Daily concert of ships' horns in the St. John's, N.L. harbour set to rumble floors

·4 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — On Friday afternoon in St. John's, N.L., deep blasts of ships' horns punctuated by sharp wails from a pair of saxophones rose up from the fog blanketing the city's harbour.

It was the first of 10 daily Harbour Symphonies scheduled in conjunction with the city's biennial Sound Symposium festival, which is celebrating it 20th anniversary. Typically, the symphonies are played only on the horns of the ships in the St. John's harbour. But on Friday, it had accompaniment from Ouroboros, a beloved local band that dabbles in everything from klezmer to circus music.

To some, the Harbour Symphony is a thunderous mess of boomps, barmps and woomps that make it impossible to carry on a conversation.

But to Delf Maria Hohmann, who's been co-ordinating and composing the symphonies since 2004, it's a carefully planned and painstakingly timed musical composition played by volunteers and captains aboard ships stationed in the city's port.

"It's not melodic," Hohmann acknowledged in a recent interview. "But don't forget, there is a score. There is a structure there. It's not chaos. It's music."

After the horns died down Friday, he said he was pleased it was so foggy — the sound travels better that way.

The busy St. John's harbour is often home to sprawling factory fishing vessels, massive icebreakers, research ships, whale tour boats and freight vessels. The water is flanked on either side by steep hills — the south side is mostly woods, but the north side is an ascending grid of colourful city streets.

The layout makes for great acoustics, Hohmann said. "It's like an amphitheatre." The bawling moans of the Harbour Symphony cause floor tremors in houses right up to the top of the hill.

To compose a symphony, Hohmann said he works with the St. John's Port Authority and the coast guard to take an inventory of which boats are scheduled to be docked on symphony days and what their horns sound like.

"I've gone around to some of the ships and asked if they could just sound the whistle for a second," he said, adding that most captains are happy to oblige.

He figures out their pitch, and what kind of notes they may be able to sustain, as well as how long it takes for the mostly pneumatic horns to hit their sweet spot. Then he starts composing the piece, mapping out what horn will blow at what time and for how long.

The Sound Symposium puts together teams of volunteer "players" who will hop onto the boats on symphony day to make sure the horns are blown at the right time, in the right way.

This year, the compositions are about five minutes long. Hohmann said he recommended the composers write their pieces for six or seven ships.

There's always a chance a ship may not be docked, or that the horn won't sound properly, he added.

"I tell my players, 'Push that button whenever you're supposed to and do not worry about what comes out.' I'd say 90 per cent of the cases, it's all fine, but sometime it's not," he said, making a raspberry sound.

He sees the Harbour Symphony as an addition to the area's unique sonic footprint, which already involves clanging cranes and freight containers, rumbling motors and a fog horn. "It seems to be part of the identity of the St. John's harbour culture," Hohmann said.

Not everyone agrees.

"I feel bad for people who are sick or have babies," said Nicki Ryan in a Facebook message. Ryan lives downtown next to the harbour, and she said the Harbour Symphony noise is just too much.

Elaine Pond said she enjoys the symphony's weird, morose droning. "I like to go in my garden to hear it, and just take in the sounds and tones," she said in a Facebook message.

A spokeswoman for the City of St. John's said in a recent email that staff weren't aware of any formal complaints lodged by the public against the symphony. But the Sound Symposium gets a fair number of angry messages about it, Hohmann said.

"You know we read the complaints out on stage on the last night?" he asked, grinning. His favourite complaint so far was from someone in the Battery neighbourhood, a scattering of old houses on the rocks at the harbour's mouth.

"They said, 'You call that music? All the dogs in the area howl along!'" he said. "Which was brilliant, because it shows there is definitely some understanding in the animal world of the Harbour Symphony!"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 15, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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