Contact + Allison Cameron: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Accessible and varied “new” music. The intersections between improvisation, contemporary music, and the spaces in which they occur.
File next to:
Bang on a Can, Ann Southam, Norma Beecroft
“Wavelength at Doors Open Toronto” – Saturday May 27, 2:15PM at Evergreen Brick Works. Free concert – information here!

In 2015, prolific improviser and composer Allison Cameron and local contemporary music ensemble Contact collaborated together on the album A Gossamer Bit. A collection of Cameron’s pieces, the album will be performed on Saturday at the Evergreen Brick Works, allowing the audience to better engage with the surrounding natural world. Before the concert, Contact’s percussionist Jerry Pergolesi, and Allison Cameron herself, spoke to Wavelength’s Stefan Vladusic about their music and the act of creating art itself.

The first couple of questions are directed towards Contact, though anyone can answer, of course. As a group, Contact is made up by musicians with very different tastes and backgrounds: compare Jerry’s love of synth-pop with Wallace [Halladay]’s love of complex classical music. How do you navigate all these influences to make and play your music? Do you think that your more improvisational approach allows these varied influences to work better together?

Jerry: Contact was originally made up of workers at a community music school. So, the idea of people coming in from different backgrounds and working together was central. The environment of the community music school was really all about making things as accessible as possible to anyone who was interested, regardless of any societal barriers that might prevent participation. With that in mind, there’s an underlying assumption in many classical music groups that even if you don’t have a Western European background, you must have adopted it – that’s why you’re involved in this. Contact is kind of the antithesis of that. The point of Contact is that we are welcoming to everyone, and that we recognize all those backgrounds. To that point, I love the dichotomy of Wallace [Contact’s saxophonist] loving complex music, and me liking synth-pop. Wallace likes synth-pop too, and I like the complex stuff, but not to the same degree. We have that meeting of the mind somewhere, but it’s the diversity that makes it that much more exciting.

I don’t think we navigate these influences as much as we just kind of muddle through those differences, those influences, and how we utilise them. And so, we create tension to end up sounding the way we sound. But, everyone is still true to who they are – Sarah [Fraser-Raff, Contact’s violinist] is still very much Sarah, and plays and does what she plays and does. You don’t try to mitigate that in any which way, you just try to let that happen. So, I just look at it as an opportunity for possibilities to happen.

Your yearly program Music from Scratch, invites young composers to experiment and create collaborative pieces with the ensemble. Consequently, it often brings artists with little-to-no formal musical background. There are certainly things which I think would be difficult to create and communicate without this background, but there are bound to be certain outlets that trained musicians likely don’t have. In your experience, what qualities do these musical newcomers share? Similarly, have you noticed any creative strengths that non-musical artists (say, painters, or photographers) have?

Jerry: With Music from Scratch we don’t invite “young composers” – nowhere in the literature will you see “compose.” We create music. If someone identifies as a composer, that’s fine – but I personally don’t like to use the word composer in this case. But it absolutely is a place to experiment and work collaboratively. It was conceived mostly as a forum for people without musical training to express their musical voice, and the band to be a conduit for that.  So sometimes the people who are the most open to it are the people who don’t have a musical background, because they aren’t constrained by years of training that other people have had. I’m not just bagging on music faculties – the point is that I frankly find it appalling that some people think that unless you’ve had years of counterpoint, and harmony, and orchestration, that you have no business making experimental or exploratory music. I think that this attitude is just horrible.

With Music from Scratch, we might get someone with a visual art background creating a piece from a visual perspective – the main drive was visual experience. Things like that become personal highlights for me. We might also get people from strict compositional backgrounds getting outside of contemporary musical standards for the first time, and really coming back in a completely creative way.

As a group, Contact’s most recent release is a new re-imagined version of Brian Eno’s seminal Discreet Music. Eno’s early works very famously engaged with the notion of music being something in the background more than something to be directly engaged with. Was this idea of “being in the background” something which you incorporated in your re-imagining, and, if so, how did you go about incorporating this into the album? If not, what idea did you have in mind by making the audience engage more directly with the piece?

Jerry: I have to mention that I was completely blown away by Bang on a Can’s Music for Airports, and their arrangements of that piece. I though it took the stodginess out of contemporary chamber music and made it speak to another audience. I really wanted to do that. For years, I asked Michael Gordon if I could get the arrangement, and he always said “nope!” (laughs). So, after a while, I told myself I needed to figure out my own way of doing this, and ended up on Discreet Music. It’s important to note that Discreet Music is generative, so it works with little pitched material. It is also 30 minutes long, just because that’s how long you could put on one side of a vinyl record. But the way the piece is written, we could start on a Friday night and play until the next week. So, in a sense, this was a way to do an homage to that kind of process.

