Lori Freedman ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Lori Freedman with bass clarinet. She plays all the clarinets, down to the contrabass, in Mercury. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

After 15 years playing together in Montreal, clarinetist Lori Freedman and bassist Nicolas Caloia decided it was time to create music together, in a daring new duo they call Mercury.

The music they're creating isn't straight jazz, and it takes improvised music to new places. They say they are “on the brink of finding a new sound aesthetic: unpredictable, untempered, organic, and irregular, but none-the-less, with cadence, consonance, transparency and silence.”

Over the next two weeks, they're taking that music from Ontario to B.C. – and showcasing music by fellow Montrealers as well. IMOO will present the duo in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 1.

Freedman and Caloia are both prominent in Montreal's “actuelle” music community, performing what could be called freely improvised, or avant-garde, or new music. Caloia, who is originally from Ottawa (he moved to Montreal in 1989), is a composer, improviser, and double bassist. He leads groups ranging from duos, to his Tilting quartet, to Spell (his 10-piece marching band), to his 30-piece Ratchet Orchestra.

Freedman is a virtuoso player on all the clarinets, from the little Eb to the giant contrabass clarinet. She specializes in playing music by living composers – “I don't know when the last time I played music by a dead composer was” – but in contexts ranging from contemporary chamber music (including at Ottawa Chamberfest) to highly avant-garde. In addition to writing her own compositions, she often performs music specifically composed for her. She's a fearless jazz improviser: at the first Ottawa IMOOfest in 2012, every eye was riveted on her solo performance.

Caloia says he values playing with Freedman for “her skill, her rigor, her honesty, her critical capacity.” He also appreciates playing in a duo because it was so much simpler to arrange: “Two is the best. The organizing is instant. You just call them up – it's done. And we're like partners, whereas with a 30-piece band, you have to be the leader. So the dynamic is entirely different.”

They first met in 2002, when Freedman moved to Montreal. She took over an apartment from a saxophonist who was moving to Toronto, and he told her, “You should meet Nicolas Caloia.” Caloia lived just up the street from her, she said, and so they started hanging out and playing in different situations around Montreal, including in a band with the late renowned American saxophonist Steve Lacy.

A more formal, longstanding project

Finally, a couple years ago, they decided to collaborate more formally: creating music together in a new project.

“Montreal is extremely active in the improvised music circuit. There's always something going on, almost every night in town, with ad-hoc groups which had never played together before. That's a wonderful, wonderful thing to do, like a workshopping kind of thing, although they're public presentations. But here with Nick and I, we decided we wanted to spend more time actually working out some music together, some of our own music. So that's what we did. And here we are, with Mercury.”

Why the name Mercury? Freedman believes she picked the name because “it had something to do with the chemical, mercury, because it's a very volatile chemical and a strange one at that. It's both dangerous and wondrous.” Caloia says he thought it was a good name “because Lori has a mercurial personality”.

One inspiration for the duo, Caloia said, was a recording called Transmissions by the duo of Alan Silva and Oluyemi Thomas on Eremite Records. “It seemed to set the bar really high, and really was an example of the potential of the music. It showed what could be done with this duet, because it was bass clarinet and double bass as well. Very abstract but it was a cool sound.”

Mercury's music doesn't “quote any obvious styles”, he said, and concentrates as much “on the timbre of the sounds as their pitch, giving the colour as much importance as pitch.” The duo uses more of a diphthong approach where the sound itself might transform in colour and “maybe the pitch would also change for each sound gesture – and even each sound.”

In the duo, Caloia uses the full capabilities of the double bass, both bowing and plucking the strings, and using any other method of creating sound with it. He said its size is an advantage: “You can access a lot of harmonics and a lot of colours that I think are harder on the smaller string instruments, just because you have this low fundamental and so the upper partials are in audible hearing range, and easy to get at because there actually is a little bit of space in between them.”

As instruments, the bass clarinet and the double bass “fit together easily. There's some instruments that their colours just blend together easily, and I think this is an example. We can both go low and go high.”

On her own composition, “À Thiou”, Freedman said she played the deep contrabass clarinet. “There's something that happens when the bass is way down there and I'm way down there, that just … it's so resonant.” She's not sure if she'll bring the contrabass clarinet on the first leg of this tour because it can break or go out of adjustment very easily.

But, ultimately, she said, it's more the musicians than the instruments.

“When you say two instruments are inherently similar or go well together, it's the players. The instruments don't make sounds by themselves. And in our kind of music anyway, it has as much to do with the players making the sound and the music as it does the instruments.”

“It's very creative music. We're not playing something that somebody told us to play.”

Tilting ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Nicolas Caloia (centre, on double bass) with his Tilting quartet ©Brett Delmage, 2011

"We wanted to play more often"

Caloia said they decided to organize a large tour, from Montreal to Robert's Creek on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, because “we wanted to play more often. We wanted to see what would happen, because we've been playing together for so long, but maybe once or twice a year because you really can't play that often in the city you live in.”

“So we thought it would be cool to spend more time on the project and work together regularly, rehearse these pieces, and just see if it would take the music to another level. And then by touring it and performing the same pieces, it should do that as well. Gigs will definitely take the music to a higher level than rehearsals. Rehearsals are limited as to what they can do to the music, I think.”

“We love this music, and we want to share it with as many people as possible,” Freedman said. “I'm sure that when we get back, the music will have traveled as well as our bodies. That's what happens on tours: it refines the music. It brings it down to its best form.”

They will eventually release a recording of the duo, she said, and have recorded some of their pieces, most recently last week.

