The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada
The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada

Barnyard Drama

CHRISTINE DUNCAN, voice; JEAN MARTIN, turntables and percussion;
JUSTIN HAYNES and BERNARD FALAISE, electric guitars, samplers, objects.

Music Gallery, St. George the Martyr Church, September 23, 2006
X-Avant Festival, Toronto

Barnyard Drama is singer Christine Duncan and drummer/turntablist and producer Jean Martin. I’ve been following this duo since 2004, and have particularly enjoyed their performances with electric guitarists Justin Haynes and Bernard Falaise. The entirely improvisational performance archived here took place at one of the first “X-Avant Festivals” held by the Music Gallery, a venerable Toronto institution that has been presenting experimental music since 1976. See Below is an article on Barnyard Drama that I wrote for Musicworks magazine in 2007. Founded over 30 years ago, Musicworks is Canada’s most important venue for the dissemination of information about experimental music. See


Barnyard Drama’s chansons de métissage1

By Ellen Waterman

This is a story about border-dissolving aesthetics and the simple pleasure of singing a good song. The protagonists, Toronto-based singer Christine Duncan and drummer/turntablist Jean Martin are Barnyard Drama. The duo is often extended these days by the addition of guitarists Bernard Falaise and Justin Haynes; in 2006 the quartet released a CD I’m a Navvy. (Duncan and Martin also released Memories and a List of Things to Do in 2003). Ron Gaskin describes them (unforgettably) as having been “spawned from the same gene pool as Sophia Loren meets Leadbelly in the dark, covered with Corn Husker’s hand lotion.” In their own words, Barnyard Drama create “jazz, fairy tales, musique actuelle, songs, nursery rhymes, electro-avant-garde-new-acoustic-tuvan-primpram-ambient-music” that is “sweet and creepy.”

I’m attracted to Barnyard Drama’s twisted nostalgia, their serious playfulness, and their apparently endless inventiveness in performance. This profile of the group is part of my ongoing project comparing experimental music performance at eleven festivals across Canada. (See also my interview with Lori Freedman in MW 94.) In order to analyse the complex ecology of musical performance, I’m exploring the relationships among personal narratives, musical materials, and social context. This article is based on several interviews with Barnyard Drama, first with Duncan and Martin at the St. John’s Sound Symposium in 2004, and again in 2006, along with Falaise and Haynes, after their performance at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville Québec (FIMAV). Here I provide an introduction to Barnyard Drama—a weaving together of four narratives under the themes of métissage, nostalgia, and creative improvisation—illustrated by a discussion of songs from both I’m a Navvy and Memories and a List of Things to Do. (See for these and other releases.)

Barnyard Drama began quite by accident. Longtime friends Martin and Haynes had a gig booked at the famous Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Québec. At the last minute Haynes was unable to play, so Martin volunteered his partner Christine Duncan. It was the first time the two had ever improvised together and they discovered a rare musical chemistry. On the strength of that experience (and unbeknownst to Duncan) Martin submitted a proposal to the first Toronto Fringe Jazz Festival in 2002. Duncan says the name came from a sarcastic little comment she tossed off one day about “some kind of barnyard drama that was happening at this place we were living.” What began as a joke turned into a sustained creative collaboration that has been substantially enhanced by the addition of the highly compatible Falaise and Haynes. Despite their devotion to avant-polystyle musicking, it turns out that the driving force behind Barnyard Drama is a shared love of song. Since Barnyard Drama is equal parts Francophone and Anglophone, and since I’m writing this article during the 2007 edition of FIMAV, I feel compelled to express it in French. Barnyard Drama creates postmodern folk songs: call them chansons de métissage.


It’s no surprise that Barnyard Drama has a relationship with the famous Ambiance Magnetique label, since their music perfectly fits at least one good definition of the elusive “musique actuelle.” In an interview with Frédérique Arroyas, Joane Hétu proposes three principle criteria for musique actuelle (which is not a musical genre, so much as a musical philosophy): 1. it’s music where the composer is also the performer; 2. it’s music that is based in improvisation; and 3. it’s a music of métissage. She further defines this latter term: “By métissage we mean that several different things are amalgamated, that is to say acoustic instruments with electronic instruments, jazz idioms mixed with bruitisme, invented instruments with….There must be an intention to mix elements. For us this is the definition of musique actuelle.”

