©Brett Delmage, 2012
Michael Snow: "Free improvisation is really the purity, the essence of what jazz was looking for." ©Brett Delmage, 2012

When you talk to Michael Snow about improvised music, the word he mentions most frequently is “surprise”. It's a musical quality he values highly.

The world-renowned Canadian artist has certainly surprised enough art critics and viewers in his career, with ground-breaking innovations in painting, sculpture, photography, film, multimedia, and conceptual art. He's less well-known as a jazz and improvising musician, but it's a calling he's followed throughout his life.

On Saturday, Snow and Jesse Stewart will perform a duo show at GigSpace, with him on piano and Stewart on percussion. It will be their third concert together in Ottawa. They'll also release a recording on vinyl this weekend, with an appearance at The Record Centre on Sunday afternoon.

Their music together is completely improvised. Both said they had no preconceptions or plans of where they would start or what they would play at GigSpace – other than it wouldn't duplicate what they'd played together before.

“I'm very much looking forward to it – because I will be surprised!” Snow said.

“We just start and then the structure of the music is co-created in real-time,” Stewart said. However, “it sometimes feels like the musical conversation has a tendency to pick up where we last left off. It's an ongoing dialogue that he and I have been having musically for the past 15 years or however long we've been playing together.”

The first time Snow and Stewart performed together in Ottawa was at the National Gallery in 2010. OttawaJazzScene.ca was at that show. It was a packed house, and at the end of their improvised show, the audience immediately rose to its feet for a standing ovation.

This Saturday's show at GigSpace will be in a much smaller space (46 seats compared to 399), and Stewart said he thought that would enhance the experience. “This is an opportunity to hear this duo in a much more intimate setting – which sometimes can allow the explorations of some kinds of sonic nuances that may not always be possible in a larger venue, because people can't really see or hear those nuances as clearly. In a space like GigSpace, people will definitely be able to hear those things.”

The 2010 show was recorded by CBC, and Stewart released that recording on CD on his Art Stew Records label in 2016 – with the launch concert again at the National Gallery. This weekend, he's releasing the recording on vinyl, in conjunction with Record Centre Records. He and Snow will appear at the Record Centre in Hintonburg on Sunday afternoon for the launch, which will include an interview and question-and-answer session with them, which store owner John Thompson plans to record for a podcast. Stewart said they may also do a short performance.

Creative interests in common

Snow will celebrate his 88th birthday next month. At 43, Stewart is less than half his age. But they have much in common – not just a love of free improv, but also creative interests that span genres and a strong background in the visual arts as well as music. Stewart has exhibited his own visual art in over a dozen solo and group exhibitions across Ontario, including in Ottawa.

“Michael is such a polymath, a creative polymath, that I have always considered him to be an extraordinary example of what it means to be a creative practitioner across the arts,” Stewart said. “He has set an example and continues to set an example that is tremendously inspiring to me, but also I think to generations of artists and musicians and creative practitioners.”

Jesse Stewart ©Brett Delmage, 2016
Jesse Stewart with drumset, handpan, soundmakers, and waterphone - some of his many instruments. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

What does Snow enjoy about performing with Stewart?

“He's extraordinary. He's a wonderful percussionist. Our music is improvised, and he is constantly surprising – because it's a kind of conversation in a way, but there's also sometimes an amazing kind of simultaneity where we of course discover that we're working on the same musical area.”

In performance, Stewart doesn't limit himself to the drumset. His instruments also include the waterphone, the frame drum, handpans, gongs, and the amplified palette – as well as a whole suitcase of unexpected noisemakers. He programs and performs on electronic sound sample devices like the Reactable and the Octamasher. He's also created his own instruments from rock, fire, water, and ice – and even a cardboard box.

Snow admires that range: “it's not just drumming. He uses a lot of possible sound sources built around percussion and what you can tap or hit.”

Stewart values Snow's individual voice on the piano.

