With the majority of the Summer festivals concentrating on more standard fare, it’s exciting that come Autumn, the more adventurous festivals arrive. The Music Gallery – initiated in 1976 by members of free improvisors CCMC – is a prime source in Toronto for jazz/global/out/whatever music. A few years ago, they initiated the X Avant festival to present a theme-based array of that year’s programming. Ultimately successful, the festival has returned year after year.
This year, the MG has a new Artistic Director – the downright affable David Dacks – who carries an encyclopedic knowledge of the global musical landscape. This is the first time he’s attempted the programming for such a festival and it looks like he’s presented quite the line-up. Foxy Digitalis got to talking with Mr. Dacks about what’s in store for visitors of X Avant.
This is now the 7th year that The Music Gallery is hosting the X Avant new music festival. Each year, a theme is chosen and the festival programming reflects the theme. This year’s theme is “Expanding Circuits”. What meaning do you attach to those two words in the context of a festival of new music? What is the process used to generate potential themes for X Avant, and how/why did you ultimately decide on “Expanding Circuits”?
This year’s theme was easy – it’s my first year as Artistic Director, so this was my first crack at developing a themed festival! In the future I’m going to choose other wide-ranging themes so as to play with what such themes suggest. “Expanding Circuits” is a poor play on words. The ‘circuits’ part references electronics, which is what the fest is all about, while ‘expanding’ refers to a sense that musical possibilities enabled by electronics are become more widespread and varied. “Expanding” also refers to the growth of the Music Gallery into new partnerships and musical territory this year: during the festival we work with tropical bass crew Masala, leftfield downtempo promoter Mymanhenri aka 92BPM and the Association of Improvising Musicians in Toronto, who I don’t believe have co-presented anything with us.
This year’s programming is incredibly diverse. Once the central festival theme was established, how did you go about selecting performers and panelists/discussion topics for the festival?
I started planning this last October, before I was hired. Part of the interview process consisted of a mock festival. This festival is about 75% true to that exercise. The Music Gallery has 4 streams of programming: pop, jazz, classical and world music, and the X Avant festival’s intention is to bring them all together and swirl these genres around while providing context with free outreach events. Also, the MG debuted an artist-in-residence feature last year. An artist-in-residence tends to connote a figure in classical or maybe jazz; Bob Ostertag’s music and method simply doesn’t fit into any of our streams of programming, yet touches on all of them. He’s both esteemed and relentlessly innovative, plus he’s a professor so I knew he’d be good for the keynote address. I also wanted to have a mix of local, national and international headliners – not to ghettoize the Canadian acts to opening slots. Further, the ‘pop’ content of the festival is somewhat more slanted toward beats – hip hop, tropical bass, etc. because that’s where I’ve come from. ‘Pop’ does not necessarily equal rock and I wanted to find a range of artists to illustrate that point from Chief Boima to Pursuit Grooves to Man Made Hill. I knew many of the artists I wanted to book, others, like Jean Francois Laporte, came highly recommended to me and I thought he would fit the theme while providing a WTF night as well.
In general, what were some of the ‘things’ that you tried to avoid when organizing X Avant? In this context, ‘things’ can be logistical, musical, psychological, etc. I’m being very broad here…
Since this is my first year on the job I didn’t want staging to be that complicated. There are some fussier productions but we’re not putting on anything that requires builiding a venue from the ground up. This keeps staffing, planning and surprise expenses more manageable. I wanted this to be a festival which would appeal to the MG’s core audience but also bring a lot of new audiences into the fold; audiences who might not have considered their tastes to be relevant to what we put on. But there are few musical limits here, I think. Above all the tagline of the MG says it best: it’s Toronto’s Centre for Creative Music. Anything that strives for novelty, ingenuity and masterful expression in electronic music was fair game.
How important are festivals like this to groups like The Music Gallery in furthering their overall musical vision?
They are very important because it allows the opportunity to present complex programming statements around a theme. An organization will marshal its resources to do a big marketing push for a festival with the aim of spurring membership or at least regular patrons for the rest of the year’s programming. Plus, in Canada at least, there are grant opportunities when putting on festivals, so that helps organizations think bigger. But mostly we hope a successful festival creates a sense of excitement around what we’re trying to do and provide valuable feedback to keep the ball rolling.
The festival’s opening night, “Global Bass Avant” is billed as a night of “World Music 2.0″. What is “World Music 2.0″ and how does it fit into the overall festival theme?
