TOglobalFIN2

Global Ear: Toronto

“Strange lads”, says performer Aimée Dawn Robinson, looking towards the makeshift stage that fills a part of the front room at Tranzac, an Australia and New Zealand social club that is the current center of experimental and improvised music in Toronto, in particular for the ensembles associated with excellent local label Rat-Drifting. On stage are The Reveries: Ryan Driver kneels on the floor with a mike placed in his mouth, strumming a quasi-ruler with a very elastic bass sound; Doug Tielli plays guitar and has a nose flute strapped to his face, through which he makes muffled sounds; Eric Chenaux, also strumming guitar, sings through a harmonica that is shoved up into his face. The group lurch through a set of standards including Jobim’s “Useless Journey” and “The Nearness of You”, filled with beautiful harmonics and stuttering guitar sounds that sound like Derek Bailey and the Hi-Los, bound, gagged and dosed with sedatives, then thrown into the boot of an old Cadillac, from which they continue to play, presumably for their lives. The room is almost empty, as it is for most Rat Drifting shows, and the Bluegrass band in the back room sounds louder through the walls than the guys right in front of us. A Friday night crowd of drunks staggers by the front window, peering through the glass and making faces at what they see. Strange.

Toronto’s experimental music scene has always had a hermit-like status in its hometown. Pianist and radio-work composer Glenn Gould refused to talk to people in person towards the end of his life. CCMC, the collective that has included Michael Snow, John Oswald and many other key Toronto improvisors, were famous for weekly shows to a mostly empty room at their performance space, The Music Gallery. More recent experimenters like Sarah Peebles and Nilan Perrera also remain virtually unknown to the city as a whole. Nobody seems too bothered by this. Rat-Drifting co-founder Martin Arnold compares the scene in Toronto to medieval monasteries which “were fierce places in terms of saving information that had come down to them. There’s still that abbey ideal here that this stuff is going on some place and you can join it if you want but if you don’t, it’s OK, because it’s going to be there anyway. It’s a place where you can remove yourself from given strains of cultural production and consumption.”

Rat-Drifting began when Arnold, an Edmonton-born composer and folk music fiend, traveled up to York University (where James Tenney also taught, and where I do now) to assist former CCMC member and improvisation guru Casey Sokol in a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. During work on the piece, Arnold met a number of Sokol’s younger students, including Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli, who all started playing downtown. Through this network, Arnold also met Eric Chenaux, former bassist of Canadian indie pop band Crash Vegas, as well as playing with his own post rock outfit Phleg Camp, and together, inspired by the efforts of Constellation and Alien8 in Montréal amongst others, they began Rat-Drifting in 2002.

Since that time, Rat-Drifting has gradually evolved into a whole ecosystem of cross-linked ensembles, most of which have produced highly impressive CDs. There’s the Reveries whispery distorted standards on Blasé Kisses, the Draperies’ synth and guitar improv on l’histoire du chapeau, Arnold’s pet project the Marmots’ Scratch Orchestra-like psychedelic jug band on Treacle Wall. And then there’s The Silt, whose two CDs, Red Whistle and Earlier Ways to Wander are full of glorious unlikely rock songs that emerge almost at random out of the conjunction of the three improvisors, Tielli, Driver and Marcus Quin, many of them sounding like Neil Young (another Ontario son) played at 16 r.p.m. Soon to come are the wobbling Beefheart-like big band Saint Dirt Elementary School, The Ryan Driver Quartet, featuring Driver’s gorgeous Chet Baker signaling through the flames vocals, and a remarkable half hour reworking of the traditional “Tam Lin” by Arnold for the Draperies and Toronto new music ensemble Array Music. It all sounds like an imaginary urban folk music – created for a place that has few obvious folk traditions other than native cultures, or the tradition of buying records made in other places.

Chenaux speaks of the label’s enthusiasm for improvising around song. “The song is older than anything. People like songs wholeheartedly here. It’s a great form for fucking with – and jazz standards allow so much.” “Those songs have so many valencies,” agrees Arnold. “They give you all the lushness and kitsch you want, but they have a history of being improvised on in the most serious way, and a lot of material to mess around with harmonically and melodically. The farther it gets from jazz, the more I like it.” Rat Drifting’s most recent success in this song-warping vein is Flocklight by Josh Thorpe, which consists of transcriptions of sections of songs by Tom Waits and The Shaggs, time-stretched so that they’re eight times longer than the originals, which form the basis for a series of remarkable ten minute plus pieces performed by Chenaux, Thorpe and others on a variety of string instruments. The result sounds like country’n’gagaku – very slow spiralling melodies that go round and round.

In describing their music the Rat-Drifters favor words like “slackness”, “laziness”, and “languor”. Chenaux speaks of his love for Cardew, Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars’ amazing 1,2, 1,2,3,4, which he’s performed with the Draperies, a composition in which a group of improvisors all play along with tapes heard through headphones that slowly go out of synch, creating a strange hallucinatory drift between the different performers. Which is sort of how Canada, a place terminally drifting away from itself, feels too.

“If you live in New York or Berlin or London,” says Arnold, “I don’t think you can even imagine the Reveries. Chicago and Louisville have histories of music that’s unbelievably raw and slow, but it’s exemplarily slow. It’s not just slow, it’s “Will Oldham slow.” And I like Will Oldham, but it’s very hard for an American not to be exemplary. So even if they’re doing washed out psychedelic music, it’s got to be the most washed out psychedelic music, and I think you hear them entrepreneurially placing their imagination.”

The Reveries’ sound, built around guitars and distorted vocal sounds, strips away most of the obvious signs of a recognizable song, leaving a hazy harmonic fog that sounds at once nostalgic and psychedelic, a distorted, drugged out, improvised memory. As improvisation, each piece retains a lot of the affective powers of song without retaining the shape or form. Arnold says he’s fascinated by “music that isn’t meant to be listened to – people practicing; lounge jazz at the end of the night when no one’s there; people whistling or humming to themselves; Elizabethan consort music, the stuff that was written for amateurs.” “Hopefully it doesn’t come across as theater,” says Chenaux. “I like the things that happen when you’re concentrating on something else, if you’re gardening or writing and you’re humming or whistling, the way that you make a melody happen when you’re not playing close scrutiny to it.”

Originally published in The Wire, 2006.

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