Barmp! The Harbour Symphony marks a return to normality in St. John's

·4 min read
These are the participants in the Harbour Symphony, performed on Tuesday. From left: Delf Maria Hohmann, Harbour Symphony curator, musicians Eric Escudero, Nicole Hand, Wilson Escudero, Chris Seary, John Power and Heather Barrett.  (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
These are the participants in the Harbour Symphony, performed on Tuesday. From left: Delf Maria Hohmann, Harbour Symphony curator, musicians Eric Escudero, Nicole Hand, Wilson Escudero, Chris Seary, John Power and Heather Barrett. (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC


Barmp barmp barmp!


The St. John's International Sound Symposium — and its signature event, the Harbour Symphony — is back.

I love the Sound Symposium. It's a festival of experimental music and sound, held every second year in St. John's, and it's been going for nearly 40 years.

If you're into avant garde classical music or jazz, there is something for you. If you enjoy the sounds of nature, there is something for you. If you are into the sonically unusual, there is a lot for you. Basically, the Sound Symposium meets you where you're at.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

The Harbour Symphony definitely meets you where you're at — especially if where you're at is within earshot of St. John's harbour.

The sound of summer

Every day of the festival, at 12:30 p.m., the horns of ships docked in port erupt in a co-ordinated musical score, creating an abstract sound composition.

Some people really dig it, a few people find it irritating, and for all hands in St. John's, the Harbour Symphony is the sound of summer.

But alas, not for the past few summers. The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to most gatherings and planned events over the past couple of years. The 2020 Sound Symposium was silenced. Except for a one-off gig requested for a cruise ship, St. John's has been without the Harbour Symphony since the Sound Symposium of 2018.

So when I got an email calling for volunteers to play in the 2022 Harbour Symphony, it felt like a sign. St. John's had finally arrived at some sort of post-pandemic normal! I was so excited, I signed up to play for two different symphonies on two different days.

Delf the curator

On both days, I met the other players, and Delf Maria Hohmann, the curator of the Harbour Symphony, on the St. John's waterfront at 11:15 a.m.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

Delf looks like a cross between a mad scientist and a summer camp counsellor, which basically sums up his job. He drafts musicians to compose the pieces, he wrangles the "orchestra" players, and he records each performance. On the logistics side, he spends months working with city and port authorities to get permission for the players to board vessels, climb up to the ships' bridges, and wail on their horns.

On the days I am there, Delf distributes scores, and runs us through a rehearsal. We count minutes and seconds, and yell "barmp!" when our horns are to play.

Then Delf sends us off to our ships, with directions on how to check in with harbour security and helpful reminders: wear closed-toe shoes, remember to take your masks.

The performance

On my first day, I am solo, aboard the research vessel Atlantic Condor. On my second day, I am with John Power, a percussionist turned social worker, and we board the offshore supply vessel Maersk Clipper. The crews aboard both vessels are expecting us and hardly bat an eyelid at what we are doing.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

Both days, I sit in the captain's chair, up high, with a panoramic view of the harbour. At 12:30 p.m. sharp, coast guard radio gives us a five-second countdown, and off we go. For the next four minutes, I am preoccupied with counting, following the score and hitting that horn button at the correct times. And then it's over. It happens so fast, I don't even hear it.

We thank the crew, and leave them to get on with their day.

Worlds collide

It's this mashup of the marine industry and the music industry, the social worker and the journalist, that makes the Sound Symposium so special — and so comforting.

In North America and Europe, a Sound Symposium type of festival is generally limited to the community of the avant garde artists and musicians who are in the know. For sure, the avant garde crowd knows about the St. John's Sound Symposium — it has an international reputation.

When participants from all over the world arrive in St. John's for the festival, they expect to, and will be, collaborating with like-minded musicians and artists.

But there's more.

On the stages, at the workshops, in the audience and behind the scenes are also civil servants, tradespeople, retirees, students — anyone with the curiosity and willingness to hear their surroundings a bit differently.

Normal weirdness

In St. John's, we take a bit of normal weirdness when we can get it.

In 2022, the world is an unsettled place, buffeted by COVID-19, war, climate change.

But for a few gloriously loud minutes every day for a week and a half in July, all is well in our little corner of the world.


Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting