The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada
The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada

Black Auks

WALLACE HAMMOND, bass and objects; NEIL ROSENBERG, strings and objects; and CRAIG SQUIRES, keyboards and objects.

Anna Templeton Centre, July 7, 2006
Sound Symposium, St. John's

The Black Auks is a legendary noise band from St. John’s Newfoundland whose work is in the long tradition of idiosyncratic Canadian ensembles made up of ordinary guys who meet faithfully for the sheer pleasure of creating improvisational mayhem (think Nihilist Spasm band and Männlicher Carcano

While these bands occasionally gain recognition (the Nihilist Spasm band was ‘discovered’ by Japanese noise musicians), their impetus comes from something far more homespun: theirs is folk music in the truest sense, made not for career or commerce but for exploration and community. “Noise band” may in fact not be the best moniker for the Black Auks who, in the gentle 2006 performance excerpted here, explore minute sounds, remember old friends, and playfully invoke everything from Satie to bluegrass.

The band was founded in 1992 by Don Wherry and George Langdon but has included a variety of people over the years. As of 2006, when this opening performance for the 13th biennial Sound Symposium was videoed, the membership of the Black Auks was made up of Craig Squires, Wallace Hammond, and Neil Rosenberg. They meet most Monday nights to improvise, record, and listen back to the music, and their focus is always on creative, unstructured improvisation. As Craig Squires noted in our interview, over the years the band has developed a particular style.

We definitely have developed a sense of space. We’re not afraid of silence, we’re not afraid not to make noises. I guess part of that comes from Don, I mean, this was Don’s band …It’s a tricky thing. Group improvisation is a tricky thing! Neil brings his background in folk music, Wallace and I have pretty wide ranging musical interests, but neither of us is trained particularly in any area. Our most prominent public area is rock music. Rock and punk and that kind of stuff. But we’ve been doing improv for a very long time. Wallace and I have been improvising together since 1974.

For years before the Black Auks was formed, Hammond and Squires would jam late nights in Studio A at Memorial University’s campus community radio station, eventually forming an improv/noise band called Wet Cheeze Delirium (after a track from Gong’s 1971 Camembert Electrique album) that is still active today. They were active in the local bar scene along with their other group, Newfoundland’s first punk band called Da Slyme that was formed in 1978. Meanwhile, also in 1978, Wherry formed a legit “chamber group” (Woodford) with an electronics feel (Rosenberg) called Fusion with Mike Zagorski, Paul Bendzsa and Martin Rickert. Craig Squires wryly notes that Fusion, who generally played at art galleries and other genteel venues, was at the “outer edge of the established music scene, and [Wet Cheeze Delirium] was kind of the outer edge of the un-established music scene.” The two groups met as a direct result of the first call for proposals to the Sound Symposium (in 1983), to which Squires and Hammond responded. “There was a public meeting announced…and I went over and that’s when I met Don and Mike and a few other people, and Don and Mike came up and auditioned us. So we got to play in the first Symposium.” In fact, it probably makes best sense to consider the Black Auks within the context of the Sound Symposium.

Black Auks and the Sound Symposium

Percussionist Don Wherry was the original genius behind the Newfoundland Sound Symposium, over a quarter of a century ago; he passed away in 2001 leaving a rich musical legacy in St. John’s, including the famous “Scruncheons” percussion ensemble at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Wherry inspired a dedicated artistic team who, under the direction of Kathy Wherry, now work as a group to mount the Sound Symposium. It’s a 10 day event that draws sound explorers of all varieties together with audiences from home and ‘away’ into a close knit community of sound travelers who interact with the rugged maritime beauty of St. John’s.

For example, in 2006, the symposium programmed an artists’ day when everyone boarded a school bus and went to Cape St. Mary’s (where 10’s of thousands of gannets, mures and kittiwakes blanket the rocks just a few metres off shore). After spending several hours out listening to this cacophonic avian soundscape, we all returned to the interpretation centre to jam with the Black Auks. The purpose of this field trip was to give artists a chance to meet and exchange ideas beyond the business of performing. For Craig Squires, “The experience of spending an hour and half with the birds was unbelievable, listening to the birds and fog horn, and the sheep and the people. There was just all this sound and the way it shifted and focused [affected] the way my own listening shifted and focused.” Back at the interpretation centre, Squires described his experience and invited everyone to try to do the same through a collective improvisation. The fact that ordinary people visiting the centre joined in as well as symposium participants was felt to be a mark of success.

