Suoni Per Il Popolo, Part 1
Editor’s Note: Now in its 14th year, the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival in Montreal, Canada is unmatched in its eclecticism, presenting an exciting mix of rock, jazz, electronic, folk, contemporary classical, and experimental music. This year’s festival took place from June 4 – 22 with events throughout the city, and centered in two venues in the Mile End district, Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa. Music editor George Grella and assistant music editor Marshall Yarbrough were in Montreal last month, and will be sharing their recap of the festival in this issue, in print and on the Web.
With my train held up for two hours at the border, I arrived in Montreal on Sunday June 8th with a scant stretch of northern sunlight slanting through the cottonwoods and just enough time to drop my bags and bounce down to Casa del Popolo, where I managed to catch the second half of an opening set by the Marlees. The half-dozen songs I saw were an energetic brand of early rock ’n’ roll made compelling by the band’s disaffected swagger. I was sorry to have missed the full set.
Next up was White Poppy, the moniker for Crystal Dorval, who uses loop pedals and guitar to build dense, layered compositions. What was remarkable in White Poppy’s set was the range of styles from song to song: Dorval began with an ambient exercise, long meandering melodies grounded around a recurring tonic, then shifted into a more dynamic song built on overlapping loops of fingerpicked electric guitar, like a mellower Dustin Wong. Dorval was adept at transitioning, there were no pauses between songs; each part of her set cohered into a full unit.
The night’s highlight was headliner You’ll Never Get to Heaven, a duo from London, Ontario. The band played an ominous mode of clubby post-punk, there was some of the stuck-inside-of-a-clock feel of UK band Broadcast, but with more of a sparse Manchester bent to the melodies. Chuck Blazevic controlled prerecorded tracks with the help of an open source hardware controller called a Monome, which allowed him to change the songs’ harmonic structure on the fly. The Monome, a nondescript grid of white buttons that lit up depending on what Blazevic was doing, was like the electronic sampling equivalent of an accordion’s left-hand button array.
One goal of mine in covering this fest was to see acts in a range of different genres; I wanted to follow the curators’ lead on the eclectic front. Traveling around town the next day, I also tried to get a feel for the festival in the context of the city as a whole. It wasn’t hard to spot signs. Every lamp post and every fence in the Mile End neighborhood, where the festival was concentrated, carried a different flyer for a different Suoni show. Of course, as you’d expect with any event in any big city, the reaction from locals varied; for instance, none of the people I was staying with had heard of the festival. There were many, though, whose response was instant recognition: “Oh yeah, Suoni!”
Monday night’s show was an all-punk lineup at Il Motore, a bus ride away from Casa del Popolo. A bare bones venue across the street from a lighting warehouse, Il Motore had a dingy storefront church vibe that was perfect for that night’s lineup. Opening band Heat played three great songs before losing momentum, their Slanted & Enchanted-outtake sound becoming a bit more sloppy the longer they played. The second act, Detroit’s Protomartyr, was the best of the night. The band’s standoffish demeanor gave way to bruised emotion as the set progressed. The band played with utter confidence, like they’d been touring nonstop since the financial crisis hit—which they maybe have been. Frontman Joe Casey favored a declamatory singing style; dressed like an out-of-work Hamilton Leithauser, he sounded more like Ian McKay. When the band played their single “Come and See” toward the end of the set, I was scrambling to figure out where I’d heard it before; it had the know-it-in-your-bones feel of a classic.
Fellow Detroit natives Tyvek followed with a frenetic set. Around the third song I saw a beefy guy slip past me to dive into the middle of the audience in front of the stage and start slam dancing. One wonders how advisable it is to sell bottled beer in this kind of venue; by the end of the night the floor was strewn with broken glass. Brooklyn’s Parquet Courts, closing the night, lived up to their local acclaim. Each of the three singers gave variations on Mark E. Smith’s laconic singing style, but only occasionally did the band go for the Fall’s minimalism. The quartet was just as comfortable unleashing quick bursts of catchy melody as it was sinking into a long, barbed groove; some of its extended guitar solos were worthy of the drawn out stretches you hear on Velvet Underground bootlegs.
