Music of the sea: N.L. harbour symphonies set ship horns to original scores

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It isn't Mozart, but the synchronized blasting of ship horns in the St. John's harbour is as much a musical celebration as it is just plain fun.
They call it the harbour symphony - and it's not as easy as it sounds.
Volunteer "players" are gathering each noon-hour until Saturday for a week of daily five-minute performances that are digitally timed to the second. Original scores written for the horns of vessels ranging from supply ships to shrimp boats are co-ordinated over a Canadian Coast Guard radio frequency.
It's all part of the nine-day Sound Symposium, a festival of music and performance art held every two years in St. John's.
On Tuesday, tourists and downtown office workers heard a whimsical piece written by Toronto-based percussionist Ed Squires, originally from St. John's. He called it: "Knock, knock. Who's there? Charley Pride...." after a late-night inside joke.
The punchline has to do with how frequently the popular country music singer has been booked to play the city, Squires explained.
Onboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent, Terri Thomson counted the seconds aloud as Peter Roth leaned on the ship's deep horn while Neil Rosenberg hit staccato notes on a higher-toned horn. Digital timing helps players on six vessels or more follow each musical score.
Back on shore, these unique marine symphonies can sound a bit like a jumble of random blares. The bowl-shaped harbour offers sharp natural acoustics, but everything from wind speed to timing gaffes to horn hiccups can throw off the composer's intentions.
Co-ordinator Delf Maria Hohmann, a musician and singer, sometimes tries to pull off recognizable works such as a waltz or even Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Famous melodies don't always translate well, but he takes the controlled chaos in stride.
"This is like a big amphitheatre and the acoustics are fantastic," Hohmann said, gazing out over the harbour to the open North Atlantic beyond.
"When you look out of the Narrows, there are so many walls around here that will be able to bounce the sound back and forth, reverberating."
Peggy Crocker was on holiday from Florida when she caught a performance.
"I heard a couple of chords in there," she said, laughing. "I think it's original. It's pretty neat."
Harbour symphonies have caught on in Montreal, Vancouver and as far away as Greece since they became part of the St. John's Sound Symposium in 1983, Hohmann said. The idea was originally inspired by the spontaneous blasting of ships' horns on New Year's Eve, he added.
A CD recording of past harbour symphonies features such titles as "Echoes" and "Ballycatters and Growlers," the latter named after ridges of shoreline ice and small icebergs.
Squires was clearly thrilled with how his original composition came to mega-decibel life.
"Fantastic," he said just after the last note rang out over the water.
"These things never go perfect to the score. It would be almost impossible for it to go exactly as planned. But you kind of hope to write for an effect or a sound or an idea - and hope it comes across."

Organizations: Canadian Coast Guard

Geographic location: St. John's, North Atlantic, Florida Montreal Vancouver Greece

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