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Vancouver drummer plays series on iconic public art

Vancouver drummer plays series on iconic public art

If you’ve ever seen a large piece of public art and wondered how it might sound like an instrument, you’re not the only one.

Ben Brown, a drummer and composer in Vancouver, also wondered about it. And it made him figure it out by trying it. And that led him to create a series of shows in September, called Sound Sculptures with Vancouver New Music.

Every Sunday, he plays music at a different sculpture in Vancouver: UBC’s Dragon Skin Pavilion, Gate to the Northwest Passage, The Swimmer and Solo.

This is not the easiest thing to do.

“Part of the point 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 do not always physically ease what you want to do.”

As a longtime percussionist, he has a selection of industry tools to use; for the most part it’s felt – covered clubs, but he turns to things like brushes or even his hands for the sound he wants (he makes sure not to use objects that will damage the sculpture).

Each one requires different techniques to evoke the sounds he wants and he has spent time finding the sweet spots, tapping it to listen for the most reverberating spots with a nice set of seats.

“At that point, I’m looking for a riff, musical phrase, a groove; it will dictate what parts of the sculpture I play,” he explains. “Some parts are generous, some parts are impossible to play without a ladder.”

For the parts he can not play, it leaves a kind of sonic mystery.


“I just did not wake up one day and think, ‘Oh, I’m playing a sculpture today,’ he says. “I’m a drummer. I started out playing in bands and an autodidact 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 is 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 reverberations a drum kit could create.

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

“I have traveled a lot in Europe the last six years and I take these longer trips, like four to six months,” he explains. “During that time, I started to get interested in playing some monuments and sculptures.”

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

Vancouver’s percussive public art

When he was back in Vancouver, he researched public art to find local pieces he could play. Brown checked out at least a dozen sculptures before deciding on the four he is playing this month.

“I was really surprised, some of them looked good,” he says Vancouver is amazing. “I posted a website from the Vancouver Park board.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds good.’

That was not always the case.

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

“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 could not get to, like Crab in Vanier Park (in front of the museum). Another one he would try is Knife’s Edge (Two Pieces), but it was fenced off as he went.

“It’s a beautiful sculpture in Queen Elizabeth Park,” he says. “I’ve been told it sounds really good.”

He decided on the four he plays this month as they were the best in the pack. During the spring and summer, he has practiced preparing for the performances (he has been given permission for percussion).

The exhibitions

Every Sunday in September (and one in October) he plays a different place. On September 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, which helps put on performances. Some people were students who had seen him practice on the large piece of wood.

“UBC in the last few weeks has really taken off,” Brown says. “Some are newcomers to Canada to study at UBC, and they’ve really been engaged.”

He adds that it is 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 clapping and singing. It was exciting for me and I think for them too.”

His next show features 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 said. “We plan to make a giant game of musical hide and seek with the sculpture.”

His last two shows will be at the Vancouver Aquatic Center and Devonian Harbor Park.

  • September 19; 15.00 – Gate to the northwest passage (Vanier Park in Kitsilano)
  • September 26; 3pm – The Swimmer (Vancouver Aquatic Center at Burrard and Pacific)
  • October 3; 18.00 – Solo (Devonian Harbor Park in Coal Harbor)

He is looking forward to the next shows, after being a little nervous at first.

“I’m really excited that the next ones should be a little less nervous,” he says. “And really sink into the music, playing some good music from the sculptures.”

“I want to show the full potential of the instrument to the audience.”

After the performances

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

Phase three is an album.

“The third stage is to record them,” he says. “I have to make a full-length album and I want to make a vinyl release,” he says.

When the performances are over, he returns to the sculptures with a professional recording team to get proper footage. A short documentary will then be broadcast. Since the beginning of the project, a couple of friends have joined him to record a short film.

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