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



Registry Theatre, April 26, 2007
Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound, Kitchener-Waterloo

Some years ago, a historic meeting occurred at Vancouver Community College (a hub for creative music education in Canada). Amir Koushkani, a young Iranian tar player, expertly versed in the Radif – the classical music of his country– entered the office of Sal Ferreras, a Puerto-Rican Canadian percussionist and ethnomusicologist who specializes in Latin American music. What began as a somewhat awkward conversation turned into one of those epiphanies through which people are brought together, ensembles formed, and magic made. As Ferreras explains:

[Amir] came to the college as a student, somebody from a traditional music background wanting to study classical and Western music (notation and harmony and all those things) with an eye to maybe writing in that sphere from a Persian perspective. Nobody knew what to do with him, so the head of the department just said, "Here, you deal with him", and that was really the beginning of it. I met with him and I said, "I really didn't know what I could do with him, teaching-wise, but maybe we should play, and then that would be the beginning." He pulled out his tar from his case, and I had an udu. We began to play, and it only took seconds before we knew that there were two like-minded thinkers that had just finally encountered each other. It never ceased to be an experiment from there on. I just went next door to François [Houle], and I told him to get in there with us, because something very special was happening, and that maybe he should be part of it. We needed that colour. And, of course, François slipped right in, and he felt the same way. All three of us were quite surprised at what happened. (Interview)

On the surface Safa (the term is Farsi for ‘inner purity,’ ‘sincerity,’ ‘sincere affection’) is a “world music” ensemble of the hybrid type so common in late 20th century multicultural Canada: Iranian and Latin American musical impulses combined with the French-Canadian Houle’s classical and jazz clarinet traditions Somehow, however, Safa is both more deeply rooted (in Persian music) and more experimental (in the musicians’ highly individualistic expositions). Koushkani’s tar, setar and poetic vocals are at the core of the group, articulating a territory where Ferreras and Houle happily travel as curious fellow explorers who then lead the listener far beyond the boundaries of the rich Persian musical tradition even while paying homage to it. The tar, by the way, is a fretted, long-necked lute with three double courses of strings that first appeared in the mid-18th century. In Safa, Ferraras plays a wide variety of percussion instruments from the udu mentioned above (a Nigerian clay pot drum), and cajón (a Latin American box drum), to the double-headed, hourglass shaped Cuban batá drum, and diverse small percussion. Houle is a versatile clarinetist who has equally deep roots in classical music and creative improvisation with a wide knowledge of world clarinet traditions. All three are schooled composers and superb improvisers.

In the following excerpts from my interview with Sal Ferreras, he explores Safa’s chemistry – which he describes as “similar thinking” – and articulately describes its musical underpinnings with special reference to the concert archived here: a noon hour event at the 2007 Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.

Interview with Sal Ferreras, Vancouver, September 27, 2007

Ellen Waterman: Tell me what that "similar thinking" is.

Sal Ferreras: It's an ability to — it's not a telepathic process or anything like that — it's that we are able to listen to the colour of each other's rhythm (and I really mean that: the colour of the rhythm, the flavour of the rhythm) and the timbre, and find what each one of us thinks is a mutually compatible place to be within that spectrum. That was a complete surprise to me. I had certainly improvised with many other players before, but never with the ease of these two in a trio setting. We found that once we worked out some basic modes that we had to work within (because of the limitations of either the clarinet or the tar in terms of any particular scale or mode that we were working with) that the rest was actually quite easy. Then there was an enormous amount of expressive range possible once we arrived at that common ground of tonality or — how do I say? — there's a "flexible tonality". Because we still use the quarter-tones and some three-quarter-tones that Amir calls upon every once in a while. He actually doesn't talk about it that much, but we sort of have to touch bases before we start so that François can find a good place to be, or at least know which clarinet to use.

EW: Is the tar the centre point of the ensemble for that reason? I say centre point because one gets a sense of the other instruments coming to meet at the tar.

SF: You can think of it from a couple of perspectives, I think. Sonically, there's no doubt: I've often joked in performance that no matter how experimental we get, it always sounds Persian because that instrument has such a distinctive sound. But it is; I think it's the core of our "sonic adventure". The tar has a highly melodic component, but at the same time also has a very strong drone that is played or continually plucked: really functioning at two levels for us. That continuous drone is what allows me the room to colour that drone with rhythm. I had never experienced that before with that instrument, and I found it's a really comfortable place to sit and that there are a number of instrumental colours that I can bring in that lock in quite well. As I bring in those colours, each one of those colours has its own geographically specific reference or representation. I say that the tar functions in two ways: those two dimensions are both drone and melody, but also Persian and non-Persian. So, there are two axes there. By allowing a musical demilitarisant between us, that's where François and I have the opportunity to make it sound not-Persian. We don't deliberately set out to obscure or somehow hide the magic of those beautiful modes or anything like that, but we do insist on making sure that we have as strong a voice instrumentally. When François and Amir trade vocal lines with clarinet improvisation lines, there's another area that also... I guess we're a trio, but we function in dualities. We don't really talk about it, but we've had conversations with many other people who are trying to figure out "Are we this or are we that?". Are we a Persian ensemble that plays experimental music, or an experimental music ensemble that plays Persian? I lay no claim to any knowledge of Persian music other than by association, and being immersed in that sound.