(“Nous entendons par métissage quand plusieurs choses différentes sont amalgamées, c’est-à-dire des instruments acoustiques avec des instruments électroniques, des idiomes jazz mélangés à du bruitisme, des instruments inventés avec…Il faut qu’il y ait une proposition de métissage. Pour nous, c’est ça la définition de la musique actuelle.”)

Barnyard Drama’s approach to métissage is best mapped through exploring their personal narratives and musical histories. Christine Duncan was formed by her experience growing up in Vancouver in a religious and musical family (her father is a Pentecostal minister, and her mother taught voice and piano) that performed at religious conventions across Canada and the U.S.A. From the age of five, she began performing in public, singing harmonies with her sister in front of large audiences, eventually touring with her own Christian rock band. Although she did have some formal vocal training, Duncan describes her “pattern of learning as on-the-job training,” for example in informal mentorships with experienced jazz musicians like Bob Murphy and Hugh Fraser. Fraser continues to write for Duncan’s voice, which seems fitting since his jazz orchestra workshop first allowed her room to play with non-sung, non-tonal vocalizing. This in turn led to further explorations in a free improvisational environment, marked by collaborations with pianist Paul Plimley, and vocalist DB Boyko. (Along with Martin, Duncan and Boyko form Idiolalla who’s eponymous CD was released by Ambiance Magnetiques in 2006.) Duncan teaches voice in the jazz programs at both Humber College and the University of Toronto. She is also in demand as an interpreter of contemporary compositions, appearing in Peter Hannan’s controversial 2002 opera 120 Songs for the Marquis de Sade.

Duncan is known for her five-octave range (from lowest growl to highest squeak), and her impressive command of a huge range of extended vocal techniques. She seems to have learned them primarily through a process of mockingbird mimicry and personal discovery. “I remember discovering whistle tones when I was twenty or so…and I used to go around my parents’ house squeaking…making all these high whistle tone noises all the time. My father just could not bear it!” World music provided the pattern for guttural overtone techniques such as Tuvan and Inuit throat singing (“very different from one another”). Through immersion in Tai Chi and Qi Gong she developed a system of defining the specific support, expansion and relaxation of the musculature throughout the torso “which has really helped me with my own intimacy with my instrument, my internal spaces, resonance, texture, timbral qualities – all the potential sound making that I have in my instrument.”

Barnyard Drama allows Duncan to explore the full range of her techniques and influences. With convincing naturalness, she flows from soaring bel canto licks to glossalalia, from hybrid rap/sermonizing to Cole Porter. The performative quality of her work is framed by her intense physical presence and costuming: Pippi Longstocking with a Peter Pan collar, or granny’s Fortrel housedress with a Phentex bed jacket and gogo boots. “I take my internal space and I just flip it to the outside, in a way…. I’m very attracted to the fool, the clown, the trickster – to all these elements of mythology. There’s this whole double-sided thing of lightness and beauty and humour and incredible strength that are all wrapped up together.”

Jean Martin is widely regarded as one of Canada’s best jazz drummers (he won the Freddy Stone Award in 2004) actively recording and touring with his own projects—Chelsea Bridge, the Jean Martin Trio (with Haynes and Kevin Turcotte), La Connor (with François Houle and Jesse Zubot), the Bitches Brew Band—and a diverse range of collaborations including DD Jackson, David Murray, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Self-taught, the Ottawa Francophone began playing music in high school but didn’t seriously consider it as a vocation until his collaboration with saxophonist Rob Frayne resulted in the formation of Chelsea Bridge. Martin’s dedication to his art extended to a complete change of life, abandoning full-time job and garage door opener for the joys and vicissitudes of experimental musicking.

An aesthetic of layering permeates Jean Martin’s work in Barnyard Drama, where
his early immersion in his jazz trumpeter father’s extensive record collection emerges in an eclectic choice of sampled loops played on several Califone record players. Simply marked with an ‘x’ to indicate the general sound (morceau de Mahler, Tuvan overtones, old-time radio) the records are looped and sent through an analog mixer, but are not otherwise processed. “I never really think about what notes are being played on these records, it’s just a textural thing…It’s surprising every time that I play them.” Dividing his attention between drums and loops has caused Martin to pare down his kit for Barnyard Drama to a snare and bass drum, high hat and cymbals. “I like playing time with my left hand, let’s say, and then the other doesn’t necessarily have to be in time, or it could be in time with something else that’s happening in the group.”

