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


D. KIMM and ALEXIS O'HARA, electronics and voices

La Sala Rossa, June 10, 2007
Suoni per il Popolo, Montreal

I caught Mankind’s first show at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in 2006, where I was taken by their quirky combination of theatricality, sound poetry, and live improvised electronics. Unapologetic feminist politics were presented with humour, atmospheric poetry, and a definitely edgy onstage tension by these doppelgangers in blonde wigs and fire engine red outfits. Trained as an art historian, writer, dancer, and dramaturge D. Kimm is known for her poetry and as director of Les Filles électriques, an organization whose mandate is to create multidisciplinary artistic events based on oral and written literature. Les Filles électriques produces the Festival Voix d’Amériques. Alexis O’Hara has a long history as an intermedia artist: a humorous writer, performer, and video artist, working with a broad spectrum of artists from rock to electronics and developing her solo work in live electronics performance.

Our Weakness is our Strength. Experts at Nothing, We are Fresh and Naïve, Curious and Open to all Discipline, Media, Philosophy or Technique. That said, we have an Opinion on Everything and will Speak it regardless of whether it is asked of Us. We find Comfort to be Perplexing. We strive for Imperfection. We privilege an Equal Partnership with Technology. We will submit, on occasion, to the Will of the Machine but only in an Exploratory and Temporary Manner. We Know What We Are Doing. We recognize the trappings of the Feminine Condition, We favour its Benefits. We seek out Beauty as well as Trouble. Transcending the Palpable and the Impalpable, We are Mankind. (Mankind Manifesto, 2009)

This video excerpt captures Mankind’s third gig, at the 2007 Suoni Per Il Popolo festival in Montreal. It was one of those typically fabulous homages to the avant-garde that the Suoni has become known for: in addition to Mankind, the evening included a Just’au Crâne ‘happening’ (fish were flung), and one of the last appearances of the legendary French sound poet Henri Chopin (check out In the following interview with Alexis O’Hara, we discuss the development of the duo and the performance concept for their 2007 show. In 2009, after a 2008 European tour, they released their debut CD Ice Machine on Ambiances Magnétiques

Interview with Alexis O’Hara, June 12, 2007, Montreal

Ellen Waterman: I am talking with Alexis O'Hara at Aux Vivres Café in Montreal on the 12th of June, 2007 after your Mankind show on the 10th at the Suoni Per Il Popolo at La Sala Rossa. We were just talking about sharing the bill with Henri Chopin and this being the third outing for Mankind. You also did a show at the Edgy Women festival in March. I'd like to get a sense of how the collaboration has evolved (aside from going from blonde wigs to black wigs [laughter]) since your show at the FIMAV, because it was quite different.

Alexis O’Hara: It's definitely an experimental project; everything about it is experimental. At the FIMAV there was really some desire to script something. That's not necessarily my personal impulse, but because it was a new outing and Kimm is fairly new to musical improvisation it was sort of this idea that we needed to script things a bit more. There was a lot more text. Initially when we started, because she got funding from the Canada Council to do a spoken word project, there was some sort of feeling that we had to honour that, and so the work would be this experimental performance poetry with music around it. As we've gone a little further into the project, we discussed what's more interesting to us. More and more, the performance poetry part is less interesting than exploring the musical aspects as well as performative, dramatic elements. It's still, in a lot of ways, working itself out. After the show there was some contention between us about what happened two days ago — not a fight or anything, but when you're improvising, it's hard to know if people are comfortable all the time. And I know sometimes I'm what they call in French une bête de scène: I get into the moment, and I just want to perform, and I may not be the best listener when I'm in that mode. But, definitely, at this point we're more interested in exploring the idea of being noise musicians than we are trying to be spoken word artists. I feel like ‘spoken word’ is this tag that is like one of those leg bracelets that Martha Stewart had to wear…

EW: [laughter]

AO: … one of those monitors. It's just this shackle. Even though I personally have been putting out musical CDs, doing interactive performances, and working more towards the contemporary art milieu, I still end up getting saddled with the ‘spoken word’ tag for what I do because there's text involved in what I do. It makes me crazy because a lot of people don't like spoken word, first of all, but also because I just don't feel like it is evocative as a term or as a medium. My own aspirations are more experimental.

