I’ve been working with Calgary-based dancer/choreographer Davida Monk for the last 11 years. We met in Seattle through fellow choreographer Tonya Lockyer. Since then we’ve collaborated on two large-scale works: “Lyric” (2003; with dancers Alanna Jones and Su-Lin Tseng, developed in residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts), “Dream Pavilion” (2013; with Dancers Helen Husak and Walter Kubanek); and a smaller work: “Desire and the First Law of Motion” (2005; solo commissioned by dancer Alanna Jones).
Working with Davida is amazing. Her spirit, breadth, superlative artistry and vision have made our collaboration an incredibly enriching and elucidating experience and has deeply influenced how I practice and understand my own art. Of the many things that make it such a rewarding experience, is Davida’s perspicuous musical sensibility. Her process requires that the music be developed alongside the dance, which, in turn, creates a highly integrated relationship between the musician and the dancer(s); between sound and motion. Our time together (I typically stay in their lovely home in Cochrane Alberta) is deeply augmented by the time I get to spend with her and her partner, Allan G. Bell, a highly regarded composer, educator and 2014 Juno recipient for his latest work. Allan has provided big ears, critical observation and consistently sagacious advice on all of our work together –always to the benefit of the piece, in addition to being a deft interlocuter on many topics off the clock. This improviser has learned an incredible amount from the erudition of such an accomplished composer. My head is often swimming with ideas and information from an evening with these two! My trips there often incur the added expense of all the books I end up buying on the numerous recommendations with which I return!
So it was with great pleasure that I was able, in 2013, to return the favor and recommend author William T Vollmann to Davida and Allan. I have been reading his books for several years and he figures highly into the hagiography of my all-time favorites. With almost inconceivable bravado and seemingly unending scope, his brilliant prose brings to life whatever might be his topic of the moment: be it his travails documenting the Southeast Asia sex trade; his perspectives on Dmitri Shostakovich during WWII; or his bringing to life the clash between Native North Americans and Europeans at various times. He spins captivating narrative that fulfills both head and heart. I had recommended the “Seven Dreams” series, four of which have been complete. Each book in this series explores a different facet of the slow and ineluctably bloody European incursion into North America.
It was shortly before or during the beginning of our work on “Dream Pavilion” in Spring of 2013 when Davida proposed that she and I do a duet based on a vignette in Vollman’s “The Ice-Shirt,” which recounts the story of the first Europeans, the Norwegians, to encounter North America and it’s people. Naturally I was excited to work with Vollman’s vivid text and have another opportunity to work with Davida. This would be the first time that I worked with Davida as a dancer. It would also be a first for Davida to work as an improviser. All of our work has been almost completely composed, with the exception of certain areas within a rigorous structure where I would have some flexibility for spontaneous interaction with the dancers. Despite having a close working relationship for over a decade, this was going to be new territory for both of us. Davida submitted a proposal to the St. John’s Sound Symposium in Newfoundland. The strengths on which it was based were the fact that we’d be improvising (an important component to the festival’s mandate), and that part of the Ice-Shirt (and certainly the actual history of the Norse, albeit temporary, emigration) occurred in Newfoundland, thus giving it a site-specific relevance. By the time we were working together early in 2014 to re-launch “Dream Pavilion” for presentation at the Ice and Fire Festival in Regina Saskatchewan, Davida had received word that our proposal had been accepted and “Putting on the Ice-Shirt” would be debuted at the Symposium in July 2014.
Newfoundland. What a diaphanous picture the name formed in my mind. I had a vague notion of it’s location, and based on that, an equally vague idea of what it might look like and what the climate might be like. Knowing it is a large island in the Atlantic gave me a slight, admittedly media-driven inkling as to what the people might be like too – rough-and-tumble, swarthy nauticians, making their living at sea, and returning home to a big and desolate rock in cool summers and brutal, wind-driven, punative winters. I imagined kinship between this island and a previous iteration of Seattle and the Northwest, but with a deeper palpable history. Being a fan of history and of geology, I was keen to see this land, learn about it’s past and feel it’s terrestrial carapace under both foot and hand.