Certainly the Persian community doesn't seem to have any problem with it, and that's fine by me. But either way, I really don't have a problem with it, and neither does François. Amir doesn't; he's very comfortable with us. If you think of our improvisations on a temporal scale rather than a colouristic or an ethnically-specific interpretation, we tend to follow similar forms. We have openings that are meditative that bring you to the level of understanding what we might be going into, and then set off on an adventure, then either try to bring you back or we taper it down to you and your thoughts. You've had the sonic experience, now we're going to wrap it up very quietly so that you can just... It's almost like you had a thought adventure, and at a certain point you have to conclude it. You don't conclude it by abruptly stopping it; you conclude it by letting it just dovetail. We like to do that in a number of pieces.

EW: It struck me very much in your show at Open Ears (which was a noon-hour event, so there were lots of people coming in from their busy days, as well as festival-goers) – it struck me that you really worked to frame the concert for an audience in ways that I don't always see people do. Sometimes players just get up and play, as though the context is incidental to the performance. Do you think about the audience specifically? The way you just talked about it makes it sound as though you do, so I'm just interested in how you are aware of them.

SF: Yeah, we do. That's probably the bulk of our conversations. It's not about what we're going to play but what order we should play it in, based on what the context is. And the context can be "What kind of an audience?". Is it an audience of scholars, is it an audience of musicians, is it a general audience, or is it a young kids' audience? We won't play differently, but we'll play in a different order so as to play with the expectations of what we're getting. At Open Ears we actually set out a plan that we pretty much followed in terms of a colouristic range that we wanted to do in that show. But we knew right at the beginning of the show, shortly after we started playing, that there was a kindred audience out there, kindred souls that somehow we had connected with…

EW: How did you know that? How did you experience that?

SF: We talked about it after. Each one of us knew it at the beginning of the show: the first piece. I don't know whether it was a reaction or a deep intake of breath that people take in certain kinds of phrases where you know that they're not just breathing, that they just took in exactly what you were sending out in terms of an expressive message. And once you get that, and you feel... I know it's an intangible thing, and many will consider it a really flaky thing, but you get a sense from the audience that you have connected. And once you connect, it's almost like, "Okay, now we have their trust; now we can really be comfortable". It's like being in the company of another person, and getting to the point where you're comfortable enough with that person that you can get personal. More so than in many other concerts, we felt that we could get personal very early in that show. Again, all three of us were quite surprised by how fast that happened. (Not that we thought it couldn't happen there.) You sort of put out the music, and you hope that people connect with it in the best way that they can. When they do at a more intensive level, then it's tremendously pleasurable. I think that it certainly lifts your confidence and allows you sometimes to take some musical chances, to throw something really different in there. I asked for there to be a vibraphone in that concert. I rarely use a vibraphone in our performances, but I thought, "Why not?”. We hadn't really practiced anything with it, but I knew the modes that we were using. When I did finally go to the vibes in the show, I felt like I wasn't stepping into anything that was unusual. I thought it was really traditional, normal territory, and it's on account of the level of comfort that was there. Amir was in top form, François was in top form, the instruments sounded good, the sound system was in really good shape, and so all the conditions were there to make as wonderful a performance as we could have ever asked for.

EW: Could you see the audience? The Registry Theatre, I can't remember whether they had the lights up or down, but when the lights are down, the light in your eyes makes it hard to see them. Could you see them?

SF: Not very well. You could see a few (the knees and the people who crossed their legs in the front row), but unless you were at a certain angle, if you were sitting where Amir was, you can't see very much. But it didn't really matter because half the show all three of us have our eyes closed. And it's always been that way.

EW: How much of the set is improvisational, and how much of a piece is a framework that's laid out in advance?

SF: The full intent is improvisational. The skeletal melodies are there. Sometimes the forms, of course, come from those melodies, but those forms are — I'm not going to say open-ended, because the endings are actually pretty tight. But the middle sections have a lot of portals that we can go off, with no responsibility to bring it back in any given way. So, Amir or I will take it somewhere, and if we've never been there before, then it's time for surprises. I don't know that I could put it in percentages, but it's more improvisational than not.

