Putting on the Ice-Shirt – Live at the St. John’s 2014 Sound Symposium

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.

Quiet corners outside Cochrane

Quiet corners outside Cochrane

Allan G Bell with the neighbors.

Allan G Bell with the neighbors.

Late night sunsets scored by coyotes.

Late night sunsets scored by coyotes.

The Dartique Lodge - our Lynchian rehearsal space.

The Dartique Lodge – our Lynchian rehearsal space.

Davida Monk showing off our workspace on day one

Davida Monk showing off our workspace on day one

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!

My amazing hosts; Susan Shiner and Rick Page, whipping up some prandial goodness.

My amazing hosts; Susan Shiner and Rick Page, whipping up some prandial goodness.

The jagged margins of Cape Spear - easternmost point in North America.

The jagged margins of Cape Spear – easternmost point in North America.

The lighthouse at Cape Spear.

The lighthouse at Cape Spear.

Signal Hill - named after Macroni's reception of the first transatlantic wireless signal.

Signal Hill – named after Macroni’s reception of the first transatlantic wireless signal.

diminutive icebergs off the coast.

diminutive icebergs off the coast.

The picturesque Battery from across St John's Harbour.

The picturesque Battery from across St John’s Harbour.

The narrow and hazardous inlet known as the Gut in Quidi Vidi

The narrow and hazardous inlet known as the Gut in Quidi Vidi

Quaint Quidi Vidi.

Quaint Quidi Vidi.

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.

The multicolored homes of Jellybean Row.

The multicolored homes of Jellybean Row.

Approaching the Battery from the eastern headlands.

Approaching the Battery from the eastern headlands.

The Battery.

The Battery.

Another tiny iceberg with lighthouse for scale.

Another tiny iceberg with lighthouse for scale.

The oldest military settlement in North America overlooking the Gut.

The oldest military settlement in North America overlooking the Gut.

The breathtaking headlands - about a twenty-minute walk from downtown.

The breathtaking headlands – about a twenty-minute walk from downtown.

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.

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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.

Steven Naylor and Jeff Reilly.

Steven Naylor and Jeff Reilly.

Boujou Cissoko with Patrick Boyle.

Boujou Cissoko with Patrick Boyle.

Dancers in the Arboreal forest.

Dancers in the Arboreal forest.

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.

Definitely the biggest instrument I've ever played.

Definitely the biggest instrument I’ve ever played.

This is considered small.

This is considered small.

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!

My Harbour Symphony performance partner Gabriela Sanchez and I at the helm.

My Harbour Symphony performance partner Gabriela Sanchez and I at the helm.

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.

Ancient settlement being excavated at Ferryland.

Anciten settlement being excavated at Ferryland.

Susan, the sky and the lighthouse.

Susan, the sky and the lighthouse.

Me and my soon-to-be-missed hosts.

Me and my soon-to-be-missed hosts.

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.

Playing Bart Hopkin's Carrugahorn with Michael Waterman in the ad hoc improv pool.

Playing Bart Hopkin’s Carrugahorn with Michael Waterman in the ad hoc improv pool.

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.

Davida improvising with Jessica Lurie.

Davida improvising with Jessica Lurie.

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.

Surveying the deep blue with Susan Elvoy, Rick Page and Jessica Lurie.

Surveying the deep blue with Susan Elvoy, Rick Page and Jessica Lurie.

Bill Horist / Jakob Riis – “The Cessation Elegy” now available!

Bill Horist / Jakob Riis
The Cessation Elegy CD/download
CEcover
Is now available thanks to our friends at the UK’s Lava Thief Records! The hand screened CD with artwork by Tiflin is a limited run and many have been pre-ordered so if you’re interested, don’t wait to long! Listen and order the CD here:

http://lavathief.bandcamp.com/album/the-cessation-elegy-2

If the CDs run out, worry not! There is an endless supply of the digital iteration. Listen and purchase here:

https://itunes.apple.com/album/the-cessation-elegy/id847621394

The Cessation Elegy is the culmination of a Northwest tour that Bill and Jakob did a few years back where Bill played electric and acoustic guitars and Jakob processed and transmogrified the guitar signal into beautiful, fractured digital abstraction.

“This is an extraordinary piece of work, a wordless communion in caustic colours and sterling guitar playing… where divisions between each become deliciously blurred and unfold beyond the sum of their parts. A synergy of open thresholds that make for plenty of replays.” – Freq

“An occasionally unsettling mix of wordless, solo acoustic guitar melded with dense, industrial hum and mysterious Bladerunner acoustics…” – Collective Zine

“Warm guitar works alternate with manipulated tone works, and the result is a diverse album that plays to the strength of each… the beauty has been in the danger. ” – A Closer Listen

Rulon Brown Band at the Nicaragua International Jazz Festival

Back in late December, I got a call out of the blue from saxophonist Rulon Brown. He invited me to join his new quartet, featuring himself on sax and flute, Paul Rucker on cello and electric bass and Jeff Busch on drums and assorted percussion. This exciting prospect was made all the more so by the fact that we’d be debuting at the sixth annual Nicaragua International Jazz Festival.