During our rehearsals for “Dream Pavilion,” Davida and I set out early one morning to our space generously provided by the University of Calgary. Our goal was to try improvising together. We decided to try this because I learned that Davida and I have very different perspectives on the nature and perhaps even the value of improvisation as an art in-and-of itself. Artists that come from more composition-driven backgrounds can often be hesitant to ascribe the same value to a work that has been spontaneously conjured as one that has received a great deal of thought, trial and revision. Improvisers can, reciprocally, bristle at the notion of applying, not only any structure, but any protocol that is used in the creation of a structure – ostinato, harmonic consonance, and other formal principles, not to mention the sociopolitical ramifications of such practice. And, honestly, both camps have some good reason to be suspect. As an improviser, I have learned much about formal considerations from Allan and his rigorous compositional background. I’ve adopted much of what I’ve learned not only in my own composing but also in the way I improvise. Paradigms that work well in practices based on preconception can work very effectively when applied spontaneously.
In any case – initially, Davida and I seemed to exemplify the ends of this polemic. This was new territory for Davida – Terra Nova – New Land (which, as chance has it, is the Portuguese name from which Newfoundland is derived). I remember when I began work with her it was new territory for me. I’d been improvising for years but now I was being asked to compose for prepared guitar, something I’d never done and really wasn’t sure I wanted to. I remember one of the dancers asking, during the initial development of “Lyric,” “Are you ever gonna play the same thing twice??” Honestly I hadn’t thought of it but I instantly realized that that was what was expected of me. I recall a night of fitful sleep before diving in the next day. Here was Davida making forays into her own Newfoundland. Ultimately, we improvised together once for about 30 minutes before we went back to work on the task at hand. There was little discussion, which is incredibly unusual after any session with Davida, where there are usually many notes. I wasn’t certain that Davida and I shared the same value of improvisation as there were some rather pointed conversations that were certainly laughed off but nonetheless descried very different positions.
Throughout the Spring we were in regular touch regarding logistics and other details regarding our itinerary, travel and accommodations. It was planned that I’d fly to Calgary and rehearse with Davida for three days before heading to St John’s for the duration of the weeklong symposium. Although we would laughingly refer to our prior conversations about improvisation, we never reintroduced the topic, choosing instead to move forward. Davida outlined her plan of action for the work, which to me, sounded like a lot of preplanning and composing and I firmly held my ground that I’d be freely improvising and will not be doing the same thing twice. I even went so far as to wonder why we should even have a subject (Vollmann’s text) at all if we’re improvising.
I flew to Calgary, settled in their lovely home in Cochrane, surrounded by verdant farmland and prairies buckling into foothills that rise into the distant dinosaur spine of the Canadian Rockies; serenaded by birds, cows, horses and the dolorous eventide elegies of coyote packs in the wake of a sun that still lent vestiges of light to a midnight sky. Our rehearsal space was minutes away – the Dartique Lodge – a beautiful old hewn-log dancehall. This was going to be a great place to create work.
We decided to run a couple thirty-minute sessions per day. The first, naturally, was very rough for both of us. We needed to find our own lexicon as well as a shared language. The second that day was better and salient destinations/departures were revealing themselves. On the first day we actually ran a third time for Allan, lighting director Graham Frampton and his partner.
This, as ever, proved invaluable; getting outside eyes and ears on what we had begun more than helped the piece take its ultimate form. It is also then that I realized that my notion of holding true to a completely free format wasn’t what the piece requires. What it did require was some sort of skeletal structure as well as some consistency in sound at certain points. There was plenty of room for improvisation within the structure. Of which we both availed ourselves. But sometimes, a piece needs to be what it is and to force principles upon it can detract from the work. Besides, the entire piece, structure and all, was crafted from improvised sessions as opposed to preconceived direction.
