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Extraordinary sounds: CCMC and Phil Minton at the NAC 4th Stage (review)

CCMC member Paul Dutton ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Canadian Creative Music Collective (CCMC)
Thursday, May 10, 2012
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage

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The Canadian Creative Music Collective concert on Thursday was a tribute to the power of the human voice, as expressed by vocalists Phil Minton and Paul Dutton.

That's not to ignore the essential roles of pianist Michael Snow and saxophonist John Oswald in defining CCMC's music. But the most extraordinary sounds and interactions came from the two vocalists, whose fearless explorations of what could be produced by vocal chords surprised, delighted, and occasionally startled the audience.

CCMC is a pure improvising ensemble: its music is defined in the moment, rather than being composed in advance. Dutton, Oswald, and Snow have played together for more than 15 years now, and it was clear how well they were attuned. When the vocals became a wordless drone, for example, Oswald echoed them with a buzzing sax line and Snow produced rumbles underneath on his synthesizer.

Minton, who is well known for his vocal improvisations with jazz and avant-garde cabaret groups in the UK, had only played with CCMC once before – in Toronto about four years ago. But the four fitted together naturally; there was no feeling of hesitation.

The first piece was wordless, and it was difficult, in fact, to tell which vocalist was producing each sound: whether palate clicks, lip smacking, deep glottal sounds, or aspirated wordless syllables sounding like a very quiet windstorm. At one point, Dutton and Minton sounded remarkably like Angry Birds (echoed by video-game shooting on the synthesizer); at another point, Minton's high notes approached the ultrasonic; finishing off, they produced a sibilant almost-melody.

Although it was a "check your expectations at the door" experience, there was a clear thread running through the piece. Each sound developed organically from the last, building on all four musicians' work.

The second piece had more connection to speech, with Minton starting off with a rapid dump of nonsense syllables, followed by Dutton. Snow's brilliant, fast, piano echoed their rhythm, along with punctuated sax notes. Both vocalists gradually moved to wordless sounds, and then back to talking over each other. While Minton abruptly changed from stentorian opera singing to sobbing and then to deep bass vocals, Dutton accompanied him on harmonica. And, yet, despite all that was going on on stage, it was quiet enough that even turning a page in a book was audible.

Dutton explored the percussive qualities of words like “Poisson”, by going through them phoneme by phoneme, stretching them to explore each individual sound, going “p-p-p-p” on the 'p' or “aw-aw-aw” on the 'oi'.

Near the end, in the middle of a series of angry nonsense syllables, Minton yelled what literally sounded like a burst of static, a sound I'd never heard from a human throat. The audience jumped.

The third, short, piece incorporated whistling and clicking along with harmonica to produce a more peaceful feel, although it ended with fast words growing gradually louder and louder.

The concert opened with a short appearance by Dutton alone. He started out by explaining how he had been working for the last three decades on how to extend the human voice, through acoustic and sound improvisation. He then alternated between wordless sound poetry, and regular poems/prose, many in a "Theatre of the Absurd" style. The pieces, mostly short, were highly distinctive and generally had a noticeable rhythm – musical in their own way.

The performance was presented by “A B Series”, Ottawa's reading series for performance, sound and experimental poetry.

    – Alayne McGregor

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See also: Michael Snow: making music in the now

All images ©Brett Delmage, 2012
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