The Black Auks: Neil Rosenberg, Wallace Hammond, and Craig Squires
Their mission is to have fun making noise.
For more than 15 years, local improvisational group The Black Auks have been banging and clanging on instruments, junk, toys, the audience, and whatever they need to make an interesting sound at the time.
Founded by percussionist and Sound Symposium originator Don Wherry, the group—much like the Sound Symposium itself—treats the world as a sonic playground. Although Wherry passed away in 2001, and other members have come and gone, the group is still going strong, and is the resident improvisational ensemble for the Sound Symposium.
Elling Lien spoke with Craig Squires, Neil Rosenberg, and Wallace Hammond about the group, the Symposium, and what makes experimenting with sound so compelling for many people.
The first time I heard The Auks I was in the gallery at the St. John’s Library in the 90s… I remember looking down from the awning, watching you guys play, and thinking, “this is weird! This is amazing!” It was in a relatively quiet setting so it was really quite magical. I hadn’t ever experienced music like that live before.
NR: We often do things in the afternoons so kids can come. A lot of kids seem to enjoy our music.
But I’d say a lot of people would say kids can’t be into experimental music.
CS: I call it noise, just to be provocative.
WH: What was the title we concocted the other week?
CS: Extreme crossover! [laugh]
NR: Although we say we don’t have any plans when we start to play, we all have our own vocabulary. If you listen to a bunch of different recordings you’d undoubtedly hear a repetition of different themes because its part of our vocabulary.
You mean your set of interests, your skills…
CS: …History… exactly. We don’t think about it a lot, it just comes out naturally.
The whole process is really like a conversation. That’s another thing we say about it. It’s a conversation. It’s not people soloing. It’s people having a conversation with each other.
WH: Or communicating along with each other to somebody else.
CS: Yeah, it doesn’t mean we’re all following each other. Because communication can be a battle, an argument… Or you can also ignore each other. There’s different ways to interact in a group.
But what is fascinating is very early on when we started doing this stuff we noticed that an organic structure emerges naturally. These things we do really seem like complete pieces.
Lots of people have asked us, “you mean that wasn’t composed?” Because it has a shape, dynamics, it shifts. Like, for example, we are known for turning on a dime—everyone moves together instantly like a school of fish or flock of birds.
Is that because you’re so familiar with each other…?
NR: I guess that’s a part of it. We’ve always had a tradition of inviting people to jam with us, and every once in a while it doesn’t work out, but most of the time it does, and they get into the swim of it with us. That can be a lot of fun.
WH: It’s a kind of intellectual exercise. People either buy into it or they don’t.
CS: It’s not just an intellectual exercise though. It’s a spiritual and emotional exercise. You need to focus, but it’s not a struggle to do. Not for us anyways, since we’ve been doing it with each other for so long.
For others who are coming and trying it for the first time it might be a bit of a struggle to play along, but because we’re just letting go, it could be easy for them to just jump in and catch on.
Unless someone just goes into their own head… Then it blows. They’re just off in their own corner doing stuff.
Which I’ve encountered at Night Music before.
How did The Auks begin?
CS: It was put together especially for an art exhibit by Harold Klunder. Don Wherry had known Harold for ages, and wanted to play music with him at the opening of his show, so he hauled together a couple of people and was going to hire Wallace to do the sound. And then the day before he says, “why don’t you bring your guitar?” And that was it. Probably within six months or so it became The Black Auks.
The name The Black Auks is unfortunately a play on the Chicago Black Hawks and that’s because Don and George Langdon were hockey fans. This was their in-joke.
You say ‘unfortunately’ because you’re not a hockey fan?
NR: He’s a grumpy old man.
CS: I’m anti-sports. That was ’92, Wallace?
WH: Something like that. It’s on the box set.
CS: Neil joined not long after that.
NR: ’94, I’d say.
CS: Don had a number of bands during his time in Newfoundland. The Sound Symposium was built around one of his original bands, Fusion, which was him and Mike Zagorski, Martin Rickert, and Paul Bendzsa. That was in the 70s. They used to play in the old art gallery in the Arts and Culture Centre, and Wallace and I had a band on the go of the same vintage called Wet Cheeze Delirium which we started doing in the 70s as well. The Black Auks is basically a merger of the Wet Cheeze Delirium and Fusion. We met Don at the first Sound Symposium.
Could you describe the first Sound Symposium?
CS: We heard about it through an ad in the paper saying “come out to NIFCO on this evening, we’re going to talk about a new festival we’re having.”
I saw the ad and said “hey we should be in that.” I went to the meeting and that’s where I met Mike Zagorski, Don, and Joe Carter.
WH: Joe’s the guy that invented the Harbour Symphony.
CS: He was interested in environmental works. In the second symposium he did a great piece with people with lights along the top of the Southside Hills. In the middle of the piece, the full moon rose through the little gap behind. You see these little lights move on top of the Southside Hills, and Don was down in the harbour playing bells… and then the full moon rose! Was it ever cool! [laugh] That was in ’83.