My only intent during the writing process was to create this homage; I wasn’t really thinking about how the audience was engaging with it. But, when we started playing the piece live, I noticed that people just stopped in their tracks, and really interacted with it! And it made me think “wow this isn’t really background music; this is really music to connect with! When reviews came out, I found that most people might’ve put it on in the background, but they ended up engaging with the piece. I think they became interested in the human aspect of the re-imagination, and worked with that.

CONTACT-DISCREET MUSIC from Contact (Contemporary Music) on Vimeo.

The next few questions will be for Allison, but, again, anyone is free to add and contribute. You are a highly influential and long-standing member of Toronto’s improvisational music scene, so I was wondering how accessibility of instruments and software has affected this scene. In an age where I can load a fully functional modular synth on my phone in mere seconds, how do you think the improvisational scene has changed both sonically and socially?

Allison:  For me, the invention of more things to play such as with new digital technology is fun and always welcome to any creative music scene. It adds to the palette of sounds available for improvising and also potentially creates new-ish ways to make music.

The fact that we can load fully modular synths on our phones makes those creations more accessible and sometimes more gimmicky.  But if they are useful for improvising then they will be used for sure. In terms of impact I think the new “toys” can provide interesting sound exploration and potentially new approaches to creative music making. I’m not sure how this has possibly changed the improvised music scene socially. People always love talking about gear! In any case, some “apps” have made things like old technology accessible to everyone, which I think is a good thing.

This is a question that needs a fair bit of set-up, so please bear with me. About a year ago I had the chance to hear Prof. Mark Fewer (professor of string performance at McGill) talk about the implications of digitally scoring music, and how a digital score can often unintentionally lose information encoded in a handwritten score. He used the example of how trills might convey dynamics and phrasing based on their shape, which will be lost in digitization. Whether you agree with this or not, I was wondering if this sort of thinking plays into non-traditional scoring: as a composer, do you include information in scores that would be lost in digitization? And for Contact, do you think that a digital vs non-digital score makes a difference in performance? Alternatively, is this just a non-issue?

Allison: I will assume what you mean by digital scoring is using a computer to notate a score and parts. It’s easy to agree with Mark (Professor Fewer). Most commercial notation programmes were not made for the notation of classical music but popular music and/or church music (as with Finale for example). It has taken computer notation developers decades to provide a programme that satisfies the needs of most modern composers and they still don’t. It is my opinion that professional publishers however, do have access to digital technology that will print the various needs of contemporary scores. I wish I had their programs!

So, the technology needed to write music properly or “handwritten” scores on the computer remains inaccessible to most people. Therefore, handwritten scores are more direct and flexible if want you want to notate in a way that doesn’t fall into the restrictive methods of most computer notation programs. The other issue that weighs into this is digital literacy vs. musical notation literacy.  It’s true that digital notation software has made notating music accessible to everyone but not everyone knows how to notate music properly.  I sometimes wonder if the software developers know proper musical notation practices. This is part of the problem of “losing” information.

Jerry: For the performer, I think it depends on many factors. It’s really about the source of the piece, whether the performer subscribes to a certain standard of performance practices, and how they interpret the piece. There are some people who would be given a pictorial score, and would think “well what’s that?” (laughs). In that case, I don’t think it’d matter. But for other people, they may see something where others didn’t see anything. I think it might be case for case.

In the opening piece of A Gossamer Bit (“3­rds, 4ths and 5ths”), the harmonica plays a prominent role throughout. The use of this instrument carries with it a certain feeling and atmosphere that reminds me of rural areas, and of folk music. Why were you inspired to use this instrument not commonly used in chamber music, and was your original intention to invoke this sort of atmosphere?

Allison: “3rds, 4ths & 5ths” was a piece I originally wrote for my band, the Allison Cameron Band. All of the pieces I wrote for this group were folk-inspired. When Contact originally asked me for a piece, I did an arrangement of “Two Guitars” from my band repertoire, which became “3rds, 4ths and 5ths.” My intention with “Two Guitars” was definitely to invoke a “folk music” atmosphere, but I can’t say it was the same for “3rds, 4ths and 5ths.” Obviously with harmonicas there will always be a reference to folk music or pop. But for me “3rds, 4ths and 5ths” was more an exploration in timbre and a chance for me to hear how a piece for two guitars, banjo and harmonicas would sound in a contemporary chamber music context.


Finally, as a huge fan of A Gossamer Bit, I must ask: are there any Contact + Allison Cameron collaborations on the horizon?

Jerry: Allison’s probably got a million and ten things to do, but I’d welcome the opportunity again. We don’t have anything on the books, but I do think it was a good combination.

– interview by Stefan Vladusic