October 2008

Aidan Baker | Tim Hecker | Pram
at the third annual X Avant Festival of New Music
October 25, 2008 The Music Gallery Toronto
Safe Inside the Womb of Space
Report and photos by Tom Sekowski
Saturday night’s X Avant offering had what I would call organic qualities. Each of the three acts had a wealth of well thought-out and naturally expounded sonic perceptions that led the listeners onwards and upwards to a cinematic world of one’s soul.
Resident of Toronto, guitarist Aidan Baker is someone whose work I’ve admired over the last few years. Equally as good in constructing drone landscapes as he is within the realms of his harsher outfit Nadja, his music is a difficult one to slap a label on. Tonight was the night we were all witnesses to the premiere of his Liminoid outfit. Made up of the leader on guitars (and some vocals), Liminoid also features guitarists Clara Engel and Jonathan Demers, cellists Nick Storring and Tilman Lewis, violinist Laura Bates along with percussionists Richard Baker and Jakob Thiesen (who also dabbled in electronics).
Not paying much attention to the visual aspect of the performance, all I remember is the hour-long progression into the world of an organic drone. As the leader (who was also in charge of conducting his octet) set the pace in playing some bravely obtuse motifs (though these were based heavily in melody) on his guitar, the rest followed suit. Very quickly, it became apparent the band had little interest in presenting anything that could be branded as experimental or avant-garde. In fact, what we got was a brand of folk-rock-drone that kept on rolling and rolling. Strings meshed together into one big bowl of soup. As the cellos, violin and guitars played off each other, the drummers kept a constant, pulsating tab on the music at hand. From a textural perspective, the audience was in for a treat. Everywhere, there was evidence of keen musicianship and sharply honed compositional skills. While improvisational drifts were permitted within the whole piece, Baker left very little to chance.

Midway through, the band suddenly stopped and broke into a choral sing-along. Nothing felt contrived though as each voice in the ensemble was heard loud and clear. Ample breathing room was allotted for everything to give off an organic whiff. The drone aspect was exalted as the octet played repetitive motifs that evolved carefully, while shifting colour and textures. When the hour-long piece fizzled out, my only regret was that it didn’t continue for a while longer… perhaps another hour or so.

I would like to throw an outright lie and state that Canadian electronic music guru Tim Hecker was a blast but regrettably that was not the case. While the visuals projected on the ceiling of the Music Gallery were stunning (these featured rocket launches, constellation systems, stars and astronauts performing a variety of space duties), the music left a bit to be desired. Standing nearly motionless in front of his laptop, Hecker diffused a variety of motifs of bleeps, beats, and drab atmospherics across space and time. Only half an hour in length, his set left me in a state of daze. I literally dozed off. Perhaps this was due to a rough day I just had or simply due to the fact the sounds were wholly soothing. Soothing is not exactly the most glowing compliment as my expectations were to experience something altogether more abrupt and left field, but I had to settle for what I got.

Closing the night was an act that many in the audience were waiting for. For obvious reasons (cost of travel, slew of instruments to lug around), Pram never played in Canada until this night. Though I do recall their stuff from the early 90’s when they rubbed shoulders with Stereolab (being signed to the same label — Too Pure), the music they put on was only remotely familiar and space-miles away from their humble origins. Right off the bat, it’s crucial to point out that this UK outfit is high on film. In fact, on numerous occasions, they were commissioned for collaborations with filmmakers and visual artists.

Films they showed throughout their hour-long performance were split between black and white and those shot in brilliant colour. Abstract in nature, they featured zombie-like creatures, people dressed up in masks, strange concoctions of slithering monsters and a slew of auxiliary stuff that made little sense, if any at all. This doesn’t mean that it didn’t make for great narrative, which it did. In fact, Pram’s music was very intricately married to the visuals. In employing a variety of instruments that don’t often get the time of day — theremin, airsynth, stylophone, marimba, analogue keyboards — they set up an eerie soundtrack in the shape of a warm cocoon. This was instrumental music with a keen eye for an unwavering narrative flow. Trombone and clarinets that were deployed often throughout the night added a fresh layer of warmth to their already boiling sort of music. Neither rock, pop nor jazz, the only descriptive word that came to mind is cinema-driven narration. Like a mother telling her young child an intricate fairy tale with all the side-winding tangents, Pram was all that and more.

In a nutshell, musical integrity was on display along with the willingness to marry the visual aspects, while putting everything in perfect order on a neat shelf. Not to be one who is driven by any sort of fads, if Pram ever was (or is) in the public attention (in other words — if the hipsters are digging them), I’m signing up to their private club without a hint of hesitation.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Tom Sekowski
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