I love touring and I love traveling, especially to places outside developed nations. Given what I do though, I hadn’t ever considered playing music in developing nations because it is, typically, difficult to find a scene that’s interested in music that is as “out there” as I tend to get. Now, granted, I would be playing standard guitar for this project and not my prepared guitar chaos, but I was still cautious.
I was also cautious because I don’t play jazz! I wanted to make this absolutely clear to Rulon. He knew this and, as happens to me from time to time, this is exactly why he asked me – to bring in a different element. I have been invited into similar situations to do what I like to call “f..k up the jazz”. I am very grateful that Rulon had the confidence in me that I seemed to have trouble finding. He was clear that he wanted this band to be what this band will be. If that wasn’t amazing enough, when we would encounter difficulties with my knowledge and abilities, he accepted them totally. This enabled us to build on what we did have in common to create some really fun jazz/rock hybrid music (note my refusal to use the other f word – fusion). I can still hear Rulon inculcating “we’re not a jazz band!!”

In any case, I set about learning as much as I could in the two months I had before the tour. I must say, I learned a lot! At least enough to be passable in the areas where I had little experience. After a rigorous rehearsal schedule, we were ready to take it south, warts and all. We were equipped with a bunch of Rulon’s music from his album “Restless” and a bunch of standards. This tour was set up through the US State Department and they had requested that we have some standards ready to go.
I say warts because I really feel that I was the wart! Rulon, Jeff and Paul all have an amazing amount of knowledge and experience working in this world. I’ve worked with Paul for years in a number of his amazing projects so he knows where I’m at. I was new to Jeff and Rulon but they are both so open that my lack of knowledge never became a factor. This was hugely important in helping me feel, not only comfortable, but actually confident in what I was bringing to the table.

So off we went. Our schedule consisted of three shows and three workshop/master classes. We were met at the airport by festival Organizers, Ramai Das, Prabhupada, Angeles and Lissette Gonzalez (who would be our constant companion, handler, pathmaker, culinary guru and dear friend). Her tales of living in the jungle with AK-47 in hand fighting during the Sandanista uprising are absolutely riveting!

We had no obligations the first day there so we spent the night in beautiful Granada. It’s a lovely place with rich colonial architecture and flanked by volcanos and lipid azure lagoons. Lissette’s brother Alberto, a local ecologist, volunteered to take us around so most of us clambered into the payload of his pickup and we were treated to an insider view of the natural wonder around Granada. Despite language difficulties (except for Jeff and Rulon who had respectively good grasps of Spanish), we became fast friends. That night we took in some of the International Poetry Festival that was happening. Unlike just about every other country I know of, Nicaragua lauds poetry as one of the highest art forms and it attracts audiences the size of which rival sports in other nations.

The next day we headed back to Managua for our first workshop. This is when we met our other handler, Alison Griffith, who, with Lissette, would become our dear friend and travel companion. How lucky our band was to have the most beautiful roadies in the country! This is also when we met our fearless driver Ivan, our friend who would faithfully usher us to wherever we needed to be.

'Bongo' Busch with Alberto and our lovely handlers Lissette Gonzales and Alison Griffith

‘Bongo’ Busch with Alberto and our lovely handlers Lissette Gonzales and Alison Griffith

Thus began a whirlwind of activity over the course of three short days. In our workshops, we met the most amazingly talented and enthusiastic musicians and fans. It was so amazing to work with these guys and learn from them in addition to offering some inspiration and possibility in a country that has suffered more than it’s share of misery, war and related inequities. Yes, I said guys. I am sad to report that of the dozens of musicians that came to the workshops, only two or three women came and as far as I understood, none were musicians. I hope to return to Nicaragua some day and work with some female artists – we know you’re out there somewhere!!
Master class in Diriamba

Master class in Diriamba

Workshop in Leone

Workshop in Leone

Bill gets a little education

Bill gets a little education

In addition to the workshops, we had a very tight media schedule, with numerous appearances and interviews on television and in print. And between all that, a band’s gotta eat. Oh, and eat we did!! I’m an armchair gourmand and love to find as many exotic local specialties that I can. I had done a little research prior and had a decent list. Lissette was our guru here. I say “vaho” she says, “I know the town that has the best, we will go!” Not the best restaurant, but the best TOWN!! What Nicas can do with pork is simply amazing. The culinary aspects of this trip could be a book in itself! Everything I had was simply delicious except for one thing, a national staple –Sopa de Mondongo. Known in English as cow stomach soup. This soup takes 24 hours to prepare and the diner is treated to a rich broth filled with whitish slabs of stomach. Not being too “organ oriented”, I found this one difficult. In defense though, Lissette observed that the Mondongo we had wasn’t that great. Will that inveigle me to try it again? – probably.
photoshoot for La Prenza newspaper

