Playing it By Ear: Improv Night at the Sound Symposium XX

Performers experiment with poetry, dance, and sound at the LSPU Hall during Improv Night at this year’s Sound Symposium.
Photo By: Greg Locke (Sound Symposium Day 7 Recap)

The Sound Symposium is a generous invite into a world most of us might never enter. A world of skilled musicians who double as scientists and engineers, who explore, deconstruct, and recreate what it means to produce and experience sound.

The 20th biennial event, Sound Symposium XX, which ran from Jul 15-23, is no exception. It expands the entrance even further into this unique world, bringing together top-tier international and local musicians and incorporating art and visual elements with sound. 

Although the Symposium draws in various genres from music’s most eclectic corners, themes of improvisation and experimentation run through its core. The Symposium doesn’t just aim to showcase music, it actually works to create its own soundscape all throughout the 10-day event. It achieves this by offering a space for artists to play their music and play with their music. It allows them to connect with the music and sounds of other performers, and even listeners in the audience

The event purposefully calls itself “a symposium,” rather than a festival, to highlight the diversity and spirit of its programming. A symposium is after all, “a convivial party with music and conversation,” a term which emphasizes the more spontaneous social and conversational aspects of the occasion.

Certainly, there are curated concerts in its program with distinguished musicians from around the globe. The Symposium even offers world premieres from these artists, music that has never been heard before has graced our tiny part of the world. However, there is also a nightly Open Jam at The Ship Pub, that encourages musicians from all over to set their inhibitions aside and ad-lib music on stage. 

There’s Always Room for Improvisation

Looking at the rundown of the Symposium’s list of events, you can see improvisational performances scattered throughout the schedule. I am not a musician, but I am a performing artist, and these events really piqued my interest. Music has often felt like another language to me. I undoubtedly enjoy listening to it, but understanding the process by which it is made? I wouldn’t know where to begin. The offer of improvisational music presented an accessible way in. 

I attended the Symposium’s Improv Night at the LSPU Hall, featuring Erin Donovan, Alice Burdick, Rob Power, Andrea Tucker, and Gina Ryan, as well as surprise guests. I hoped to experience in real-time how music can be created. Still, I was not quite sure what to expect, and I did indeed witness the unexpected. 

The night opened with “Trail Reports,” a companion piece to the collaborative event featured at the MUN Botanical Gardens the previous day. The performance was a mix of movement, poetry, and an impressive assortment of instruments for a small group of only four musicians. Next, we watched four percussionists, a guitar player, a poet, and a dancer, mesh together their respective art forms. Together, the musicians and the dancer used poetry as their score. 

Watching these artists working in different media interacting together, I came to appreciate what I think makes the Symposium so unique: the way it blends together so many different forms and genres of art with sound. 

Improvisation plays a large part in the Symposium, but this improvisation is not limited to the performances of the musicians. I realized as the show got underway that it also extends  to the creation of new instruments. Performers made them out of whatever materials or objects were available. As the name suggests, the Sound Symposium isn’t just about music. Music is just one small aspect of a much larger soundscape.

Fashioning new instruments out of obsolete technology, random household items, and sometimes—ahem—actual garbage, lives on in the spirit of the Symposium. Certainly, Newfoundland and Labrador, with its spoons and ugly sticks, is no stranger to the playful invention of musical tools. This stage proved to be a laboratory, where its scientists were encouraged to abandon the structure of the scientific method, and embrace the full freedom of experimentation. 

We’re for a Good Time (Not a Long Time)

Mack Furlong, actor, writer, musician, and longtime fixture of the Sound Symposium, emceed the night offering only what I can call a masterful performance of crowd engagement. Furlong was in his element here, as a percussionist for the improv band, The Black Auks. He welcomed the audience with such enthusiasm and vigour, I trusted him completely to take me along this journey with no clear destination. 

Furlong explained how the night would go. Inside of a hat, he had the names of several musicians. He’ll pull out two at a time, he explained, and they will improvise music together in five minutes or less. Furlong was serious about the time limits, he had a gong to which he gleefully pointed. 

During the short time it took for musicians to set up their instruments, Furlong—ever the gracious host—capitalized on the opportunity to engage the  audience. He maintained the momentum of the night by asking one half of the audience to whistle and the other half to mumble. He took the role of a conductor as he moved his arms up and down to signify an increase and decrease in volume. The audience enthusiastically participated as high-pitched whistles and deep, low mumbles filled the theatre. 

With these little transitions between performances, Furlong helped energize the audience, and set the tone for the next performances. I would not have guessed how these utterances would have worked together but that was the beauty of it. We collaborated without a set goal, and we ended up creating something special together.  

The names he picked arbitrarily out of the hat ensured that the audience was treated to some truly bizarre and wonderful musical pairings. Some of these strange couplings included throat singing with object noises, like those made by a Jumping Bean Coffee cup and a rather cute-looking but demonic-sounding toy pig who blended perfectly with the singer’s guttural vocalizations. 

There were synthesizers mixed with guitars and drums, while poetry was recited alongside cellos and a range of ad-hoc instruments. As an audience member, it was invigatoring to see and hear the surprisingly artful effects people and objects could spontaneously produce together. 

Sounds Like… St. John’s

While the Symposium only happens every two years, it does work all year round. In particular, it practices its devotion to improvisation through its Night Music series, which is held every third Thursday of the month at The Ship Pub. 

The Symposium is a niche world populated with highly-skilled musicians, sound makers, and sound aficionados. However, the event does an incredible job of drawing in the general public, both locals and tourists alike, with unique programs like its daily Harbour Symphonies. Each day during the Symposium at 12:30 PM, the St. John’s Harbour comes alive with various horns and blows from all the ships docked there.

Much more than a random chorus of blowing of horns, the symphony is actually a pain-staking  logistical nightmare. It requires the Harbour Symphony’s dedicated coordinator, Delf Maria Hohmann, to take inventory of all the ships in the harbour. Then, he helps guide musicians to create an original piece of music to be played by these ships. The result is an epic concert that resonates across the water that can be heard on land for miles around. Whether you are invited or not, everyone is addressed by the sounds of the St. John’s Harbour, and included as part of the Symposium.    

During Improv Night, Hohmann took the opportunity to show the audience how the Harbour Symphonies worked using volunteers who acted as ships. What we witnessed was an amazing, and pretty hilarious, ensemble of musicians mimicking the inimitable blaring sounds of those large harbour vessels.

This summer’s Sound Symposium XX was another feather in the cap of our province’s Come Home Year. Prestigious, provocative, yet welcoming, it was a unique event with its own bespoke soundtrack that delighted much of the city.

While I was walking downtown during one of the daily Harbour Symphonies, I overheard a tourist remark, “How do they do that?” It was a reminder that the Symposium creates an opportunity to find yourself in St. John’s and welcome its awe and mystery. If you get lost, just be sure to use your imagination and improvise.   

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