“I find Michael's piano playing very interesting because it strikes me that he is quite a linear improviser, in the sense that he tends to stick to his guns musically speaking. Some improvisers will be highly responsive to what their co-performers are doing, and I think Michael is, too – but it's more like a point-and-counterpoint situation. So often I find when we're playing, there'd be multiple streams of music happening. And they're interrelated by virtue of their simultaneity, but there is this interesting counterpoint.”

“So one thing I really enjoy about working with Michael in a duo setting, is that, yes, sometimes there will be moments of responsiveness one way – but also this thing where we have these two parallel streams of improvised music that will come in contact with one another in multiple ways, but also complement one another.”

He said he also enjoyed how Snow used the percussive possibilities of the piano, and stretches its harmonic possibilities. “Michael's playing, he explores some really interesting dissonant harmonies and polychords and the like. So the music is far from tonal, let's put it that way. So it's interesting rhythmically, percussively, melodically, but it's not necessarily … there may be at times things that are vaguely tonal, but it certainly goes beyond the 12-tone equal-tempered framework, that one normally associates with a piano.”

Snow's original roots are in traditional jazz. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, he played piano in Toronto traditional-jazz groups while studying at the Ontario College of Art in 1948-52, and played with a Dixieland trumpeter from 1958-61.

Those early influences occasionally peek through, Stewart said. “From time to time, his roots in playing this almost New Orleans-style jazz and boogie-woogie piano... occasionally there will be a nod to that, or a little wink of those influences! I like that. I like the fact I do hear a lot of history in his playing, at the same time as I also hear a real deep commitment to newness and to the moment.”

An early commitment to free improv

That commitment to playing improvisation in the moment began early for Snow. Self-taught, he worked professionally as jazz musician in Toronto in the 1950s and early 60s, and became interested in free jazz while playing with the Artists' Jazz Band there. When he moved to New York City in the early 1960s, he continued to collaborate with free-jazz musicians: some, including Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, were on the soundtrack for his 1964 film, New York Eye and Ear Control. When he returned to Toronto in the early 1970s, he was one of the founders of the Canadian Creative Music Collective (CCMC), an improvised music ensemble with which he still performs today.

Originally, he said, the CCMC wanted to have “as wide a range of sound sources as possible. We had two grand pianos, and we also had two Fender Rhodes electric pianos – so there could be four simultaneous keyboards in use. We had all kinds of percussion and so forth. So what Jesse does is related to that in terms of having a wider range than the normal drum-kit, increasing the sounds that he can make.”

He also played trumpet and guitar with the CCMC, he said, but these days sticks to piano and synthesizer. The group (which also includes Paul Dutton on vocals and John Oswald on sax) is “much more concentrated instrumentally in the last few years than it was originally.”

For Snow, free improv was “inherent in jazz in the very beginning, New Orleans jazz is ensemble improvisation where each person can make a contribution that's not strictly predictable. It's just a question of the range of possibilities of the individual musician.”

“So I think free improvisation is really the purity, the essence of what jazz was looking for, and it isn't necessarily jazz. It could be anything, in terms of what the music is.”

Has his experience of it changed over the years?

“I think that everybody that I've been playing with on and off has grown in their playing such that when we play we are surprised by it. So, I think there hasn't been any kind of defining style. John Oswald is still as surprising now as he was 40 years ago.”

“I'm just really thinking of the creativity that's involved, and it's not over by any means. I've been playing a long time, since the invention of music, but I play something new each time I play, believe it or not.”

An unexpected discovery

Stewart said he first became aware of Snow's work as a visual artist when he was in his mid-teens. Later, while he was studying art at the University of Guelph, there was a major retrospective of Snow's famous “Walking Woman Works” at the Macdonald Stewart Arts Centre (MSAC) at the university in January of 1995, and he attended the opening.

“Michael was there. There was a grand piano at the gallery that had just been donated, and Michael sat down and played. I don't know if I knew before that that he was also a musician in addition to his many other talents. I was more familiar with his work as a visual artist and filmmaker.”

“But then he played. He did an improvised solo on piano – and I thought it was stunning. So that was really my first exposure to Michael the musician.”

