Features | Concerts

X Avant Festival: Tim Hecker / Oval / Global Cities Ensemble

By Joel Elliott | 29 October 2011

The Music Gallery carries a lot of weight in Toronto both as an idea and a venue. Initiated by CCMC back in the ’70s, it has since bore a great deal of both the city’s experimental and avant-garde-leaning performances as well as its international imports. But its current incarnation at home in St. George the Martyr Church, that stubborn adherence to classical beauty in the shadow of Frank Gehry’s revamped Art Gallery of Ontario and the pencil crayon legs of the Ontario College of Art and Design, raises the stakes considerably. Its alcohol-free sanctuary has seen music as rapturous as the setting, but it doesn’t exactly produce an environment conducive to music that would be better suited to safely lingering in the background.

The Gallery’s X Avant Festival is as diverse as the rest of the year’s programs, but opener Global Cities Ensemble, an awkward marriage of hip-hop and global fusion, was weirdly out of place on this bill. Initial arrangements of spare Iranian and gamelan instrumentation were jarringly disrupted by Buck 65-esque folky rap. MC Abdominal mixes global sounds with first-world problems: one song is a remarkably honest account of suffering from OCD, as naïve, earnest and yet narcissistic as the name “Global Cities Ensemble” would suggest. The issue may be more practical than cultural: uninventive beats and rhymes that seem strained by the frankness with which Abdominal documents them, rather than liberated. Still, in an era where hip-hop subsuming Middle-to-Far-East sounds and beyond is nothing new, their addition here feels less like an organic development of a sound than an afterthought, and so, a strained statement of purpose.

The novelty of seeing Markus Popp—whose mid-to-late ’90s records as Oval are as essential to the history of electronic music as Kraftwerk, Frankie Knuckles, and Aphex Twin—was huge, but quickly offset by the realization that I no more need his physical presence to appreciate his music than I need Jackson Pollock to stand beside his paintings while I get lost in them. Popp never even had the prominent club roots of Richard D. James or Autechre that would render a DJ-set appropriate, much less a traditional concert space. It probably doesn’t help that I failed to really appreciate his recent foray into little nugget-sized slabs of disjointed IDM on O (2010), especially when he basically cycled through the album along with other new material without even the benefit of interesting bridges. After the first track, the audience clapped, but then either the crowd collectively realized how inappropriate a response that was or Popp did and started leaving less of a gap between his sketches, but the obvious breaks still precluded any sense of immersion.

On the surface, Tim Hecker’s approach wasn’t radically different: most of the tracks were pieces from his recent Ravedeath, 1972, not appreciably different in arrangement, even if he processed them in real time from the church’s pipe organ. And yet the difference in effect was staggering: as if being plunged into darkness with only sound either makes or breaks a set (I didn’t even have the benefit of seeing Hecker play, who was confined to the other side of the venue by the organ). It may have completely altered my opinion on that album, which I previously thought paled in comparison to Harmony in Ultraviolet (2006) or Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again (2001), though I may never listen to that album on my shitty speakers ever again having witnessed it transformed through a large space. It’s that sound of endlessly cycling sustained tones that reaches back into the pipe organ’s history, from sacred music to silent cinema, both rooted in collective experience and transference. That the darkened theatre pushed the images to the inside of the eyelids was here, miraculously, a blessing.