The Harbour Symphony

The Harbour Symphony is original music written for the horns of the ships in the St. John’s harbour. This signature fanfare of the Sound Symposium transforms the ships in the harbour into an orchestra on water. Each Harbour Symphony begins with a radio countdown transmitted to the bridge of the ships by the Coast Guard where players stand at the helms of tugboats, trawlers, and ocean-going freighters. At the signal, a giant, floating horn section reverberates off the Southside Hills and through the streets of old St. John’s, echoing the soul of this 500 year old seaport.

Since 1983 visiting musicians from all over the world have been invited to create a Harbour Symphony, and the concept has so far been shared with the cities of Amsterdam, Vancouver, Montreal, and San Francisco.

The acoustic characteristics of the bowl-shaped St. John’s Harbour encourage the sound to resonate and carry for up to 12 miles. The best place to listen is up on Signal Hill, on the Southside Hills, or in the Outer Battery. These locations give a sweeping view of the Harbour and the city. You can hear the delay of the horns as the sound travels over a mile across the water, and hear the sounds resonate against the surrounding hills.

The Harbour Symphony was conceived for the first Sound Symposium in 1983 by Newfoundland-based architect Joe Carter. He enlisted musician Paul Steffler to write a series of compositions for ships’ horns.

Since 1983 visiting musicians from all over the world have been invited to create a Harbour Symphony, and the concept has so far been shared with the cities of Amsterdam, Vancouver, Montreal, and San Francisco. In 1986, Joe Carter traveled to Vancouver to work out the logistics of creating a Harbour Symphony for the opening of Expo ’86; In 1995, Paul Steffler and Don Wherry (musician/composer and co-founder of Sound Symposium) were commissioned to introduce the Harbour Symphony (with train & bells) to Montreal.

Other composers have maintained the genre by writing additional works for the ships, trains and bells of Montreal. In 1996, Steffler and Wherry wrote a Harbour Symphony for SoundCulture in San Francisco. In 1997, a week of Harbour Symphonies heralded the arrival and week-long visit of the “Matthew” in the St. John’s Harbour.

ORIGINS OF HARBOUR SYMPHONY

by Joe Carter

I lived in St. John’s from 1974 to 1985 before moving to China, my present home. On cool mauzy nights I loved to bundle up and stroll around the town. Red neon and yellow halogen tinted the white fog dragging and whispering around old English chimney pots, and the belly-rumble of ship horns would break in to vibrate every molecule.

In old St. John’s, streets start from the water’s edge and negotiate north and west slopes at pedestrian and horse-cart angles depending on the slope. These intersect rising tiers of level “contour” streets which parallel the harbour shore. The intimacy of this pre-automobile pedestrian street pattern is reinforced by clapboard row houses whichfit snugly along the sidewalks. Often the houses join together in small groups to form a long, proud Mansard roof, while their balloon-frame structure allows doorsteps to undulate, finely-tuned to small changes of slope.

Movement through the streets is punctuated with views of the harbour and the Southside Hills. The latter, mostly too steep to build on, are carpeted with a sub-arctic blanket of wind-surviving low growth forming a seasonal backdrop, with four spectacular shows per year. The ships, now mostly steel, play their part on the water-stage below, watched, orheard, from the bleacher-town.

The idea for the first St. John’s Harbour Symphony was a fusion of the spontaneous annual New Year’s Eve ship horn-blowing with this image of the harbour surrounded by steep hills and sloping city as a large natural amphitheatre. Why not orchestrate the ship’s horns into a performance? I wanted the Harbour Symphony to sing the beauty of theunique marriage of city and nature found in St. John’s. “This is valuable: let’s take good care of it.”

In the summer of 1983, I asked my friend Paul Steffler, a St. John’s musician and composer, if he would create a ten minute piece for ship’s horns. We made a score with a time-line and simple notation. On eight or ten parallel time-lines Paul wrote separate “music” for each ship.

That summer Don Wherry and Kathy Clark organized the first Sound Symposium and we offered the Harbour Symphony as our contribution.

THE FIRST YEAR

As the time for the Symposium approached Paul, and I went to visit David Fox, at the office of the Harbour Master. His first reaction was “Confusion in the harbour could be dangerous.” Thankfully he didn’t say “No!”, although he didn’t say “yes” either. We then asked Gerry Duggan at the Coast Guard whether they would give us a countdown over their radio. He was sympathetic but said it was against regulations to use their system for other than official purposes. After a long pause he said, “But we could “test” the system, perhaps with a countdown. When would you like us to “test” the system?”

I was listening from the top of Signal Hill, a low fog had rolled in, the harbour went out of sight and the sound came up like spears through a roaring white blanket.

The first ship’s captain we approached (Fisheries Patrol Vessel “Cape Roger”) said, “Did the Harbour Master give permission for this?”. We said, “He didn’t say “No”. Finally the captain agreed. Once we had broken the ice with one we could tell the next that the all the others had agreed.

Not all captains were doubtful. The Belgian skipper of the OSA Ghent, Dirk Gerhardt, a wild and crazy guy, showed us how to really play the horn by climbing on top of the bridge with industrial earmuffs on and shoving his fist into the bell of the horn while it was playing!

The effect was like John Coltrane letting loose at 170 decibels, soaring squeals, warbles and whoops. We gave him a solo on day 5!

Other musicians attending the Sound Symposium got into the act and composed hill-slapping symphonies. I remember one especially turgid, billowing piece which shook the city without a break for a full 12 minutes. I was listening from the top of Signal Hill, a low fog had rolled in, the harbour went out of sight and the sound came up like spears through a roaring white blanket.

I thought for sure the Harbour Master would shut us down! Every day federal government office workers in the Sir Humphrey Gilbert Building on Water Street called Ottawa, stuck phones out the windows and said. “Hey, Listen to this!”; the CBC National News covered the event, and many local residents thought the stevedores were on strike. Anyway, the Harbour Master has been letting it go ever since.