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CEElectric Spring
Performances of New Electronic Music at the Music Gallery

By Richard di Santo
27 May 2002

23–25 May, 2002 marked a three day survey of new electronic music presented by The Music Gallery, a Toronto based organization committed to presenting adventurous new music events. The central figure of the event was clearly the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (CEE), which, being formed in 1972, has the honour of being the world’s longest running live electronic group. It’s current members are a strong group of composers, programmers and instrumentalists: Rose Bolton, Michael Dobinson, David Jaeger, Larry Lake, Jim Montgomery and Paul Stillwell.

Throughout the three days, the CEE, with the assistance of co-organizer Jeremy Mimnagh, invited eleven artists and groups to visit the performance space at the small yet charming St. George the Martyr church in downtown Toronto, presenting their compositions, improvisations and installations. After each evening, I sat down to write short descriptions and general impressions of each of the performances. These are my notes.


Day One: Introductions

The evening opened with an interesting piece titled “Sunday Ice Cream Sunday” by percussionist Rick Sacks. He performed on a variety of percussions, from small bells and objects to large gongs and hand drums. The live percussions were sequenced with prerecorded sounds and audio textures, which were in turn choreographed with a video showing a series of scenes that began and ended with the colour red. A very compelling piece, made even more enjoyable by the light, charismatic personality of the performer.

Following Sacks was a new piece by soundscape composer Darren Copeland performed by five members of the CEE. It was conceived for the software tool Soundplant, developed by Marcel Blum from Staten Island, New York. The tool assigns different sounds for each letter of the alphabet, and the sounds assigned to each letter were of objects beginning with that letter (a: ambulance, antelope, etc.; b: bell, bird, etc.). The performer can then play, layer and stop the sounds as he or she sees fit. Each player was limited to performing the letters that form his or her name, which provided an interesting constraint on the freedoms of the performers and structure for the piece as a whole.

The third piece, by CEE member Paul Stillwell, was based on a fractal composition. Two images of fractals were used as the basis of the composition. Stillwell wanted to preserve the human element in the piece, which was performed by all six core members of the ensemble. It was an interesting piece, full of complex electronic sounds, a little cluttered at times, and in the end, the concept eluded me somewhat: the correlation between the fractal images and the sounds we heard was unclear at best.

Other works included a new composition by Larry lake, an ambient piece in a traditional vein of synth textures and field recordings, complete with the pleasant yet obligatory chirpings of birds. The final piece was a new collective composition by the CEE. A little dense and cluttered at times, but there were some intriguing moments throughout.

Day one certainly introduced a number of different ideas and techniques to approaching composition and electronic performance, and I left feeling optimistic about the performances still to come.

Day Two: New Works and Repetitions

To my disappointment, the second evening opened with an encore performance of Rick Sacks’ “Sunday Ice Cream Sunday.” Not that I didn’t enjoy experiencing it a second time (it’s a wonderful piece), but for a three day event, I thought repetitions stifle the diversity which I would have thought this sort of event calls for.

It was followed by a performance by John Kameel Farah, a composer who has been experimenting with merging jazz, improv, techno and Middle Eastern music into new forms of music. He performed on piano and two other keyboard synths, the live performance being sequenced with a set of prerecorded sounds on his laptop, mostly beats, loops and noises. When the piece began I was quite intrigued; Farah’s performance on piano was delicate and lithe, the sequenced electronic sounds provided an interesting foil to the more organic sounds of piano and keyboard. But some minutes into the piece, which turned out to be considerably long, I lost interest. Beats came to the fore, the noises rose, the piano became more intense, and then things subsided, only for the same formula to be repeated, repeated with a different set of electro beats and rhythms, different keys... yet the concept was the same all along. And so I felt the piece was too long for the number of ideas it sought to explore, and it seemed that a shorter, more economical and concise structure would have benefited these ideas more.

The evening continued with an interesting collaboration between John Farah and percussionist Rick Sacks, a shorter collective work by the CEE, and a new composition by CEE member Rose Bolton. Her piece was the star of the evening, presenting a stark, atmospheric and structured arrangement for the entire ensemble. Dark sounds, long drones, dissonant harmonies played a large part in creating a chilling mood in so short a time. An excellent work.

The evening finished up with an improvisation by the ensemble with Farah and Sacks as guests, which may not have worked out as well as it might have given a little more planning. Improvisations are tricky beasts: they can either succeed in ways one could never have imagined possible, or they can get lost from the moment they hit go. My feeling with this performance is that the players were not all “on the same page.” Some players were leaders, some were followers, and still others were in a completely solitary zone all their own, and the piece suffered for it, with only a few interesting meeting places and sonic couplings that piqued my interest.

Perhaps a little more disappointing than expected, the second evening still provided an interesting set of new works that probably had more potential then what we were able to witness.


Day Three: Enter Microsound

What would a presentation of new electronic music be without the presence of glitch?

Prior to the final evening’s performance, a free set of afternoon concerts by Winnipeg artists Blunderspublik, duul_drv and vitaminsforyou breathed unexpected life into the four church walls with beats, glitches and bizarre IDM-styled electronic textures.

The third and final evening began with an audiovisual installation by Paul Shrimpton, with video images by Jason MacFarlane, djrm, outpost 42 and 640 x 480. He used field recordings and fed them through a real-time synthesis tool on his laptop. The sounds made for a soothing digital ambience that moved in slow, deep waves.

One of the finest performances of the event was a collaboration between Tasman Richardson (aka theblameshifter) and Andrew Wedman (one half of tinkertoy with Pail Shrimpton). While Tasman manipulated percussion sounds from a Korg ER1, Andrew worked on a collection of modified or homemade records (made of metal, filed, scratched, etc.) which were then fed through the Audio Mulch software tool for processing. The two players fed off of each other’s sounds with great ease, the sounds of one emulating the other, creating a consistent and unified piece. They followed this with a crazy piece of DOS coded sine tones, somewhat reminiscent of past projects by Hayes Harz (who it seems has since disappeared from the scene entirely).

Sound artist Neil Wiernik followed with a set of recycled and processed sounds using a custom made patch for Max/MSP software. With ambitions to create a sort of neo musique concret, the piece featured some intriguing “mulching” and texturing effects, but was long and unfocused, without much of an underlying structure to provide the piece with any coherence.

This was followed by two strong sets that finished off the three day event in admirable form. The first was by one of the event’s co-organizers Jeremy Mimnagh, aka Utility, who presented a long set of microsound, glitches, ambience and grooves. This was followed by a set of more upbeat laptop music by _marsh, aka Steve Gordon Marsh.


Considering the Whole

Looking back at the performances over the past three days, I must admire the group for presenting such a diverse range of talents, styles, ideas and approaches to making electronic, improvised, electroacoustic or otherwise experimental music. CEEelectric Spring proved to be an impressive showcase of emerging and established talents, and even though there were some pitfalls and a few performances that fell short of my expectations, there were still many more that were truly impressive. Let’s hope that this becomes a new annual tradition for the city of Toronto, where the experimental electronic music scene is just beginning to really flourish. Events like this are certainly a step in the right direction. So perhaps we’ll rendez vous at CEElectric Spring 2003?