One more thing about the Il Motore show: If you’ve been to an indie rock show before, you’ve probably got a sense of what it was like. If you haven’t ever been to one, picture the L station at Lorimer on a weekend night: lots of good-looking young people in interesting clothes, lots of standing around. With this kind of show, whether you’re in Canada, Europe, or the U.S., there’s not a lot of variation in atmosphere. Unlike with jazz or classical music, you don’t go to see a punk band in a no-frills venue to witness the band give a unique interpretation of their music; rather, you go for a re-enactment in real time of an idealized sound which may or may not be captured already on record. It’s both ephemeral—it only happens that one night—and eternal: it’s going to happen again in another town tomorrow.
Forgive my youthful griping, but I’ve been going to these kinds of shows for a long time now—or a long time to me, anyway—and aside from that troubling sameness, there’s also a hassle factor involved that’s getting harder and harder to ignore. It’s crowded, it’s late, you’re standing around the whole time, and if you’re alone, it’s like being at a party you weren’t invited to. I’m not saying the level of discomfort is huge, it’s not—comparable to missing the last express train and having to wait a half hour for the local: it sucks, but you’re still getting home. I’m also not saying the music should be presented any differently. I don’t want to see a punk band in a concert hall, and I don’t think punk bands should have to do anything live but play their songs. No, I’m just complaining. I’m getting older, my feet hurt, I got these gel inserts to put in my Vans but they don’t help much. The kids are alright, I’m just a little bit less so.
It was a relief, then, that Tuesday’s show at La Sala Rossa was a sit-down affair. Die Like a Dog Trio is Peter Brötzmann on saxophone and clarinet, William Parker on double bass, and Hamid Drake on drums. Touring again after a 12-year hiatus, the group played a blistering set of free jazz. If you put on Albert Ayler to set a cool atmosphere for your dinner party, you put on Die Like a Dog to clear the room. The bass was all downbeats; the drums oscillated between coloration and short four-measure bursts of hard driving rhythms. Brötzmann’s horn-playing also came in bursts, each about four beats long, circling a central note. I had the sense he was playing each burst till his lungs gave out, each four-beat blast followed by two beats of Brötzmann catching his breath. This being free jazz, the players moved in and out of sync with one another. What each had in common, what kept the group together, was a rich, full tone. When Brötzmann picked up a clarinet mid-set, the band settled into a more mellow groove, but the sax came back for the last number, and the trio ended at full volume.
I tried to take a nap before the Alden Penner show on Wednesday and didn’t wake up till the next morning, so I was well rested for the Thursday, June 12 show at La Sala Rossa. Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson opened the night with a somber set of quiet electronics. I found their set less than compelling, but it wasn’t a great environment for it; I wouldn’t want to hear Music for Airports in a concert hall either. The performance that followed, however, an improvised audio/visual performance by Philip Jeck, Michaela Grill, and Karl Lemieux, was brilliant. Grill and Lemieux worked a row of projectors beaming three square frames of Stan Brakhage-like imagery onto the screen. Turntablist Jeck constructed an intense sound collage. Throughout the set there was the recurring sound of a needle on scratchy vinyl that could have been a wildfire raging in the distance.
I was back at Sala the following night for a bill featuring four electronic acts. The first two acts, Essaie Pas and Automelodi, were both Francophone duos working in an ’80s club mode: the idea seemed to be to start with a basic rhythmic foundation, then build on it; at its best, the style gained force through repetition. These two acts had a certain scrappy charm to them, but the evening as a whole was hampered by an extreme seriousness that only got worse with third act Pharmakon and headliners Xeno & Oaklander. People in the audience, themselves more easygoing, seemed unbothered by the performers’ stuffiness. By night’s end, I was more interested in studying a curio I found off to the side of the room, an old cigarette dispenser retrofitted to dispense zines and mini-CDs called a Distroboto.