EW: [agreement] It's funny: Paul Dutton says exactly the same thing, because he goes from one world to the other. He's a little different in that he sees himself as a hybrid: he calls what he does "sound singing". But it very often doesn't involve words at all. There are these ghettos you get put into.

AO: [agreement]

EW: There are presentation ghettos and grant ghettos — these slots. I understand.

AO: It took me years to pierce that world in terms of grant-getting. This year I got my first inter-arts grant. Kimm's going through similar things: she's trying to move into the world of inter-arts. But it's not easy because she's known professionally as someone who puts on performance poetry events (she runs a spoken word festival). I understand, as well, from the inter-arts perspective — when you're talking about multidisciplinary arts or inter-arts, you can't just let anybody who's like, “Now I have some video and some sound, so now I'm inter-arts”...

EW: It has to be integrated.

AO: [agreement] There has to be an integration, and as well it has to go somewhere else. You may have elements A, B, and C, but are you going towards Z or are you really just A with B and C? Do you know what I mean? There has to be something pushing forward there. We have a lot of challenges in front of us for a million different reasons, but we want to get our foot into every door. Just to see, like, “Is this place nice? Should we stay here?”

EW: ... “Can we make money?” [laughter]

AO: [agreement] “Will they respect us?”

EW: “…in the morning?” [laughter] What fascinates me about Mankind is that, for me, this version of it has — I don't know if ‘matured’ is the right word, or ‘evolved’, or you've just done it more, so you've had a chance to work out other ideas. But I felt that it was really well integrated between the two personas on stage. Only towards the very end of the set did the two of you actually have an interaction on the stage that looked like you were talking to one another about "What do we do next? How is this going to end?"

AO: [agreement]

EW: Every musical or performative gesture before then (theatrical, verbal) had been "in character". And I don't mean to say that you slipped out of character in any way, but there was a shift for me just at the very end in the kind of dialogue between you. I'm just interested in how you would describe it — if we start with the performative element of it then we can talk about the sonic element afterwards.

AO: I've always been interested — in a lot of ways Mankind is an extrapolation of things that I've already been doing. I'm not saying that to take credit for it, but I'm saying that because I'm using this vehicle as a means to push forward ideas I've been working on for a while. I'm definitely interested in exploiting these traditional roles of women that you see. When you think of men – the voice of authority – there are so many different facets of that, but for women you have a few different roles. There's the schoolteacher, the mother, maybe a nurse, an educator, these sort of things, the TV weather girl (what in French we would call la speakerine), somebody who's like a presenter (one of those Bob Barker girls that's demonstrating things), the Vanna White: these showpieces that are there to demonstrate. There's also this kind of niceness that exists, and a sort of cordiality that's welcoming to the audience. And actually, it's interesting that you say that we broke that down at the end, because I had a bit of an issue between me and Kimm. When she started, she was like "Us, we improvise, and na-na-na" [sic], and afterwards I was like, "I don't like that part". I don't need for us to show what's behind the curtain. I don't need for us to say, "We don't really know what we're doing". Fuck the apologizing, especially because we're women and that's just a trope that we need to get the hell away from.

For me, the idea for Mankind (plus like, look at the title of our group: it's “Mankind”), it's very ambitious, and it's this all-encompassing, we'll-do-everything... And I've always liked the idea of being the “robo sapiens”: you're completely connected to the machine, and yet the machine is also like this pet that is unpredictable. You don't know what's going to happen because we're working a lot with feedback and with electricity and with all these guitar pedals. You move this knob a tiny increment and everything changes. You're doing things in a rehearsal space, and you think, "Wow, this is great," but even if you were to take notes and try to remember exactly what you were doing, it is very difficult to reproduce what you were doing. So, there has to be this acceptance that we're in this moment of flux, that we're all changing, and a sort of calmness about it all. We're just here to ease — we're the stewardesses for this sonic air voyage that we're taking.

