Thursday, September 22, 2011

Festival: Wavelength Studio Sessions #1

ELEVEN! Festival (Wavelength 515 – Studio Session #1) (feat. Not The Wind, Not The Flag / Woodhands)

The Tranzac (Tiki Room). Saturday, February 19, 2011.

An adjunct to the Wavelength Festival's nightly shows, the first Studio Session took musicians and audience alike out of the clubs to sit down and get inside the creative process.1 Taking place in the cozy Tiki Room at The Tranzac, this session (hosted by Wavelength's Ryan McLaren) had a small-ish turnout that actually felt like a boon, lessening the separation with the performers and making the whole thing feel like a really cool time just hanging out with a pair of duos who create rather different kinds of music.

The first half was given over to Brandon Valdivia and Colin Fisher of Not The Wind, Not The Flag, who treated their segment as they do their music — loosely structured and open to improvisation. They started by giving a sort of statement of purpose for the band: inspired by explorers like Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell, playing musics from all parts of the world filtered through their own experiences ("growing up, I played in a hardcore band," Fisher commented) in order to try and find the folk music of the place where they live.

To make things more concrete, they then played a short version of their current mbira-based set, starting with Valdivia on thumb piano and Fisher on drums, spending several minutes playing off each other. In a particularly sweet transition, with Valdivia adding a reverse loop effect on the mbira as he moved over to the drum kit, Fisher took his spot and picked up his guitar, introducing it by using the same reverse pedal before amping up into a guitar and drums duo. They played about thirteen minutes — a sentence instead of a paragraph by their standards, but sufficient for everyone to hold in their heads for reference in the enjoyable question-and-answer session.

In a wonderful flowering of the format's potential dynamic, perhaps the most curious interlocutors were the members of Woodhands. Vocalist/keyboardist Dan Werb, whose music generally works with a "time-signature-centric" 44 beat, asked about the theoretical underpinnings of "free" percussion — how does it work without a steady beat? Valdivia talked about finding the music's flowing, undulating pulse and rhythms within it, while Fisher compared it to microtonality (the notes that are between the notes in our do-reh- me scale), in that we are "trained" to hear tones in a rigourously-constructed system (whole notes, half-notes, quarters and no on) but there are beats in between.

That led to a discussion on how the band's practice relied on their substantial technical vocabulary — perhaps the crux for any improviser who is aiming for something more than noise. "I don't think what we do is academic," said Fisher, and both talked about playing with feeling without explicitly referencing all the theory underlying it.

There was a lot of other fascinating stuff — Woodhands' Paul Banwatt was curious about what it means to make a "mistake" in NTW's sort of music, where hitting the right note is less of a zero-sum game than in more regimented styles. "In our band, we actually make a lot of mistakes," Dan Werb would later comment later in reaction to this musing; Valdivia and Fisher concurred the biggest "mistake" they can make is not listening and reacting to each other. On the whole, the thoughtful answers came with the same generosity of spirit and positivity that the pair put into their music.

Listen to an extract from the musical portion of the duo's segment here.

After that, while NTW,NTF took their gear down and Paul Banwatt set up his drums, Dan Werb sat at the piano and played to himself as people in the room chatted. Woodhands' segment took the concept in a different direction, leading the audience on a more-structured guided tour through their creative process. They explained that while some of their songs emerge from jamming, quite often the base material comes from Werb's piano playing — taking "ambient, contemplative music" like he'd been warming up with and using that as the basis for something else.

Werb then played a rolling solo piano version of the melodic kernel of "Dissembler", then sped that up, revealing something suddenly recognizable as a Woodhands song. Banwatt talked about his role both as creative foil and in adding his drum parts (here, they developed from his having written a drum machine part for the song first).

They also led the crowd through the evolutionary stages of "Victory Nap", which had received its live debut the night before. Even though it was such a new song, it had changed so much from the original concept that it was a struggle for Werb to go all the way back to the waltz-y 68 ballad he had started with. Showing a few intermediary changes, they showed how the song had transformed into a four-on-the-floor rocker powered by Banwatt's pounding drums — and ending with a full "unplugged" version of the song. Rather fascinating!

That was followed by a Q & A facilitated by Ryan McLaren, with more commentary on process before talking about the band's origins: Werb playing alone on an MS-10 in Montréal in an effort to create "solo" music not reliant on unpredictable bandmates, and going through some different incarnations before meeting Banwatt after moving to Toronto2 and ending up as a duo.

As the band talked about developing the concept of Woodhands, it was intriguing to reflect on the sheer amount of thinking put into so many of the elements that just look natural on stage — it's a rock'n'roll myth that every gesture and every note comes from some burst of spontaneous creativity, when in fact personas are crafted just like songs are meticulously assembled to give that "in the moment" feeling.

The band also talked changing their approach for an in-the-works EP — "more side to side than up and down," Werb commented on the new stuff, hoping to take advantage of Banwatt's skills to layer more drums on recordings. When the floor was opened for further questions, the band was asked about their relationship to music outside of what they play (Werb, obsessed with lyrics, is totally devoted to Bill Callaghan and Vic Chesnutt), but it was musings on "dance music" that were most interesting. Werb talked about the band's self-imposed technological constraints: looper and drum machine yes, pre-recorded midi no. And when asked about the possibility of going further with the tools of "orthodox" dance music, Werb commented, "I don't know how to do that... I'm on a computer all day anyway, I don't want to go on a computer when we're playing music."

Added Banwatt, "everybody at a live show likes to see things go wrong, and we offer that at every show," bringing around full circle the earlier commentary on mistakes.

Listen to a snippet of the band sketching out a song's development here.

This was an excellent concept, and a superb addition to the festival. Hopefully there will be more like this to come — there's so many musicians that I would love to hear talking about their craft like this, and it's always a treat to have shows that fall outside the narrow parameter of the usual late-night bar gigs.

1 There was also, on the following afternoon, another new presentation with the "Speaker Series", featuring authors Liz Worth and Stuart Berman talking about the history of T.O.'s music scene and their documentation of it. That was the only WL515 activity I couldn't make it out for.

2 The pair actually met at the Henry Faberge & The Adorables CD release show at Palais Royale at the end of summer '06. Banwatt was there as part of a then-unheralded band named Rural Alberta Advantage who were playing near the bottom of the bill. That show also featured sets from Gentleman Reg, Laura Barrett and The Bicycles. Looking back at gigs like that I can see why I came to be interested in documenting the shows I went to — I'd love to have some recordings from that day.

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