What was the idea behind the original Symposium?
CS: The idea was to gather a group of people together—both well established and young people—and share performances for each other. To do a lot of workshops, and have opportunities to develop interactions and collaborations.
That’s always been a key thing, right from the beginning, the collaboration.
We brought in maybe twenty artists the first time. At the peak, in ‘92, they brought in 200 artists. That was too much, so they had to scale back. The thing Don really liked was the whole process of improvising.
Most of the time with The Auks it’s just about playing together.
NR: Spontaneous, collaborative improvisation.
Is that how you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard the group before?
NR: Yeah, that’s how I do. Spontaneous: Nothing agreed to before you start. Collaborative. Don always stressed listening.
We played at the No Music Festival in London, Ontario in 2000 and we fit in in the sense that everyone was doing the same sort of stuff. But in another sense their volume was be all to end all. They were extremely loud.
CS: I remember they had a bowl of earplugs at the door.
NR: We never stressed trying to be loud.
What is it about experimenting with sound that makes it so appealing to so many people?
CS: I’m a big fan of chance. [laugh] I’m actually not really inclined to high precision in playing. The way I like to play is a bit like having a conversation with my instrument. It’s not about dominating an instrument. In fact, the instrument tells me things… To many people those are mistakes. Not mastering the instrument… But if you are listening, and adapt to them, then they’re not mistakes, they’re sources of change.
One of the few rules for improvising I ever tell people is if you make a mistake, do it again and it’s not a mistake. (laugh)
NR: There’s a way in which sound—when we work with it—is a kind of artistic medium that has texture and feeling.
CS: It has a power over people that nobody understands.
WH: People are attracted to different sounds for whatever reasons. Spike Jones was one of my early exposures to that stuff. As far as anything live, the thing I remember the farthest back is when my friends and I went to a trade show at Fieldian Gardens when we were 12 or 13. There was a guy in there who was toted as the man who could play a hundred instruments. He could play the violin, tuba, trumpet and all this… Finally, he played the vacuum cleaner. Doing that really separates the men from the boys. [laugh]
CS: I saw that too! I saw the man playing the vacuum cleaner!
WH: He actually played a tune on a vacuum cleaner. If you can listen to a tune on a vacuum cleaner and still call it music, you’re already moving towards the Auk way of thinking. [laugh]
CS: The influence of experimental is both hidden and pervasive in modern music. Rock in particular has been using noise as part of its sound for ages, starting with distorted amplifiers.
You listen to someone like Prince, a big pop star, and there’s tonnes of experimental stuff going on in his music. The general culture has slowly but surely become more tolerant of experimental music.
When you started doing experimental music, what was the general attitude towards it?
NR: Most people think it’s just weird. That’s the baseline.
NR: Yeah but some people come back. I can’t tell you why people come and listen to it. It’s hard to know. But some people really enjoy it. I think some people like to watch what’s going on. Don was a real showman. He’d set up with all of these instruments and he’s be jumping around doing stuff. He had toys.
WH: Don had the best chicken in the world. When we played the No Music Festival in London, about halfway through the performance Don unleashed the chicken. The chicken was a toy about three feet high that walked. As he played it started walking out from behind Don’s drums. That was Don’s showmanship. [laugh] How can you hope to do any better when somebody’s already unleashed a chicken?
The Auks seem to represent what I imagine the Sound Symposium represents in a lot of ways. A collection of different people coming together with different backgrounds, conversing. Does that follow?
WH: We should change the name of the band to The Auks Symposium. [laugh]
CS: Its not as though The Auks do what they do because of the Sound Symposium, or the reverse. But the spirit is the same. The idea of music as play. That’s one reason why kids like what we do. It’s obvious we’re just playing around.
NR: I see it too as a kind of yoga. I continue to play other kinds of music but somehow doing this makes playing the other kinds of music a lot simpler and straightforward and easier.
You think it would be the opposite, that it would be more natural to play as part of The Auks than play something that’s set out that you have to master.
NR: To play any music well you have to feel comfortable and have it flow. You get into what we do in The Auks and realise you can make music flow without having pre-thought-out structure.
WH: Without thinking about it.
NR: That’s the yoga side of it. Then when you play other music that does have structure and demands certain relationships it’s a little easier to manage the flow.
CS: Its easier because you don’t have to make as many decisions. [laugh]
How do you get people to feel more comfortable, like people coming for Night Music, for example?
WH: They either do or they don’t. [laugh]
NR: Like going to a revival meeting. Some people feel it and some people don’t.
WH: Praise the lord! [laugh]
CS: You can’t make people get it. If you are making the effort and you’re getting it among yourselves then maybe they’ll think “maybe I should open my ears a little more.”
The Black Auks will serve as the anchor band for the Sound Symposium’s first Night Music on Thursday, July 3 at The Ship, 10:30pm. Improvisors welcome. Tickets available at the door. For more info, phone 753-4630 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org