The Montreal-New York Quartet will bring four of the finest improvisers and experimental musicians from Canada and the United States to Australia in April. I caught up with guitarist Tim Brady via Skype to talk about his super-group ensemble, commissioning works from antipodean composers and Julian Assange’s phrasing.
You’ve visited Australia periodically since 1990, but this time you’re bringing a bunch of people with you. Can you tell us about the ensemble?
Well, three is hardly a bunch, but yes, I am. From Montreal I’m bringing viola player Pemi Paull and bass-clarinettist Lori Freedman, whom I’ve worked with for about ten years. They are amazing players; they’re considered some of the best players on their instruments in Canada. Both have classical backgrounds and Lori is also an incredible improviser. Tom Buckner has been one of the mainstays of the New York experimental scene for about 25 years. He’s worked a lot with an American experimental composer called Robert Ashley and he’s also a great improviser. He has this great range: he can do lieder, he can do improvisation, experimental, extended vocal techniques. This whole project was initiated by Tom and his production company. We picked the musicians more on who we thought would be interesting to work with. The instrumentation is quite wonderful but quite exotic: Baritone voice, electric guitar, viola and bass clarinet.
So what have you found to play?
There’s a lot of interesting new music in Australia. We’ve commissioned new pieces by two Australian composers who we thought had a lot to say. They’re very different pieces. One is a text-based piece with a bit of improvisation, the other is more of a lieder, chamber music setting. Tom has been working with the New Zealand composer Annea Lockwood, who has been living in New York for a long time and who has done a lot of work in Australia (though I am well aware that Australia is not New Zealand and vice versa!).
I’ve got a couple of works in there, then we’ll be playing a piece by John Cage and Christian Wolf for two reasons: One is that Tom has a strong connection with the American experimental movement. He’s been doing that for 35–40 years. The other is that because our instrumentation is so peculiar there’s no off-the-rack music, so we’ve worked with open and graphic scores. Also, because we’re all quite comfortable with improvisation and active, spontaneous music-making.
How have the experimental and improvised music scenes changed over the past 15 or so years, since you were last performing here? What are you bringing that you couldn’t have back then?
I don’t mean to sound blasé, but I’m not sure if music can sound remarkably different anymore. Nowadays, as you know, any sound is permitted. It is impossible to shock people with sound, apart from with the simplistic party trick of playing too fucking loud. That’s just painful and we don’t plan to do that. For me, two things are interesting: finding artists who have developed their own voice. It’s difficult to say where someone’s music stands in the flow of time these days, we’re too close to it, but at least people have something personal to say. The other thing is playing music, such as my own, which is very precisely notated, next to the Cage and the Wolf stuff, which is very imprecisely notated. The Australian music sits a little bit between them. The most interesting thing about this concert to me is that the people listening actually won’t care. If it’s a good performance, if it’s a great piece, whether it’s precisely or imprecisely notated won’t matter. We’re getting past the questions of “how is the music written down?” and more to “what is the music trying to say? What is it trying to portray on stage and give to the audience?”
And one of the pieces contains quotations from Julian Assange, is that right?
That’s the Griswold. That was Tom Buckner’s team’s idea. They thought it would be interesting for two reasons: One is that Julian Assange is Australian, the other is that he is an interesting and controversial figure at the moment. They asked me if I wanted to do it and, while I do find Julian Assange a very interesting figure and much of what he has written is very interesting, when I was reading these texts of his I didn’t hear any music. I have a very simple rule for when I set a text to music: I have to read the text and almost instantaneously hear some sort of music to go along with it. It may not be the final piece, but it has to create a sense of musical dialogue right away. The Assange texts were great, but I heard no music in them. I was very pleased that Erik could find some texts to make a piece. The texts are quite deconstructed, though you can still sometimes understand the sense. He also uses them as the basis for improvisations. Assange is talking about very serious issues and it boils down to the phrase structure. He writes long sentences with lots of subordinate clauses, which is entirely appropriate to the kind of thing he is trying to communicate. But when you’re trying to set text to music, subordinate clauses are a nightmare because you can’t sing them. So Erik came up with a way of cutting it up that sidesteps the whole problem in a very elegant manner.
The Montreal-New York Quartet will be touring Australia in April, including:
April 5, Presented by Tura New Music, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Perth, WA (concert will be broadcast by ABC Classic FM)
April 7–9, Elder Conservatorium of Music, Adelaide, SA
April 10, Monash University (Classes and workshops), Performing Arts Center, Clayton, VIC
April 14, The University of Melbourne, Melba Hall, Melbourne, VIC
April 16, Queensland Conservatorium, Clocked Out Series, Ian Hangar Recital Hall, Brisbane, QLD
April 17, University of Western Sydney, Playhouse Theatre, Sydney, NSW
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.