This ability to split his attention is predicated on the use of tight time grids into (or against) which other elements are applied. While certain loops have become part of Barnyard Drama’s repertoire they don’t serve as cues, but rather as organizing structures. A favorite “vibraphony” loop is found on the track “I Can’t Hear You” on Memories and a List of Things to Do. The loop is in a rapid 7/8 pattern against which Martin plays Latin-feel off beats punctuated by slow melodic bass beats. Duncan’s words add another layer in four. Nothing quite fits but everything grooves. In live performances that same loop does not act as a cue but rather as a trace of previous performances that invites the layering of a new set of responses.

Bernard Falaise, a schooled composer and very active member of Montréal’s musique actuelle scene, is best known for his work in avant-prog rock bands like Miriodor, Klaxon Gueule and les Projectionnistes. After an early start on the violin, Falaise taught himself electric guitar as a young teen. He studied jazz guitar at Cegep St-Laurent, and, after leaving school “to play in an alternative rock band for a few years,” he returned to the Université de Montréal to do a composition degree. There he met Fred Roverselli with whom he started the band PapaBoa, along with Rémi Leclerc. Montreal’s “New Music America” festival (1990) had a “big impact” on him, and his close contact with contemporary music was further fostered by a five-year stint as technical assistant for Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in the late ‘90s. Falaise, who describes himself as “allergique aux étiquettes” has worked in diverse contexts, composing chamber music (for groups such as the Quasar saxophone quartet and the Bozzini string quartet) plus music for theatre, dance, and film, and producing records. Rather than playing “straight jazz,” Falaise has been most influenced by rock and contemporary classical music.

Justin Haynes grew up in the Ottawa Valley playing classical guitar, but cut his adolescent teeth on jazz standards during a weekly gig at a café with his bass player buddy Jordon O’Connor. “We did it for a year and we got 30 bucks, plus a meal and a few beers, which when you’re 15 is amazing. And we didn’t know anything…we just went through the fake book and the omni book. We thought we wanted to be jazz musicians but became steadily more interested in an approach to improvising that didn't necessarily have a lot to do with swing or bebop. We were always very, very irreverent—angry young men.” Haynes, who pursued a course of private study with various guitarists and composers, has continued to play with O’Connor and drummer Nick Fraser, as well as various collaborations with Andrew Downing, Rebecca Campbell, Tena Palmer, Victor Bateman, and numerous projects with Martin including the oh-so-strange Blah Blah 666. Like Falaise, Haynes has composed works for dance, theatre, and chamber ensembles. (Check out Pretty Big Dig (2003), his charming collaboration with choreographer Anne Troake and a couple of big yellow excavators.)

Bernard Falaise and Justin Haynes may come from different backgrounds but, in the context of Barnyard Drama, they are able to sound like “one big guitar.” Falaise notes that “as an improviser you have the choice of playing with someone or in contrast (and you obviously get different options all the time), but for me and Justin, it seems really easy to blend with each other. It’s so fun, so effective, that we tend to do it a lot.” For their 2006 gig at FIMAV, Justin went so far as to rent the same kind of guitar as Falaise, while Duncan and Martin presented the two with identical little keyboards.  Each player uses an array of pedals, samplers, and toys. Haynes may opt for melodica, banjo (or, at the 2007 Open Ears Festival, an offstage piano), while Falaise employs mysterious preparations involving (variously) alligator clips, steel wool, and chains. In the context of Barnyard Drama they always sit facing each other in a tight formation that allows the band to use a monitor only on the voice.

