The Music Gallery, one of the most innovative and challenging music venues in Toronto, is nestled in a deceptively formal, even stately shell: St. George The Martyr Anglican Church on John Street. Despite this straight-laced exterior (that does lead to a few uncommon restrictions, such as the fact that alcohol is confined to the foyer and now allowed in the actual performance space, which usually serves as a place of worship) what happens when the venue transforms into The Music Gallery is mind-blowing and sometimes ear-splitting. That certainly was the case this past weekend, when they partnered up with Weird Canada to produce to fourth instalment in their Pop Avant performance series, which examines the outer limits and stranger possibilities of pop music.
Weird Canada (a website and creative collective anchored in music but devoted to all forms of art that “take risks and experiment”) is at a particularly bright moment in its history that made this collaboration particularly fruitful and exciting. They recently applied for a $50,000 grant (and got it!) to found the Wyrd Distro, a project that will allow the collective to serve as a distribution hub for physical copies of all the weird and wonderful music that is often streamed through their website. Weird Canada often find themselves dealing in ephemera, strange and lovely musical objects of vinyl or tape, from independent artists with no way to get those objects reliably to fans. Wyrd Distro will serve as a reliable source for Weird Music in Canada.
If that were not generous enough, Weird Canada did one more remarkable thing with their successful grant application: as part of what Executive Director Marie Leblanc Flanagan calls their commitment “discuss and develop the open business model,” Weird Canada made their full grant application available online. Founder Aaron Levin stated that the collective realized that “if we published these grants online, that would help other people apply for grants, which will make applying for grants less about having a savvy grant-writer and more about just having good ideas.” Their grant is available for perusal here, and is an extraordinary resource; their ridiculously ambitious list of objectives for 2013 is also inspiring for any arts organization. It is from this place of celebration (and probably exhaustion) that Weird Canada were coming when they curated the Weird Canada Showcase, and it was this energy that defined the night: celebratory and deliciously strange.
The performances began with a set by the Soul Sisters Supreme Redux 2.0, a five-piece all-woman vocal choir. Headed by Isla Craig and featuring Daniela Gesundheit, Tamara Lindeman, Ivy Mairi and Felicity Williams, the group performed a set full of lush, haunting harmonies, accompanied only by the sounds of their own bodies: claps and slaps, hums, snaps and laughter. One of the loveliest moments was their performance of the traditional English folk song “Hares On the Mountain,” inspired by the 1959 Shirley Collins. Bright or smoky, cheeky or serious, it was the connection between the performers, a deep respect and collection that made their voices blend even more beautifully. Speaking about her collaborators, Isla Craig stated that “these ladies, aside form being some of the best singers that I know, are very dear friends, and also busy musicians. They all tour a lot, unlike me, so it’s been a while since we’ve all been in the same room. Singing together is a dream, a very powerful thing!” That power, and intimacy, made this performance exceptional.
The shortest set of the night, a performance by Zachary Fairbrother and his guitar orchestra, was also the most physically gruelling. “Orchestra” is a bit of a misnomer, as Fairbrother performs by himself, but the wall of noise he produces is extraordinary. He called the piece “Buddha Box,” and began the set by playing Beethoven, slowed to a crawling, grimly ominous drone. He then struck a deep, reverberating chord on one guitar, set it to sustain — and leaned the instrument directly against one of his amps, allowing the feedback to become an overwhelming roar. Throughout the set he played with extreme textures of distortion, sometimes shredding black metal-esque riffs over them, other times allowing tones to smash and bleed together. Most members of the audience were forced to jam fingers deeply into their ears; some fled the room when the noise became too painful. I could feel the vibrations through the wooden pew against my back and legs, the bones in my chest and head singing; I seemed acutely aware of how each of my organs was resting in my body. It was a brilliant experiment, and also a sheer mercy when it stopped.
The final set of the night was slated to be a duo performance between Wyrd Visions (the folk-twinged and black-metal-inflused acoustic project of Colin Bergh) and frequent collaborator Jennifer Castle. However, almost immediately the pair were joined on stage by Owen Pallet, whose sinuous, lilting violin served as a counterpoint to their soaring and ghostly voices. Sitting in chairs next to each other, eyes downcast and hands clasped, Castle and Bergh seemed almost as though they were channeling something from another plane, as Pallet stood protectively over them, casting a different spell. For a set that was defined by a quiet subtlety, there was a strange undercurrent of threat as well, or perhaps power; as Bergh noted in an interview, “Magic isn’t always so nice.” At one point Castle played piano to accompany them; later, Bergh picked up a double-necked guitar and kicked off his shoes (revealing bright pink socks) to work the effects pedals by feel. But, for the most part, the set was about their voices weaving into each other, independent being while their bodies sat still, almost as though meditating or, more accurately, astral projecting. Bergh stated that, his goal when composing and performing anything for Wyrd Visions “was to trance out. Like, I don’t like it when people call the music “drone” because I don’t really think that’s the right word to use. I prefer trance.” Looking at Bergh and Castle’s serene, empty faces as they sang and played, it was easy to believe they had placed themselves in such a state.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.