Ensemble SuperMusique Music Gallery, Toronto ON, October 18

Ensemble SuperMusique Music Gallery, Toronto ON, October 18
Photo: Devin Hurd
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The opening piece of Ensemble SuperMusique's first set was an exercise in extreme restraint. A group dynamic that includes two drummers constrained to quiet cymbal work. A turntablist working only with tightly controlled amounts of feedback. The musical texture featured two alto saxophones operating within a similarly constrained space — often playing without mouthpiece. A single muted trombone weaving its own drones into the overall mix.

It was a clear introduction to the aesthetic principles behind the enormously successful genre of musique actuelle — a movement that has brought international attention to the improvised music scene in Quebec. Ensemble SuperMusique's two sets were a sampling of various kinds of compositional strategies used to shape group improvisation. It is an approach that favours pre-determined, formal constraints and rule-based systems over conducted, in-the-moment decisions.

Much of the material and sonorities draw upon other collectivist approaches found elsewhere. Yet the result is a uniquely French Canadian combination of these influences. Jean Derome's use of hand-held toys and objects is similar to the Art Ensemble of Chicago's use of "little instruments" with a sound that is closer to an Art Ensemble of Montreal. The collectivist nature of musique actuelle is itself similar Chicago's AACM — possibly the only improvisation focused collective older than musique actuelle itself — with a distinctly different temperament shaping its sound. The sequencing of formal materials and focus on redirecting individual improvised elements has a clear ancestry in musique concrete's manipulation of recorded sound — a trait not often associated with live improvised music.

The music on this particular evening was a thin sheen of sound that left plenty of space to hear the game theory operating behind it. It was music built upon the notion that beauty could be discovered, rather than deliberately engineered.