EW: But if you were, it was kind of a dark image of that because the look was like something out of a Fassbinder film or something: the cigarette, the wine — slightly hard-edged, a little "dominatrix".

AO: Well, that was a switch from the first one where we're the blonde — and it's funny because we wanted to get identical wigs. When we were trying on these wigs, first of all you have to find a wig that looks good on both of us, because we still want to look pretty, to a certain extent...

EW: [laughter]

AO: Even if we look mean, we have to look pretty; even if we look tough, we have to look pretty. We were originally thinking blonde wigs, and when we tried on these blonde wigs, immediately the character that developed was this floozie: someone who's just a little more languorous. But with the short bobs, you just become strict all of a sudden, and it's like you have bubbling sexuality but beneath a cold exterior. I just think it's richer that way, because the blonde is just so heavily exploited as an icon. So, we're exploring that. We'll see with the different costumes and everything.

We've talked about our intentions in terms of what sort of things we want to do on stage, what sort of things we want to present as a type of show, what sort of things we want to explore sound-wise. But we never really talked about what our characters are, or "Is there a story here?" I think there's a danger in that, when you get too much like a Buster Poindexter or something: where the music becomes restricted by the persona that's presenting it. Whereas that might be an attention-grabbing thing that will get you media right away, it won’t have longevity because people will get sick of the character and then they won't want to see the music anymore. But at the same time there has to be a character element: we say that we want to not be laptop artists, but the truth is that when you're bent over a mixing board and you're playing feedback and frequencies and stuff, you're doing a lot of staring at the ground and people are looking at the top of your head, so it's not really interesting. That's why we play a lot with that: we'll let one of us go in and have the mad scientist moment while the other one tries to engage.

The engaging: we're still trying to figure that out because I think Kimm would prefer if it was informal. We wrote this manifesto, and we talk about "We've never been able to find the fourth wall; we'd rather present the performance by sitting on someone's lap". But I don't want to sit on their lap like their best friend; I want to sit on their lap like one of these Weimar-era cabaret artists who might pee on you if you're talking during her show. For me, there'll be a confrontation. You still figure out a way to draw people in, but in a way that's more powerful than "Would you like me? Could you like me? Would you like to be my friend?" I'm not interested in that. I have a lot of friends; I don't need any more.

EW: For me (especially at the beginning of the performance, because that's getting on stage and starting), there was a performativity about your gestures: things as simple as the unlit cigarettes hanging out of your mouths, and yet singing and talking with them. Can you just talk a little bit about your concept – or memory if it's just that evening's events we're talking about – of how you use gesture, how you view the cigarette or the tone of your voice when you speak.

AO: Personally, I come from a theatre background, and also a comedy theatre background. It's really important for me... When I was at the Electric Eclectics Festival last year, Gordon Monahan referred to me as the Ruth Buzzi of the electronic music world.

EW: [laughter]

AO: So, I like the idea of bringing humour into this milieu, (because it can be really dead-serious); to take ourselves seriously, but for there to be a lightness involved in it. That said, my friend last night was saying how he thought it was strange that people weren't laughing during our piece, because there was something... It’s important to have fun with it.

EW: But your friend was saying how people weren’t laughing. It didn't make me want to laugh either. I felt drawn into it; it was mysterious and edgy.

AO: Maybe not funny, but absurd. There's just so much artifice involved, so it's kind of fun to go a little too far and expose it instead of just trying to be natural about it.

