Nobody Made You Do This Improv Community in Montreal and Toronto

Nobody Made You Do This Improv Community in Montreal and Toronto
It's another unseasonably cold evening waiting in line at the 19th annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle du Victoriaville. On the fourth night of a five day festival, there is little to do but scan the crowd and chat to the person next to you. The crowds are bigger than the last time I was here, in 1994, and younger (as well, at this show, somewhat red-eyed). They're no longer oh so serious free jazz and art music patrons, but it's not in complete contrast to FIMAV's traditional crowd — both the younger and older patrons find common ground exchanging thoughts on the festival's events thus far. It's a sign of the changing fan base for improvised music, reflected too in the range of performers featured this year: jazz legend Cecil Taylor, noise terrorist Merzbow, Godspeed You Black Emperor! associates Set Fire to Flames, no wave Japanese rockers Melt Banana and electronic experimenters David Kristian and Sam Shalabi all take the stage over five nights.

"[FIMAV] is a place [for local and international musicians] to meet and communicate together," says festival director Michel Levasseur. "Montreal is blossoming at the moment, with younger musicians and different scenes. It's a parallel to when we started."

This is a tale of two cities, and their communities of improvising musicians. It starts 20 years ago, when both Montreal and Toronto had thriving improv scenes that drew upon a number of similar factors — expanding the horizons of improvisation, a disregard for lines between composition and freedom, and an inclusive sense of many types of music from punk to classical — and both scenes flourished for a time. Toronto's dissolved due to a lack of collective spirit, rising rent and gentrification in the Queen West area driving artists out of downtown, and a lack of recording initiative. Meanwhile, Montreal persisted and flourished through a sense of collectivity, a more broad-minded approach to mixed media art, better government support, cheaper rent and a more dedicated business approach. As a result, the strides made by Toronto musicians have been largely overlooked, while Quebec remains on the cutting edge of the scene, in terms of record labels, festivals, and a world-wide identification with the term "musique actuelle." Now, a whole new generation of artists are drawing from those roots, and spreading the word, even though their take on the music — informed not only by jazz but other improvised forms, electronic and rock elements — are carrying on the spirit if not the specific musical legacy of these traditions.

This journey begins internationally, as jazz inspired musicians around the world expanded the language of improvisation based on African American forms. Free jazz sought to extend the language and break down the song structures that constrained improvisation within its traditions. By the late '60s many musicians in Europe began to dispense with melodies, harmony and structure altogether and become collective, spontaneous improvisers. European folk traditions, electric instruments and rock influences began to enter the language of these improvisers.

In America, players as diverse as Miles Davis and the Art Ensemble of Chicago incorporated free forms into groove music. Perhaps the most fully explored free funk concept was Ornette Coleman's "harmolodics." This is a form of musical organisation in which all instruments share responsibility for leading the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic aspects of a piece. It updated African-American collective improvisation to reflect the wide range of contemporary rhythms and instrumentation. Harmolodic music emphasised the equality among players, it was loud and electric and rhythmic — very appealing to a post punk/New Wave audience. Ornette's band, Prime Time, incorporated plenty of funk into their playing, most notably with bass poppin' maniac Jamaladeen Tacuma.

Ornette's development of harmolodics in the mid-'70s inspired many Toronto musicians. Bill Grove led Whitenoise and Not King Fudge during the '80s — bands that combined propulsive rock and funk beats, and were heavy on the guitars. Grove's lead alto sax role recounts the impact of Coleman's ideas on himself and like-minded musicians in the ‘80s.

"I'd heard Ornette playing his Prime Time thing and it struck me that was a great revelation," Grove says. "This was finally it. Because as much as I liked bop, the language wasn't mine, the swing feel isn't mine. So to incorporate multi layers of rock music and getting musical complexity out of it. I was snobbish at that point and I though rock music was stupid, but nonetheless it has incredible power — that's what made me change Whitenoise to what it became."