EW: That's really helpful. I'm also interested in just how you think about the combination: it's impossible to escape the trans-cultural aspects of the group. It's foregrounded in your practice and Amir's practice. In a way, that's more obvious, if that's the right word. In world music ensembles (where you have a lot of different hybrid combinations: people who play Latin rhythms with Celtic music or African music), that's quite intelligible. For me, what makes the group spicier, and odder, is the fact that François, even though he plays in these modal ranges and clearly has an affinity for Middle Eastern music, is himself coming from a totally other background: really a Euro-centric, classical music background. I'm just curious about how you guys represent yourselves or how you think of yourselves in terms of the trans-cultural aspects of the group.

SF: Again, as I said earlier, I don't frame it very often for myself. If I could go down to one rhythmic cell, it's a little three-note cycle that comes from Amir's plucking of the drone. That is my core connection, my "DNA strand" between my music and his music, and that's all I needed. I just needed one transfer point between his music and mine. We do share approaches, groupings. There are a lot of groupings that are based over triplets in groups of four. Those kinds of hemiola-like overlays that are all over his improvisations: they're no different from the same ones you'd find in flamenco or the same ones you find in certain types of Afro-Caribbean drumming. These overlays are quite normal, so I found a level of comfort far sooner and far more often than I expected to. And we do things that are in fives and sevens. Those are not grooves or rhythms that we play in Latin America, so at that point it is a departure. But I don't feel uncomfortable, I don't even feel that I'm compromising my rhythmic attitudes or my rhythmic interpretations at all to be with him. And he seems to be fairly comfortable with them as well.

EW: What about François?

SF: I think that François hangs on to me, for the security blanket, and then he launches his lines as contrast to Amir's. But each one of us has an anchor. Amir has his anchor in his drone, so he's connected to his own instrument in whatever reference he has to have to his own traditional self. I have his drone, which I use, and our link is a rhythmic link. François has me through which to which to work with Amir. François and Amir — sometimes they do play together, and I have to say that it's not as successful as when the three of us play. We're in this sort of triangulated translation game that's going on. It might not be flat or horizontal: it could be like a spiral, because the connections continue to reference... François will play something to Amir's pattern that Amir is playing to my rhythm. I hear François. I will react to him, and I will reference, say, rhythms and juxtapositions that are more common in contemporary music. Amir will hear that, and find something from his reference that will reference that, so we continue to do this strange little angular spiral. It's not smooth; it's reactive, and, as in all improvisation, it's immediate. But you only know that at the other end.

EW: So you're not thinking that consciously while you're doing it; it's too fast.

SF: There's too much going on. I'm not going to say that we're not thinking. We might be thinking, but we're not thinking about processes.

EW: Two things especially interest me: one is this notion of rhythm as colour (I'd love to hear you say more about how you conceive of rhythm as colour in this context), and the other is this language of triangulation instead of saying "we're looking for a common language" or something like that. I hesitate to use the word hybridity with this group, because it really doesn't feel like you've come together to create a third mashed-together kind of language. It feels much more discreet than that: I’m aware of the discrete flavours of the instruments and the traditions at the same time that I’m hearing the sum of it.

SF: That's really difficult, trying to address that. Is it the transparency that allows us to be expressive, or is it the fact that we've been able to — what's the word— coalesce a musical sound? We are definitely not trying to fuse anything, and that's never been a discussion of ours. It doesn't have anything to do with what we're doing. We don't think "Oh, you know what? There's something in your tradition that's very similar to mine.” Forget that. That's for other groups, and very effectively, but not for us. I don't know that I could actually even get around to answering that because I don't know. It's not a conscious enough process. We are three players who grew up in very different traditions, with an eye and an ear to anything else that's out there. We almost connected at a personal level before we connected at a musical level, and that's allowed us to lower the defenses. I don't have to be worried about relinquishing any identity in this group because we're more concerned with a common expressive core. We don't want to be religious, but it's very spiritual. I think it's spiritual because it's transparent. Because you look through it and you can see yourself. You can't see Sal, the guy from Puerto Rico; Francois, the guy from Quebec. You can't really see that. There's nothing that we do that aims to focus on our identities. We're looking to maybe even relinquish that identity and see if we can create something on stage. It's new every time, and people that have heard us many times say, "You do have that similar sound, and it's a unique sound". I guess it is, and maybe it's unique because the intent is very different from other ensembles that feature radically different instruments. I don't know whether I've answered your question.

EW: I think none of these things that I'm trying to understand from musicians in this study are easy things to grab onto and answer. If there were, then there would be no reason to think about them carefully. But it fascinates me how audible they are. Things that are difficult to get a finger on: the rapport with an audience is experientially profound. It's completely tangible; the audience feels it, you feel it. I had a focus group of listeners after that concert; I took eight people out to a bar and talked with them. And not one of them listened in the same way. People have very, very different ways of approaching the listening, but they all spoke about a certain kind of atmosphere, a certain kind of feeling in the room. So that fascinates me, the articulations between the musicans and the audience, among the musicans, and among audience members, where people are at the same time "of themselves" and also part of a group experience. That somehow seems to happen in the trio as well: people are wholly themselves at the same time as they're in the experience of improvising in the trio. Does that make sense?

