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

Lori Freedman


MacDonald Stewart Art Centre, September 9, 2005
Guelph Jazz Festival, Guelph

Playing the Space: One Big Ear

Ellen Waterman

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Lori Freedman about her performance practice, her improvisations and her composition projects. I’m particularly interested in analyzing how meaning is made in a particular musical performance as an experience that is affected by venue, time, place, audience, technical aspects, production, programming, and context. I interviewed Lori after her solo performance at the 2005 Guelph Jazz Festival on September 9. In addition, I conducted an audience reception survey and made a digital video of the concert. My interview with Lori is published in Musicworks #94 (Spring 2006).

The performance was made particularly poignant because it was dedicated to Lori’s father, revered Canadian composer Harry Freedman, then in palliative care. Not only was Lori playing to a rapt audience, but the music was broadcast live to air by CIUT FM radio in Toronto so that her father could listen as well.

The concert took place at three o’clock in the afternoon at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. It’s a lively resonant space featuring hardwood floors and a high, peaked cathedral ceiling over the playing area. A large window is prominently placed high up, perhaps 15 feet above the floor, and through it one can see the play of sky, cloud, and bending treetop. Lori’s simple black tunic over wide white trousers suited the stark white gallery space. While the audience was crammed into the front lobby of the gallery (and standing in every available corner), the performer seemed to me to inhabit a quite separate space, serene and open. And Lori played the acoustic space, raising the clarinet to “pan” across the audience, turning her back on us to bounce notes off the wall, stopping the bell with her foot, and moving widely about the stage area. At one point she stopped playing, and moved to the microphone to describe the acoustics to the radio audience. Her intimate interplay with space, people, and time was perfectly in tune with Lori’s concept of immanence in improvising music. Everything affects the music, she has said. The resonant space, combined with an audience that Lori described as “one big ear,” gave the event a rare, concentrated intensity.

Conducting an audience reception survey is an interesting (if frustratingly sketchy) exercise. An audience is often referred to as if it was a single organism, and we are used to assuming that we share the general enthusiasm, distraction, or antagonism in the room. My survey results suggest a much more individual experience. The Guelph Jazz Festival audience has a large proportion of aficionados who return to the festival year after year and have high expectations. Interestingly, a very high proportion of respondents agreed both that they “felt like active participants in this concert,” and that they “concentrated on their own thoughts and feelings during this concert.” This suggests that while audience members are participants in a group experience, their listening triggers a very personal response. Many people, however, commented on the intimacy of the space and Lori’s extraordinary physicality.

Lori began the concert on bass clarinet, expanding upon a single melodic motive that climaxed in a seamless exchange of high register notes and sung pitches so that it was difficult to distinguish between instrument and voice. Through the succeeding six pieces, the audience’s appreciative applause served to punctuate what seemed in fact to be a single extended improvisation, alternating bass and B flat clarinets (and parts thereof). Speaking, singing and growling through the instrument, gesturing provocatively with her muscled bare arms, knees jerking, instruments swinging – Lori’s improvisations were birthed in motion and delivered with force and tenderness. She did not pre-plan the pieces in any way, yet their form was taut, their expression supple, ranging from driving rhythmic grooves to subtle explorations in timbre to intricate melismas. At the end of one piece, she continued to move in silence for a moment, her body still engaged though the sound had drifted away.

You can catch some of Lori’s energy in the video clip. Many thanks to Lori Freedman for her interviews and for permission to post this excerpt from her performance on the Sounds Provocative website.