The term experimental music was coined to describe the work of musicians who are pushing at the boundaries of what may be considered music, and who may be as interested in the process as in the outcome. Experimental musicians very often blur the boundaries between composer and performer and between music, art, theatre, dance and film. Some artists dislike the 'scientific' implication of the term and use related terms such as "exploratory" and "creative." We've chosen to stick to the term experimental because it has quite a long history with the music, but also because of its focus on performance. Performance (and the personal histories that performers bring to the stage) is central to the genre and the lines between roles (composer/improviser/performer) and métier (music/theatre/dance) are very often blurred. The performance is a forum for deliberate risk taking, a crucible for an unknown outcome, and thus a rich site for meaning making.
In his influential book Experimental Music, Michael Nyman described the importance of performance: "Experimental music thus engages the performer at many stages before, above, and beyond those at which he [sic] is active in traditional western music. It involves his intelligence, his initiative, his opinions and prejudices, his experience, his taste and his sensibility in a way that no other form of music does, and his contribution to the musical collaboration which the composer initiates is obviously indispensable [. . .]. Experimental music has, for the performer, effected the reverse of Duchamp's revolution in the visual arts. Duchamp once said that 'the point was to forget with my hand…I wanted to put painting once again at the service of my mind.' The head has always been the guiding principle of Western music, and experimental music has successfully taught performers to remember with their hands, to produce and experience sounds physiologically." (13)
Sounds Provocative documented performances featuring a fascinating array of musicians, many with international profiles including Pauline Oliveros, Pamela Z, George Lewis, Hamid Drake, Miya Masaoka, Charlotte Hug, and James Tenney. Key figures in Canadian experimental music profiled include: R. Murray Schafer, John Oswald, Gordon Monahan, Hildegard Westerkamp, David Rokeby, Lori Freedman, François Houle, Tanya Tagaq, Paul Dutton, Ian Birse and Laura Kavanaugh. We interviewed founding members of the distinctive musique actuelle scene in Montreal (Jean Derome, René Lussier, Joane Hétu, Diane Labrosse, and Daniele Roger), and of the influential New Orchestra Workshop in Vancouver (Lisle Ellis, Paul Cram, Paul Plimley and Ron Samworth). Issues in multiculturalism and postcolonialism were explored through interviews with members of Auto Rickshaw, Safa, and the Red Chamber Ensemble. Sounds Provocative also captured the birth of new scenes, featuring younger musicians who easily cross over between avant-garde and popular musical venues and styles, such as the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto (AIMToronto). Performances were documented on audio and video and framed by depth interviews with musicians.
In addition to artists, we also explored audience reception through surveys, focus groups, and depth interviews with fans. Interviewing festival presenters, technical staff and volunteers provided insights into concert production, funding models, festival politics, and culture. Examination of festival archives netted important historical context.
Although far less documented and studied than experimental music in the United States, Japan and Europe, the field of experimental music performance in Canada is extremely vigorous. It includes venerable full season presenters such as the Western Front in Vancouver and Toronto's Music Gallery that have spawned offspring in other regions such as the Upstream Association in Halifax. These seasonal presenters are important to the study because they have provided sustained venues for the development of experimental practices over several decades and hence they reflect the distinct regional differences found in Western Canada, Central Canada, and Eastern Canada.
