Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan followed by Fond of Tigers
at The Music Gallery
May 18th, 2007
By Sal Hassanpour
There’s a concert festival in Toronto that goes on in May and it is called VTO. The idea is that, much like the island in Lost, The Music Gallery (in cooperation with Rough Idea) suck musicians on their way to Victoriaville, Quebec’s Festival de Musique Actuelle (arguably Canada’s pre-eminent avant-garde music fest) into Toronto for a layover performance. Unlike Lost, the artists are not left stranded to be attacked by polar bears and intelligent smog. Well, maybe Toronto’s smog clouds are old enough to have become sentient, but I digress.
The second of three nights in this mini-fest featured a gamelan (I’ve learned the word means “ensemble”) that has been operating in Toronto for decades now and has a rep for playing the “degung” style that emerged from the Sunda part of Java during Dutch colonization, and Fond of Tigers, a septet of avant-rockers that were hotly-tipped in the local press when I was out in Vancouver late last summer.
I was pretty excited to hear both groups, particularly after reading one of David Toop’s books – the most well-written, easy-to-read intro to experimental music texts you can pick up. The book has an interesting section on the gamelan’s impact on Western 20th Century music. Basically, I was hyped to get my experimental on.
Truth is, the night was a mild disappointment.
First off, a gamelan is comprised of highly complex polyrhythms, extended passages and dialogue between players. Every style of gamelan – and there are hundreds – has its own unique set of conventions (and you thought indie music had too many sub-genres). So, when the Evergreen Club Contemporary sets out to “perform a set of planned and spontaneous improvisations” in lieu of their bread-and-butter commissioned work, well, frankly it does not pan out that well.
While it was cool to hear the trombone and the hurdy-gurdy make wailing noises in counterpoint to the minimal and random vibrations emanating from the percussionists, the three movements outlasted their running times. Passages from transverse wood flutes or an instrument resembling a lap steel guitar did their best to sustain interest, but frankly, uninspired improvisation is just that, no matter how many gongs and wooden xylophones you bring to the table.
Fond of Tigers have gotten away with being labelled an avant-jazz band somehow, but really, they’re a more loose post-rock band, albeit one that is familiar and experienced with jazz conventions like call and response and vamping. So while it was impressive to see seven musicians each playing different melodies slowly build a cohesive wall of noise, rhizome-ing out like the tendrils of a root system digging through the earth yet all the while in tune to whoever was carrying the piece forward – either JP Carter’s trumpet-plus-FX combo or Jesse Zubot on violin and later, Stephen Lyons on guitar – the band managed to sustain their set without delivering anything more mind-blowing than Do Make Say Think (post-rock) covering John Zorn (free-jazz/noise).
OK, so that’s pretty mind-blowing. It’s certainly not a complete dismissal, either, only that the band have been pegged as something a little bit more off the beaten path, a little more “out” than they ended up sounding, which is not their fault. It also comes down to the fact that I will never claim to dislike a live performance that has two drum kits firing away at the same time. The older members of the crowd seemed bewildered as the band finished their encore. One wondered, assuming they were all seasoned experimental/improvisational gig-goers, how they coped with something as rockist as Fond of Tigers. Ultimately, those perceived reactions spoke for the entire night, which was an exercise in mixing sounds, intentions and abilities that were, as often as not, mismatched.