SF: Oh, it makes sense, and I'm trying to cogitate on that as you go through it, because it is true: we can't be the group if we're not ourselves. That's all we can bring to it. But when you go on the stage, you are surrendering everything that you have. If you're really going to go for a great concert, you're going to have to go on stage and you're going to have to surrender, and you're going to have to give in to chance and what may happen. And even chance is sonically controlled. Chance is... Say you're going to go on stage, and you're going to take some chances. You're actually not going to take some chances when certain sounds are happening, and yet you will take some on others. Our aim is to create the level of sonic comfort that allows you to take the chances. And don't go taking it until we're there; it's not time to jump yet. But we talk about having had a good experience, and sometimes we talk about, "This tune, we could have done this," or maybe "The next time we play it, if you take the second section, I think we need to expand that a little bit more because it's so much fun," or, "It's nice to give a little more contrast in that piece," but we don't really analyse the stuff. We continue to nurture it as a live experience. In terms of your point about [listening]... it's an inner experience: each individual comes to the stage, and what you hear back is an alternation between the self and the ensemble, or the self and the bigger self. It's a common soul between several people: an aggregate.

EW: It's spooky, huh? It's part of what's so interesting about improvisation in particular.

SF: The word spooky is perfect. We did a concert at the Quebec International Festival about four or five years ago, and there was a big upper stage, there were a few thousand people there. Everybody's having a great time (it's lovely; it's during the day), just having a blast, and all three of us decided to pause in the improvisation at exactly the same time, and I could feel a chill just run through my system. And the chill wasn't, "Oh my God, what do we do now", but it's like a short pause; I don't think that it was two seconds long. And we all kind of looked at each other and continued to play, but it was remarkable. It was a validation that, yes, we were on that journey together; there was no question that we were on the same train. We all stopped and then all took off again. We laughed, and I think that it was a defining moment in confirming for us that we were supposed to be playing together, because there was no question that we had, as I said, we were on that same wavelength or whatever you want to call it.

EW: You said very early on, when we started talking, you talked about the first encounter with Amir, and how you really experienced rhythm as colour.

SF: Okay, well, I can just maybe even not talk about my first experience with him (because it continues to be that way); I can just speak in general. I find that, generally, while I have no trouble playing in time, in rhythm, in any particular combination of sequences and patterns, my rhythm is most successful when it serves as a vehicle to inspire more improvisation. In other words, the rhythm becomes not a series of sequences, but almost like when you have a beat that becomes faster and faster and then it becomes a tone. I try to think of all the rhythms that I play as one long tone: a tone that changes colour. So my changes in rhythm are very gradual, and they come from a colouristic approach rather than a rhythmic contrast. I sometimes change colour on the instrument itself, but often I'm actually changing the rhythm (and how I play it) in order to create either a distance or a closeness with the other instrument that I'm playing with. I try not to get in their way, but I try to drive them. You can drive someone by playing, by driving a rhythm, so to speak. But you can also do it by driving a colour, and I think that what's most successful in our group is that I create these palettes. They're able to really successfully work with those palettes. I don't know what I do from day to day. I seem to be able to recreate them from time to time, but I don't go into it that way. I start the rhythm; I don't know how I'm going to do it the next time.

EW: And is this the way you play with this group, or is this a philosophy of playing that's your whole approach?

SF: That's a really interesting question that's worth a whole other interview, but, no, it's now spilled into everything else that I do. It's spilled into my marimba playing, and it's spilled into my orchestra playing, which can cause problems, because they need something else. They want something really, really specific. I can't colour that rhythm, and sometimes I fight that. I've had those fights with a couple of conductors, but I'll do what they want. It's their gig; I'm there to serve. But it's definitely, enriched my other playing.  It's something that was a seed before but now has become a way of thinking. What would you call that? I don't know... a process? …an ontology, if I can say that. That's really, in the broadest sense, what it's become.

Thanks to Sal Ferreras for permission to publish this interview, and to Safa for allowing us to document their Open Ears concert and to post an excerpt on this site.

For an in-depth analysis of Safa’s music in the context of Canadian multiculturalism see:

Waterman, Ellen. “Improvisation and the Audibility of Difference: Safa, Canadian Multiculturalism, and the Politics of Recognition.” Sounding Bodies: Improvisation, Representation and Subjectivity. Ed. by Gillian Siddall and Ellen Waterman. Duke University Press, 2016