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Vancouver drummer playing series of shows on iconic public art

Yes, the sculptures are the instrument

If you've ever seen a huge piece of public art and wondered what it might sound like as an instrument, you're not the only one. 

Ben Brown, a Vancouver drummer and composer, wondered that as well. And that led him to finding it out by trying it out. And that led him to setting up a series of shows this September, called Sound Sculptures with Vancouver New Music.

Each Sunday he's playing music on a different sculpture in Vancouver: UBC's Dragon Skin Pavilion, Gate to the Northwest Passage, The Swimmer and Solo.

It's not the easiest thing to do.

"Part of the thing is figuring out how to physically play these things," he explains. "A drum kit is set up ergonomically to facilitate what you want to do. These structures don't always physically facilitate what you want to do."

A longtime percussionist, he has a selection of tools of the trade to use; most of the time, it's felt-covered mallets, but he'll turn to things like brushes or even his hands for the sound he wants (he makes sure not to use items that'll damage the sculpture).

Each one requires different techniques to elicit the sounds he wants, and he's spent time finding the sweet spots, tapping it to listen for the most resonate spots with a nice set of pitches.

"At that point I'm looking for a riff, musical phrase, a groove; that will dictate which parts of the sculpture I play," he explains. "Some are more parts generous, some parts are impossible to play without a ladder."

For the parts he can't play it leaves a sort of sonic mystery.


"I just didn't wake up one day and think, 'Oh, I'll play a sculpture today,'" he says. "I'm a drummer. I started out playing in bands and a self-taught drummer."

He decided to pursue his passion and went to music school, where his tastes became more sophisticated, he says. Over time, his interest in improvised music grew; he's part of the Juno-winning Pugs and Crows, a band where improvisation is important.

His search for unconventional sounds continued, like trying to figure out how many timbres a drum kit could create.

Then, on a trip to Europe, an idea struck him.

"I was travelling a lot in Europe the last six years and I'll take these longer trips, like four to six months," he explains. "During that time, I started to get interested in playing some off the monuments and sculptures."

In Berlin, he found art by a particular sculptor resonated with him, with beautiful tones and lots of notes. From there, he was hooked.

Vancouver's percussive public art

Once back in Vancouver, he researched public art to find local pieces he might play. Brown checked out at least a dozen sculptures before deciding on the four he's playing this month.

"I was really surprised, some of them looked great," he tells Vancouver Is Awesome. "I looked up a website from the Vancouver parks board.

"I thought, 'Oh, this'll sound great."

That wasn't always the case.

For example, the Golden Tree in South Vancouver was a bit of a letdown.

"I thought, 'I bet it has some interesting sounds,'" he says. "I went and it was like 'Tink! Tink!"

"It had absolutely no resonance."

Others he wanted to play, he wasn't able to get to, like the Crab at Vanier Park (in front of the museum). Another he wanted to try is Knife's Edge (Two Pieces), but it was fenced off when he went.

"It's a beautiful looking sculpture in Queen Elizabeth Park," he says. "I've been told it sounds really good."

He decided on the four he's playing this month since they were the best of the bunch. He's been practicing over the spring and summer to prepare for the shows (he's gotten permission for the percussion).


The shows

Each Sunday in September (and one in October), he's playing a different spot. On Sept. 12, he was at UBC to play the Dragon Scale Pavilion.

"There was a good turnout. There was a varied turnout, an eclectic audience," Brown says.

Some were friends, some were members of Vancouver New Music, who are helping put the shows on. Some people were students who had seen him rehearsing on the large wooden piece.

"UBC in the last couple of weeks has really picked up," Brown says. "Some are newcomers to Canada to study at UBC and they've been really engaged."

He adds that it's good to see young people engaged in experimental music.

"I got the audience to participate, which I don't usually do," he says. "I got the audience to clap and sing. That was exciting to me, and I think for them too."

His next show will feature dancers: All Bodies Dance's Harmanie Rose and Foolish Operation's Sarah Gallos as they perform at the giant Gate to the Northwest Passage.

"I'm excited to work with them for the next sculpture this Sunday," Brown says. "We're planning on doing a giant game of musical hide-and-go-seek with the sculpture."

His final two shows will be at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre and Devonian Harbour Park.

  • Sept. 19; 3 p.m. – Gate to the Northwest Passage (Vanier Park in Kitsilano)
  • Sept. 26; 3 p.m. – The Swimmer (Vancouver Aquatic Centre at Burrard and Pacific)
  • Oct. 3; 6 p.m. – Solo (Devonian Harbour Park in Coal Harbour)

He's looking forward to the next shows, after being a bit nervous for the first one.

"I'm really excited for the next ones to be a little less nervous," he says. "And really sink into the music, play some good music from the sculptures."

"I want to show the full potential of that instrument to the audience."

After the shows

In addition to his four shows, there's more planned. This is just phase two of four phases.

Phase three is an album.

"The third stage is recording them," he says. "I'm going to make a full-length album and I want to make a vinyl release," he says.

Once the shows are over, he'll return to the sculptures with a professional recording crew to get proper recordings. After that, a short documentary will be released. Since the beginning of the project, a couple of friends have joined him to shoot a short film.