaner all took the proverbial stage. And then there was the swimming pool.

Inspired by childhood experience, Amy Brandon’s sound installation “Boundary” was staged in an indoor swimming pool. It was elegant, innovative and lyrical. Above the water a menacing sound track rumbled
like gathering storm clouds. Visiting swimmers had the option to escape below the surface and be greeted by the solace of flute and oboe broadcast through speakers normally used by synchronized swimmers.

Specialized equipment presents logistical challenges for artists and organizers as does pandemic and high-cost travel. The spirit of cooperation was obvious in the generous loan of instruments to visiting musicians, whether it was a single cello or an entire stage-full of marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones and drums.

As the symposium week unfolded so did the theme of percussion. Eastern Owl and Kilautiup Songuninga showcased indigenous percussion practice from within our own province. Masterful mrdangam and tabla performances were provided by Trichy Sankaran and Vineet Vyas respectively. Beverly Johnston’s solo percussion performance dramatically combined spoken word, props and costume while Gina Ryan and Erin Donovan teamed up as a dynamic duo to perform Ryan’s “Thou Shall Not Apologize”. Nexus made it obvious why they are considered to be Canada’s premiere percussion ensemble – a distinction they have held for decades. In fact, the New York Times dubbed them “the high priests of the percussion world.”

In separate concerts, Nexus performed the world premiere of Russell Hartenberger’s epic “Red River” and a full itinerary of percussion compositions that took audiences from timeless Zimbabwe and Ghana to a waltz down memory lane with the vintage dance melodies of George Hamilton Green.

Sound Symposium deserves credit for crafting eight days that featured not only Hall of Famers like Nexus and Trichy Sankaran but noteworthy emerging talents like guitarist Ben Diamond and trumpeters
Trio Lyrical. Diamond dazzled the audience with his impeccable playing of compositions that ranged from the gossamer to the assertive, while Trio Lyrical effortlessly interlocked their brass rhythms. Other delights included established saxophonist Greg Bruce in his new guise as a friendly analogue tape anarchist.

Quite simply, Sound Symposium XX presented new adventures in music that were so engaging audiences forgot they were wearing masks.

Gloria Hickey