photoshoot for La Prenza newspaper

hamming at the photoshoot

hamming at the photoshoot

TV appearance on the station that the band boycotted later

TV appearance on the station that the band boycotted later

And then there were the gigs themselves, each different and with it’s own set of complications and rewards. Touring is tough enough in developed nations. In less developed places, it’s all the moreso. Whether it is having none of the gear you requested, or gear that kind of worked sometime, outside gigs on windy dusty roads and no way to keep your sheet music from sailing away, national theaters that don’t have any tools when you need a wrench, bitter stage crews being unfairly forced to work for free and fallings out between entire countries because of underhanded dealings by a corrupt government and their controlled media outlets. The last gig we did was plagued with international intrigue that ended with the US Ambassador to Nicaragua refusing to appear and us boycotting our appearance on the government run national TV station. Another band had a story about being forced to eat food locals wouldn’t even touch while the hostess gorged on haute cuisine in front of them, only to abscond with all the money put up for the visiting band when they turned around.
Live in Leone

Live in Leone

It is hugely important that I make a distinction here between the government of Nicaragua and the people. The above woes had absolutely nothing to do with the absolutely amazing, kind and beautiful people that came to workshops, shows and that we met along the way. The only connection is that these people live, stifled by a government that promised liberation and has only brought the same dirty politics, corruption and control. It was only in private that people felt even remotely comfortable expressing discontent without fear of reprisal.

All in all, I think we played well and even though the older crowd politely dug it, despite it being not traditional jazz, the younger people loved it. It was hard not to be moved on so many levels by their ability to find joy despite duress and enthusiasm in the face of what we, as Americans, would consider diminished options. I like to feel we may have given some of Nicaragua’s up and coming musicians and artists a notion of coloring outside the lines. I would be proud if there were people in Nicaragua who were as transformed by us as we were by them.

After our return we hit Gravelvoice Studio in Seattle and cut four tracks with engineer Scott Colburn. The beginning of what will, hopefully become a release in the future. Additionally, a film crew documented gigs, workshops and related mayhem so hopefully there will be some video soon too! In the meantime, here is a video (albeit poor quality) that someone posted after our last gig at the Loma de Tiscapa Historical Park. The first part is “Nicaragua, Nicaraguita”, the countries unofficial national anthem. We were encouraged to learn it at the last minute and man, are we glad we did! From there it rolls into one of Rulon’s fiery compositions. Here it is, warts and all:

Big kudos to Rulon for handling the difficulties of a band in an unusual set of circumstances with all the pitfalls (and more). I truly developed an admiration for this guy as I got to know him through this experience. I’ll end here with an excerpt of something I posted on facebook when I got back (which Lissette so kindly translated into Spanish for me)

I want to thank everyone we met along the way: Lissette Gonzalez (our high-heeled hero) and Alison Griffith (a picture of grace, humor and tact) for being the best tour managers, coordinators and handlers a band could ask for; Ivan our fearless driver (who was awarded “safest driver of the year” at the US Embassy awards during our stay -Congratulations Ivan!); Alberto Gonzales for his time, knowledge and generosity; The NIJF crew – Prabhupada Plazaola, Angeles Rosales and especially founder Ramai Das for devoting his life to bringing the music to the people and the people to the music under the most difficult circumstances. Additional thanks to Audrey Huon-Dumentat, and Thomas Hamm at the US Embassy and of course Madame Ambassador Phyllis Powers and Deputy Chief of Mission Charles Barclay.

And the biggest thanks of all to the beautiful people of Nicaragua – everyone that came out to shows, workshops; who played with us and everyone we met along the way. You have shaped a new place in my heart for Nicaragua. And of course, thanks to Rulon, Paul, and Jeff for rolling with the myriad punches a rugged tour threw our way with consideration, humility, a pro attitude and a lot of humor!

Stranger in a Staged Land: Bill Horist on “America’s Got Talent”?!?!?

One avant-garde guitarist’s experience with network reality TV

It was back in October 2012 that I received a phone call from a man introducing himself as a producer for the NBC hit program “America’s Got Talent” (aka AGT). I had heard of this and others of the reality/talent ilk. Though I’ve never seen any of these programs, even to this day, I am aware that similar shows are the well from which corporate music enterprises find their next money-makers. These have become incredibly popular with mainstream America and AGT boasts a viewership of between 9 and 16 million. The format is simple – The producers conduct auditions in several major cities and anyone can audition. If you are selected, you do another audition that is recorded for TV with a live audience. This round is judged by an auspicious panel of celebrity judges, that vary with each season. If you’re selected by these judges, whose celebrity presumably gives them keen insight as to what is valuable, you will move on to a final round. The winner of the program receives a grand prize of an estimable one million dollars.