Saturday morning I woke up early to attend a panel discussion at La Vitrola, part of the inaugural meeting of CartelMTL, a conference for new music curators. There was a predictably unsexy vibe in the room, unavoidable whenever Powerpoint is involved, but as the discussion turned to the topic of networking—of the possibility of curators in Canada, the E.U., and the U.S. forming partnerships to help further the cause of experimental music—the room came to life. One participant, Alexandre Pierrepont of the Bridge, described his organization’s goal of ameliorating the alienating one-night-per-city model of touring that prevents musicians from engaging in the cultural life of the cities they play in. Having seen the effects of that sameness at the indie show on Monday, his point especially resonated.
The conference took place over four days; I only saw a glimpse, but it was enough for me—too narrow a focus on the behind-the-scenes activity can distract from the main event, the music itself. It should be said, though, that the tedious hard work of building relationships and cobbling together government grants and wading through bureaucracy—all the social-financial-logistical mess that should be understood to lie hidden beneath that strange all-encompassing “festival” label—this is all essential, and kudos to the CartelMTL organizers for fostering community among people committed to bringing us diverse and exciting music not sponsored by Budweiser.
Early Saturday evening found me at Breakglass Studios to see Maica Mia, a local three-piece. Singer Maica Armata’s intense voice soared over thick, near-sludgy distortion. The heavy fuzz was impressive, but I found most winning the clean guitar of the band’s last song, in which the group practiced restraint and opened up space for Armata’s affecting vocals. Afterwards, walking back to Mile End through Montreal’s Little Italy, a friend and I saw cars streaming Italian flags and honking their horns, celebrating Italy’s victory over England in the first round of the World Cup.
Brooklyn electronic act Excepter was scheduled to play that night at Casa del Popolo, but the band couldn’t make it in time due to car trouble. Pity not the Suoni organizers, who have such a deep bench of talent to draw from—the local acts that filled the bill in Excepter’s absence were impressive. Especially of note was a set by David Lafrance. Lafrance stood before a complicated array of knobs and wires set on a table next to a rickety travel turntable. He opened with a strange stuttered beat, like a heart palpitation; the set moved from a sparse scattered sound to one that was beautiful and rich, Lafrance constantly tweaking knobs and changing records. Emilie Mouchous, in the following set, was equally engaging in a different mode, building a slow, ever-mutating drone for a peaceful, calming effect. Between Lafrance’s mad scientist tinkering, and Mouchous’s strange setup, which she controlled partly with her feet, these musicians brought visually engaging elements to a genre of music that is usually sorely lacking in that regard.
The highlight of the festival came on my final day in Montreal. Guitarist Kyle Bobby Dunn and collaborator Josh Barsky played a beautiful set inside Piscine Schubert, a community pool. The two musicians set up on the tile just past the profond end; the audience was in the pool itself, floating attentively. Dunn and Barsky began with a half hour of slow ambient tones, which bounced off the room’s vaulted ceiling, punctuated with the occasional splash from the bathers. Remember I said I wouldn’t want to hear Music for Airports in a concert hall? Well, I’d love to hear it in a pool. As Dunn and Barsky built to a thunderous peak, the bathers’ reaction moved from relaxation to awe. After the initial ambient set from Dunn, Barsky debuted a few gentle pop numbers, his fragile alto voice fading into the room’s cavernous reverb. The two musicians ended their set with a last brief stretch of ambient hum, then each stepped away from his gear and dove into the pool.
My snapshot of the festival ended with a late-night set at Casa del Popolo from the trio Boneshaker—Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, Kent Kessler on bass, Mars Williams on saxes. At a show at ISSUE Project Room a few months back, I’d seen the staggering range of sounds Nilssen-Love could coax from a drum kit. To see this range in the context of a free jazz trio was further illuminating. Kessler’s bass was fluid and perfectly aligned with Nilssen-Love’s drums; the two formed a formidable rhythmic beast for Williams to flit around with his array of different saxes, a Perseus with many Pegasuses. When the show ended I walked the two blocks back to where I was staying—no subway, no taxi, just two quiet blocks, a peaceful breeze blowing, white balls of cottonwood fluff faintly stirring in the Montreal lamplight.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.