Nilan Perera's rhythmic abstractions on guitar were an integral part of two other mainstays of the period: NOMA (see sidebar) and Thin Men, who had a lurching sound like Captain Beefheart with a lead trombonist. He describes the artistic interchange on Toronto's Queen Street West as being made possible by affordable and available housing.

"Most cultural movements are dependent on sociological and economic conditions: places to play, time to play, youth of the individuals involved and their excitement around that. All that happened in 1977 with punk, people wanted to [be a part of it] somehow, and people like Ornette doing Prime Time [was our expression of it]."

The impulses for the music shaping Toronto's avant jazz/dance bands are summed up by veteran Toronto bassist Victor Bateman. As the leader of Vektor, his music wasn't as manic as Whitenoise, but was still long on funky grooves with vocals, even as they veered off into skronky horn sounds. Bateman also cites punk's spirit as a motivation. "It really came out of the overall punk period. Suddenly it was really important if you have a band to write your own material. I really didn't feel like we were that much different than what other bands were like at the time in terms of the actual musical materials that we were using, it was more a matter of how we chose to arrange them and how free we were with them." This was a new path between — as Tim Powis put it in an Eye weekly review of a Bill Grove gig — "blithely side-stepping Toronto's reigning bipolar orthodoxies of bebop and acoustic free jazz."

In contrast to Toronto, jazz was only part of "musique actuelle" — folk, new wave, rock, industrial noise and theatrics all blend together with an irreverent sense of humour. Jean Derome is a flautist and saxophonist who is central to the development of musique actuelle. Derome has released a huge variety of albums over his career. As a composer and performer he'll touch everything from Thelonius Monk to bird calls, wrenching what's required out of every ingredient as needed — a bit like John Zorn, but still more varied. "Musique actuelle is about blending many different styles," he explains, "from a funk bass to some 12-tone Webern thing with a free voice on top with elements that are more composed. When you're playing jazz you're playing more with the tradition of the music. For me it's more like a folk music in a way — even if the improvised part is very important — but when you're playing in the actuelle music context, maybe half the musicians in the band won't speak the jazz language at all."

There had not been much in the way of a new music scene in Montreal during the ‘70s, recounts Derome, but there was much artistic activity. A good deal musical experimentation took place in art studio spaces. One of the most important, adventurous bands to come out of this cross fertilisation the late ‘70s was Conventum, an ensemble that took sharp left turns from Quebecois folk forms into Fripp-like territory. Their sculpture studio of the same name was a rehearsal, performance and exhibition space all in one.

The co-operative impulse extended from the artistic and musical roots into new ventures. Derome, guitarists Rene Lussier and Andre Duchesne (from Conventum) and reedist Robert M. Lepage joined together to form the Ambiences Magnetiques label in 1982. Joane Hetu was a founding member, and is also the head of DAME distribution, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary. She had previously been a founder of SuperMeMe, which books shows and organises festivals. Musically, she plays sax and excels at wordless vocal improvisation, and is in constant, expressive motion in performance. She explains the lack of awareness the Montreal artists had of improvised music around the globe. "At the beginning we were really alone, but in '85, Chris Cutler [Recommended Records Distribution] came to Montreal and listened to our music and said ‘a lot of other people in the world are doing this kind of music too.' Chris gave us all his contacts in the world. At this point there was really growth — at that point we realised there were other people doing this too, using similar methods."

Ambiences Magnetiques and the establishment of FIMAV gave Montreal's scene a stronger foundation upon which to develop. Derome has characterised Ambiences's early days as informal at best, but nevertheless it released 15 albums by 1991, allowing each member of the collective to record and develop their talents. As well, Cutler's contacts (which are still the foundation of Ambiences's distribution to this day) helped attract international acclaim. With more acclaim came more opportunities to perform both within Montreal and internationally. FIMAV quickly became the meeting place for musicians from Montreal to further their international connections. The Victo label was launched in 1987 as an adjunct to the festival; to date more than 80 releases have been distributed internationally, many of which featured Quebecois musicians. The organised nature of Ambiences Magnetiques and FIMAV has greatly helped to attract government money. While there is a longstanding perception that it's easier to get funding in Quebec, Derome and Hetu relate that it wasn't the Quebecois government supplying it.