This producer had contacted me by referral, had viewed my prepared guitar work on youtube, and encouraged me to audition for the Seattle round in November. Initially, I needed convincing that this wasn’t some sort of joke. Why on earth would they be interested in me? Which posed the next supposition. I am familiar enough with these programs to know that there are often contestants used for comic relief or the like. Like most people to whom I’ve told this story and to my family and friends that witnessed the subsequent audition, I figured that would be my role should I pursue this inconceivable folly. This was always something in the back of my mind. I was assured by the producer that this was not the case. He explained that what sets AGT apart from the rest of the reality bilge is that it showcases, new, unusual and innovative entertainment, and it is now about being the best singer, hottest model or most marketable entity. He truly sounded enthusiastic about my work and even had some thoughtful insights. Though remaining cognizant of the possibility of a set-up, I let myself be convinced enough to take the audition. I cautiously sipped the Kool-aid.

I assumed that all the people they find for these shows would queue up for hours of their own volition for a chance to audition for a set of producers. It was explained that this is only partially true. There are others who are sought out in advance by producers and set up with an audition by appointment. In any case, I was somehow convinced that this guy was genuinely interested in my work. Despite how it all ended up, I still think it is possible that his interest was sincere. I also point out the above distinction to save a little face here. I would have never considered auditioning on my own. I still wouldn’t. But somehow an invitation by a seemingly sincere producer was different.

It feels important to talk about why I said yes. I checked out of mainstream entertainment and society back in 1983 as an incipient punk. My interests have long been in the fringe or underground or whatever it is called. I’m an artist and I like things that are different, recondite. Not to say that I was completely opposed to some of what mainstream media has to offer. I’ve always been of the mind that 95% of anything sucks and 5% is great, regardless of the source or agenda. I listen and like some mainstream music, movies and the occasional TV show. Even though most of my interest and practice is in a more arcane place, I’ve never had a long-term sense of acrimony toward the mainstream world. I don’t hate it, the people that create and market it, or the people that consume it on the sole merit of a passive acceptance of a truly diminished worldview. I know a lot of “normal” people that love this stuff. I don’t consider the mainstream audience to be some thrall of blind herd animals, insensately digesting anything for which they need make no effort to consume. I strayed from my Episcopal upbringing because, among other things, I was turned off by a pervasive sense of intolerance. The last thing I wanted to do was disavow a faith and then adopt the very intolerance toward it’s practitioners that I so disliked. As an artist and as a person, I live in a rarified world whose foundation is not rancor toward consensus reality, but just a different option.

Further, as a performer of avant, experimental, improvised music, I have always been interested in reaching out to a larger audience. What artist isn’t? I enjoy presenting my work to the uninitiated and find a genuine enthusiasm that is sometimes lacking in the response of the informed. Throughout years of touring, I have steered toward performing for people who never listen to experimental music and are surprised by how truly moved they are by it, despite their preconceptions. Maybe they don’t want to go home and listen to it regularly but just knowing I might have flipped a little gestalt switch in the mind of a septigenarian housewife from Phoenix, is rewarding. It doesn’t happen all the time and I have family and friends that think what I do is just noise. And that’s OK, I still like them and don’t diminish their values.

It was in that spirit that I accepted the invitation. I certainly didn’t consider ever winning the million, but I figured, if I made it to air somehow, no matter what, millions of US citizens would see/hear 90 glorious seconds of prepared guitar abstraction. That’s right, 90 seconds. Herein laid my biggest challenge.

Of those of you that are familiar with my prepared guitar act (I’ll call it act here on out – sounds so Hollywood!), you know my sets usually last forty minutes and involve slow smears of weird sounds, one into the other. I listen to and play a lot of music among which a piece that clocks in under ten minutes is short. I figured I wouldn’t have time to do anything close to a full set but 90 seconds?? But this was the part where I would get some practical experience, regardless of how the audition turned out. I took it as a challenge. Can I say something with this language in a minute and a half? This possibility could be valuable in a number of circumstances that are relevant to me. Whether it’s soliciting a label, gig or applying for a grant, the ability to capture a listener’s attention within that amount of time would be worth the exercise.
There were other logistics to consider. Pedals, backline etc. My setup time was a minute. So in addition to the severely limited performance time, I needed a stripped down rig and some practice setting up.

I set to work. I compressed what I do into a sonic nugget that complied with the time constraint. Insert knife, loop, bounce guitar on lap to get the hemostats yawing, loop, add fretted bass line, loop, play short melody with e-bow and glass slide and end with a fat, distorted chord – Horist out! The nice thing about a short piece is that I can run it twenty times in an hour!

It felt good. To my mind it wasn’t super outside and had rhythmic and harmonic elements that 21st century Americans wouldn’t find too challenging. I’ve always liked to include elements of accessibility into my work. This wasn’t a compromise.

I went to the audition in early November. They were being held at the Convention Center downtown Seattle. As I had an appointment, my audition was separate but I did get a taste of the hundreds of people who turned out for a chance to showcase their talents. There were musicians, comics, jugglers, dancers, a variety of circus acts and tons of young people from 8 to 18. My audition seemed to go ok except for a technical snafu that was remedied quickly. Afterward, the judge, said I should look up more and smile – “remember, this is national TV and you want to present yourself as an entertainer.” Which was true. I am an entertainer. I’ve had this conversation with many performers who see that word with disdain, due to it’s connotations. I consider my art to be entertainment. Just because I don’t contrive it to fit a commercially digestible model, or that I seek a deeper reaction in my audience, doesn’t negate it’s entertainment value. He had some other advice about making more of an impact in a short amount of time and I found it valuable. He asked if I could stay a little longer to do another audition for the executive producers and I said yes.