“But in the meantime, playing it live is like nothing else, right. The recording doesn't come close to live performances and the more people who can experience that face to face as it were I feel that's the best diffusion there is. So that's why we want to tour.”

Interpreting non-traditional scores, without going back to the composers

The concert program for their tour includes six compositions, one each by Freedman and Caloia, and four which they commissioned from other Canadian composers: three from Montreal, and one from Toronto.

“We thought about first of all, who had pieces. We started off really large and then the more we thought about it, the more we focused it on people we actually know and play with. And so it's really like our friends and our colleagues and people that have been sharing the same community with us for 20 years or 30 years,” Caloia said.

“Malcolm [Goldstein], we play together all the time, and Rainer [Weins], I've known Rainer probably since I was 18, and had just come to Montreal. Pierre-Yves Martel is a younger guy, but Lori plays with him and knows him. I guess it was to show the variety of thinking within the small community and to have these different ideas come through a single group was interesting to us – and to see how it would change our playing and the music that we made.”

“So we just said, 'Would you like to compose some pieces for us?' ”, Freedman said. “And they all just grabbed that opportunity.”

Freedman's score begins and ends in standard musical notation – but it's the exception. The others are generally non-traditional: for example, a written text giving a series of instructions.

“Malcolm's is five or seven pages of instructions, written long-hand, and then a text from Gertrude Stein that we use to generate our score – but in our heads. We don't write it down. We assign a certain sound or sound gesture to each word in the poem or in the text and then, following his instructions, use that to generate various movements. It's really cool,” Caloia said. From performance to performance, the sound assignments may not change, but the order might be different, he said.

In general, non-standard scores are a riskier method of composition. Freedman said that she's done many non-standard scores “whose results are much less interesting than the look of the score. That's too bad. Myself, when I write music, I often start graphically and what it looks like informs a lot of how I develop it. But at a certain point, I myself have to lose that and imagine how that's going to sound. Because as beautiful as it might look, it might sound like vomit! And I feel that that is where some people are taking graphic scores: they stay hooked into the beauty of what the actual score looks like without ever realizing how it doesn't actually work, sonically.”

It's a music that, some people would go, well, I've never heard anything like that before.
–Lori Freedman

Freedman said the most challenging piece in their set came from Toronto composer Martin Arnold. “His score is probably the most daunting, austere, and so unlike what his music is usually about. He's just given us a page of numbers, [she laughs] with some instruction, and we have to decode them.”

It's a series of numbers, between 0 and 12, representing musical intervals. “It's crazy … you see no notes. You know what normal music, standard notation looks like right? Well, you substitute all of those notes for numbers. [She laughs] And his instructions, as are the other pieces too, they're written – or drawn – in such a way that, if they [the composers] weren't alive, we would have no option but to interpret those words as how we see fit, what makes the best music to us.”

With so many “wild cards” in these pieces, she said, they “oblige us to partake in a lot of the creation of the music. We have to make most of the music up – they give us guidelines of what they'd like to hear when, and how sometimes. But they won't give us materials per se. And partly we've constructed this program for that.”

“Part of us, Nick and I, in the process, we're quite loath to contact them and say by this do you mean this, this, or this? Rather, we were much more interested in taking what they wrote on paper and taking it where we had to take it – but being very responsible musicians, trying to be true to their word. But if there was any kind of question about what that meant, and we had a lot of discussion about many of the parts, we would have preferred in some way to take it to mean what we thought it meant, instead of actually contacting them.”

So, is this harder than playing from a traditional score? “Of course. Creative anything is harder than interpretive.”

Performing the pieces, she said, involves “very hard listening, and creating in the moment. … So not necessarily reacting to the sound, but also pro-acting, making the sound. So it's a very beautiful and precarious genre, type of music.”

The result? “I think we're both looking for sound that hasn't been heard before – both on our instruments but also collectively in the music that we're making. It's a music that, some people would go, well, I've never heard anything like that before.”

“Which is also again, kind of dangerous. Lots of people hate not having heard something [before]. They hate things for the first time. We both tend to love things for the first time. So that's what we're looking for.”

Mercury Spring Tour 2018

  • April 14: Innovations en concert: Chapelle Saint-Louis – Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste [Montreal, Quebec]
  • April 26: Zula presents: The Spice Factory [Hamilton, Ontario]
  • April 27: NUMUS: Oak Room — Walper Hotel [Kitchener, Ontario]
  • April 28: Silence [Guelph, Ontario]
  • April 29: Music Gallery [Toronto, Ontario]
  • April 30: The Spill Cafe [Peterborough, Ontario]
  • May 1: IMOO [Ottawa, Ontario]
  • May 3: Bug Incision: Vintage Room – Theatre Junction Grand [Calgary, Alberta]
  • May 4: The Yardbird Suite [Edmonton, Alberta]
  • May 5: China Cloud Gallery [Vancouver, British Columbia]
  • May 6: Laboratorio Arts: The Gumboot Cafe [Robert's Creek, British Columbia]

More tour info

The Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO) will present Mercury (Lori Freedman and Nicolas Caloia) on Tuesday, May 1, at 8 p.m. at General Assembly. Admission is by donation: $5 to $10 or more, or pay what you can. General Assembly is located at the rear of 5 Fairmont Avenue (at Wellington West) in the Hintonburg neighbourhood of Ottawa. OC Transpo routes 11 (on Wellngton Street West) and 14 (on Gladstone Avenue) stop close by. The Bayview Transitway/LRT stop is about 15 minutes walk away, via the off-road path and the staircase up to the Somerset Street Bridge.

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