Sweet and Creepy

It’s tempting to see the seeds of Barnyard Drama in Get Together Weather, Martin and Haynes’ brilliant 1999 collaboration with trumpeter Kevin Turcotte. Tunes from musicals such as Oklahoma and Three Penny Opera are presented in quirky jazz arrangements inflected by fleeting shades of country, funk, slide, noise, and frank comedy. When I mentioned the comparison to Haynes, he agreed: “On that record we intentionally tried to create settings for that material that were unusual and colourful and as different from one tune to the next as possible. And very kind of filmic….It is a similar approach [to Barnyard Drama], but we just do it a lot faster without any kind of discussion or arrangement or charts. It’s all in the moment.” Martin’s response to the same question brought up a theme echoed by all members of the group: “First of all it’s a love of songs. A lot of those pieces were just songs that I loved. You know, the form of the song. And it’s always like that, even in improvised music…If I hear a song that touches me, and it’s a very simple song, a beautiful song…I love it.” In Barnyard Drama, songs are often treated as simply another layer in a complex and highly individuated texture. As Falaise states, “We might do totally different things while Christine sings a melody. It’s the first time I’ve heard a singer start singing songs in an improvisational context without bothering about what’s happening apart from that.”

For Christine, “This is the only environment where I really feel comfortable to go there as much as I would like to in free improvisation. It’s very fun for me because the way that I treat the songs in this environment is entirely different than I would in a jazz singer gig. I have a whole history of singing songs with a lot of skill and vocal mastery, but in Barnyard Drama I can basically still do a song but use any kind of weird little quirky or strange little naïve voice that feels right in the moment—half sing and half whisper it, or psychotic giggles in between…I think it’s probably one of the most disturbing things I do in this group. The songs I choose to sing are usually odd: children’s songs, or old Broadway musicals with a very childlike quality, or weird world-weary gospel songs.”

There is surprisingly little sense of parody in these song treatments, however skewed they may be. Echoing Martin, Duncan insists “I intend always to be honest…I love the songs.” Take for example “Happy Fingers” on I’m a Navvy (the song is from the The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a demonic live-action 1953 Dr. Seuss film about an evil piano teacher who forces 500 little boys to practice 24/7). The song is set against a frenetic background of snare drum rolls and totally unrelated guitar licks that reference both rock and the spikiest of free playing, all served up on a bed of looped darkling echoes. Duncan’s “dee dee dee” voice (disturbingly doubled in the mix) is relentlessly breezy.

During live gigs Barnyard Drama tends to flow seamlessly from one event to another throughout a thirty to fifty-minute period; however, song form largely organizes the tracks on I’m a Navvy. The group recorded for two solid days and then scanned the results for organic sections ranging from two to ten minutes in length. The tender “Butt’ry Burning” (included on the CD with this Musicworks issue) is a fine example – and with voice, drums, and no processing on the guitars it’s about as pure as Barnyard Drama gets. As Martin notes, “If you heard this piece by itself you might think it was a song that we have written, but it isn’t at all. “Butt’ry Burning” is a completely improvised piece that sounds like a written piece of music. There are words that Christine made up in the moment, and there’s no editing.”

Duncan’s off-centre lyrics begin a cappella in a whispery and clipped voice, but she is soon joined by a sensitive jazz guitar accompaniment. Were the two guitars not panned in the mix, you could easily be convinced it was one player. Martin creates a texture with delicate brushes that punctuates the text and sets up momentary syncopated grooves. The melody might best be described as “through composed” but the song is conventionally organized in four verses with an instrumental interlude before the last verse. What starts as a wistful jazz ballad (is it about love or acid indigestion?), becomes increasingly acerbic with dagger sharp exchanges among guitars and drums.

Butt’ry Burning
It felt better in the morning
when I opened up my eyes.
But as the day went on, I came to realize
that this Butt’ry Burning feeling was meant to stay.
That this Butt’ry Burning feeling won’t go away.

It felt better in the morning.
Yesterday was all the same,
and last evening with the moon as full as full as grapes,
I could not complain.
But this Butt’ry Burning feeling will never go away.

And every time I open my mouth to speak
a cold wind shocks me,
and I cannot speak.
But deep inside, I know that I’d better not complain.
When the moon is full, and the night is long,
this Butt’ry Burning feeling can’t be wrong.

And if you stay with me forever and a day,
I will share my breath, my life, and never go away.
My grapéd moon my silken bed and all the morns to come.
This Butt’ry Burning feeling can’t be wrong.