World Music 2.0 is a term that’s been floating around for a few years. It refers to contemporary creative exchange in (largely dance-oriented) music done on a peer to peer basis enabled by file sharing, social networking and increasing accessibility of such tools to a greater proportion of the world’s population. Whereas “world music” is often perceived to be mediated and directed by American and European record companies, the 2.0 version is an arena with no arbiter of who gets a record deal and who doesn’t. Of course, it’s a controversial term. However, it is one of the most exciting and rapidly evolving concepts in electronic music because it really examines the sociocultural relationships between producers & consumers, those with power and those who are relatively powerless and how these relationships aren’t necessarily fixed. Contemporary DJ tools allow ‘stems’ or individual components of songs to be improvised spontaneously in a set, so you might hear live blends that will never be recorded. Each DJ on this night brings their own individual perspective on the wide world of recombinant dance music.
I’m really excited that there is a lot of excellent Toronto content this year (Vila, Fisher, Haas, Storring, Perri, etc.), and I’m not surprised – how easy was it for you to turn to home turf for inspiration when selecting performers for the festival?
It was a major priority. You can’t be Toronto’s Centre for Creative Music without Toronto. I wanted to ensure Torontonians weren’t just performers but headliners (Contact,/Perri, Pursuit Grooves, JK Farah) and come from a really wide range of musical backgrounds.
Can you elaborate on the Ostertag/Hebert collaboration? It sounds like a mixed media extravaganza not to be missed!
If you’ve never experienced Ostertag before, it’s sensory overload. He is a master of live sampling, I’ve seen him start a show by biting into an apple and turning it into a surround-sound hailstorm of digital apple sauce. And with interesting musical development too, not just for cheap splatter thrills. Hebert likewise takes live elements of drawing, light table work and photographic manipulation (he’ll be in town a couple of days prior to photograph Toronto, which he’ll deconstruct in performance). This will get messy.
Getting personal now, can you go back in your history to flesh out the formative career/life experiences that led you to your love of “alternate” music forms?
Oh boy… I guess my family had musical backgrounds? My mom was deep into Toronto’s folk scene in the late 50s/early 60s (my aunt was Artistic Director of the Mariposa Folk Festival for 12 years). My dad was a jazz fan & wrote for Coda Magazine for a bit in the 60s. It wasn’t like the house was filled with strange music but it might have been a bit out of the ordinary. In high school I started working with 4 track cassette recorders and a software based synth (kind of unusual for the early 80s). But the big thing was arriving at CIUT when I was 17 and diving into a record collection that numbered more than 20,000 & meeting truly oddball characters – these were the days (the 80s) when fringe creative types either ended up on college radio or creating zines. I learned a lot not just from listening to records but meeting people from all over Toronto who hosted shows; I experimented with radio as a medium too by doing live dub shows and having guests play overtop of music. I also started getting more serious about making music and DJed pretty seriously through the 90s. I had a number of DJ residencies in rave-type environments while my band Excalceolators played jazz festivals and stuff. I just met so many musical types from all walks of life that I had some deep person-to-person experiences before the internet made it possible to access vast amounts of music without actually getting into a scene, much less a record store. When I came back to radio after an 8 year break, I had started with Exclaim which grew into more and more journalism – I never intended to be a journalist. I still played music, most recently with Huelepega Sound System, and did my radio show with interviews, live sets, themed discussions & live events making it more than just a music show. I’ve always gravitated to people who are pushing the limits of their talent and have tried to do the same for myself. The Music Gallery gig kind of unites everything I’ve done thus far.
What other projects do both you and The Music Gallery have on the go right now and in the near future?
The Music Gallery has tons of great stuff coming up. A few that I’m particularly looking forward to are free jazz drum titan Pheeroan akLaff doing a solo set which will be a world premiere of the recently-reissued on Soul Jazz “House Of Spirit: Mirth”. Incredibly, he has never performed it live although the record is over 30 years old. That’s on December 1. In March, we host klezmer clarinet legend Joel Rubin with Fender Rhodes mad scientist Uri Caine. They released an album on Tzadik last year that was like Klezmer In A Silent Way – really cosmic but super soulful. As for me, I just finished a documentary about Funkadelic’s years in Toronto during the early 70s.
Any parting words?
Last words? This is a good year to put on a festival of electronic music, but we’re doing it differently than anyone else with the possible exception of MUTEK. But I see the MG as an utterly Toronto institution so no matter the theme I’m working with a show should speak to Toronto artists or Toronto audiences. We can assemble unique audiences in order to push the identity of Toronto into exciting new places. By including music that isn’t typically seen as art music or pop music we can bring many more people into the conversation that is “creative music”.
X Avant 7 runs from October 12 through 21 at the Music Gallery (197 John Street) and other Toronto venues. See the website for more information.