Women from Space

April 8, 2019

March 8-11, 2019
Toronto, Ontario

By Ken Waxman

Although there were no obvious extraterrestrials in attendance and some of the performers were Cis Males, overall Toronto’s four-day Women from Space (WfS) Festival aptly showcased the unique skills and talents of the distaff side of the city’s improvising community. Involving four different mid-town venues, this inaugural festival, March 8 to 11, centred mostly on vocal and instrumental innovators, but there was also a place for electronics, dance, spoken word and notated compositions.

Organizers Kayla Milmine and Bea Labikova also played, and each of their solo sets underlined one aspect of the program. All-acoustic and the closest to unbridled Free Jazz during WfS, alto saxophonist Labikova articulated cooperation during her set at Array Space on night three, featuring an ad-hoc trio completed by bassist Chris Adriaanse and drummer Raphael Roter. In fact the improvising reached such a height of intensity that during one percussive pass, Roter’s stroke was so powerful that it shattered one drum stick, pieces of which went flying towards the attentive audience. That was really not surprising, since the saxophonist’s collection of explosive reed bites, honks, multiphonics, key percussion and shrill trills left room for no half measures.

For his part, Adriaanse’s string strategies encompassed heighted sweeps, nuanced vibrations above and below the bridge and rhythmic pizzicato thumps, expertly meeting Labikova’s tongue pops and key percussion. When he wasn’t emphasising bass drum licks to intensify the power, Roter was the most sensitive of accompanists, creating gamelan percussion-like pings and pangs from small implements vibrating on drum tops and shaking his ankle bells. Climax of the improvisation was reached as hi-hat smacks, downward bowing string bass lines and expelled reed breaths finally affiliated in a heightened explosion, and as suddenly faded.

Directly preceding this trio, Milmine, playing soprano saxophone, participated in an instance of WfS’ other main focus, electro-acoustic improvisation, as part of the Overleaf trio with Mira Martin-Gray and Heidi Chan using tabletop electronics. As the mixing board and signal processing produced a continuous drone, along with undulating creaks and clanks, sometimes interrupted by snatches of music and dialogue, the saxophonist found places for reed expansion inside the electronic miasma. At points her playing involved torquing shrill trills to overcome music-box-like twitters from the samples; or using pressurized lip vibrations and melody inferences to counter thumping wave form repetition. As the others crouched over the switches and busied themselves creating droning shakes and distortions, Milmine’s most visual assertion came when she inserted a circular plastic tube between the saxophone’s neck and body tube to project peeps and split tones. By the finale, reed-propelled echoes, dissident samples and electronics thumps actually defined focused story telling.

Notable acoustic interface was obvious as early as the festival’s first night, which took place at the Wenona Lodge’s basement space, starting with the trio of violinist Meghan Cheng, cellist Cheryl O and bassist, Irene Harrett. Although the bassist hadn’t previously played with the others, she fitted in seamlessly. As the trio created what on the surface resembled formalist romanticism, the sound took on a sharper edge as the set progressed. Harrett amplified this freshness by occasionally adhering to a swing groove. Acing the rhythmic function, the bassist also firmly anchored the improvisations so that sometimes O could cut loose with staccato displays that were then doubled with angular pizzicato swipes from Cheng. As the set progressed the trio’s playing became looser and freer, with the two higher-pitched string players almost reaching rococo patterning in their solos. Finally this mixture of percussiveness, passion and pointed textures worked itself into a display of virtuosic finesse,

Strings of a different sort were featured on the following set, from Brian Abbott’s acoustic guitar and banjo paired with Tomasz Krakowiak’s variable pitch Rototom, bells, a cymbal, miniature balls and other small instruments. A long-constituted duo of deliberate minimalism, the result highlighted the percussionist’s ability able to extract as many sounds and rhythms from his stark set-up as he would have with a standard kit; and Abbott extending his pseudo-folk guitar picking and banjo twangs by muting reverb and concentrating on individual timbres. Somewhat unsettling, the musical cross talk was based more on mood and feeling than chromatic progress.

Equally acoustic, but more attuned to the ongoing Jazz tradition was the duo of pianist Diane Roblin and trombonist Heather Saumer, which played at the Tranzac’s funky front room on WfS’s second night. Taking as a starting point three compositions of Carla Bley – “And Now the Queen”, “Ictus” and “Around Again” – the two retained the familiar themes but interpolated changes of tempo and emphasis as they played. Slowing down the melodies’ initial bounciness, Roblin’s stately variations were darker and chunkier than expected. Meanwhile Saumer’s sly interpolations moved from simple expressiveness to inflated tailgate-style bluster that brought out new sonic colors as she leisurely squeezed out obtuse variations. Playing instruments with vastly different tones and voicings, the two still managed to frequently construct mirror images of each other’s narratives.