"The Quebec government isn't so supportive, the Canadian government better supports artists," Hetu says. "They set goals, objectives and programs that we can realise, but there's still not a lot of money. Proportionately Quebec invests a lot of money to keep Francophones powerful, in cinemas and in theatres. But the musical vision of Quebec seems to be symphony or song-oriented, while we are making instrumental music that doesn't get played on the radio — that doesn't correspond with them. They put their money into commercial art."

"Since we've started to get recognition outside [the Canada Council and Quebec Government] realised that they were kind of missing the boat," according to Derome. "When we got invitations to play elsewhere, that's when they took notice."

Meanwhile, in Toronto, there were no record labels taking chances on any of the Toronto bands. None of the bandleaders could generate enough money to record and release vinyl — more cassettes exist in college radio stations across Canada than ever made it to stores. None of the Toronto musicians owned the means of production for records, so it was left up to the odd studio session and the trusty four-track to generate ideas. Proceeds from gigs alone couldn't cover recording costs, and without recordings, promotion and gigs outside the city (and the country) were harder to come by. Although Montreal's ability to pull in funding through was due to the existence of collective business ventures, every musician I talked to said that collective action was never a consideration in Toronto.

By the end of the ‘80s conditions were changing in both Toronto and Montreal. It was a time of consolidation for artists in both cities. On the one hand, in Montreal, DAME was established by Hetu in 1991 to provide distribution for Ambiences Magnetiques and similar labels, and became a more effective, businesslike enterprise. In Toronto, the scene was declining and with the recession of the early ‘90s, it was harder to book gigs. This resulted in multiple bands being booked into a venue, thinly stretching the door receipts. Combined with high rents and low vacancy rates, many artists could no longer afford to live downtown. Despite the danceable tendencies of the Toronto bands, it became clear that they were never going to capture a mainstream audience (with the possible exception of the irrepressible Shuffle Demons). It was still perceived as art music first and foremost, and home-grown art took second place to international art. The harmolodic bands had vanished by the mid-‘90s.

"Everything goes in these kind of cycles where people are new into things and are willing to sacrifice, like rehearse endlessly for no money," says Nilan Perera. "There was a buzz about it, the press got it, but it was a whole Canadian thing — I mean, where do you go with it? Anyone who was heavily motivated would have gone to Europe or the U.S., but pretty much everyone stayed here. It's like Cecil Taylor said: nobody made you do this. You go into this with your eyes wide open, if you get bitter then it's your own fault."

In Montreal, Ambiences Magnetiques/DAME has anchored the scene for 20 years, able to foster events, release 100 albums, attract grants and promote artists abroad lull in popularity. Combined with Montreal's traditionally lower rents and business costs, these are the conditions necessary for survival in fringe music. Musique actuelle is a thriving scene: the challenge for DAME will be with keeping things fresh with new artists and new ideas. Even with the continued notoriety of DAME, it will never be easy, according to Hetu. "Within the group there are highs and lows. It's not getting better and better, but also not worse. There can be long stretches without gigs still. I sell about 6000 to 7000 records a year. If I sold 25,000 every year, things would be completely different."

But almost all musicians acknowledge that there is an upswing in interest in improvised music over the last few years. Levasseur notes that after years of his Victoriaville festival attracting around 5000 people, "Last year, we had the best year ever with 7000 people. In the last five years there was an important change in the public. The people who were interested in the '80s and '90s came from an avant-garde or jazz and bop scene, but the new people, mostly younger people come from the rock scene, [the popularity of] Sonic Youth, Mike Patton, Tortoise and Godspeed bring more young people now."

Younger players today have knowledge and facility with all kinds of improvised music and repetitive elements. Derome muses that younger players today have over 30 years of free improv in jazz, classical and electronic music to draw from. "Younger students, now they listen to the records and they know how to do this stuff. They say ‘I know how to make this music,' which is really funny because we were like blind men with our hands in front of us."

