David Parfit and Scott Amos demonstrate the interactive musical experience they created for those coming and going to the Bastion Square Parkade.

Musical stairs drawing attention to Bastion Square Parkade

In the Bastion Square Parkade, Jake Guy stopped for a moment to listen to the musical sounds that filled the air.

On his way past the stairwell of the Bastion Square Parkade, Jake Guy stopped for a moment to listen to the musical sounds that filled the air.

It’s not the first time Guy has heard music coming from the stairs. A few weeks ago, he stopped to play with the various sounds created when placing his hands over sensors on the railings at each level. The sensors also illuminate colourful LED lights and before he knew it, 15 minutes had passed by before Guy carried on with his day.

“I think it’s cool. It’s very different,” said Guy, who often uses the parkade. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s something positive.”

Guy wasn’t the only one to stop and listen for a few moments and as he walked by the parkade stairwell Tuesday morning. The unique project has caught the attention of several people ever since installation began last fall.

Local filmmaker and media artist Scott Amos, and David Parfit, a composer, sound designer and software engineer, are the brains behind the idea, and were selected in the city’s Art in Parkades competition to create an interactive musical railing that would enhance the parking facility.

The pair have worked together at Monkey C Interactive to create nearly a dozen interactive installations, such as the Philli-phone beer bottle organ for Phillips Brewery and ThinkCubes — the 20-foot tall interactive light sculpture currently at Dockside Green. The Registroid, a modified antique cash register that plays music, has been featured at music festivals throughout the Pacific Northwest.

This, however, is the first time the pair have jazzed up a parkade stairwell.

“It’s basically a five-storey tall musical instrument…it’s kind of weird and it kind of throws people off, but it’s good because if you don’t know it’s here, you won’t really notice it,” said Amos, as he played with the various sounds that include drums, synthesizers, bells and piano.

The sounds have been created by local artists Jules Uno and David Parfit, along with France-based artist CloZee. The more people that play, the better it sounds, explained Amos, and over time the programmed sounds can be changed to create a different sonic experience. He already has visions of doing spoken word.

“We can change it fairly easily so it can be anything. There’s a lot of local musicians who want to do stuff,” he said. “More than anything I hope people enjoy it. I think that grown ups don’t play enough so giving people an excuse to play is always a good thing.”

Enhancing city parkades to make them more welcoming was identified during public consultation in 2014 as a way to improve the parking experience downtown.

According to Coun. Pamela Madoff, the city has talked for years about what to do with the space around the Bastion Square Parkade to make it more inviting, so a local art competition was held with a jury that also included a $10,000 budget.

Working as the council liaison to the city’s art in public spaces committee, Madoff was drawn to the interactivity of the musical railing and the fact it’s never going to get old. It could also get more people using the stairs, she noted, and fits with how Victoria is promoting itself as a technology hub. She’s also never seen anything quite like it.

“This is far beyond what we would have thought. We thought there’s sculptures and paintings that we’ve done in the other parkades, but this was something I don’t think any of us had contemplated,” said Madoff, adding the stairwell is already a big hit, but she knows the project will have its critics.

“Art is always something that some people say should be knocked off the list at the very beginning of budgeting, but art is about humanity, people, interactivity and sending a message about what kind of a city we are as well. We are a city that has an incredible population of artists and if we can support artists in this modest way, but at the same time promote so many other city initiatives, I think it’s a modest price to pay.”

But not everyone is on board. As the chair of the citizen’s advocacy group, the Grumpy Taxpayers of Greater Victoria, Stan Bartlett was angry the first time he heard about the musical railing. He believes the money should go towards more important projects like finishing the Johnson Street Bridge or a sewage treatment facility.

“I think council was simply out of tune and off key and tone deaf with projects like this,” said Bartlett, who’s checked out the musical stairs, but wasn’t impressed.

“I like live shows and I like music. I didn’t get my $10,000 worth out of it.”

The Art in Parkades initiative also includes the Centennial Square Parkade mural series and the upcoming Woven Together contemporary First Nations artwork for the exterior of the Johnson Street Parkade.