I waited for three hours before my next audition, which was recorded. The second one went better and I was asked if I could stay longer, do an interview and get recorded hanging out in the holding area with other contestants. Again I said yes. All told, my short audition turned into a sprawling 7 hour period of mostly waiting.

I really developed a sympathy for people’s whose professional lives are characterized by these types of auditions – actors, dancers, classical musicians etc. The auditions I’ve typically done involve going to someone’s practice space and playing some music. This other method is really hard. I found myself in lines and holding rooms with other hopefuls, getting butterflies that wax and wane as the hours sluggishly pass by. Kudos to all of you for which formal auditions are a way of life!

The fact that I was asked to do more than I had planned on gave me some inkling that I was, at least for the moment, in the running for the next stage. I was told that they would let me know in January. I went home. But not without an inkling that this might actually happen. I availed myself of more kool-aid.

January came and went without a word. I figured it was over. In the first week of February, I wrote the producer who initially contact me and thanked him for seeking me out. He responded quickly to say that I had, in fact, been selected for the live taping. From there I had a bunch of paperwork to fill out and I was assigned my very own producer.

There would be several tapings in select US cities – New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago and others. In order to ensure my participation, I needed to be available for as many of those that I could. Then they would place me in one, I would fly to that city, courtesy of NBC, and do my thing. As I already had a busy schedule with tours and other out-of-town obligations, I was only available for two of the tapings. From February to April I went back and forth with my producer, who said he’d tell me if this will pan out and where I would be going. My choices were LA and Chicago. I vied heavily for Chicago as the bulk of my family is there as are my dear friends Eric and Lena.

By the first week of April I got the call. Turns out they weren’t going to be able to place me after all. My limited availability has cut me out of the running. So I moved on and began work on things that were being held back to accommodate this strange opportunity.

Then I got another call from my producer. It was a Friday and he called to announce that they were able to place me, after all, in the Chicago show and would I be able to fly out the following Wednesday. I said yes. I hurriedly rearranged other commitments and began work anew on my micro-opus. As this was hometown for me I had my return flight delayed for a few days. Might as well take advantage of my free trip to visit family and friends. As luck would have it, my father, who lives in Florida, was going to be there the same week. Horist reunion – brought to you by NBC!

I flew into Chicago Wednesday evening and checked into my hotel. This was one of those bland low-rent convention hotels that is perfectly at home in the cultural void that surrounds most airports like a vapid donut. Want some culture? Try the nearby Outback Steak House. The hotel was jam-packed with tween girls. They were running though lobbies, in and out of various rooms like a Beatles movie and checking their mobiles while crouched in the corners of every hall. Felt like a girls’ prep school. This, apparently, was my competition. I do a lot of touring solo but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lonely, out of place, and an a little emasculated somehow. Where does one in such straits go to quell his tribulations? The ill-attended hotel bar, of course! It didn’t help.

The next morning I was up early to make my 8am soundcheck at the Rosemont Theater. It was mobbed with a similar crowd as the initial audition. This was a different level though – stresses, crew-inspired obnoxiousness with a threat level of orange and road weary parents trying to corral innumerable children were at a premium. I set my gear up on a riser so it would be ready to go that evening.

As I did my soundcheck, I noticed many among the production crew stop what they were doing to watch me. When I was though I even got a smattering of applause, which I found reassuring. Afterward, several of the crew were keen to talk with me about what I was doing and many were well-informed about exerimental/avant music. One fellow said “that was really cool man but, honestly, I don’t think the judges are gonna dig it – maybe Howie but not the rest.”

Which brings me to another item I forgot to mention. Who are the celebrity judges for this, the eighth season of AGT? There are four judges, culled from various fields of popular entertainment: Howie Mandell (an eighties comic who made a name for himself by putting a rubber glove over his head and inflating it with his nose – this afforded him a character on Reagan era soap opera “Saint Elsewhere”, the rest is game show host history), Mell B (who? Yeah I had to google her – she was a vocalist in the corporately construed revenue juggernaut the Spice Girls and is apparently the mother of Eddie Murphy’s child – remember this information is important), Heidie Klum (seemingly the world’s preeminent super model and host of “Project Runway” another of the reality shows – as a buddy observed, “dude, she’s not just a model, she’s a SUPER model!” [I can hear the cartoon voice over now “Meanwhile… In the Fortress of Vanity… the super models convene…”]) and Howard Stern (pioneering syndicated shock jock and all around bad boy – Despite his looks, I have confirmed that he was NOT a member of the Ramones).

