Freedom In Noise: Edmonton Noise Fest (Prelude Show)

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Photo: Michael Toepfer

There’s a freedom in noise. Which is not to say there’s no pressure.

A couple months ago I responded to a Kijiji ad from a local musician looking for a collaboration. Not long after I would meet Ethan Bokma, a bass clarinetist and avant garde performer. With myself on drums we began jamming improvised sounds, blending elements of avant garde jazz, drone, doom rock and sheer noise. Both of us ran our instruments through effects pedals and amplifiers; both of us favoured creativity over normalcy.  It has been a solid partnership, a melding of like-minded minds.

Just a few weeks ago we finally named ourselves: Heavy Beak.

An opportunity for our first live performance arose when local noise artist and show coordinator Mark Meloche announced he was organizing the 2017 Edmonton Noise Fest. We instantly applied, and were invited to perform both at the festival itself in August and the smaller Prelude event in June. The latter occurred just last week.

Ethan and I have respectively performed live before, so this wasn’t totally out of our scopes. But live shows are live shows. And as excited and confident as we were, the butterflies began to arise as the day closed in.

I felt like I was packing for a long trip as I dismantled and organized my drum kit – something I’d not fully done before. The only thing I was missing was a bit of pre-flight-esque insomnia, but that thankfully didn’t happen (the show was a 15 minute drive away).

Despite all the pre-preparations, time sure enough became tight as Ethan and I squeezed our respective instruments into his accommodating vehicle. That said we arrived on-time for soundcheck, setup was smooth, and the countdown was truly on.

Bohemia is a long and narrow little venue in downtown Edmonton, just in the eastern shadow of the much more imposing Winspear Centre. The sun hadn’t yet set as we parked immediately in front. Loading in felt second nature to me, having been to Bohemia many many times, even to perform on a couple similar (i.e. musically experimental) occasions.

The venue was effectively the same: deep red walls with empty framed spaces for independent artwork; the simple little bar at the back left; the soundboard booth at the back right. The front door is at the immediate right, and the stage to its immediate left, facing down the rest of the cozy space. What was new this time was the stage itself: there actually was one, a raised platform at about 4 feet high instead of just a floor.

A personal goal of mine in Heavy Beak has been to put myself as fully as possible into our music, especially on a physical level. I play drums fairly aggressively anyway, but not always emotionally. Our music is completely improvised, and as such is prone to whatever energy and impulses we may be feeling… or may be brought out.

As such I decided not to hold back at all for our debut performance. I wasn’t expecting to go crazy, per se, but I wanted to avoid the stagnant opposite. I wanted to avoid just sitting there, trying to act all cool, calm and collected, even if I was secretly nervous as hell.

So I decided to stay active leading up to our set. I sat as little as possible. I walked around a lot; I practiced drum rolls and patterns with my sticks on a chair. Closer to our set I went outside and paced up and down the sidewalk, picking up speed to near-jogging, even hopping about a bit.

When the first act ended (S’Se Sessions – we were on second), my heart rate was aided by the scramble to get my drum kit re-situated in a prompt fashion, coupled with the peak nerves of playing in public for the first time in a good long while. My kit had to be arranged differently than how it had been in the same spot in my kitchen for the past 5 or 6 years, and even during the performance it had to be micro-adjusted. It never quite felt right.

With my sampler I triggered a short interview clip of avant garde musician Peter Brötzmann philosophizing on creating dissonant music. The second he finished, we began, exploding with Ethan’s screeching bass clarinet and my rapid fire drums. For 15 minutes straight we rolled through rising waves of energy. We pushed ourselves physically on our instruments – never mind being cotton-mouthed with nerves to start, by the end I was sweating and parched. Our set was rough around the edges, particularly for me as I struggled to tell if my effects were doing the things they’d been doing in my kitchen.

Here’s where the freedom of noise comes in: theoretically, nobody can quite know if you’re screwing anything up. Unless you tell them so. Ultimately, the difference was negligible. We still making sound; we were still making noise.

But that’s not even the true sense of freedom I feel in creating free, experimental music. Ethan and I received a nice ovation from the relatively small audience. We were applauded collectively and individually for what we did. And really that’s the thing I love the most about this local sound art / noise scene: the total inclusivity. Everybody is so open, welcoming and celebratory of everyone else’s efforts.

Without getting into a whole personal thing, I’ve always struggled with feeling included. I perpetually operate with concern for what others thing, constantly expecting rejection. But I’ve never been rejected from this scene. And it’s not that I’m creating amazing works of art. It’s not that Heavy Beak is some genius new entity blowing noise doors left and right. We simply feel good knowing that people think we’re doing cool stuff.

And quite frankly, in the moment, that feels good enough.

© 2017 Andrew Hall Writes

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