From that point on, “when I realized that he also had this background as an improvising pianist, I got really interested in Michael's work in all the various media in which he is so accomplished, including music. I started going to Toronto on a fairly regular basis to hear CCMC perform at The Music Gallery and in other contexts as well. At that time, they were playing once a week in Toronto at The Music Gallery, so I used to go quite often to hear that group, which I really enjoyed.”

They had mutual friends, in particular jazz poet Paul Haines. When Haines died, both took part in a musical tribute – one of the first times they played together. After that they started playing together more as a duo in the Toronto area, Stewart said.

“He's a very generous spirit. He's certainly been very generous and kind with me over the years. And I certainly appreciated it.”

Does he think of Snow as a role model?

“Well, Michael is one of the most inspiring creative forces that I know – in part because he's extraordinarily accomplished in multiple domains: as a visual artist and even within his work as a visual artist I mean he's a painter, he's a photographer, he's a sculptor, and he does all of those things extraordinarily well. He's also, of course, an experimental filmmaker and has been widely and deservedly celebrated for his work in the area of film and he also is a really, really interesting musician, and his engagements with music and also sound art.”

Breaking new ground with sound

He also admires how Snow continues to create – and in new fields.

“He's writing a piece right now for the Winnipeg Symphony. So not only is he continuing to do stuff, he's continuing to produce work in all these various media that is of exceptionally high quality – but also he's taking on new challenges. He's never written, to my knowledge, a piece for symphony orchestra before, but here he goes at the age of 87.”

Snow said that his next projects are a sculpture show at the Guggenheim in Spain in March, and a sound installation exhibit in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal, in February.

The installations at the Lisbon exhibit are sound-centred, but not improvised music, he said. One of the exhibits, “Diagonale”, for example, “is in a room with no light. It's 30 different loudspeakers that are on the floor. They start with small speakers and they get bigger and bigger as you go into the space. But it's not lit, so you're actually walking through a soundspace, and you're going towards very, very big, low [sounds], so that the entire thing is a great big chord. It's quite quiet, so that you have to walk through it. So it's a piece of sculpture in the sense that you have to appraise it physically. It's also music that you are in, so to speak. It's a piece I originally did about 20 or 30 years ago, but it's been shown several times since then.”

“My work with sound is wide-ranging, because I have done recordings, like the last LP, which has nothing to do with free improvisation. There's several things like that. The sound-image relations in my films have really been a very strong interest. So I think I've done some very strong things with sound in films. Like my film “Back and Forth”, or “Rameau's Nephew” was a 4 ½ hour film built on recorded conversations.”

"Free improvisation is a very, very special activity."

Snow keeps his improvised music quite separate from his other artistic work, he said,

“Free improvisation, the playing is a very, very special activity. And I don't really improvise with other things that much.”

“It's an on-going thing. It's a kind of continual composition, and hopefully an exploration where one wants to find something new. With a piano, that's unlikely [laughs], but still you can just start with a gesture and build out of that gesture.”

“It's more of a social situation where you get together with some other people and create something that didn't exist before and it's new for you and it's new for the audience. So it's music at its purest, in a certain sense, the experience that never happened before like this and the musicians are playing and the audience is hearing something that they've never heard before. I think that's wonderful.”


Michael Snow and Jesse Stewart will perform together at GigSpace on Saturday, December 2, at 7:30 p.m. After playing one set of music, both musicians will answer questions from the audience. The performance will also be filmed by local documentary filmmaker Hasi Eldib, and recorded by sound engineers John Rosefield and Rob Cosh.

Tickets are $30 and can be purchased in advance. GigSpace is located within in Alcorn Music Studios at 953 Gladstone Avenue, one long block west of Preston Avenue. OC Transpo route 14 stops immediately in front; route 85 travels on Preston Street, about two blocks away.

On Sunday, December 3, from 2 to 3 p.m., Snow and Stewart will launch the vinyl version of their Live at the National Gallery recording at the Record Centre, 1099 Wellington Street West (at Sherbrooke) in Hintonburg. OC Transpo route 11 stops close by.

Read related stories in OttawaJazzScene.ca: