The Ritual Resounding

Hubbub: Daniel Barrow, Ken Gregory, Chris Marten
June 15 and 16, 2000

a response to the exhibition by Randal McIlroy

“What kind of world would be sympathetic to the music we feel must be made?” That question was posed by Eddie Prevost, a percussionist, composer, theorist and for more than three decade an anchor figure in AMM, and English ensemble devoted to the exploration of music in the moment. While Prevost’s provocative question relates more specifically to a different ethic, it resonated during a recent two evenings of sound performance at aceartinc.

Hubbub is the third installment of a sound series under the aegis of co-curators Tom Elliott and Michael Dumontier. No effort was advertised to establish common ground between teams of Daniel Barrow/Jeff Cressman, Chris Marten/Greg Lowe and Ken Gregory, nor is there any reason that was needed. What persisted, however, and what charmed considerably, was a sensitivity to sound and, more importantly, what sound can do. In a society where we are shaped by mentholating mood music on one side, the trigger-happy cues and codes of movie soundtracks on the other, this is valuable.

Sleight-of-hand is something we like in art. From Surrealism through the cinema, then through multi-track recording and the precision of computer editing, we have learned to distrust the straightforward, but we have also come to disdain that which happens as a real-time event. Movies with their visual effects draw better than the bare dialogue of theatre. The opportunity to hear a marquee-sized pop band that doesn’t take the stage with much of the music pre-loaded through sequencers and samplers is shrinking.

There is considerable sophistication informing Daniel Barrow’s Looking for Love in the Hall of Mirrors, a “graphic performance” with a soundtrack by Jeff Cressman, but the mode of presentation is sleight-of-hand of a most different kind. Barrow uses an overhead projector, and drawings as transparencies which he manipulates live while reading. There’s nothing flash about it; there’s no way to hide the hands that move the slides, and no chance of muting the bracing crudeness of images sliding in or out of that brutal white rectangle.

The artwork itself is far more elaborate, both in the whimsical Victoriana of the drawings and in the cunning mesh of transparencies by which the initially simple becomes more complex and richer, but the humble presentation is fitting. Barrow’s character is an elderly man who has moved to Winnipeg to pursue art and love. In letters home to his parents — who must be quite an age, but no matter — he is earnest, vulnerable, romantic and rather quaint. Recalling his first visits to the Legislature Building grounds to sketch and seek, he honors “a genuine atmosphere of fraternity” and even refers, deadpan, to “canvassing the park,” yet there is no sense of archness. A projector and slides are advanced technology compared to pencils and fountain pens, but the form is touching and quaint in Barrow’s hands.

The overlays are another matter. The presentation attains new depth, literally, as Barrow carefully combines transparencies. Befitting a man who questions his own identity (“My features swim around like goldfish”), the character’s face becomes a template, growing older with one wave of the hand.

Jeff Cressman’s electronic score is tenchant. Many of the melodic ideas are steeped in a vague old-fashioned prettiness, with a sense of Victorian music boxes rarely far away, echoing the wistful moments of Barrow’s story. The percolating pattern of sequencers is equally apt. Through careful manipulation of echo and occasional distortion, Cressman generates his own subtle Greek chorus from the circuitry; the music is always there, not to fill the space — a malaise of modern pop, and better saved for another essay — but as a watchful presence. Patterns swell suddenly or distort in time to the narrator’s change in mood. Kraftwerk achieved the same effect in 1977 with a song called, yes, The Hall of Mirrors, but the reference does not distract.

Ken Gregory is a hybrid of musician and inventor, devoted to creating new sound sources. That’s a fascinating tradition, acknowledging the Italian Futurists such as Luigi (The Art of Noise) Russolo, Harry Partch’s creation of microtonal instruments, those who manipulated magnetic tape and those who reimagined actual tape recorders. More than anything, the two performances of Acceleration + Position = Dream: Divination by Oscillation set the human performer as the vital center amidst the technology.

This is not a romantic consideration. The greatest liability in much of the earlier electronic music (that is, the kind produced before portable — and polyphonic — synthesizers) was the lack of human activity in real time. Steve Reich’s Violin Phase, for example, is rich listening, but not much to watch unless you find the prospect of reeling tape loops compelling.

Gregory, with a background in rock music and other savage amusements, puts the sweat and muscle back into it. His instrument in this work is The Sphere, the metal bulb on a chain. Pressure-sensitive software within is hooked to a computer/digital sampler configuration that translates motion into sound.

Technical problems delayed the second performance — the exultant chord of the Macintosh Powerbook booting was a repertoire of considerate physical patterns for The Sphere, sometimes walking it in slow circles like a yo-yo, gradually whirling it over his head like a bola or, it seemed, a mace.

It isn’t all visual. Gregory invests much in his library of sounds, and these two performances invoked a range of whirling pipes, organs, Indian and Arabic woodwinds, stray geese, slow frogs and much more, all mutated carefully.

Composer/percussionist Chris Marten’s Gee Bwadun Tibuking — Where’s the One? is informed by Aboriginal dream theories, and concludes with a reading of Sterling A. Brown’s anti-racist poem Slim in Atlanta, rewritten slightly to become a bittersweet account of “the breeds” in Kenora. These two performances, with guitarist Greg Lowe joining presently on a Les Paul channeled through all manner of effects, also took Hubbub into the dangerous arena of real-time improvisation — he sort of thing that begins in jazz, although all too rarely now in this city.

The most adventurous drummers sem to have an inner sense for ceremony. Think of drummer Han Bennink’s adventures around every side and surface of his kit, Famoudou Don Moye’s “little instruments” with Art Ensemble of Chicago, or Jamie Muir’s use of percussion for colour and accent rather than time-keeping. Coming from that same tradition, Marten opened these events with ceremonial concentration. There were deep gongs at first, then the first detail of chimes. Rapid patterns on xylophone and its African antecedent, the balafon, preceded a timbral switch to electronic pads. Lowe joined as Marten moved to the drum kit, and the mood changed.

Ace Art provided listeners with earplugs just in case, which was a smart move. There was ample detail for thoses who braved the thunder, from Marten’s cunning density of strokes on well-tuned drums to Lowe’s calligraphic commentary of rhythm strokes, squalls and flurries, yet what was catharsis in one moment often become oppressive the next when volume was all. The second performance was worrisome that way; Marten’s fabulous stamina almost oulasted my own. Still, that in itself is rare enough these days for celebration.

Winnipeg writer Randal McIlroy has held forth at length about new music in a variety of publications, including Coda Magazine, Border Crossings and The Globe and Mail. In matters of critical judgement, he prefers to let his cat, Claude Monet, pick out the good bits.

The performance event HUBBUB is the third of Ace’s three-part audio series which also includes the audio cassette exhibition and lending library a relatively small collection (24 cassette works by artists from across Canada, curated by Michael Dumoniter and Tom Elliott and presented from January – July, 1999) and Stairwell Projects #1 – 4 (four audio installation works presented between Winter 1999/2000 – Winter 2000/2001). The audio series is intended to encourage different ways of understanding how one might encounter and relate to audio works with regard to space, time and interaction between people.