Ottawa’s Feral Choir : skyrrxifliggrzbtnmlif

Thanks Max. Thanks Phil.

Max is Max Middle, poetic curator, and Phil is Phil Minton, veteran vocal confabulator from the land beyond the sea and maestro of Ottawa’s briefly resplendent Feral Choir, which I was part of, one of 25 growling, howling vocalists in sensible shoes. (Nikes in my case. Phil wore Chinese slippers.) 

We performed last Saturday evening in a gorgeous and wonderfully resonant church in downtown Ottawa after 3 workshops/rehearsals. The results were, I think, entirely splendid. As one not-so-innocent bystander put it, we were “fairly feral”.

This is what we sounded like during our very first rehearsal.

Phil’s style is inspiring and engaging. “You cannot make a mistake” he assures everyone, and I think for some members this was really important. That and all of his smiley goofy faces, which encourage extreme fun and risk-taking. Certainly everyone who participated in this highly energetic and improvisational event enjoyed it. There were even rumblings about sustaining this creative energy and ensemble. I may just have to start some more improv workshops after all…

The Feral Choir was a part of Max Middle’s ‘mini-festival’ of sound poetry that also included performances by Phil Minton and the CCMC last Thursday, followed by one featuring W. Mark Sutherland on Friday. Having attended and enjoyed both, let me offer mini-reviews to celebrate this mini-festival of big mouths.

The trio that is the CCMC has been improvising as a unit for something like 30 years, and it shows. In the best sense. Micheal Snow plays a heckuva stride piano and also twiddles the knobs of his vintage synth with exceptional sensitivity to the musical possibilities of oscillators and sawtooth waveforms. That he does so with such punkish vigor at the age of 83 is all the more excellent. Paul Dutton is the group’s lead soundsinger, grinding out endless percussive streams of sonic invective, flitting and spitting and forever knitting new possibilities from the mouthed moment.  And alto saxophonist John Oswald, meanwhile, amidst all this cacophany, is content to emit occasional rubies, emeralds and sapphires from the muffled bell of his horn, each sound shining brilliantly if softly in the murk and muck of the CCMC.

And into this wonderfully intertwined trio came Phil Minton, master of a pharyngeal vocabulary seemingly inspired by Mel Blanc as much as anyone, who added his wacky if still profoundly musical counterpoint to Paul’s raging auralities. It was lovely and disturbing. Disturbingly lovely perhaps, as it was meant to be. My only gripe would be that Paul in particular might have left more room for Phil to shine, but maybe that’s what 30 years of working as the only vocalist in a trio does to you. All in all, however, a terrific concert every bit up to the standards of these masterful musicians.

The following evening some few of us reconvened to sit on a high school stage and absorb W. Mark Sutherland‘s conceptual performative techno-poetics. (Note: that’s my somewhat dubious term. He probably has a better one.) Mark gave us a taste of his diverse poetic works, some of which involved clever idiosyncratic uses of technology, like the mic that he swallowed or the Megalogue (sp.?) a device for listening to the sound of writing. (I believe it was R. Murray Schaeffer who pointed out that in the history of literature there are only the rarest of reflexive descriptions of the sound of a pen scratching out its message on paper.) Sutherland also used what looked like an iPhone theremin app (though it probably wasn’t) as part of a looping piece. Along with these techno-pieces were Burroughsian or Steinian explorations (and re-re-re-reexplorations, iterations, conflictions, conniptions, fictions and derelictions) of sound and meaning as captured on text and then read aloud. That last part, the reading aloud, does little for me, and Sutherland’s longest piece was a sort of deconstructive hammering away at phoneme after phoneme over the course of maybe 10 densely-packed pages, leaving my head hurting. But apart from that somewhat self-indulgent rant the rest of his works were highly inventive, provocative and poetic. I’d certainly be keen to see more of his post-concrete creations.

All in all it was a great few days of oral experimentation and fun. A chance to connect with some old friends and make some new ones. And a very worthy and generally well-supported initiative to have been undertaken by Max Middle and his AB Series. And on that note…skyrrxifliggrzbtnmlif!

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