Complaints at Sound Symposium

Peter
Peter Jackson
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In the media, we get lots of complaints. Sometimes it's a simple customer complaint, like how in tarnation we managed to publish the wrong crossword puzzle. Usually, though, it's a complaint about a story, or an issue arising from the story, or what someone said in the story - or just whatever random annoyance that may pop into someone's head at any given moment.

What's a journalist to do? Well, if you're CBC Radio's Angela Antle, you form a complaints choir.

A complaints choir is a sort of catharsis. It's a way of letting off steam. This is good, because one may be tempted on occasion to lose control and shout, "Get off the phone, you old coot, and get a life. You're driving me crazy with your insane nattering!" Instead, why not gather up all those petty beefs and put them to music?

In the media, we get lots of complaints. Sometimes it's a simple customer complaint, like how in tarnation we managed to publish the wrong crossword puzzle. Usually, though, it's a complaint about a story, or an issue arising from the story, or what someone said in the story - or just whatever random annoyance that may pop into someone's head at any given moment.

What's a journalist to do? Well, if you're CBC Radio's Angela Antle, you form a complaints choir.

A complaints choir is a sort of catharsis. It's a way of letting off steam. This is good, because one may be tempted on occasion to lose control and shout, "Get off the phone, you old coot, and get a life. You're driving me crazy with your insane nattering!" Instead, why not gather up all those petty beefs and put them to music?

Antle rounded up choral conductor Kellie Walsh, well-known troubadour Sean Panting and an ad hoc collective of willing crooners. The result was about five to 10 minutes of real-life gripes strung together with funky musical accompaniment.

Panting said on radio the other day that his parents were big Gilbert and Sullivan fans. He attributes his unique talent for patter songs to that upbringing.

A patter song is a rapid-fire ditty that "patters" along at one word or syllable per note. It usually has a simple rhyming scheme with more than a few liberties. Take this line from the self-aggrandizing officer in the operetta "Pirates of Penzance":

"I'm very good at integral and differential calculus,

I know the scientific names of beings animalculous

In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral,

I am the very model of a modern Major-General."

Likewise, Panting wove together a stream of mostly St. John's-centric complaints with Gilbert-esque charm. To boot:

"Looks like South Side Hills were struck by a meteor,

Drugs are getting worse and the skeets are getting skeetier."

Or,

"Fast food garbage tossed out the window,

Nickelback, Nickelback, blaring on the radio."

Sunday night's performance of the complaints choir came as part of the 2010 Sound Symposium, which started Friday and wraps up this weekend.

The biennial event has been taking place in St. John's since 1983, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Often associated with cacophonous clanks and squawks - suitable for only the most adventurous of ears - the symposium has blossomed into a wide-ranging celebration of sound, encompassing dazzling percussion performances, unique instrumental pairings, a few mainstream musical elements and even other artistic forms.

Sunday's show at the LSPU Hall (the classy, newly renovated LSPU Hall) opened with a long string of dances by a pair of visiting performers, Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt. With little more than street clothes and a few spots and overhead projectors, they performed impressionistic vignettes to the music of singer/songwriter Gordon Downie, frontman of the group Tragically Hip.

Now, my eyesight is not 100 per cent, so I was at a disadvantage here. I was not expecting dance at an event centred around sound. But what I saw was impressive. The pair were contiguous through most of the performance, and their movements were primarily gentle and flowing. As easy as they made it look, I sense this slow, smooth style of dancing is the most difficult to pull off. It requires balance, strength and considerable flexibility.

The final act of the evening answered the age-old question: what type of USB port do you use for a hurdy gurdy?

I was excited when I discovered this curious old instrument was part of the act. Popular during the Middle Ages, the hurdy gurdy is all but unheard of in this day and age. It consists of strings that are sounded by a circular bow turned with a crank. This one was played by Ben Grossman, who was accompanied by Deb Sinha on laptop computers and sound board. I think they had a keyboard or two for good measure.

Complaints? I had a few.

Their piece, titled "Field," was ... well, excruciating.

Experimentalism is fine, but one should really hone the experiment before foisting it on the public. The sound of the hurdy-gurdy was novel at first, but after several eons of modal drones and computerized static and thumps, I think many people realized they were caught in one of those traps. You know, the kind of trap where two fellows have pulled themselves out of a basement somewhere and onto a stage with little more than a lot of unconstructed farting about with electronics.

I'm no stranger to experimentalism, and I was surprised how retro Sunday's performance was. The computer sounds harked back to the early days of Moog synthesizers. The piece was awash with various clicks, pulses, randomized notes and white noise. This has been done, guys. It was groovy for a while, but people have moved on.

Apart from Hurdy Gurdy Man and his accomplice, however, this year's Sound Symposium has a lot to offer. By word of mouth, I understand that Saturday night's show was spectacular. It featured fiery percussion work by Kurai Mubaiwa and Curtis Andrews, a performance by pianist Eve Egoyan and some highly original piano performance art by Moritz Eggert of Germany.

Eggert is organizing the traditional Cape Spear event on Saturday that clews up the symposium. You can catch the complaints choir again on Friday at the Cook Recital Hall.

There's still plenty of other wild and wacky stuff in the lineup. Check out the whole schedule at soundsymposium.com.

And if you have any complaints, pass them along to the choir.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. Contact him by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: CBC Radio, Tragically Hip

Geographic location: St. John's, Penzance, Germany

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