Ideally, organizers hope that artists will stay for the whole ten days so that there is a rich interaction among local, national and international musicians, sound artists and audiences. Newfoundland is an island with a rich history, dating back over 500 years, so that it is only natural that the Sound Symposium works to bring local artists and traditions together with imported ones. As experimental music festivals go, the Sound Symposium has exceptional breadth; in a single edition, you can experience traditional fiddlers, avant-garde jazz, radio art, sound installations, multi-media performances, African drumming, and good old fashioned “new music” concerts. In recent years, Memorial University has even run a graduate seminar on sound and listening to coincide with the symposium. Other community initiatives include church hall suppers, late night jams at The Ship Pub, and Quiet Music concerts (held in private homes). Each day at noon the city resounds with the Harbour Symphony. These are works composed by symposium participants and performed on the horns of ships docked in St. John’s harbour. Because the population of ships is not always predictable, in 2006 organizer Paul Steffler spent each morning dashing from ship to ship on his bicycle introducing the concept and enlisting the support of the captains. Another popular event, the “last night” concert, features short improvisations by artists who sign up to play with someone they have just met at the Sound Symposium. Finally, every Sound Symposium features a large scale performance developed during the festival that involves all the artists working together. Generally this is held on the spectacular cliffs of Cape Spear, but during the exceptionally rainy 2006 edition, it was moved into the historic St. John’s Anglican Cathedral. Without doubt, the Sound Symposium is a true community effort focused on explorations in sound – something that the Black Auks mirror in miniature.

During the early years of the Sound Symposium, Craig Squires was working offshore, but his enthusiasm for the event caused him to plan his trips home to coincide with the symposium. Meanwhile, Wallace Hammond, a sound man by trade, became the technical director of the event and rented the organizers his sound equipment at a nominal fee, providing crucial help to a festival that to this day “runs on a shoe string” (Squires). Like most people involved with the Sound Symposium, Hammond and Squires took artists into their homes during the 10 day event, at least during the early years. “After the first couple of times we didn’t house artists anymore, because we were just too involved by that time” (Squires).  Eventually, Squires went off to Toronto to do a PhD in philosophy (“I actually missed three Symposiums, if you can believe it, when I was a grad student, it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life, probably!”). With the demise of Fusion, Don Wherry started the Black Auks; Hammond was there from the beginning, and Squires “would go up to Don’s on Monday nights” whenever he was in town, becoming a regular member when he returned to St. John’s permanently in 1998.

Neil Rosenberg came to the Black Auks by a different route. He is a noted folklorist, an expert on bluegrass music (who won a 1997 Grammy award for his contributions to a brochure for the Smithsonian/Folkways reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music). As a child he studied violin and later folk guitar, but his passion for bluegrass began at Oberlin College, where he worked in the local campus radio station in the 1950s. He played banjo with Bill Monroe at Bean Blossom, and in 1959 helped form the Redwood Canyon Ramblers (the first bluegrass band in the Bay Area and “the first live bluegrass that Jerry Garcia ever heard”) (Rosenberg). He immigrated to Canada in 1968 to work in the folklore archives at MUN, began to play with various folk groups and eventually helped to build the nascent Maritime bluegrass community. His bluegrass band Crooked Stovepipe was founded in 1973. Indeed, Rosenberg’s first contact with Don Wherry came about when artist Don Wright hired the band to play for an opening and introduced them to his percussionist Wherry, asking if he could sit in. “We were dismayed, because a drummer in Bluegrass is a bad name. But right from the very start he was a great guy to play music with. …There was something about him that was accessible and at the same time he was a great musician” (Rosenberg).  

Out of all these meetings, the Black Auks eventually formed in 1992 beginning with Wherry and Langdon; Hammond joined in ’93, Squire in ’94. In the year before Wherry died, his old musical partner from Fusion, Mike Zagorski joined the band. The group also included Mark Latham, a member of the Atlantic String Quartet, and an early Black Auks recording with this line-up was made in a World War Two bunker at Cape Spear. Rosenberg joined in 1994 initially playing bluegrass banjo and a small baglamas (a Greek lute used in rebetiko music).

Playing with the Black Auks opened Rosenberg up to musical experimentation, preparing banjo and mandolin with small objects, and collecting a suitcase full of sonic toys (he’s been playing the same kazoo since the ‘70s).

For Squires, recording and listening together immediately, is a defining element of the Black Auks.

