Sound Symposium XV Blog: Day Nine – Heartbreak

Prepare your ears! Morgan Murray will be blogging about the Sound Symposium XV for The Scope from July 2-10.

Dear Sound Symposium,

We need to have a talk.

We’ve spent a lot of time with one another over the past nine days. You’ve shared with me a lot of sounds I never even knew were possible. You’ve expanded my horizons. You’ve made me, of all people, want to dance to the radio, of all things. You’ve moved me with trumpets. You’ve made me crane my neck towards the harbour at 12:30, no matter where I might be, to hear the Harbour Symphony–I don’t know what will fill the void when 12:30 rolls around today and there is no honking. You’ve made me listen to whales, instead of of just watching them. Hell, you’ve made me listen to everything instead of just watching them. And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, when a cat got one of the pigeons who shits on my car and awakens me with the sound of its humping on my window sill, I wasn’t glad, I was sad. I was sad because of all the beautiful sounds that have been lost (not the humping sounds, mind you).

This is because of you.

I was ready to proclaim my unabashed love for you. I was ready to give you my class pin and my varsity jacket. I was ready to go steady. I was ready to shack up. I was ready to pop the question. I was composing traffic jam symphonies in my mind while stuck in traffic and scheming of the best ways to get the other drivers to play along so that a little piece of you could always be with me while you’re in hibernation for two more years.

But, Sound Symposium, last night, on your last night, at Cape Spear you showed me a side of yourself I had never seen before. A side I never thought I would ever see. And frankly, I think we should see other people.

Sound Symposium, you’ve broken my heart.

Your Cape Spear Project seemed, on paper, sure to be the highlight of the festival. Details were scant, but from what I could gather some hip German composer had composed music to wash over the Cape while thousands of ears clung to the cliffs and soaked it all in. I was prepared to be completely and utterly blown away.

These expectations were hardly unrealistic. Sound Symposium, without fail, you had blown me away time and time again since we first met nine days ago. Add Cape Spear into the mix… damn! I could hardly contain my excitement.

You see, Sound Symposium, Cape Spear is a special place.

Like you know, I’m a CFA (Come From Alberta), and have only been here a couple of years, which is why I missed you last time. But I’ve seen a lot of amazing things in my time here. I’ve travelled across the island. I’ve seen mountains and rocks, icebergs and moose, puffins and whales. I’ve seen the Dungeon. And I’ve seen nothing because the fog is so thick. I’ve heard stories, and jokes, and songs. I’ve met all sorts of wonderful people. And I met you, Sound Symposium, in all your glory. But, amidst all of this, two of the most staggering things I’ve experienced on this island have been at Cape Spear.

Do you remember that hellacious winter storm we had this past February? The snow, the wind, the whole bit. Hellacious! Probably the most intense storm I’ve seen in my two years here. And there have been quite a few, it storms here a lot.

Anyway, the next day, for reasons that don’t need explaining, I found myself out a Cape Spear. The place was deserted. Barren. Isolated. Though you can see it, St. John’s seemed a million miles away. But that wasn’t the impressive part. The impressive part, the most impressive part of Newfoundland I’ve seen so far, was the sea.

The storm had whipped the sea into a frothy, raging frenzy. Standing way up on the hill near the lighthouses you could not only hear, but feel, the waves crashing on the cliffs below. The raging sea crashing on land was unspeakably awesome and powerful, and me? I was nothing, nothing at all. The sea is so much more than any of our little lighthouses, towns, or cities could ever be. I stood in the freezing cold in stunned silence, my mouth agape. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

The other staggering Cape Spear experience was less epic, but nonetheless impressive. Once again it was at the tail-end of a storm. This time Hurricane Bill. Do you remember Hurricane Bill from last summer? Everyone filled their bathtubs with water and stocked up on cans of cream corn, only to have the day the storm hit to be the mildest, nicest, sunniest days of the year. So I went to Cape Spear for the first time.

It was a lovely day until I made my way down the path for the compulsory photos in front of the “Furthest Eastern Point in North America” sign, and then things took a turn.

You see, Sound Symposium, they don’t tell you in any of the tourist brochures about the World War II bunkers built into the cliff-face at Cape Spear. I had no idea they existed. But there they are.

Military remains aren’t anything new. I’ve seen a lot of them in a lot of places. They are all cordoned off and lousy with plaques and interpretative signs telling you what it used to be like when the Red Coats were fighting the French a few hundred years ago (Placentia, for instance, has just such a bit of military remains I saw around the same time). But this bit of military remains at Cape Spear was different.

The bunkers and guns built into the cliff-face to ward off potential invading Germans sixty-five years ago isn’t cordoned off. They haven’t been partially rebuilt for educational or memorial purposes. The whole site is in disrepair. It’s falling apart. It is leaky, and rusty. The various darker-than-the-inside-of-a-cow rooms and tunnels and chambers are filled with trash, empty beer bottles, and “Fuck You!” graffiti that you can only see with a flashlight or a camera flash.

The particularly unsafe parts have been blocked off with rotting lumber or orange snow-fence. But I am shocked that something so unsafe–the entire site is one long string of ankle sprains and infected cuts on rusty door jambs just waiting to happen–is allowed to exist so unmarked (I think there is one faded sign that says something about the guns being surplus from some operation in the 1890s) and unpolished in a national historic site. Especially considering how many signs there are everywhere else at the Cape telling you to stay away from this cliff, stay on that path, where the lighthouse family had to go for fresh water, when this building was build, to pick up after your dog, etc., etc., etc.

It’s like a wound that everyone is trying to ignore. Not quite sure what to make of it. Not quite sure what it meant for there to be men burrowed in the cliff-face with loaded guns pointed out to sea. Not quite sure what it means now.

Walking through the tunnels, looking at the giant guns, listening to the echo of trash and empties bouncing off the concrete and tin-can walls as you shuffle through the darkness, you can’t be quite sure what it means. This was war. This was real. This was here. And while, thankfully, there wasn’t much action that went on here there were still men burrowed in the cliff-face with loaded guns pointed out to sea.

The Cape weighs on you: the power of the sea and the wind, the haunting of its history and the war. All that ambiguity. Without signs and interpretative guides telling you what to think and how to feel your mind wanders, imagines, strains to make all of it fit, somehow, into your head. It all crashes down on you like those waves that winter storm stirred up this past February.

Or at least it weighs on me.

Sound Symposium, I think we should see other people because it seems like none of this weighs on you.

Your Cape Spear Project began just after dark with a car-horn symphony followed by one of the several men in World War I trench warfare regalia–trench coat, boots, helmet, gas mask, and all–blew on a vuvuzela–yes, a vuvuzela–to officially kick off the performance.

Then one of the several men in gas masks, maybe the one carrying the Republic of Newfoundland flag, squeezed a rubber ducky–yes, a rubber ducky–and led the throng of excited humanity down a the dark, unlit, path to another station of musicians. After their short piece and polite applause the gas masked rubber ducky republican tooted his rubber ducky once more and led the crowd on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.

Once we were down at the guns and the tunnels we were free to roam from dimly lit tin-can concrete corridor to corridor, chamber to chamber, to experience whatever it was we were supposed to be experiencing. But I am not sure what it was supposed to be. Not because so much power and history and all of that was crashing down upon me, but because it was senseless and silly and border-line offensive, like a man in a gas mask tooting a rubber ducky in a WWII gun battery.

I’m not talking about the sounds of the night, Sound Symposium, those weren’t silly. They were what they were and they were fine. But they were overshadowed by the spectacle you had created. By the gas masked men with rubber duckies and vuvuzelas, and the rooms you filled with silly things. Particularly the “Room of Memories,” I think you called it on the hand-drawn map you passed out, which was a collection of creepy looking dolls, and telephones, and random junk strewn about the old, wet, cement floor beneath the “Fuck You!” graffiti.

What was that Sound Symposium? I expected more out of you. You may have thought it was clever, or edgy, or who knows what. But it wasn’t. It was disappointing.

Why take the potential of your sounds and the Cape’s weight and turn it into a circus?

If you want to turn this weird and creepy gun battery into a site of some sort of avant garde sound extravaganza, go for it, but don’t forget where it is you are.

We aren’t just ears. We are eyes, and noses, mouths, and hands too. And memories and emotions. Things can mean something on their own, in a vaccuum, or played on a tape in your car. But they mean something else when you put them somewhere else, when the sea is roaring, the wind is howling, and the water is dripping down your neck from a crack in the ceiling of the falling down WWII gun battery you’re standing in.

And, my dear Sound Symposium, when your final act of the night was a crescendo of percussion and brass played behind one of the rusty guns that is still pointed out to sea, to a crowd huddled around with their backs to the sea, punctuated by a gas masked man’s final three blasts of his vuvuzela, it became clear that your Cape Spear Project wasn’t about making sound art at Cape Spear. It had nothing to do with Cape Spear. It ignored the most powerful things about the Cape–the sea and the wind–and the most haunting–the history–and instead was a self-indulgent party at a “cool” place. Which is what punk kids do.

It could have been so much more, Sound Symposium. But I am disappointed. I am heartbroken. Maybe in a couple of years I will have gotten over it and when you come back around we can go for a coffee. Maybe one day we can be friends. But for now, it’s over.

Best wishes,


Skinned-down music

Phillip Cairns chatted with two-time Juno award-winning singer and  storyteller David Francey before his appearance this Sunday at the St. John’s Folk Festival. David Francey didn’t really take himself seriously as a musician until he won a Juno in Newfoundland back in 2002. For about 20 years before that he worked in construction. But making […]

3 August 2006

  1. Janet · August 3, 2006

    Thanks for this. Until I read it, I was kicking myself a little for taking advantage of the weather with a backyard bonfire instead of heading out to Cape Spear on Saturday night. Glad to know I made the right decision!

  2. Jen · August 3, 2006

    Though admittedly the vuvuzela was a little ridiculous and the rest of the display was a pretty avant garde, I think you need to take into account the idea that the background (the waves crashing, the wind howling, the echo of people’s voices) was part of it. It really was actually a really cool summary of what went on in Sound Symposium. Even the spontaneous events were part of it…from the people dancing in front of spotlights to the impromptu throat singing lessons some of us got from Tran Quang Hai in the bunker. Also, it was cool to go into some of the silent rooms (I remember one that was empty except for a spotlight, and one was full of candles) and listen to the difference in sound in those rooms.

    We also didn’t follow the crowd; we went up the stairs and around, and it was a different (and perhaps less tacky) sound display for us. We got to enjoy a lot more of the surroundings during our walk, and the unique experience of seeing Cape Spear at night.

    I suppose it was different for everyone…

  3. DaveS · August 3, 2006

    I think this review romanticize’ too much about Cape Spear and not the actual event itself. 80% of the column is about Cape Spear and it’s history but not the performance. Well written review… just different.