Players are much more comfortable working with electronics as well. Improvisation within repetitive electronics has a familiar feel to the veterans of Toronto bands of the ‘80s. Tom Walsh, the leader of Thin Men and NOMA, says "The scene was more about people who were open to free improv, who were into applying some concepts to formulate new ways to play songs. The music itself has mutated a bit. Hip-hop music and samplers came along and most of that music has more than one tonal area at the same time. If you analyse it, it's basically harmolodic — it's new ways of finding harmony."

In both Toronto and Montreal, the new fans of improvised music have organisational advantages their forbears did not. Producing high-quality recordings is much cheaper now, enabling more independent labels, lessening the need for outside funding (and Hetu notes, unlike 20 years ago, there is now a checkbox on the Canada Council applications for "Musique Actuelle"). Labels like Montreal's Constellation prosper without having to depend on the whims of government funding to reach an international audience. An improviser coming from an indie rock or electronic background can draw on the experiences and connections of independent labels as models for survival. The most fundamental change in any musician's professional life in the last ten years has been the utility of the internet. Whereas ten people can be the audience for a freaky jazz show (and still is in many cases), an artist can get their ideas out around the world to the ten people in each city who might be interested. That's the strength of DAME's newly launched site, This site has immediately become a valuable source of biography and discography for new music artists from Quebec and the rest of Canada. Most importantly, more venues exist to promote live improvisation better than ever before. In both Toronto and Montreal, clubs present improvisers, rock and electronics to audiences that understand the common points of these types of music. Toronto's Wavelength and Ambient Ping series present two very different styles of improvised music, one featuring predominantly electric improvisers and rock bands, the other strictly electronic and down-tempo. Montreal's Casa Del Popolo and la Salla Rosa are among the most popular venues in Montreal, well known for their attentive crowds. New festivals have sprung up as well. The Guelph Jazz Festival has quickly become one of the best new music festivals in Canada, and has become English Canada's counterpart to FIMAV — Levasseur acknowledged this onstage prior to a concert at this year's FIMAV. Most interesting is the "Suoni per Il Popolo" festival heading into its second year. Its line-up pretty much sums up the diverse, seemingly contradictory musical influences that today's improvisers respect. During June, this festival will witness Albert Ayler bandmates Alan Silva and Sunny Murray, Tomas Jirku's techno-dub, lap steel electronicist Polmo Polpo and even "elders" Derome and Hetu playing for appreciative audiences. The vibe of this event is definitely more "street" than FIMAV, but several of the artists have played both festivals and the crowd, as mentioned at the outset, is increasingly common to both.

The conditions for success in this country lie in collective action both musically and in business, but even so success will be varied. Beyond a financial definition of success is the legacy of decades of continued creative accomplishment and community support. Whether or not the records and gigs have kept coming, every musician in this article continues to make music, some now 30 years since they've started. In the end, the most difficult challenge for improvisers remains self-motivation — it's not always going to turn out well, and frequently nobody will give a shit. Nobody will make you do it: improvisational music takes dedication and lifelong commitment to build one's own language and musical associations.

Key Recordings

Noma Climbing the Waltz (Contextural, 1992)

A very ambitious recording from perhaps the most ambitious Toronto ensemble of this period. Comprised of Montrealers and Torontonians and featuring three guitarists, three drummers and Tom Walsh's dominant trombone NOMA was a monster live — their funky, shifting noise was so intense that players on one side of the stage didn't know what was happening on the other. Though definitely more subdued than their live performances, and lacking in the bottom end, Walsh's themes build and build until the listener is overwhelmed by all the little touches in the proceedings. With guests Bern Nix (from Prime Time), Mary Margaret O'Hara and notably Michael Ondaatje, who reads his poem "Desert Dog" to hypnotic, tension-filled accompaniment from the band.