I spent the rest of the day chatting with other contestants: the hard rock tango group, the bus driver who sings opera, the air guitarist from Cleveland, the circus duo from which the woman was showing everyone photos of her vagina because she’d had her pubic hair done up into a respectable handlebar mustache (not for the show) and the like. I also did an interview and some B-roll (incidental shots that accompany various voice over’s). I was surprised and dismayed when, during the interview, I learned that I couldn’t answer the questions in any way that the interviewer doesn’t suggest. He literally guided me into such a limited responses that I pretty much just repeated what he said He would ask “why are you auditioning for AGT?”. I would respond that I was contacted by a producer – He’d stop me there. “That wont work, say something like ‘I want to audition because I wanna show America what I’ve got!” Despite some thoughtful answers and a keen interest to promote the idea of experimental music, each response was whittled down to the tripe similar to above and re-shot. I found myself thinking in advance of how embarrassing this interview will be should it make the air. If that wasn’t ludicrous enough, they had me doing all sorts of things for the camera. “Bill, go look in that mirror, preen yourself and think about how nervous you are.” But I’m not nervous and I don’t preen so I hammed it up wherever possible. I found myself souring over these auxillary components to my audition. In retrospect, I sort of wished I simply refused to answer and preen as they had me do. What the hell, I have a constitution that enables me to roll with being looked upon as a buffoon.

The show started. A sold-out theater of 4,000, my family and friends among them. Afterward, they told me about how an MC gets the crowd to cheer, jeer or boo on command. These are being taped so they can be inserted as reactions to any given act, regardless of the actual reaction (remember, this is reality TV). It took my family and friends about 30 seconds of being there for them to firmly believe I was set up from the get-go. They refused to do any of the requested cheering and jeering. My sister, pointed out that, with my luck, they’ll use the b-roll of my family booing and jeering for when I’m performing.

Around this time, the executive producer for the show addressed the hopefuls in holding. He explained how lucky we were and then talked about how the show works. This was a lifesaver for me as I have never seen the show, had no idea what would/could happen during my audition, and would’ve been completely lost when it went down. Basically it’s just a gong show. I perform, and if a judge doesn’t like (s)he depresses a plunger, a loud buzzing occurs and a big red “X” is illuminated in various places. I should continue to perform though all this unless all four judges press their little red buttons. After which I await their sagacious judgement.

I waited backstage for my turn. When it was time, I approached the wing on stage right. There I met a camera operator and a gentleman in a stunning purple suit. He asked me my name. I told him and I asked his. He looked slightly taken aback and said his name was Nick. My celebrity knowledge has failed me again. This guy is Nick Cannon. Apparently, he is the husband of Mariah Carey and maybe he’s an actor too? I am continually surprised by how many people know who he is, even several practitioners of the underground arts. Anyhow, he seemed nice enough and we complimented each other’s suits. After the niceties, he sent me out to the lions.

I walked out on stage to an enthusiastic crowd response. I confidently strutted to my mark, waving the whole time like, I don’t know, maybe Nick Cannon or something. Howie Mandel asks me to introduce myself and we have a short conversation. He asked what I’d be doing and I said that I play guitar “in unspeakable ways” or something dumb like that. With that I take my place on the riser and begin.

Within the first five seconds, I hear my first buzz. This was followed in short order by two more and after a short pause, the final one. I was pretty close to being done with my 90 seconds of glory so I elected to finish anyway, which I did.

I recall the crowd reaction to be pretty positive but can’t be sure. I returned to my mark and immediately commented on the cool sounds the judges added to my piece and that we were like a quintet for a second there. This elicited no reaction as I recall. Howie said “you play guitar in unspeakable ways… now prepared to be judged in SPEAKABLE ways!” The following is as best as I can recall it. Only viewing it will bear out the accuracy of my recollection. I know it’s close though:

Howie was first: “You are doing something different with guitar- you’re RUINING it!”

I recall the crowd having my back a bit on this one and Howie got some jeers.

Next up, Mell B, who looked me dead-on and said “You are annoying and your music is annoying!” I recall muttering under my breath “oh, coming from a Spice Girl” but I’m not sure if it was audible, or if I had, indeed, only thought it.

It was Heidie Klum’s turn next. She said “It seems like you just made all this up today.” By this time I was feeling a little snarky, as I’m apt to get when confronted in this manner. I said to her, “Has anyone ever told you that you’d make a great hand model?” I certainly meant it in jest but the judges and the crowd where aghast that I’d be so bold to “insult” a supermodel. This was where I lost the crowd. 3,992 audience members started booing me with great exuberance. Howie and Howard said something about my audacity. I have to say something here. I’m comfortable doing something that I know most people won’t dig. But getting actively booed by thousands of people, some of whom are peppering their wailing with “YOU SUCK” and the like? It was kind of hard. But, truth be told, it was also really cool.

Once order had been reestablished in the theater, it was Howard Stern’s turn. He asked me my age. I replied that I was 41. He said “no, really.” I said, “Really.” Then he fumbles out some comment to the effect that my dad should put me in counseling. Perhaps his eyesight isn’t so good and he thought I was a teenager but in any case, it didn’t make much sense and of all the judges, I was anticipating that Mr Stern would be the one with the quick wit.