EW: I understand that. And it is true that you and Kimm have very different mannerisms in your persona on stage. I think that's quite interesting to have two people looking – on one level – very similar, and then you realize throughout the performance just how different you are, both in your sound worlds and in your presentation. I wrote a lot of notes about how Kimm holds her body and how you hold your body. She's more introspective, to put it in broad brushstrokes, where your presentation is gregarious. When you sing or speak into the mic, you're "out there" to us, where she's a little more in her own space.

AO: [agreement]

EW: It's a very interesting tension.

AO: I think that might change. I think a lot of that has to do with comfort levels. I've been making this kind of music for seven years, so it's easy enough for me to do it with my eyes closed, or facing the audience while mugging at the same time. But I really want to get more into lip-sync. I saw a Larry Peacock performance, and they do a lot of lip-syncing; they're lip-syncing trumpet and percussion sounds. I just find that's really interesting to do that.

EW: Tell me about the sounds that you were lip-syncing to in this performance.

AO: I was just working some feedback where I was sending the effect signal to itself and then boosting the mids to create a granular sort of sound, and then turning it off and on and off and on. Every time I would turn it on I would open my mouth as if that noise was coming out of my mouth.

EW: And it was kind of a plausible sound.

AO: Sure, it was like a banshee kind of screech.

EW: It was very nice. It took me a couple repetitions before I realized you were lip-syncing, actually. I thought, "That's a good vocal sound!" [laughter]

AO: That's good!

EW: Another thing that I liked very much was — I can't remember which piece it was now, but there's a piece where it's almost like you're performing the possibility of making mistakes or tweaking a knob too far. And you're saying, "Oh, that's a good one." Tell me about that piece.

AO: That was another one where we're really playing with the feedback and really trying to push the envelope in terms of how noisy it can get and then bring it back. Push it out, and rein it in. And you see this a lot in electronic music, but there's almost like a machismo attached to it, where it's like, [in a macho voice] "Yeah, I'm grinding this noise into you now, and again, and it's relentless!"

EW: [laughter]

AO: This sort of plays with this idea of gentility of our personas that are attached to these machines. We're making this horrendous noise, but there's still this kind of delicateness about it. But it's all very open and exploratory: like the cool aunt who's like, "Ooh, that's interesting!" So you just do something that would definitely require earplugs for mom, and then comment on it.

EW: [agreement] But the commenting on it is really unusual.

AO: [agreement]

EW: Like your feedback to your feedback.

AO: But that's my stand-up comedian… And we'll see where that goes; I'm not sure. Kimm and I have such incredibly different styles when it comes to that, even in terms of where we were before we approached electronic music. When I started, the sort of work that I'd been doing… When I do improvisation I tend to rely a lot on humour. It depends on the situation: I've done shows at Tonic where I'm just doing vocal and feedback, and I'm doing the whole thing where I'm just twiddling the knobs and looking down and trying to create this sonic atmosphere, and probably everyone's standing around with their hands on their chins just nodding with furrowed brows and things.

EW: [laughter]

AO: But most of the time it's a setting where I want to have some kind of connection with the audience, and so I can differentiate myself from other performers by doing something ridiculous and making fun of myself while I'm doing it, and therefore letting the audience in. Some people respond very strongly to that in a positive way, and other people just turn off. . . But the humour sometimes is a crutch, I realize, for me. Instead of going somewhere in a serious way and seeing where I can go, I know that if I do something ridiculous then that will create something.

EW: But this is a little bit what we were talking about before, in a way, though I shouldn't, perhaps, speak back to your own self-representation. It seems to me that it's not a crutch; it's a strength. It's something you do really well, and that you have all this control over as an artist. It's not something you see ad nauseum in electronic music. One of the things that interest me about the duo is, exactly, that you take that on. The reason I made the comment about the duo evolving was that the FIMAV show – a first show – had a little edge to it of that: just an intangible edge of "This is the first time trying something out". Your Suoni show was subtler. Everything was played down and better blended between the two of you. But there was throughout it that kind of magnetism of the gesture, the word, the comment, the toss of the head. Whatever it was you were doing really made it much more fascinating to me. Fascinating is a good word.