Indeed, there’s a penchant for beauty that permeates Barnyard Drama, a sense of nostalgia that is at odds with their muscular approach to improvisation. But as Haynes remarks “None of us are waving a flag! I don’t think any of us are setting a kind of hierarchy around the different things that we do…We’re just trying to really embrace what happens.” Martin’s eloquent design for both Barnyard Drama CDs picks up on this interplay between “sweet and creepy” nostalgia. The sinister black monkey face on I’m a Navvy turns out to be a distorted close-up of a charming yellow children’s toy. Inside the cover of Memories and a List of Things to Do is his mom’s grade five class picture (neat rows of Peter Pan be-collared little girls with ribbons in their hair).

No Holds Barred

The longest track on I’m a Navvy is “It’s Raining to Drink Standing,” a direct translation of a Québecois aphorism for a downpour “Il pleut á boire debout”. Included on the CD with this Musicworks issue, this dense track provides a good example of Barnyard Drama’s collaborative approach to improvisation. For me, what’s most satisfying is the keen formal sense that all members bring to bear on the music. It may drive, it may groove, or it may be totally abstract, but it is never muddy. (To be sure, Martin has a genius for mixing, but in my experience the same holds true for their live performances.) Here there are no words, just the juxtaposition of several distinct timbres and textures. Discrete sotto voce vocals, bent drum tones, and very deep, quietly distorted guitar notes are the background for a single-line guitar melody played by Haynes that gradually morphs into counterpoint tremolo textures in voice, drums and guitar. Duncan’s bub-b-b-b-b finger-across-lips vocalization emerges in the foreground. Around 3:30 Martin begins to insinuate an insistent cymbal beat into the mix that inevitably leads the whole fibrillating mixture into a hard driving groove. By 5:30 the band has totally submitted to this pulse, retaining the tremolo gestures but now accompanied by looped off beat guitar chords that gradually go out of phase. Then Duncan twitters a high melody in some made-up language, and we hear a sinister message spoken through a bullhorn “Please step away from the yellow line.” Sustained guitar distortion and nervous bleats round out the ride which fades away at last into Falaise’s fluttering guitar delay.

Such textural, timbral and structural coherence is a hallmark of Barnyard Drama’s improvisation. For Falaise, playing in an improvisational context is “really like composing, but instant – you can’t come back on your decision. I’m really more aware of the compositional aspect when I play improv than I am of the performance. It has to do with orchestration.” Martin expresses a similar idea from the opposite angle; for him, composing is a process of editing that begins with improvising. The recording is the raw material. Speaking performatively, Duncan emphasizes the immanence of improvisation: “There’s no holds barred, basically, anything is acceptable and hopefully everything is accessible…So for me it’s really about being immediate, being active in the space and improvising conversationally, sensitively to whatever element is being added. It’s not going to shift what’s going on; it’s just going to add another sound source.” Haynes notes the intensity of the process, of fast switches and freewheeling references: “It’s all in the moment and it’s hard. When we do those gigs I’m wiped out after!”

Barnyard Drama’s chansons de métissage spin threads of memory through complex interwoven textures. What makes the group so engaging is the tight sense of collaborative creation they bring to bear on their wide narrative range, from tenderness to terrorism. An endearingly quirky (and highly representative) practice is Martin and Duncan’s habit of creating annual Barnyard Drama Christmas Singalong recordings with their friends. (Duncan: “Everybody has to sing. Singing is the most honest way to make music. Period.” Martin: “Yeah, plus it’s funny to hear someone who doesn’t sing!”) Martin insists that Barnyard Drama’s experimentalism is actually down to earth: “What we do is folk music, really you know, and when you look at all the music coming out of Ambiance Magnetique, that’s folk music to me. It’s creative music and it’s improvised—you can put all kinds of labels on it—but to me what we’re doing is folk music.”

Thanks to Christine Duncan, Jean Martin, Justin Haynes and Bernard Falaise for permission to post this video excerpt on the Sounds Provocative website and for their active participation in the development of this article.



Waterman, Ellen. “Barnyard Drama’s Chansons de Métissage.” Musicworks 99(2007): 25-31. Examples of Barnyard Drama’s work appear on the accompanying CD.


Arroyas, F. 2005 Sep 8. Entretien avec Joane Hétu. Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation Vol 1.2.