Harbour Symphony.

July 10, 2012

I had an “oh-man,-I-wish-I was-there-to-hear-that” moment when I was lolligagging around the Sound Symposium website. The "there" I wanted to be at was Signal Hill, and what I wanted to hear was Mack Furlong’s harbor symphony, Brute. The recording is barely a day old as I post this, although I can’t find any information on whether or not this was a premiere. But I'd like to be considered a secondary reason to this video's viral success if it goes all George Takei popular on the internet...

Them's be jokes.

The Harbour Symphony was conceived of in 1983 by a Canadian Architect named Joe Carter. His notion sprung from two ideas: the spontaneous bellowing of ships in the harbor for New Year’s, and that the St. John’s Harbour, with its bowl shape and steep hills, acts as a natural, massive bull horn. If ships could somehow synchronize their horn blasts, you could create a massive and impressive sound experience.

Joe approached his composer friend Paul Steffler and asked him to pen the first harbor symphony. They used traditional notation to score their piece. To solve the synchronization problem, they decided to have a conductor count time via the coastguard radio.

I can only imagine what hoops they had to jump through in order to coordinate such an event. They had to convince a coast guard, the Harbour Master, as well as the captains of a decent number of oceanic vessels, who probably haven’t experienced experimental music, to participate in music making. Joe Carter and Paul Steffler must have been quite the charmers.

Whatever they did, it worked, and 19 years later, many composers from all over the world have written for the boats and it has inspired other cities to do their own, in Montreal, Vancouver, Amsterdam, and San Fransisco, and has become the signature fanfare for the Sound Symposium.

Mack’s piece is rhythmically quite simple, the performance is crude. I mean this in a good way. You’re not going to get a satisfying experience if you try writing a rhythmically complex piece for instruments that way 12 tons, and are situated up to a kilometer apart from each other, so simplicity is key. And you do get a sense that the sound is organized. To me, I love this music. It’s cheeky. If you were in this city, there’s nothing you could really do but listen. The first time it happened, were there noise complaints? Did someone write an angry letter to the Premiere of Newfoundland concerning this renegade event? I hope so; I hope there was a reaction. This is good art to me. It’s thought provoking—how do we as humans, with our inventions and machines (boats) and noises connect with our environment (St. John’s Harbour)?—and visceral.

If anyone was there, I would love to hear about what it was like to experience Brute Live!

Brute, by Mack Furlong. July 9, 2012.