There were numerous serendipities that propelled the work. A large visual component was costume designer Robin Poitras’s suggestion that Davida work with a long sheet of paper. It was about 30 or so feet long; white on one side and blue on the other. This simple suggestion and Davida’s endless creativity fostered what turned out to be the most stunning visual aspect of the piece as it went from laying flat, to taking on the character of ice as it wrinkled and ultimately being swept into a slow frozen whirlwind to become the very mountain itself as it conjoins with Davida to become an inexorable cold augury of Freydis Eriksdotter’s imminent arrival on the new continent (the vignette Davida selected described Freydis, bastard daughter of Erik the Red, and her ascent up the leviathan glacier known as Blauserk [Blue-Shirt] in order to glean power from Amortortak, a Greenland demon who’s touch is death in what was basically a Faustian bargain). Additionally, it provided a fascinating aural aspect to the work as it was scratched at, scrambled over and twisted into manifold distress.
I tried to work outside those applications that, though an improviser, I know so well. Having lately been inclined to break habits with my improvisation, I was anxious to develop some new practices. Thinking of initial imagery of a lone boat approaching a crackling, frozen shore inspired me to take advantage of my badly-in-need-of-oil tuning machines as they creak in tribute to calving ice and shifting boat timbers. So moved I was by the visual of the wrinkled paper, I was drawn to some aluminum foil that was in stock in the Dartique Lodge’s kitchen. It’s own wrinkles mirrored the paper and provided me with new applications and sound, both blowing on the edge of the foil to create baleful howls of wind to the buzzy drones when used with an e-bow. There were also efforts at microcomposition within the framework; such as a little motif I would introduce here and there, attempting to recall the euphonious moan of the Norwegian Hardinger Violin.
Two more days of running the piece twice in its entirety, with no analysis of discrete parts, brought it to it’s final form: A loosely configured structure, the components of which were largely indeterminate, that was created through a completely improvised process – A fantastic happy medium for both the composer and improviser. Freydis was ready to take Newfoundland…
By the time we touched down in St. John’s, it had been downgraded to a tropical depression, but there was something symbolic about the fact that we were to fly in on the caterwauling wings of Hurricane Arthur.
I was billeted separately from Davida and Allan. I stayed with an amazing couple; Susan Shiner and Rick Page. Their son is a drummer in an accomplished punk/bluegrass band called Shred Kelly and even prior to that, they’ve both been long-time music fans. Rick is a contractor and Susan is a counselor. They both seem to have unending energy, graciousness, and an immense alacrity for introducing travelers to St John’s and Newfoundland; providing detailed and compelling histories of both the distant past and their own personal story in a seamless narrative. I felt very fortunate to be staying with them. Despite just returning from a long trip the same night I arrived, we were out Sunday, taking in the sights. It was at Cape Spear, the easternmost point of North America, that I saw humpback whales breaching in the Atlantic, and icebergs the size of small towns on the distant horizon. We walked around Signal Hill, where Guglielmo Marconi successfully received the very first transatlantic wireless signal. Over the headlands into the quiet small bay of Quidi Vidi, and the challenging inlet called the Gut. Back to town for fresh fish and chips and a couple beers before the Symposium’s evening concert. So enchanted I was that I forgot I was here for a festival!
The Avalon Peninsula, which comprises the east coast of Newfoundland boasts the oldest European settlement in North America (Cuper’s Cove – 1610). St John’s was established as a year-round settlement in 1630 but was home to seasonal residents for many years prior. You can feel the spirit of the people that, for the last half millennium and more, have dug their heels into the incredibly shallow soil that blankets this massive rock like a thin toupee. There is still a taste of that truculence in part of the populace that still considers the parliament’s relinquishing their status as an independent nation to join Canada in 1949 (a close vote – 51 to 49) was rigged. Even the multicolored “jellybean” row houses seem to cling inconceivably to precipitous rock faces in obdurate surety in picturesque neighborhoods like the Battery. The colorful houses, I was informed, is a relatively recent phenomenon, as in the last few decades. Prior to that, the houses were white, grey, black or the apparently hemal Toga red. These were the paint colors used on sea vessels and often the houses were adorned with the excess. The main economic driver here for hundreds of years was fishing, until the bottom really fell devastatingly out of the industry in the 1990s. It has only been in recent years and the controversial opportunities that oil harvesting provides, that has fomented substantial recovery in this moderate-sized city of just over 100,000.