Whitenoise Physical Plant (B-Fish, recorded 1988, unreleased)

Bill Grove calls this his favourite Whitenoise recording, and it's easy to see why. Even though these are just rough mixes, it has an urgency that is diluted on the two official Whitenoise albums (The Importance of Breath and Heavy Meta). Guitarists Mark McCarron and Howie Moscovitch weave an angry tapestry, while Glenn Milchem provides a hell of a backbeat. Grove floats on top, but unlike Ornette, he plays much more assertively. This CD is more successful at fusing rock/funk rhythms and forward thinking arrangement than anything No Wave in NYC ever produced — James Chance and the Contortions being a good point of reference. Much of Grove's material and that of other Toronto bands like Malcolm Tent is available for sale on his website

Justine (Suite) (Ambiences Magnetiques, 1990)

Hetu told me that she prefers the records she's made over the last ten years more than the first decade of Ambiences Magnetiques — I think that step forward began with this album. Hetu and collaborators Danielle P. Roger, Diane Labrosse and Marie Trudeau from previous incarnations as Wondeur Brass and Les Poules, but here the transitions between multiple structures in songs are better realised. Befitting its title, each song moves from point A to point Z utilising de-tuned synths, acoustic and electric drums, squalling sax and much more. It's all linked together with humorous, provocative and frequently wordless vocals. Lyrically the songs are grouped together as well, further extending the suite concept.

Silk Stockings A Donde Esta Mercado (B-Fish, 1987)

Not harmolodic, but certainly one of the most unique jazz records ever to come out of Toronto. Sporting a traditional, mostly acoustic line-up of sax, trumpet, guitar, bass and drums, Silk Stockings stood apart from many of the Toronto bands. However, like the harmolodicists, the interlocking poly-rhythms of these carefully constructed pieces all will set your head spinning around and around. Rainer Wiens had been leading this ensemble for about a decade by the time this album came out and the songs are superbly realised. His compositions encompassing everything from Mingus to folk melodies are brought to vivid life by sympathetic performances of Rich Bannard (drums) and Mike Murley (sax).

Jean Derome Confitures de Gagaku (Victo, 1993)

One of Derome's highlights, the fulfilment of ideas he had been working on for five years prior to this recording in 1988. His aim was to create "the equivalent of this noble and calm ceremonial" music based on Japanese Gagaku. Careful arrangements with great instrumental groupings are sustained throughout. This large ensemble goes through a number of stunningly well-executed movements into a whole that demands repeated listenings to absorb all the colours represented here. The unusual addition of singer Karen Young works very well. Tom Walsh says of this album: "it's one of the things that lured me to Montreal."

Fred Frith/Rene Lussier Nous Autres (Victo, 1987)

Ace guitarist Lussier has released more than 15 albums as a leader — and notably, he has recently released projects outside the AM collective. Nous Autres was Victo's first release. Michel Levasseur recounts that Frith and Lussier met for the first time at FIMAV. This record is a bracing guitar/found object/whatever duet that ranks among Frith's very best work in large part because of the equality of the relationship with Lussier. Lussier's playing is spikier and more rock-oriented, but both come up with loads of ideas, both rockin' and pensive. When speaking of Lussier's amazing body of work one must also recommend Le Tresor de La Langue (Ambiences Magnetiques, 1989), his fascinating transposition of French speeches and snippets of found sound into a musical canvas as a meditation on the meanings and varieties of the French language in Quebec.

Paul Cram Beyond Benghazi (Apparition, 1987)

Cram was from the West Coast and spent time in Toronto during the ‘80s before moving to Halifax. He has been leading big band since the ‘80s and is a founding member of the new music orchestra Hemispheres. Beyond Benghazi is urgent, ambitious big band jazz with shifting grooves laid down by the furious Stych Winston. Julius Hemphill (of the World Saxophone Quartet) is the special guest, but there are standout solos from just about everyone in the band, notably Toronto sax stars Nic Gotham and Richard Underhill. Cram's arrangements are maniacal, almost overwhelming, but never too much. Cram's latest big band work, Camping Out came out last year on Victo, adding to that label's growing list of Canadian artists originating outside Quebec.

A bit of a caveat on all these records: bass is in short supply, early digital keyboards and effects processing sometimes is too much.