Friday, January 28, 2011

Festival: Toronto New Music Marathon

Toronto New Music Marathon

Yonge-Dundas Square. Saturday, September 25, 2010.

A cool afternoon, with big breezy gusts of wind and little interludes of warmth as the sun made occasional appearances. As a prelude to a day of puttering around, popped into Yonge-Dundas Square to catch the first part of a whole day's worth of programming at the third annual "New Music Marathon". An audacious bit of work to put some decidedly non-pop musics in front of the great unwashed, it was fairly quiet in the early going. Besides the usual supply of gawkers and passers-by, there were just a handful of hardy souls dragging metal chairs from the edge of the square over to spots in front of the stage, where the day's first ensemble was soundchecking. A few stalls at the back of the square contributed to the festival atmosphere.

First up on the day, and the thing I'd come by to check out was a performance of Terry Riley's "In C". One of the foundational pieces of minimalist music, "In C" is based on a flexible score — 53 "cells" that range from one to several bars of music. There is no fixed rule as to the number of repetitions a pattern may have — the musicians are to play as they see fit, listening carefully to their neighbours to not move too far ahead or behind. In this way, a delicate mesh of patterns moves in and out of focus, chance harmonies and counterpoints floating to the surface and dissipating. It's beautiful stuff.

As to how that would play in an uncontrolled environment, Contact Contemporary Music's Jerry Pergolesi sounded a bit unsure. After explaining the nature of the composition, he commented, "hopefully people will get into that." He also provided the "pulse", playing metronomic octave C notes on the marimba as a guide for all the other musicians. The ensemble was an ad hoc group of volunteers, with a dozen players including piano, toy pianos, marimba, accordion, hurdy gurdy and guitars — a smallish ensemble for "In C", although again, there's no predefined notion of what sort of ensemble this is designed for.

Once everyone on stage was settled in, the piece began in general unison before individual players started to feel their way along. After a couple minutes, the sax separated a bit and found some space and for a moment almost felt like it was soloing before ducking back into the surrounding instruments. The toy pianos on stage lent the proceedings a tinkly chiming sort of feel. Meanwhile, people walked by, a few stopping to check it out, some just perplexedly hurrying along. Wandering children improvised their own vocal contributions to the score, pitching in along to the whoosh of traffic and the occasional distant siren. And there amongst the to-ings and fro-ings of the square, there were a couple delicious moments of delicate beauty coming in and out of focus as the performers moved through the piece.

At about twenty-five minutes, it was actually turned out to be rather on the short side — a performance can last forty-five to ninety minutes. As far as these things go, this was a decent rendition, but not the most polished — the minimalist equivalent of a hearty pick-up basketball game. With the need for a quick setup and having the performers stretched out across the big outdoor stage, it looked like one result was that the players weren't hearing each other very well, which is crucial for this piece. But still, quite nice to close one's eyes, lean back and let this drift past like the cool September breeze.

Listen to an excerpt from this performance here.

After that, the between-set gap was filled in with some real-time found-sound sonic installation work by New Adventures in Sound Art. This involved mixing live input feeds from around the square into an ambient soup — soon the "walk sign is on in all directions!" announcement from the pedestrian scramble was being looped in around traffic noise and little snatches of conversation as Wallace Halladay began soundchecking on stage. Pretty cool — for my money, they could be doing this 24/7 in the square.

On the recommendation of Jonny Dovercourt (who had played guitar with the "In C" ensemble and would later take the stage for his own Hybrid Moments project), I stuck around to check out Wallace Halladay1 playing "Grab It" by Jacob ter Veldhuis. The melodic core was based on taped voices of death row prisoners, sometimes cut down to individual syllables, with the sax playing along to the melodies of the voice. As might be expected, this was not calm and mellifluous — more of an angry shout, words thrusting out like the quick stab of a spoon sharpened into a shiv.

Given the method, this brought to mind Charles Spearin's Happiness Project, which also explored the musicality of the human voice — but besides employing more of a cut-and-paste sensibility, the source material here gave this a different, angrier vibe. The whole piece ran just under ten minutes, and it was kinda awesome to hear the repeating tape loop of "grab it, motherfucker!" echoing through the square. Easy to relate to and entertaining — a perfect mix of avant-garde and accessible for an event like this.

Grab a sample of this performance here.

The Marathon went on all day til 10 p.m., and looking back over the programme now, there's some stuff that I would have really enjoyed hearing. But shopping and other wanderings beckoned, and I headed off. Anyone interested in a casual encounter with "new music" would do well to wander by themselves.2

1 The name didn't ring any bells with me, but it turns out I had seen Halladay playing previously at the fondly-remembered "Concrete Toronto Music" concert in 2008.

2 Those who dig getting things down in their daytimers well in advance should note that the next Marathon is scheduled for Saturday, September 3, 2011.

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