But where economies wane, opportunities arise – especially for artists. The town is full of them! Many are CFAs (or Come From Away) but an admirable number are native – a distinction you can only have by being born there. Again there is a kinship with Seattle and perhaps of a Seattle known to people who lived here long before I did. Every other person seems to be an artist or work in capacities that support the arts or they just simply support their community’s art and culture. There is a strong and well-earned pride that the residents of St. Johns carry. The slow decline of fishing made housing startling affordable for all sorts of people looking for something different. I’m always moved by strong cultural identities in less urbanized places. This was a perfect place for a new music festival.
And speaking of… the Sound Symposium reflected this dogged and rich cultural epicenter with incredible fidelity. Started in 1983 by celebrated percussionist Don Wherry, who’s repeatedly noted for championing works by new Canadian composers during his lifetime, and his wife, Cathy Clark-Wherry, the Symposium has continued under her direction since Don’s death in 2001. Her and the entire staff put together a beautiful weeklong event. There were diverse evening concerts in theatres, reverberant atria, churches and halls; running the gamut of new classical, electronic, improvised, rock, musical theater and dance. Many artists, including Davida and I, conducted participatory workshops during the day. There were intimate home concerts, and a nightly session at the Ship, a fantastic rough and tumble music venue downtown near the famed George Street and it’s dusk til dawn nightlife. There, various participants would unwind, drink, socialize and perform together in ad hoc outfits until the wee hours, usually after a host band would play a set starting around 11. And if you were still in rough shape from the prior night at the Ship and in bed at noon, you’d be called from your stumbly slumbers by the daily Harbour Symphony: a musical event performed by three to ten freighters docked in St John’s Harbour based upon graphic scores written by musicians participating in the Symposium at 12:30 sharp every day (more on this later).
So that was what the week was like: Get up, have some breakfast, take in a workshop, a Harbour Symphony from any one of several great locations; take a bus to the arboreal forest and listen to award-wining poets and watch dancers as you soak your feet in spring-fed creeks; Spend a sunny day scrambling on the precipitous rocky coast where the ferric hide, otherwise and elsewhere jagged, is wind-softened into sloping lobes of old magma; have some dinner, hit an evening show and back to the Ship for more sonic and social reveling. It’s these fleeting times when I feel so fortunate to have chosen this path in life and so grateful to have the opportunity to present my work in such places. I was initially unsure about staying for the duration of the festival but I’m so glad I did. I could sense the sadness in those that only planned to stay for a couple days.
We performed “Putting on the Ice-Shirt” on Monday July 7 at the LSPU Theater, downtown St John’s. That day, we did work. Figuring out lighting in the morning (which luckily didn’t require me as I was a little haggard from the night before!), sound check and run in the afternoon. Show started at 7:30 I think. The run during the day was rough as we hadn’t run it for the last couple days due to travel etc. We chalked it up to shaking off the dust: we had to reestablish the connection to the work and each other that we’d so honed the week prior.
The show itself was incredibly well received. We felt all the requisite connection that we could wish for – with the material, each other and the audience. After even the first few hours being there, I knew I wanted to deliver something strong; something that feels like it’s surpassing me. These people wanted it, they certainly deserved it and, most importantly, they were going to know if they didn’t get it. The audience, we were later told, was stunned. The person performing after us apparently was visibly shaken and even had to mention a need for a few extra minutes to regain his composure after our performance. The affable, witty and multitalented emcee, Mack Furlong barged into the dressing room after our set and simply said “Now what the fuck are the rest of us supposed to do?!?” Freydis landed on Newfoundland. People were moved; some were scared. We were ecstatic.
