Concrete Music Night highlighted in Eye Weekly
Concrete Toronto Music
by Sarah Liss
'Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.' That much-cited quote is shorthand for saying that one can't hope to adequately describe one discrete form of creative expression using a different mode of communication.
It's a sentiment that will be challenged by the upcoming Concrete Toronto Music event, an ambitious undertaking jointly organized by the Music Gallery's Jonny 'Dovercourt' Bunce and Torontonian wordsmith and critical thinker Carl Wilson, the man behind Zoilus.com. Part of the city-wide soundaXis festival, a biannual celebration of new music (this year's version explores connections between music, material and texture), Concrete Toronto Music is a fascinating experiment in the form of two special shows that, as the organizers describe it, 'pay tribute to Toronto's concrete legacy, experiment with concrete's mutability and explore these buildings' role in the city's psychogeography.'
The word 'concrete' is literal in this instance; these shows, which will happen one week apart, are located in two unconventional venues that were constructed from the material. The first instalment takes place at the Polish Combatants Hall this Sunday, May 25, and the second gets underway at the Ontario Science Centre a week later (Sunday, June 1).
'The first soundaXis (in '06) was more explicitly about music and architecture, so I was informed by that, but the theme of this year's festival is 'materials,' so Concrete covers both bases,' Bunce playfully explains. He says his collaboration with Wilson had its genesis in the launch of the 2007 Coach House publication Concrete Toronto, edited by Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart. The book is a guide to the city's concrete architecture, a collection of iconic T.O. structures accompanied by essays. As Bunce notes, many of the structures erected during the city's 'building frenzy' between the '50s and '70s used concrete as a primary material.
'Flipping through the book, the stark black-and-white images seemed to pulse with musicality,' he says. 'I wanted to know, 'What do these buildings sound like?' Or, what would they sound like if they could make a sound?'
For the show, the Music Gallery commissioned compositions by artists ranging from singer/songwriters like Tony Dekker (Great Lake Swimmers) to improvisers like CCMC to multimedia artists like Neil 'naw' Wiernik and Greg J. Smith.
'We wanted to encourage the musicians to explore the true meaning of musique concrète, which is to make music using non-traditional musical sounds,' says Bunce. 'You don't have to have studied Pierre Schaeffer at university to do that. That's one of the reasons why we wanted to approach minimal techno and noise artists. There is a sense of 'ugly beauty' to those styles of music, which corresponds to the way a lot of people feel about brutalist architecture. [Those forms of music and architecture] can provoke a visceral, negative response in some people, while others are enraptured. In terms of a real concrète experiment, [noise artist] Knurl will be [using contact mics on] actual concrete and cement! I'm really curious to see how that will go over with the family crowd at the Science Centre!'
Wiernik, whose collaborative work with Smith is committed to 'the recontextualization of urban space,' insists that the music he makes is always grounded in the stories of a landscape. 'Without a building's story, you have a pile of steel beams, cement and other things that make the building functional,' he says. 'It's the story of the building that gives it life. So to me, the sonic properties of a concrete structure go far beyond putting a microphone to the concrete wall and waiting for the sound to come out of it.'
He likens the Smith/Wiernik project, a site-specific audiovisual piece, to 'a movie composed live on a stage and projected in real time to the audience. We're not writing a song to pay homage to a structure in itself. We're creating an immersive period of time that examines a piece of urban space and its story, through sound and image.'
In contrast to Smith/Wiernik's multimedia bonanza, the more traditional approach of an artist like Dekker might seem like an odd fit for the Concrete Toronto Music roster. But Bunce, who's invested in challenging more pop-oriented musicians to try artier experiments, says the Great Lake Swimmers mainman was a natural fit: 'Tony is one of the few Toronto songwriters who really addresses the city's geography in his lyrics.'
For his part, Dekker maintains that geographical and architectural concerns are always at the forefront of his mind when he's approaching a musical project.
'I'm a real believer that the type of space you are playing in affects your performance. I think the places in which we play and record affect how the songs are delivered, and that's ultimately of primary importance to me. I had a chance to check out the Polish Combatants Hall and I have to say, the acoustics are really conducive to my preferences of performance space.'
For his Concrete Toronto Music performance, Dekker says his collaboration with T.O. indie-folk-electronics savant Sandro Perri was liberating, 'creatively speaking, [because we were] offered a theme and asked to expound upon it.
'In this situation I don't have to dig very deep for a theme or underlying truth or meaning. It's more of a celebration or an homage to the various forms of concrete in the city and how we respond and relate to it. From my perspective it's a pretty exciting challenge.'