The sculpture is installed on the north shore of the St. Mary's River in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada along a public walkway.



Click on images below for a larger view.

Michael used boat horns from the Ship "Chief Wawatam". The images show the horns which contain the chimes and gongs below. These drawings and the following article "Harbour Sounds Ashore" have been taken from the "Canadian Journal of Sound Exploration": MusicWorks50".


Read Harbour "Sounds Ashore " below describing how the sculpture was designed and built. 

Read the 3 articles below from "The Canadian Journal of Sound Exploration MusicWorks 50 Magazine" seen above.

1. Harbour Sounds Ashore

For years, the city has almost literally turned its back on the river. Recently, however, the tendency has been reversed and the river is viewed as one of the City's primary assets. The new wooden waterfront walkway is one of the many projects intended to acknowledge the river's importance. The sculpture is placed here, along the north shore of the St. Mary's River overlooking a section of water that flows rapidly out of a hydro dam tail race and converges with the main current. It stands about twenty-five feet tall with a diameter of about ten feet.

2. The Material

The Chief Wawatam as you will read below provided parts for Michael's Sound Sculpture.

Boat horns from the Chief Wawatam (1911 - 1988). The sculpture was to be the final resting place for fragments of a ship that began it's life in 1911 in a Toledo, Ohio shipyard. Before she was sold for barge duty in 1988, the vessel was the last of the hand-fired coal burning steel ships that plied the Great Lakes. She was destined, from the Toledo shipyard to replace the wooden-hulled ferries that transported rail cars and passengers across the Straits of Mackinaw, thus, forming a social and economic link between lower Michigan, and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Canada. Once in service on the Straits she was named Chief Wawatam, to honour the Chippewa chief who had saved the life of fur trader Alexander Henry.

The Chief Wawatam was, in its time, a 'muscle' ship. Naval architects from Russia, Finland and Poland were dispatched to Sault Ste. Marie to observer her in operation. She was 338 feet in length, 62 feet wide and had molded depth (from hull to deck) of 25 feet. She had two huge 12-foot propellers astern for propulsion and one bow propeller for breaking the ice. The hull had 4 tracks on board and could carry up to 26 rail cars.

The Chief was an integral part of the north's social and economic fabric. The trains, Soo Line on the Upper Peninsula, and Penn Central in Lower Michigan, carried freight to market and raw materials to northern factories. Algoma Steel used the Chief Wawatam to traverse the straits as late as 1971, shipping coke to Detroit and other markets. Passengers, rail and later, automobile, made the five-mile trip, winter and summer. The Chief was stranded icebound more than once-passengers disembarked onto the ice and made their way to shore on foot, miraculously never suffering more than inconvenience. She was used to rescue other icebound ships and once to fight a fire on shore with her fire-fighting equipment.

The vessel was filmed in 1964 by MGM during the production of This Time For Keeps, with Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams, and was used to take actors, crew and equipment from the mainland to Mackinac Island. She made numerous trips from the Strait into the St. Mary's River and Lake Superior to break ice for commercial shipping, thus becoming a familiar sight in Sault Ste. Marie. In 1988, the hull was sold to Purvis Marine in Sault Ste. Marie where it was partially dismantled and used as an unmanned tow barge.

The air vents were stored in different locations, lying on their sides to reveal the eleven-foot 'horn' above the deck line and a large lower chamber onto which the horn was bolted. The big, rounded shape has a certain monolithic majesty. When the horns were struck with the palm of my hand, the resonant sound could be felt as well as it could be heard. A critical factor in conceiving the sculpture was my desire to exert a free range of imagination on objects that were historically significant in very public settings. Thankfully, my role was strictly as a designer, a team of talented engineers, architects and technicians, headed by Chris Tossel, would carry the project through to completion. That in itself would be a fascinating experience-a collaborative project built on consensus rather than privileged temperament.

3. The Sculpture

As soon as I saw the boat horns, the structure of the sculpture seemed to suggest itself. I have lived by water most of my life and have heard the sounds of boats and bells always in the background. To me, it was important to retain, if possible, a semblance of the historical aspect of the extant horns, to invoke the marine sounds that are so much a part of the city's acoustic environment. The visual grouping exploited the simplicity of triple symmetry while reflecting the various directions in which the horns could be directed (by hand-cranking) on-board. The control tower in the centre of the sculpture carries the wind indicator. Originally it was designed to actually activate the sound mechanism, but given the inconsistency of the wind, we felt it prudent to use a more reliable source of power. The tower and wind indicator now function purely as a visual component. The Stainless-steel cups pick up sunshine during the day and constantly flash spots of light around the installation.

The original lower chambers were removed for ease of installation and for more efficient maintenance. The horns are, instead, mounted above a sound chamber, a large, poured concrete 'drum' which houses a 'chandelier' of steel bars and tubes, the sound generating part of the piece. An electric motor, fed by the same power that illuminates the inside of the sculpture at night, powers the axle to which the striker is attached. The steel is hung randomly and the striker is loose so that the sound generated is not repetitive. The gongs and chimes were chosen to provide a variety of sounds, which would not, however, overpower the listener. The metallic sounds are relatively soft and distant, quiet enough that people can talk with one another while standing or sitting on the drum. The sounds draw people toward the sculpture and blend with the surrounding acoustic environment. They evoke memories of the bells of the lake freighters marking the watches or, at times, the clangs and soft crashes of machinery in the hull.

As a musician, particularly as a percussionist motivated by very direct, intuitive and decidedly primal drives, creating a work with which I could not physically interact was a challenge. To work within the limits established by traffic and safety standards, historical demands and technical possibilities added to the task. Because the horns are made of relatively thin sheet metal, and because the sculpture is located in an exposed area with no security, damage resulting from people hitting the horns too hard would have greatly increased the costs of repair and maintenance. For this reason, we decided not to include an interactive component. The very anonymity of the work (it is neither titled nor signed), relate to the work on their own terms, in their own time. Since the horns were installed in July 1990, they have become a familiar landmark and public gathering place. The large physical scale of the sculpture seems incongruous with the delicacy of the sound, yet it is just that incongruity that helps create a sense of mystery.

On 26 April 1991 Michael Burtch and Chris Tossel were awarded the Allied Arts Award for design, by the Ontario Association of Architects, for this Sound Sculpture.

Michael Burtch is the Directory of the Art Gallery of Algoma, a teacher at Sault College and Algoma University College, a percussionist, sculptor, and powerboat racer. His work Pangaea was exhibited in the Sounds of Invention exhibition of sound sculpture at the Sound symposium, Memorial University Art Gallery, St. John's Newfoundland, July 1990.


Client:Corporation of the City of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Prime Walkway Consultant:Wm. Walker Consulting Engineers
Architect:Tossel and Caughill Architect & Consulting Engineer Inc.
Design:Michael Burtch
Architectural Design:Chris Tossel OAA
Engineering Consultant:Paul Myer, P.Eng.
Landscape Design:Lynne Taylor
Fabrication and Installation:Bob Morin, Fred Beith

Information about the Chief Wawatam came from Chief Wawatam-The Story of a Hand-Bomber by Frances D. Burgtorf, Cheboygan, Michigan: Review Printing, 1976

Chief Wawatam, a U.S> Mail boat and freight ferry, which traveled between the Canadian and American shores of the St. Mary's River. Note the three air vent horns, photo: courtesy Sault Ste. Marie Museum.

Sound Sculpture in MusicWorks

The MUSICWORKS 50 cassette contains a recording of the sculpture's sounds. These are the sounds you heard when you visited this page.

To view the original pages click here.