The next day Davida and I conducted our workshop, “Music and Movement for Putting on the Ice-Shirt.” There we discussed our individual and collective approaches in addition to a retrospective of our decade-plus collaboration. I was impressed by the attendees’ thoughtful questions, comments and observations. We then worked together on two short improvisations melding music and movement. Again, the attendees’ participation was inspired and we all had a great time.
With that, our assignment was complete and we’d spend the rest of the time hiking the stunning headlands around Signal Hill, taking in workshops (most notably, Bart Hopkin’s workshop where he demonstrated his inventive home-made instruments complete with detailed explanations of the physical/aural processes involved – in addition to learning about his work, I found that much he discussed was relevant and elucidating to my own approaches to prepared guitar), attending evening concerts and late night ad-hoc session.
The music of the festival was widely varied. As such some performances were less moving than others. Sadly I missed Trifolia, William Parker and Toronto-based guitarist Ken Aldcroft as we flew in that night. I did see Ken do a fantastic short solo at one of the Ship’s Night Music sessions – a great hodgepodge of post-bop with clustering Bailey-esque shoals. Other highlights were pianist Steven Naylor and bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly; a focused set of keenly attuned improvisations from this long-standing duo, Redshift and the MUN (Memorial University of Newfoundland) Wind Ensemble spread throughout the reverberant open atrium of the Rooms, Ourobouros’s rousing set of horn quartet music featuring my old friend and amazing sax player, Jessica Lurie and urban Griot/Kora player Boujou Cissoko in trio with local percussion hero Curtis Andrews and trumpeter Patrick Boyle.
I finally had a chance to play with some other fine musicians at the Night Music series. I played a short duo with Jessica Lurie, with whom I last played in Seattle 12 years ago, a trio with fantastic vocal improviser Chris Tonelli and thoughtful drummer Xander Pierson and a trio with Ouroboros’s adventurous sax player Greg Bruce and a fellow named Rick who’s last name I never caught but played some wonderful electric gizmos.
Another unique facet of the Sound Symposium are the Harbour Symphonies. These are pieces of music in which various artists are invited to notate a graphic score in a preconceived template to be performed by a number of freighters that are docked in St John’s Harbour. Each day at 12:30 during the festival, the harbour and surrounding area were treated (though many locals might not consider it such a treat!) to short pieces of sonorous and, sometimes serendipitous cacophony. With the lovely echo from the bowl around the harbour, even one note from these boats reverberates beautifully so imagine several of them within some intentional rhythmic organization. I say rhythmic organization because one can never predict what the pitches of these behemoth’s horns will be, or even how many will be available on a given day.
I was very excited by the prospect of composing for boats and wrote as six-minute maritime opus for five ships. As luck or it’s opposite number would have it, I lost two boats before my piece was played. The first had to move to accommodate a cruise liner (just another, albeit recondite reason to hate them!), and the second was decommissioned because during the brief sound check, the horn got stuck. Two of the remaining three boats had near identical pitches so between that, the lacunae left by the missing boats and the fact that something went awry with the performance and it clocked in at almost nine minutes instead of the prescribed six, I found my Harbour Symphony to be underwhelming –but incredible fun to be a part of. For those interested, the link below goes right to mine but I’d encourage anyone to check out others at www.soundsymposium.com:
I’d recommend listening to Ken Aldcroft’s. Ken was fortunate to have several boats with quite a euphonious combination of pitches including an almost half-step pitch that added some great tension. I ended up doing an interview for BBC regarding the Harbour Symphonies and rather wished they had settled on someone who’s work was stronger.