I can’t really recall leaving the stage, whether the crowd was cheering, booing or if any of the judges had any departing words. Once back in the wing, Nick asked how it went. “I thought it went really well!!” There was a flash of surprise and confusion on his face and I think he said “Really??” Then he suggested I address the judges via the camera that was in my face. I peered into its limpid mystery and told Heidie I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings and I have tremendous respect for the judges yada, yada (this is reality TV remember? I think I’m getting the hang of it!).

When I was finally off camera and was breaking down my gear, I was approached by several angry crew members. Not angry with me, but rather with the judges. They were genuinely upset that a) the judges didn’t like what I did, b) they were meanspirited about it and c) that no one got that the comment directed toward Ms Klum was a good natured joke. I was surprised by this but appreciated their support. One crewmember offered me this consolation:

“Well, you’ll most likely make the TV show.”

“Why is that?”

“Because you insulted a supermodel. Not only will you make the show, but you’ll probably be in all the promos as well.”

With that I quietly exited via the loading dock, met my family and friends and left.
There was consensus among my family that I was set up from the beginning. I believe it is possible but I also believe that the judges just didn’t get it. 90 seconds is an incredibly short time in which to absorb what I’m doing and how I use objects to create strange unguitar-like sounds. When one is doing such strange and unfamiliar things to an instrument, it takes a few minutes for the uninitiated to connect the dots between what is seen and heard. Additionally, if an audience member is far enough away from performer that s/he can’t see what is happening, the effect is further diminished.

This concluded my experiment. Was it a failure? Definitely not. The only way an experiment can be a failure is if it isn’t completed. Do I believe I can effectively win someone over with my language in 90 seconds? I do not. It seems that I have built in attributes of my music that will prevent effective conveyance in short periods of time for large audiences. Unless I have ready access to a jumbotron!

As to whether America is “ready” for more abstract music, it’s hard to say. After all, it was only the judges that hated it. The bulk of the audience was seemingly receptive. It was only when things got heated did the audience turn. How America might respond to it will only be seen if my audition makes the air. It is just as likely that celebrity judges are as out of touch with mainstream America as those who live/work in it’s fringes.

I also don’t feel personally diminished by these people. They are doing their job. These shows are about the celebrities elevating, diminishing and generally riffing on what is presented to them. Us contestants are merely fodder for their wit and myopic expertise. Having done this at all, I feel equal measures of boldness, stupidity and naivete. But these are assessments that often creep into what I do. It is important for me to take chances, risk the threat of folly and push whatever envelopes I can. As such it was just another weird gig.

As of this moment, the verdict is still out as to whether my audition will make the air. I was promised a call by my producer to let me know when it will, if I don’t hit the cutting room floor. But you know Hollywood: once you’re washed up, the calls just don’t come in! The season just premiered on June 4 and is aired every Tuesday at 8pm.

M-Body Dance presents: Dream Pavilion at DSW in Calgary, Alberta

It was a ten-year reunion for Davida and myself. In 2002, Davida invited me to be composer-in-residence at the superlative Banff Centre, nestled within the awe-inspiring granite domes of the Canadian Rockies. There, I developed a solo guitar score for her production, “Lyric”. Some of you may be familiar with my record “Lyric/Suite” – this was the music for that production. The album was released by Accretions and can still be purchased online via iTunes, CD baby and the like. Here’s a link to a promotional video made for that production:

Working with her, dancers Alanna Jones and Su-Lin Tseng, and a fantastic crew was enriching in so many ways. Davida exhibits vision, playfulness and extensive knowledge that is not encumbered by academic antecedents. She also wants music that is developed along with the work and not as a source or an afterthought. This makes for a high level of integration between sound and movement, and the diaphanous realm where the two are one. For these and many other reasons, I received Davida’s invitation from late 2012 to rekindle our collaboration with a new work – “Dream Pavilion.”

“Dream Pavilion” is inspired by the Japanese art of Netsuke (pronounced netskay). Netsuke are diminutive, elaborately carved statues of humans, animals, dieties, monsters and other errata of the Japanese phantom world. It was Davida’s vision to take these and transform their incredible detail and static expression into movement.

Dancers in variant of 'Netsuke' postures with choreographer Davida Monk

Dancers in variant of ‘Netsuke’ postures with choreographer Davida Monk

I flew to Calgary in late March for an intense two weeks of development, rehearsal and a short run of performances. In the spirit of the work, and without wanting to get too specifically Japanese, I expanded my palette of guitar, objects and pedals to include, shakers, bells and Đàn nguyệt. The latter is a Vietnamese instrument that looks like kind of like a banjo, has two to three nylon stings (fishing line) and raised frets that allow the player to squeeze the string to change pitch or for expressive adornment:

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_Vietnamese_musical_instruments)

I purchased it in Hanoi from a second-generation luthier named Mr Dum (pronounced Zoom – how cool is that?). I was very excited to use it and this was going to be its debut.

The last project we did had a period of development that lasted a month and we were able to avail ourselves of the amazing artistic and technical resources that the Banff Centre offers. This time, we had two weeks and I stayed with Davida and her partner, the very accomplished and increasingly recognized composer Allan Gordon Bell. Spending time with him was amazing as he taught me much about music in general and was crucial in helping me develop and refine my score, as he had been when we did “Lyric”. I can’t say enough about how wonderful it was to stay with such a warm, open and dauntingly intelligent couple! The time was shorter, resources scarcer but I wouldn’t trade my time there for any fancy arts facility!

Even better was that they live an hour outside Calgary, in Botrell, among the prairies east of the Rockies. Beautiful rolling pasteurland, dappled by sporadic copses and rich with birdsong, the lowing and baying of cows and sheep and the eventide sonatas of the coyote packs, furtively howling in the recesses and coulies of the landscape. And in the west, the nexus of scrub and sky sheared by the ragged spine of the Rockies, spreading north and south beyond the eye’s domain. This place was magic.

For this project, I was working with two dancers who were new to me, and I to them. Helen Husak and Walter Kubanek each are amazing dancers; rippling with power, grace, control and fluidity. As people, they are an absolute delight, not only to work with, but to be with. My one regret is that we didn’t have enough time to just hang out and enjoy each other’s company. That will have to wait until next time.

Dancers Walter Kubanek and Helen Husak

Dancers Walter Kubanek and Helen Husak

It’s always different working with dancers. There is often much to discuss, analyze, and refine. The inclusion of input from people outside the production is immensely helpful and I always learn much about process. There is a lot that I take away from these experiences to include in my own process. Also, because of the physical demands placed on dancers, rehearsal is vastly different. Unlike musicians, especially like myself, who is literally just sitting there, dancers just can’t run something again and again. This means we have to be all the more focused with runs because we’re only going to be able to run it once, maybe twice a day.

It also takes time to, not only learn the language of dance, but to even see it at all. So aware of their bodies and movements, dancers can perceive incredible distinction in two movements that would look identical to me. This, and past work has drastically increased my sensitivity and the resolution with which I view dance, and much more. Again these things feed all aspects of my work and my life.

These types of performances make me nervous. So much to be aware of and to initiate accurately. I would get butterflies before each performance. Will I play my parts well? Will I miss cues? Will my pedals crap out on me mid show? What do I do then? The arc from reward of a good run to the fear of being able to, not only repeat, but improve upon it, is actually pretty unpleasant for me. But I feel so lucky to work in a manner where I can still feel that after twenty years of performing.

In the end, all four shows were good at the very least and truly great at best. We were all so on it somehow. OK so weird stuff like a fret on the dan nguyet flew off, a pedal misfired and I might have missed a cue here and there, but the recovery was fast and nothing truly missed a beat. As ever working in Calgary with Davida and the artists with whom she works is so enriching on professional and personal levels.

I must admit that I had a very prideful moment when I met one of Allan and Davida’s friend, John Roberts, and his wife Christine. John was director of the CBC during it’s heyday. There he championed new music by Canadian composers and brought these oft overlooked artists some deserved recognition. This fellow was friends with Stravinsky! I understand the he brought Stravinsky to North America (or Canada) for the first time. He was also very close to Glenn Gould during his CBC tenure. When he expressed enthusiasm for the music I was so moved I was almost speechless. It really meant a lot to me to get that kind of feedback so someone that ran with the man that changed the world of music and ushered in the 20th century. In most cases, people say these types of things are humbling but if I were to be honest, it might have had the opposite effect!

This trip also afforded me the opportunity to explore Calgary’s small but dedicated improv scene. I did a radio show on CJSW FM with Paula Feyerman and a couple gigs. The first was with percussionist Robin Tufts for his and Pat Tuft’s series, Music for Soup. The shows happen in the Tufts home and the audience is charged with bringing monetary donations as well as an ingredient to add to a roiling soup stock that is provided by Pat and Robin. What a great idea and experience it was! The second gig was at Weeds Café (hehe) for part of the Bug Incision series, curated by percussionist Chris Dadge. He seems to be the mover and shaker in the improv scene there and is doing great work bringing improvisers to Calgary and fostering an incipient but dedicated scene within. There I played solo and in trio with Chris and another percussionist, Eric Hamelin. More on the community’s work at:

http://bugincision.com

My time spent with our neighbors to the north was truly enriching and I’m so grateful to my collaborators and the people who came out to support the work. In June I will be recording the score to “Dream Pavilion” at Gravelvoice in Seattle with the inimitable Scott Colburn. Hopefully this will see a release in the near future as “Lyric/Suite” did a decade ago. As I write, Davida is seeking the funding to tour this project next year. Keep an eye out for further developments…

Learn more about “Dream Pavilion” and Davida Monk’s other work at:

http://m-body.ca/dream-pavilion.html