Nfld. & Labrador

The St. John's Harbour Symphony is floating to Toronto

The Harbour Symphony is a staple in downtown St. John’s, but Torontonians will finally be able to experience it live on Saturday.

The boat-based horn performance will happen in the big city for the first time

Boats just like this one participate in the St. John's Harbour Symphony, an event that will be experienced in Toronto this weekend. (CBC)

If you live in St. John's, you've probably heard the Harbour Symphony before (or have been woken up by it).

It's an original musical arrangement played entirely by boats and their horns, dating back to 1983 and done in association with the St. John's International Sound Symposium. 

"St. John's is just an ideal place for doing of a symphony," said Delf Hohmann, a member of the artistic team for the Harbour Symphony.

Toronto is getting a taste of that symphony for itself on Saturday, as the city's harbour will be filled with the sounds of local vessels tooting their horns.

There are going to be a few differences between the St. John's show and its Toronto counterpart, but the spirit of the performance will live on in a different body of water. The show is part of the Toronto Biennial of Art, an event held throughout the city. 

Idea came from composer

The idea came about when a visitor came to the St. John's Sound Symposium and enjoyed what they heard.

"It was suggested by Raven Chacon, who is a composer who came to a Sound Symposium last year in St. John's together with his wife Candice Hopkins, and Candice is part of the curating team for the Toronto Biennial," said Hohmann.

It looks like a promising day, actually.- Delf Hohmann

On a flight back from Europe this past year, Hohmann stopped in Toronto to see if it could work.

"It just happened to be doable, and I met with them for the first time and we went out to the harbourfront and other spaces," he said.

"She listened to the space, to find out where would be the best place.… Then we came to the realization [that the] harbourfront would be a great place to do it, because it has all these buildings behind it and we have a really nice echo. And the sounds are bouncing off the buildings that are rising behind it."

The vessels playing in Toronto won't look or sound quite the same as the huge cruise ships and icebreakers that usually play in the St. John's harbour, though.

Delf Hohmann is a member of the artistic team for the Harbour Symphony.

"Well, we're gonna have a lot of smaller vessels. We have some private vessels.… Some of those tour boat operators who go around the islands, Toronto Islands. We're still trying to get the boats together for this. But it looks very promising," he said.

"It's a new concept for them here in Toronto, so people think, 'Oh, what is this all about? Music on a ship, playing with the whistle on a ship? That's odd.' But they're still coming around and most are actually quite enthusiastic about it now."

Mobility will play a role in the Toronto concert, which is another change of pace for Harbour Symphony. Boats aren't able to move around the St. John's harbour during the performance as it's a commercial harbour.

Hohmann is optimistic about the show. "It looks like a promising day, actually," he said.

I bang on anything that looks vaguely as if it could make a sound- Delf Hohmann

Living his dreams

Hohmann is a self-described "sound addict and sound aficionado," and the Harbour Symphonies are a clear passion of his.

"I bang on anything that looks vaguely as if it could make a sound. Any sort of lamps on the street, or even if I see a car that has a nice long hood or something like that. I do a little tap on it, and so on."

He understands that some people have a problem with the sound of the horns, but it isn't stopping him from going on with the show.

 "There was one fellow a while ago who said that a cat walking over the keys of a piano has more musicality. And another one said, 'Not only do I not consider this to be music, but even the dogs — the neighborhood dogs — start to howl along.' Which I think is great, to even see animals enjoy, even dogs enjoy the symphonies," he said.

Perturbed citizens of Toronto won't have to worry too much about the performance if it's not to their liking.

"We don't overdo it. They're between five and six minutes minutes maximum," said Hohmann.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler