Sound Symposium Review

By Emily Deming

Night Music Series: Leatherback at The Ship


A sound check at a Sound Symposium event is not like regular sound checks. It is confusing. It is already noise-art and the house music has not even been turned down. Instead of “check one-two”the performers are heavy breathing and banging what I can only diagnose as a cement block cowbell.

Did the guy with the guitar-like object just run through a scale, or was it a commentary on scales? Clearly I know almost nothing about instruments or … music. But Sound Symposium is not about seeing things that you know, or that you know you like. It is about experiencing things that you do not understand. It is about hearing things that you know so little about that you do not have to like or dislike them.


Or at least I think so. The audience reaction is mixed. Much of the crowd was not expecting this show. The bartender makes a gagging face, the patrons are laughing or looking around in a panic wondering just how rude it would be to leave right away. Some simply pretend it is not happening, like lovers are fighting next to them on a subway.

This performance is post-manic. There are sounds coming from the stage, from a man’s mouth, like a bird zoo broadcast in IMAX. This is backed by a band playing a song that I dub “dischor dance.” Curiouser still, something is starting to fall into place, like green blips of code in an 1980’s computer games movie; a pattern is emerging. Their noises are undulating into music … and then it ends.

The house music is still going. There is no band name announced, no introduction. This shit is just happening. Whether we want it or not. Sound Symposium players exist like crickets exist. They make the night resonant and full of possibility or they make you want to attempt autodefenestration when one stows away in your hotel room.


Thirty more minutes of sound check. A wave of people arrive from the LSPU Hall with their Symposium passes. Purposeful, knowledgeable crowds who distinguish between the shades of art/noise/music that make up sound. The odd duck crowd.

Jesus jumping to a foghorn beat, this place is packed. There is a man by the pool table strapped to a saxophone with two unlit cigarettes in his mouth.


The band is now announced. Leatherback: Andrew Staniland on guitar, Paul Bendzsa on sax, Chris Tonelli on mouth duty making sounds like Donald Duck masturbating into the mic (I overheard that line from a guy at the next table), Dr. Ums on drums. Forgive me if “Band”is not the right term. I am here to learn. The house music is off.

Silence for a beat and then a blast of letters and colours are hurled at the bar through the microphone. Literally just lists of random letters and colours spoken/yelled. This is done with such total pulsing execution that only half the audience is still laughing.

But it is funny, absurd, embarrassing and also … kind of cool. This is serious alphabet recitation; Henry Rollins hosting Sesame Street. Every reading should harbour this much conviction.

IMDB style (**spoiler alert**)

The Spoken word alphabet gives way to bird sounds and train whistles, the kind my grandma used to make with her hands at our christmas parties. But there are more trains and birds in that one man’s mouth than in the western US. Meanwhile, three 50 year old white men in button down shirts at the bar are taking a selfie, one is sticking his tongue out.

The band is now all coming together again in musical monkey gibberish with a story telling cadence. If I was sleeping off a night of Guaro under an active volcano, the howler monkeys would sing these sounds to communicate their legends of murder and redemption. The men on stage are killing this. They are feeling it, with closed eyes and full swaying. They slow down and wind down. It ends to much clapping; even the downtown Broski scene is cheering as much as they are tittering.

The next “song”(spoken word? entity?) starts with a blast of sax and serious drumbeats. More fast-paced jungle-scat. This is jazz I cannot hate. The “singer”(band leader? poet? voice artist?) is reading a band manifesto. This segues into a story about job interviews and “crumbling Canadian infrastructure”through which metaphorical name-brand baby strollers are being pushed.

Which all seems more like typical spoken word, but his intro numbers buy him a moment of street cred. He stops the story and the music is somehow buzzing in his mouth and a bright tinkling begins. A man near me says “Kalimba.” I am too far back to see. Like the previous numbers, as soon as the band really comes together and flirts with traditional music they close it down, beautifully.

Finally here is the dreaded moment when the audience is asked to participate, or, in this case, “commune with the score.” Four people get up on the stage. There is much hammering of the cement cowbell and a meters-and-meters long mailer foldout score is read through in its entirety. The audience participants do quite well. They get laughs and get the music of the piece as well. They seem to have picked up bins of words and phrases discarded by Edward Lear.


…one more for you”and main mouth man is buzzing his lips against the mic and the whole bar is vibrating and it feels like good music, regardless of how it sounds.

I would watch a movie with this soundtrack. Because then I would have seen something startling and ominous and hopeful.

But now, unlike the other pieces, it is falling out, apart. The rest moved from chaos towards coherence and satisfaction, though they stopped just short. This one is fraying and has become friable. The singer turns his voice softly falsetto and it is no longer the movie I imagined. It is a junior high boy’s first serial killer short. I see Matt Hornell’s piercing stare from an event poster on the pole in front of me and everything normally fun looks threatening.

Then I am saved by humour and the falsetto lowers into a comforting Ani Difrancoesque delivery of lyrics like “Kim Jong un made a pencil drawing.”The jam is again thinning and unraveling but the lyrics are getting stronger, “I’m all over you. I’m over you. All over .. I’m I’m I’m I’m …”Louder and rocking it now with a classic raging spoken word and a relatively conservative back beat.

“ARE YOU FEELING UNIFIED?!”The audience is. We are. Yes.