The Music Gallery has come a long way since it was founded by the Canadian Creative Music Collective, or CCMC, in 1976. Now celebrating the launch of its 40th season of operation and tenth X Avant festival, it's embracing the occasion as an opportunity to measure its legacy. Opening X Avant X with acts that performed at the Music Gallery in its earliest years, last night (October 15) audiences were granted performances from the legendary improv group that is still a part of the Music Gallery's legal, incorporated name, and a regular that first performed there in the '80s.
The CCMC led the night with two fully improvised 20-minute sets that had a foot in the past and present, respectively. Original members Michael Snow and Casey Sokol started alone onstage behind duelling pianos as they kicked things off with a performance right out of early CCMC tradition. Attacking the keys excitedly with fingers, palms, forearms and mad intention, they sent the crowd tumbling dizzily into an overwhelming sound world where nothing was stable and instruments were clown cars. As Sokol informed the crowd, exercises like these used to conclude every CCMC show ("Everyone else would stop and leave, and Mike and I would play"), but as he left the stage for Snow to be joined by Paul Dutton, John Kamevaar and John Oswald for a second set, this one served as a chronologic reminder of the group's creative trajectory.
As the MG matured as an institution, it expanded its curatorial practice to include broader musical traditions, and so did the CCMC. By 1990, the group introduced electroacoustic practices into its repertoire, and in an important way, sowed the seeds for the CCMC we have today. As its full current line-up appeared for the group's second block of programming at the Gallery, Snow maintained his station behind the piano, Dutton growled, hissed and spat noises and garbled English into three microphones, Oswald contributed distressed saxophone lines and Kamevaar offered crackly percussion and additional sound processing from behind a sample pad and other electronics. Aside from some time restrictions enforced by a light dimmer, both of their sets were entirely unscripted.
Lori Freedman started with a bang, but one that belonged to a school far away from the unrestricted calamity that preceded her. Stationed behind a music stand, Freedman proceeded into a new program titled The Virtuosity of Excess, carefully following sheet music, stomping on a kick drum and wailing in an operatic voice, eventually leaning into a contrabass clarinet to demonstrate some of the peculiar sounds that have earned her a following.
Freedman's storied catalogue bounces between the worlds of improvised and composed music, so it can be confounding that her new program promises excess but consists of complicated compositions by the likes of Brian Ferneyhough, Richard Barrett, Raphael Cendo, Paulo Perezzani, Salvatore Sciarrino and Paul Steenhuisen. Freedman doesn't take long unpacking it to reveal there's no drought of excess to be found in this show, though.
She took minutes between some pieces to prepare sheet music intended to be followed as a tapestry spanning six music stands; toward the end of one lengthy piece, she removed her clarinet's mouthpiece as if asking for premature applause, only to proceed to play into the instrument without it. Her third piece was a composition Paul Steenhuisen less than innocently crafted out of transcriptions based on what he heard in select recordings of Freedman's improvisations.
So yes, The Virtuosity of Excess lives up to its name: There are excesses of quiet, excesses of noise, excesses of structure, excesses of discipline, excesses of postmodernist indulgence and, in the best way possible, excesses of Lori Freedman.