Saturday, February 22, 2014

Interview: The Somewhere There Collective

I was lucky enough to get a chance to write a little thinkpiece for Weird Canada about "Creative Informal Music, Space, and Community", which you can read here:

Everyone Knows This is Somewhere

The goal was to grab your attention to get you eager to head out to see Somewhere There's second annual music festival (which is on now!). But my long-latent propensity to turn essays into manifestos reared its head a bit, too. At part of the legwork for this, I sent some questions to the festival's organizers. I only scratched the surface of their savvy observations in the piece, so I figured I'd let them have their full say here.

Late one night in mid January, Paul Newman and Pete Johnston joined Joe Sorbara at his kitchen table to talk through some questions posed by Joe at Mechanical Forest Sound. The other members of the Somewhere There Collective — Michael Lynn, Heather Segger, Arnd Jurgensen, and David Sait — have all provided some feedback on these words and given their thumbs up. Of course, if any one of us were to sit down and answer these questions alone we would come up with very different documents. Keeping that in mind...

Mechanical Forest Sound: What was lost when Somewhere There lost its space?

Somewhere There: At this point it's been a year since we lost our venue. During this past year, between the summer series, Audiopollination, and the Somewhere There series that is currently running monthly, we've put on 32 shows at the Array Space. Comparing that to just over 2000 shows that happened between 2007 and the end of 2012… well, you do the math. Even adding the Somewhere There Creative Music Festival events, we're now putting on a fraction of the number of concerts we were at the venue. That said, the vast majority of these events have been very well attended, there is clearly ongoing support from a community of musicians who want to present their music this way, and it all feels very healthy.

MFS: How important were the residencies, where artists could “work out” musical ideas over time?

ST: The residencies helped to get a lot of different projects off the ground and generated a lot of energy in the creative music community. Many of the projects that started as a residency at Somewhere There or that used a residency as a way of rejuvenating an existing project are still thriving today, so that investment is continuing to pay off. In the later stages of the residency program, though, the energy was actually starting to wane a bit. Things tended to be a little more ad hoc and less focused than they had been. That's not true across the board, of course. Some of the very last residencies were very focused and very fruitful, but generally that was the feeling we had. So yes, the residencies have been a very important and incredibly rewarding aspect of Somewhere There, but much like the larger project, it was starting to fray at the edges a bit by the end.

MFS: In presenting fewer events that are a bit more like "shows", is there less of a chance to treat performances as being part of a "process"?

ST: You're correct that these recent presentations feel "more like shows". They're less informal than the events at the venue set out to be. The idea that fewer events offer less of a chance to treat performances as part of the process of getting some music together, as you say, is also true. Local creative music communities require space for informal music making. That hasn't changed and that's why we still have a search for a permanent home on the back burner. The problem is that that space was being supported by a very small group of volunteers who, let's be honest, were burning out. The model wasn't sustainable. For now, what we're doing works. This is a sustainable model. For now.

MFS: A show at ST was a bit like watching a show in someone's living room. But also different from that. Even if the audiences were small it was, to some degree, a nominally “public” space. How does the idea of having an audience (even a handful of friends) change things?

ST: We didn't set out to create a “nominally” public space. It was a fully public space and we always wanted more people filling it up. This was never an exclusive club or some kind of secret society. This community makes great music and the purpose of Somewhere There remains to support and nurture that music, give it a place to grow, and absolutely to provide a place for people to hear it. Playing music to an empty room isn't horrible, we've all done it, and we'll all do it again. But we're interested in sharing the music with a room full of listeners, with an audience who focus the occasion of performance. The first Somewhere There Creative Music Festival was originally conceived as a way of bringing new people out to the venue and building our audience so that the space would be filled with more people more often. We lost the Sterling venue right around the time we were putting the festival together and the TRANZAC stepped in and helped us out immensely. But that was the original idea.

MFS: What does it mean to do shows where there are more performers than audience members? Does the "public" element encourage people outside the circle to come in? Do you think the non-anonymity of being in a small audience scares people away? Viewed from the outside, do you think there are social “barriers to entry” to a small, maybe cliquish community? Is this good/bad/neutral?

ST: Would something about Somewhere There be ruined if there were large crowds consistently? Let's find out! It's always going to be an intimate space and of course "large" is a relative term. How large would a large audience really be in a room that is the size of a small restaurant? The main point here is that we've always done what we could do — albeit within our limited means — to create a space that would welcome people. The one thing we have no interest in doing, of course, is pandering to an imaginary idea of musics that would somehow be more "accessible" so that more people would come out to hear it. “Within our limited means” is really a key point here, though. When we lost the Sterling venue we began a search for a new space. One of the main aspects of that search was that a more inviting, more accessible room with a warmer vibe would hopefully be more encouraging of greater turn-outs for shows. And frankly, this is what we've found at the Array Space. It's not ours, and we aren't presenting there seven nights a week... and there is definitely something foreboding about a handful of Ice trucks blocking the way to the door, but once you re inside the space it's really quite beautiful. And we'll take this opportunity to point out that the Array Space will have a new, completely accessible, entry way very soon as well as an elevator to the second floor. That kind of accessibility is going to be fantastic. The most important things for us at this point are that we are presenting great music and there is a sense of community around it. Our long-time listeners are coming out regularly to listen and we are gaining new audience members at almost every show.

MFS: Moving forward, could ST thrive without a space? Given the cost of rent and other practical difficulties, is there something liberating in not having to worry about all of that? With a space, how much attention is shifted to putting “bums in seats” to get dough to cover expenses, and how can things be set up so that isn't a concern?

ST: There is absolutely something liberating about not worrying about paying the rent for the venue every month. We're all just a little bit healthier one year on. Based on our experience, the only way we're going to have space for informal creative music-making in Toronto is to get some funding in place, either from an arts council or two or from a private benefactor or through some combination of these things. At this point, that's our long-term goal. In the meantime, we're committed to presenting a few shows per month at the Array Space through the Somewhere There and Audiopollination series and to making the Somewhere There Creative Music Festival happen once per year. We're working on ways to bring the Leftover Daylight Series back in some way, too. This activity all seems to be happening in the context of a scene that is really thriving right now. Looking at the Soundlist a year and a half ago, one saw a large number of listings for shows at Somewhere There and, maybe, a few at the TRANZAC and a smattering of other venues. The bulk of it was ST listings, though. Then, in the first few months after we closed our doors, the Soundlist was a very short e-mail to read. Now, a year later, it's back up to being a strong, healthy bulletin of creative music events at quite a diverse list of venues around the city. That's something to celebrate and be excited about. And to support by going out to hear the music; which you know and do more than most.

MFS: In the current socio-political environment, is trying to find a space for resolutely non-commercial music an act of defiance? Do people at ST think they're challenging a model of capitalism and looking for new forms of organization/community, or is it just a practical matter of trying to find someplace (er, somewhere) to play music?

ST: Your final question opens up a massive area of discussion. First of all, defying capitalism is a practical matter at this point. It's not a sustainable system. Period. Really, though, by any and all understandings of a society centered around the building of capital, what we do wouldn't and shouldn't exist. If we were interested only in money, we wouldn't be making the music we make and we wouldn’t be presenting the music we present. Nobody is getting rich off of creative music. As we mentioned above, the music that we listen to, make, present, nurture, celebrate, works in direct opposition to any musics designed to be accessible to as many consumers as possible. We're interesting in listening ears and open minds. We're interested in challenging music, critical music, impossible music. We are music-ists, not capitalists. But we do live and work in a capitalist society. It wouldn't be helpful to anyone to pretend that that's not true. So, as we've said, for now, what we're doing works and this is a sustainable model. For now.

Thanks to the Somewhere There collective for their time and thoughtful answers.

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