I remember when I first started recording improvisations, I found that it was difficult to listen to it afterwards and you’d have to leave…you know, you’d record it, but you’d leave the tape and you might come back to it a few months later and then listen to it again, then you could actually appreciate it; you get some distance from it, and appreciate it. But uh, I think it’s a good exercise to learn how to listen to your own work. It’s part of you when you create something, but it becomes separate. You know, you produce it out of yourself, and then it becomes an object, or something like that. It’s something separate, but you have this memory of the moment of production, and there’s a kind of tie to it. But really it’s an ego tie. Why do we find it difficult to listen to our performances? Because it’s too close to our ego and so listening immediately after having played it is an exercise, for me anyway, to break that. You create some distance right away and that way you also free yourself for the next time, because you’re not thinking “Oh damn! I played so shittily last time.” You just get rid of that whole… stupid self-criticism.

The group met at Wherry’s house every Monday, their jam sessions structured by the length of DAT tapes, for recording and reflection have always been an important part of the Black Auks’ process. “Don made his own salsa (now we just get a jar) but that’s part of the play back thing isn’t it: a big bowl of chips and salsa, and we’d sit there and listen to the…ya know, listen” (Rosenberg). For many years now, the Black Auks have met at the house shared by Hammond and Squires, amidst Hammond’s eclectic collection of audio gear. Their recording and listening are now shaped by Hammond’s adoption of a 7 inch reel to reel recorder, each tape lasting about 20 minutes. “So that’s what we do now, three 20 minute jams” (Rosenberg).

Black Auks at the Anna Templeton Centre

The performance chronicled here took place during a ‘meet and greet’ reception at the Anna Templeton Centre to kick off Sound Symposium XIII. We congregated in a medium sized open room with a few chairs placed around the walls and reception food laid out on folding wooden tables. It was an unusual opener for the Sound Symposium, which had been thrown off centre by the presence in St. John’s of a large theatre festival (Magnetic North) that occupied several of their traditional venues. The Black Auks didn’t perform so much as accompany the gathering of artists, organizers, volunteers and audience members, many of whom were meeting for the first time. For Squires, the performance had a particular place in the arc of the symposium:

We’re very conscious of [the symposium’s arc], and we structure it. We usually start with a bang, start with a big concert and then the first two or three days are just really intense and then there’s a bit of a breathing space and then it builds again towards the end. That’s the overall arc that has just sort of emerged…we recognize that’s a very organic thing, and the artistic direction committee structures the symposium with that in mind “what’s the arc of the whole experience.” This time because we didn’t have our usual spaces, so it started differently. It started quiet.

In one sense, it was an unusual performance for the Black Auks, who wanted to perform an homage to Mike Zagorski, a former Black Auk who had recently died.

Mike’s brother and sister basically gave us anything we wanted having to do with sound in Mike’s house. And one of the things we found was a batch of old tapes…Wallace and I dug through the tapes and found these cool recordings like Mike singing a cappella Pennies from Heaven, ya know, this stuff. And I took that raw material once Wallace and I had decided what we were going to do and put it on the computer and structured it into this thirty minute piece. We don’t normally do that, so that was a bit unusual for the Auks. (Squires)

The idea was to improvise with the Zagorski tribute, but when the band realized that people were slowly trickling into the reception, and “sitting in corners waiting for something to happen” (Squires), they decided to perform their planned set, but then continue improvising as a backdrop for the reception. Again, the band departed from their usual practice by rehearsing with the Zagorski material and creating at least a minimal structure for the evening’s performance.

The last third was shorts, and so that had a very specific structure, but the other parts, basically there was only “allow the tape to speak for a while and then just play,” because we didn’t want to impose our own strategies and our own methods. We didn’t want to make it artificial in any way by trying to avoid [the fact that] performances are always different from jam sessions. We jam in our studio, there’s nobody around, there’s no distractions. Performances are different…you’re in a strange place, there’s a whole pile of people around and your strategies for focusing are different. We each have our own perceptions of the final outcome. In my experience of that particular performance I didn’t feel that that the connections were all that strong… tape was maybe the unifying force there, in a certain sense. (Squires)

Listening, sounding, reflecting – and doing it in community – these are the hallmarks of the Black Auks, and the guiding principles of the Sound Symposium.

Thanks to the Black Auks for permission to post interview and video excerpts on the Sounds Provocative website.



Rosenberg, Neil. Interview with Ellen Waterman, St. John’s, July 10, 2006.

Squires, Craig. Interview with Ellen Waterman, St. John’s, July 12, 2006.

Woodford, Paul “Music in St. John’s,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.