The nine music festivals chosen represent a diversity of ideologies and musical styles. Canada features "go-to" venues on the international experimental festival circuit such as the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) and the Vancouver International Jazz Festival (a mainstream jazz festival with a thick stream of avant-jazz). It also features quirky festivals such as Electric Eclectics where participants camp on an artist's farm near Georgian Bay. Sound Symposium in St. John's, Newfoundland is distinguished for its emphasis on the sonic environment; for example, through its famous harbor symphonies where new compositions are performed on ships' horns. The Sound Symposium provided the inspiration for the more urban Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, where for the duration of the festival the city core is conceived as a sound installation comprising concerts, art exhibits, guerilla street performances, and sound walks. The month-long Suoni per Il Popolo festival in Montreal was founded by a popular musician (a member of God Speed You Black Emperor). "The Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival is a celebration of Liberation music. Liberation music is inspired by freedom of expression - improvisation - sonic exploration and resonates with progressive social movements." The Guelph Jazz Festival, which also has a strong social agenda inspired by African American organizations such as the AACM and Vision Festival, was the springboard for the development of a new field of inquiry: critical studies in improvisation. Technology oriented festivals such as MUTEK (Montreal) and Send and Receive (Winnipeg) explore cutting edge trends in experimental music performance and digital technology, reaching out to a growing pool of practitioners and listeners whose roots are in popular music. (Many new festivals have sprung up in recent years – Sounds Provocative provides a representative sample of established festivals and seasonal presenters.)
Sounds Provocative belongs to a growing body of critical scholarship on performance that understands music as discourse, illuminating social processes and cultural effects. Because it seeks to expand the boundaries of musical discourse, experimental music is a particularly expressive medium for exploring issues of performativity and identity. By "performativity" we mean to reference that branch of performance studies concerned with theorizing the embodied production of identity. By "identity" we endorse Stuart Hall's non-essentialist understanding whereby "identities are constructed within, not outside, discourse... [and are therefore] produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific enunciative strategies." (1996:4) A focus on the "enunciative strategies" of musical performance highlights the complex of social, cultural, and institutional processes by which music is presented, communicated, and received.
Our methodology takes into account performer histories and artistic intentions, embodied music making on stage (including performer interactions, movement, speech), and musical content (form, style, function). We also consider the material circumstances of the performance: venue, placement in festival program, target audience, price, program and publicity, production and technical support. One strategy is to conduct audience reception studies in order to capture the experiences of concert listeners/viewers. A focus on performance means that we have to take seriously how people listen to experimental music.
Sounds Provocative is inspired by Canadian icon R. Murray Schafer's pioneering work in acoustic ecology. Beginning with the World Soundscape Project in the 1960s, Schafer and his team conducted empirical studies in order to assess the environmental, social, and cultural impacts of sound in specific environments. The hallmarks of their work are meticulous documentation of every aspect of the sonic environment and analysis that is both contextual and critical. Today, acoustic ecologists such as Helmi Järviluoma and John Levack Drever work across a wide spectrum of sound studies to address diverse issues from noise pollution to cultural memory. Extending acoustic ecology's emphasis on empirical study of the sonic environment, we bring their methodologies to the field of performance.
Sounds Provocative articulates a theory of the ecology of musical performance that works out from close readings of specific performances to explore broader issues of Canadian culture and identity. A musical performance may be considered as an eco-system that is deeply dependent on intersecting systems that are both immediate (such as the encounter of musicians and listeners in a particular physical and temporal context) and seemingly remote (such as arts council funding priorities and broadcasting policy at the CBC). Although this theory resonates with other systems approaches to performance such as Christopher Small's musicking and Howard Becker's concept of art worlds, what distinguishes an ecological approach to understanding musical performance is its careful attention to the subtle interplay of myriad elements in a site-specific context. Systematic documentation of performances provides empirical evidence that is complemented by depth interviews, focus groups, and surveys. Secondary research explores festival archives, arts funding, and dissemination networks (most significantly the CBC and Radio Canada—which encompass radio, webcasting and social media—but also including specialized record labels and trade journals). This methodology provides both a broader cultural context for experimental music performance and an understanding of regional, national and international flows of money, people, and music in the field.
Sounds Provocative thus participates in the growing interdisciplinary endeavor called ecomusicology, defined as: "… the study of music, culture, and nature in all the complexities of those terms. Ecomusicology considers musical and sonic issues, both textual and performative, related to ecology and the natural environment" (Allen, The Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2014.)