Featuring the same sort of comfortable relaxation, trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy and pianist Tania Gill presented a more abstract but still linear program to wrap-up the Array Music proceedings on WfS’ third night. Vivid, where Saumer had been slightly hesitant in her playing, Hennessy expelled plumes of yowls and split-tones which were almost visible as she improvised. For her part Gill’s emphasized intonation from both outside and inside the piano’s body, frequently stopping keys and using a plunger mute on the strings for further variety. More expected use of another rubber mute came from the trumpeter, whose plunger dialogue, snorts and Jazz shakes enlivened the creativity without sliding from bravura to bravado. No matter how delicate or furious the duet music advanced, it was obvious there was a long-time connection in call-and-response or just plain side by side improvising as the two played.

Like Overleaf, most of the non-acoustic groups added other elements to their performances usually vocals. That is, except Happy Apple, which opened the festival’s final evening at The Burdock’s back room. Consisting of Allison Cameron playing table-top mandolin, mixing board, toys and the like, plus Joe Strutt using cassette tapes, a tape recorder, electronics and miscellaneous noise makers, with four, bright-red full face happy apple toys displayed facing the audience, Cameron and Strutt avoided overt ponderousness, while eschewing goofiness for its own sakes. Operating with the constant drone from processing as an undercurrent throughout, they shook and vibrated different objects on their table tops.

Cameron’s electrified mandolin stroking evoked both off-centre Bluegrass echoes and classic Free Music astringent chording. Meantime Strutt’s taped samples of noise and music were used to disrupt and decorate the narratives. Yanking and freeing the tape from one cassette provided an arresting visual image from Strutt, while the sonic result was equally dislocating. The happy apples weren’t neglected either. At times, Cameron used one as a capo to crate even more distortions from her mandolin, and just before the set ended, while balancing a couple of the apple toys on both outstretched arms, Strutt wandered through the audience suggesting both a supplicant offering a holy relic and a marching band leader jokingly jiving to encourage crowd reaction.

The most profound voice and electronic mix came later that evening when the programmed drone from the electronics of New Chance (Victoria Cheong) was used to underscore the theatrical ramblings of spoken word artist Prices Easy (Aisha Sasha John). Periodically bits of unspecified music or fragments of dialogue sourced from the electronics amplified Prices Easy’s dialogue as she theatrically commanded the performance with a nearly unstoppable and mostly unrepeatable colloquy that seemed both stream-of-consciousness and deliberate. Veering through near singing, repetative poetic allusions and distracted chit chat, Prices Easy made references to fashion, race, nightmares, slogans and observations. By the end a feeling that the dialogue should never stop, was mixed with suspicion that it could continue forever.

A set more closely allied to singing took place two nights earlier at the Tranzac as vocalists Zoe Alexis-Abrams and Neal Retke were backed by the cunning tabletop electronics of William Davison. Sort of an avant-garde Lady Gaga and Tony Bennet duo, the abbreviated Alexis-Abrams and the towering Retke connected through her lyrical soprano and his vocal rumbles and gargles. Sometimes Alexis-Abrams’ voice was processed to add vibrations and heft, and sometimes she articulated tales in an unknown tongue. Meanwhile Retke frequently punched his microphone to add a primitive beat to his outbursts that appeared related to yodeling, Blues, stentorian hymn singing and bedlam gibbering. Adding splatters and bleeps from his circuitry, the unperturbed Davison provided the electronic glue that held together the set’s disparate parts.

The last set at the Burdock and also WfS’ final performance was a voice-instrumental-electronic extravaganza. The newly born Plastic Babies trio featured spectacular vocalizing from Christine Duncan and Laura Swankey, who also processed her voice through a mixer, plus Patrick O’Reilly’s electrified guitar and zither patterning, Away from her echoes, Swankey functioned alternately as the bass or back-up tenor in an imaginary – and very freaky – doo-wop configuration. Meanwhile upfront Duncan sang, shouted, warbled, spoke-in-tongue, tried out pseudo operatic arias, aviary caws and other stylistic raps and patter, ending with an accomplished demand for a drink, to send the audience to the venue’s bar.

When they began the festival on opening night with their first-ever hard-blowing, texture-stretching saxophone duet, Milmine and Labikova demonstrated how well inventive and committed exploratory players could soar in any situation. Over the course of four March evenings WfS confirmed that truism in many other sets. Plans are underway for a follow-up festival in 2020. Next year’s program should be even more furious and intense, though admittedly this year’s festival will be a hard act to follow.