AO: [agreement]

EW: To fascinate the audience, to weave an untold, almost unspoken story (as you were saying with the not creating an in-your-face narrative about these characters). That, I think, is really worth developing. I think it's a strength.

AO: It was funny. After the show that we did at Edgy Women, we got comments that people thought there was a lot of tension on stage, like maybe we would end up fighting. And people were wanting that: a good ‘girl fight’ on stage.

EW: [agreement]

AO: And we've talked about that. We've talked about having fights, but I think it's a little too close for comfort at this point because it's still a new collaboration and I have to be more delicate with Kimm since she is fairly new at this. So, it's not the time right now to beat her up. Even what went over the other day, where I was like, "What are you talking about?", I said that on stage. I sort of said it as a kind of "Let's spar". She just immediately shut down and that didn't work at all. We're still trying to figure out how we can figure that out. Because we're both a little sauvage, so it's like trying to figure out what kind of relationship you can have on stage and who can be tough enough to handle what. I think it's okay if I have this more confrontational, absurd character and she has this more serious, jaded, introspective character because we wouldn't want to be identical.

EW: Musically, then: you talk about noise, but it's not brutal noise. It never got so loud that I felt anywhere near having to put earplugs in. Ideally, would you push it to those kinds of extremes of volume, or does noise mean to you textures and types of sounds?

AO: Sometimes you go see a noise show, and your feeling of it is that it's a lot more fun to play than it is to watch. That would not be the type of music that I want to make. I want it to be fun for me, but I also want the audience to enjoy it too. I'm also interested in the dynamics of a situation, for there not to be an assault. Maybe that will limit us; I don't know. This show, I'm proud of it, because we likes the noise thing, but I didn't feel like our Edgy Women show was noise. We were doing electronics, but we didn't really go very far. This show, I felt like we went a lot further into that terrain. But I think we're really purveyors of a pretty girl-noise. And I'm totally fine with that because I don't need to be macho. I don't need to make people's ears bleed. That's not the point. I don't actually want to push people away; we want to draw people in. And I think eventually, there'll be a really nice marriage between a sort of melodic noise and a narrative of sorts, so that people will get some things that stick in their brains a little bit (a turn of phrase or whatever it is).

EW: What's your rehearsal process? Do actually rehearse it, or do you just get the costumes together and do it?

AO: We did jam a lot. We play a lot, but it depends if there's a show coming up. Generally, what will happen is that the further away the rehearsal is from the show, the less structured it will be, the more it will be like "Let's just have fun and see what we can do and figure things out." I'm still figuring things out in terms of what's possible, what sounds I can make in combinations, and what if this happens before that happens. And, of course, Kimm's going through that too. So, we just like to try to experiment, and – more and more – record everything that we do and then listen to it and go, "That was interesting". We do get to a point where we don't know who's making what sound. And so, try to get to the point where we're more familiar with "What am I doing right now; what am I causing?". The tendency when you're using a sampler, sometimes, is to just press play and let that one sample happen for eight minutes. So, you've got to learn how to pull things out and bring things up, and create a landscape with what's going on rather than some abstract Rothko canvas. But then, as we get closer to the show… We were interested in doing an improvisational show for this gig, and maybe for other gigs we'll want to do less improvised, but then you just get into deciding what kind of map you want. For this one, we decided we were going to do three ten-minute pieces: the first one was going to be rather sparse, the second one was going to be really intense, and the third one, unfortunately I totally forgot what the directive was, and I went in a direction that didn't conform to what we had decided, but anyway...

EW: That's improvisation.

AO: That's improvisation; exactly.

EW: For me, that's always very interesting to watch. Thanks so much.

Many thanks to D. Kim and Alexis O’Hara for permission to post a video-excerpt from their performance, and to Alexis O’Hara for permission to post our interview on the Sounds Provocative website.