I was given the additional opportunity to actually play one of the Harbour Symphonies. After a quick rehearsal where we vocally performed our respective parts, we received security clearance to board our instruments. The crew were not only friendly, but quite enthusiastic about having artists come aboard their vessels and perform them like instruments; a testament to the seemingly unilateral support for the arts that makes St John’s so unique. My partner was a percussionist from MUN named Gabriela. After countdown, she would count off the seconds and I’d lay on the horn at the right spots for the notated duration. Midway through the piece we switched off. I think we played our part admirably although perhaps I rushed the beat here and there – a perennial issue!
Afterward we were treated to a short tour of the ship. It was an older one with a real steering wheel. Apparently the modern leviathans are controlled by laptop and have a steering wheel the size of a doorknob. I can’t imagine how crestfallen one might be to take the helm of such a gargantuan ship and find such a diminutive method of steering! Though not very large, I was glad our boat was older and still had a console that was reminiscent of Star Trek.
On the last day, Rick and Susan (my amazing hosts who were, inexplicably, not sick of me yet) suggested a road trip to Ferryland, a beautiful peninsula adjoining a jetty where an early European settlement was being excavated. Jessica and Susan Evoy joined us and I spent my last afternoon taking in the beautiful coastline; jagged, and ferric under the deep green swale of grass and shattered against the deep blue of the Atlantic and its frothy margin. There, in addition to minke and humpback whales, were vast shoals of puffins from nearby uninhabited islands that serve as an avian preserve. I was starting to miss this place and these people already.
The last event of the festival was the improviser pool at the LSPU Hall. There, many festival participants threw their names in a hat to be called up for brief ad-hoc duos. The five-minute time-frame was strictly enforced by emcee Mack and his gong. Since the pieces were short I didn’t bring a guitar or any other gear, opting instead to ask Bart Hopkin if I could play one of his instruments. I selected his “Branching Carrugahorn. I’ll let him explain it:
“When air rushes through a corrugated tube, it can produce an audible tone. That’s the idea behind the branching corrugahorn. A single mouthpiece leads to an air chamber with several corrugated tubes leading from it. The player blows into the mouthpiece while stopping the tubes by covering the ends with fingertips. Whenever the player lifts a finger to open a tube, that tube will sound. By blowing harder or softer, the player makes the air go faster or slower to bring out different notes in each tube. Each tube can produce several notes, and between three or four of them they produce a complete scale.”
I certainly didn’t have time to develop any facility with it but was fortunate enough to be paired with Michael Waterman and his own bizarre horn made of PVC piping. He sent his horn through some signal processor and I traded off in my feeble attempt to play the Carrugahorn and add some unadorned vocal ululating.
Another serendipitous pairing was my friend Jessica and Davida. Their piece was really great; the two really working together and melding note and notion. I could see in Davida new inspiration and comfort with improvising as she freely extemporized an unrehearsed and exciting vocabulary! I felt there was a circle that closed in this last five minutes of the Sound Symposium.
And then it was off to pack for my 5am flight before I hit the Ship for the closing party. There I said hopefully temporary goodbyes to many of my new friends and got yet another fill of that fine Quidi Vidi Lager. This is a hard-drinking town and it seemed appropriate that the original Greek meaning of the word Symposium (which meant an event in which to imbibe greatly) was honored in the tradition before Socrates turned it into a dry, academic affair.
And that is something remarkable about St John’s and perhaps Newfoundland in general. There seems to be little to no distinction between the echelons of artists and you everyday citizen. The support for art is incredible. Certainly most attendees and support folks don’t listen to avant-garde music as a matter of course. But when it comes to there town, or is generated from within, they, not only show up in support but actively engage and help foster a stronger dialog between artist and citizen. It is rare to find this lovely collusion and when you find it in such a staggeringly beautiful place, you can’t help but be deeply moved.
I can’t thank the organizers, support/tech crew, attendees, other artists, my wonderful hosts and of course my longtime friend and collaborator, Davida. I look forward to more work with her in the future and more opportunities to return to the easternmost edge of the continent.