Port Symphonies : a tribute to the Queen of Crime

From February 21st to March 6th 2016

In Place Royale and around the Museum 
On Sundays, February 21 and March 6 at 2 pm

The 22nd edition of Pointe-à-Callière’s Port Symphonies is paying tribute to the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, as the Museum has been featuring its new exhibition Investigating Agatha Christie since December. Composer and trombonist Scott Thomson will lead this unique outdoor concert, in which the sounds of trains, boats moored in the Old Port, the bells of Notre-Dame Basilica, and other urban instruments will come together to create an original piece of contemporary music of the most unusual kind. Scott Thomson’s work will be performed outdoors on two occasions: on Sundays, February 21 and March 6 at 2 pm, in Place Royale in Old Montréal, right next to the Museum.

An intriguing symphony…
Composer Scott Thomson has taken up the challenge of respecting the style of all good detective novels, which must contain a mystery and a solution. The symphony, entitled Muses and Mysteries, will incorporate sounds that are intriguing yet harmonious. Prior to the Symphony, Cornemuses et tambours de Montréal will give a brief opening performance, starting at 2:00 pm. Should the symphony give you the urge to delve deeper into the world of Agatha Christie, this will be an ideal opportunity to visit the Investigating Agatha Christie exhibition.

Scott Thomson, a born improviser
Composer and trombonist Scott Thomson works with several established groups in Montréal and Toronto, exploring a range of different musical styles. Over the years, his passion for improvisation has given him the opportunity to meet creative people, and become one of the founders and directors of the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto (aimToronto). From 2007 to 2010, Mr. Thomson was the artistic director of Somewhere There, a performance space for live creative music in Toronto that hosted 850 concerts. He has produced a series of site-specific works—“cartographic compositions”—for mobile musicians and audiences in unconventional performance contexts including, notably, the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Parc National du Bic. In 2014, he embarked on a 40-performance tour that took him to nine Canadian provinces.

Did you know…?
- Each Port Symphony requires the participation of some thirty music students to operate the horns on the boats and trains.
- The Port Symphonies are created using the horns of boats moored in the Port of Montréal for the winter, frozen in the ice from January to mid-March each year.
- The composer must visit the boats in January, and then compose the piece specifically for the sounds of the boats in the Port—providing some uncommon musical material. In addition, the position of each boat allows the composer to create a work in which some sounds come from close by while others originate further away, offering a wide range of sound nuances.

How is a Port Symphony composed?
The sound of a boat horn is very rich—pleasant-sounding, uncommon, and different from one boat to another. As with other musical compositions, the score for a Port Symphony is not written for a specific instrument but rather is contingent on creating an overall effect. In Montréal, we mainly use lakers—boats that transport merchandise on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes seaway—that are moored in the port during the winter season.

The composers of Pointe-à-Callière’s Port Symphonies must visit the boats beginning early in the month of January to identify the sounds they will have at their disposal to compose the work. They first consider the placement of these “instruments” and then compose works that will reflect the variations in sound, based on the distances between the boats themselves and the distance between the boats and the Museum. In addition to the musical possibilities afforded by the boats, the composers make use of one or two locomotive whistles and, some years, of the bells of Notre Dame Basilica. The musical work is therefore composed according to the distances between the instruments, taking into account the effects produced by space and echo, and the location of performance and listening. The acoustic space must be considered as a central element, since each boat’s place of anchorage affects the strength of the horn’s sound. The distance used in the Port of Montréal is about one kilometre from east to west. In this way, the sound of a horn can be augmented by boats located further away, creating a balance between the chorus and the solo instrument. Basically, it is the same principal used to organize an orchestra but with unconventional instruments. Each Port Symphony requires the participation of some thirty volunteers to sound the boat horns.

Port Symphonies are a unique experience. Inevitably, the piece is quite susceptible to the elements, and varies according to the wind direction and strength, rain, snow, temperature, humidity, and fog—all of which have an effect on the sound of the horns. Also, since the listening area is so large, the same symphony can be heard from different locations and be perceived in completely different ways, whether one is at Pointe-à-Callière, on the Quays of the Old Port, or elsewhere in Old Montréal.

Origins of the Port Symphonies
In the winter of 1995, Pointe-à-Callière presented two Port Symphonies for the first time. The very first Port Symphony in Montréal was performed on February 8, 1995, on the occasion of the opening of the temporary exhibition The Port as Seen by Pierre Bourgault, Gilles Vigneault and Helmut Lipsky. The work by Newfoundland composers Don Wherry and Paul Steffler was called Ballycatters and Growlers. That same year, Helmut Lipsky also wrote La Valse des sirènes, which was performed on March 11. The Radio-Canada network helped raise awareness of the event for many years through its live broadcasts of the Port Symphonies. Radio-Canada was a major project partner, and, through the work of Navire « Night » producer Hélène Prévost, was involved in many aspects of the Symphonies, from providing aesthetic guidance and choosing the composers to promoting and broadcasting the work. Pointe-à-Callière produced the Port Symphonies during the winter season as a way of rousing the dormant port, livening up the historic area of Old Montréal, and creating an extraordinary event for Montrealers. Since 1995, several composers have contributed to the canon of Port Symphonies. Among them are Walter Boudreau, Michel Frigon, Diane Labrosse, Gilles Tremblay, Jean Derome, and Guido Del Fabbro.

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