October 2008

Canaille / Stefano Scodanibbio / Sonic Liberation Front
at the third annual X Avant Festival of New Music
October 24, 2008 The Music Gallery Toronto
Report by Zoë Guigueno
The first thing I saw when I walked into the Music Gallery was a satellite image of Earth and what might have been the microscopic view of a bacterium floating around on the ceiling. I soon learned that the theme for this year’s X Avant New Music Festival was “Space is the Place” — a nod to Sun Ra, and because as the Music Gallery’s artistic director Jonathan Bunce wrote in the festival guide, “the silence of space just cries out for a soundtrack to those gorgeous images”. Perhaps it wasn’t a bacterium I was seeing but multi-coloured comet guts.

The evening started out in the front room with the aptly named local jazz quintet Canaille (“riff raff”). The front room is a lot more casual than the main hall of the church — you can drink pop (they sadly no longer have a liquor license) and look around at all the funny instruments on the walls, while listening to acoustic music.

Canaille is led by composer and alto player Jeremy Strachan and features Colin Fisher on tenor, Nick Buligan on trumpet, Mike Smith on double bass, and Brandon Valdivia on drums. The first tune starts with a groove, a written melody that is loosely but deliberately delivered by the horn players. Then Fisher starts soloing, and the chain of reactions leads to a frantic, frothing scream in the highest part of his altissimo. Before he explodes, Strachan takes the line and winds it down before steering off into completely different territory, and all the while, the propelling walking lines of Smith, and the dancing and crashing about, the drunken precision and taste of Valdivia (who looked like a banana that night — brown hair, yellow sweater) cause the music to be its own entity — but is eventually cued back to the head out. Each song started out as planned, but spiraled out into the wild, where the instruments become bison fighting over a mate, or owls hunting mice in a vale.

I was completely full of beans after the show and went to express my feelings to trumpet player Buligan. “It was alright,” he shrugged. I ducked away to get some food before the next performance and marveled at the gap between the listener’s expectations and those of the band.

The audience moved into the main hall of the church to receive double bass soloist Stefano Scodanibbio. Earlier, on the grounds outside the church, I’d heard members of Canaille giving him enthusiastic reviews, and was excited in any case to see what a bass player would do all on his lonesome. The etiquette in here is more formal, so as we sat in the pews we didn’t make a peep as Scodanbbio tuned his instrument. When he had finished, he switched bows and rolled his shoulders and his head, took a breath, and commenced his composition “Voyage that Never Ends”.

The piece started with the bow moving slowly across the strings, diagonal to the bridge, but all that could be heard was the breathing of the two speakers, waiting for the microphone to send them a signal, waiting and breathing with the audience. Some sound made its entrance into the world imperceptibly, but eventually grew into a thick drone. Overtones slipped in and the whole room buzzed and reverberated with the harmonic series. I’m still not entirely sure what happened. The bow then began bouncing on the strings, producing accented tones that almost had the timbre of a glockenspiel or a tonal raindrop falling on a bustling tide pool. Then it flipped around on its back and began to resemble a playful kitten, rubbing itself against the strings, bouncing, flipping around. All my attention was on this French bow, and Scodanibbio was the graceful master, his hands lifting weightlessly from the instrument .

Despite my fascination, “Voyage That Never Ends” is essentially a showcase of Scodanibbio’s techniques, and the different sections of the piece all focus on a different approach to the instrument. One section demonstrated the execution of artificial harmonics with both hands on the fingerboard. Instead of one hand determining the pitch and the other producing the sound, Scodanbbio used his abnormally flexible thumbs to bar the strings and the rest of his fingers to pluck, resulting in the bass sounding like a harp or the plucking of piano strings.

Stefano Scodanibbio
Although I was dreadfully intrigued and impressed, by the end of the forty-five minute piece I was growing a little anxious for some harmonic movement, some rhythm, some melody. The ethereal drone and the vast spectrum of sounds and dynamics coming out of the instrument were very interesting, but not captivating enough to make me buy his cd. “Voyage that Never Ends” is a piece that I would love to hear again only if it was, say, the score to some experimental film, or the soundtrack to a modern dance performance — endeavours that Scodanibbio is very familiar with anyway, having worked with such artists as director Rodrigo Garcia and choreographer Vigilio Sienni.

The evening closed with Philadelphia’s Sonic Liberation Front. They began with tenorman Terry Lawso and trumpet player Todd Margasak standing a few rows back on either side of the room. The upright bassist, Matt Engle, and percussionist/leader Kevin Diehl, held the stage. The music started with long tones from the horns and a high-pitched wail from the laptop on the floor, manned by Diehl. After a considerable tension was established, the doors at the back of the church opened, and in marched the rest of the band, Chuckie Joseph, Okomfo Adwoa and Cito Candell each with some type of percussion. They played their way through the room and joined the horn players on the stage.

This band is all about the drums. Instruments including the itotele, onkonkolo and iya (all hourglass-shaped Bata drums from Cuba), the African chekere, palitos (sticks, basically), congas, clave, djembe, kinkine, and drumkit, are all traded around for each new song. Laying down rhythms from Cuba and the West African Yoruba people is the basis for the music. From there, over a steady bass groove, the horns are free to take off wherever they please.
Sonic Liberation Front
Though the groove of the music was constant, the groove of the performance was very stop and start. In between songs the band made no effort to connect with or even distract the audience from the awkward trading of instruments and shuffling around onstage. The concept is very interesting — combine free jazz with traditional Afro-Cuban drumming? But it didn’t click. The opening tune was the best and it frankly got boring after that.
Jeremy Strachan – alto
Colin Fisher – tenor
Nick Buligan – trumpet
Mike Smith – double bass
Brandon Valdivia – drums

Sonic Liberation Front
Kevin Diehl – itotele, onkonkolo, conga, electronics, drumkit, chekere, clave, palitos
Chuckie Joseph – iya, lead vocals, guitar, congas, itotele, quinto, djembe kinkine, drumkit
Okomfo Adwoa – okonkolo, itotele, chekere, percussion
Cito Candell – okonkolo, congas, percussion
Matt Engle – bass
Terry Lawso – tenor saxophone
Todd Margasak – cornet

Stefano Scodanibbio

We welcome your comments and feedback
Zoë Guigueno
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