I pull up outside Private Ear Recording Studio just west of the Exchange on an impossibly sunny Sunday afternoon. The fluorescent pink Cluster New Music + Integrated Arts Festival poster tacked next to the door reads "Text/Call Eliot" with a phone number scrawled in black sharpie below. A few minutes later, Eliot Britton is leading me down a hallway and through a makeshift kitchen to a studio space where the artists of Prairie Drone Companion are rehearsing. Scattered across the floor, hunched over computers and audio equipment, they play together: trying out sounds and finding places where their work intersects.
Although they're all Winnipeg artists (the others, Matthew Schoen and Reiko will be flying in later in the week), this is their first time collaborating all together. The group is preparing a show for one of Cluster's largest events at the West End Cultural Centre, where they'll be combining their audio and visual talents to explore the concepts of drone and the prairies.
During their rehearsal break, I sit down with The Gritty members Sarah Kirsch and jaymez alongside Eliot Britton to chat about the show.
FULL: Tell me a bit about your backgrounds and how you got to this point. Sarah, you mentioned your training is in classical music?
Sarah Kirsch: I did my Masters here as a soprano. I sing classical music with ensembles in town. Last year, I did a national tour focusing mostly on Canadian new music.
Working with Cluster is me exploring my instrument in a way that is not part of that classical binary. It’s a fun way to uncover sound and react and be spontaneous - a fun way to explore. It’s a little self-indulgent, I have to admit, because it’s just my voice. I’m just playing.
It’s mostly jaymez’s influence and encouragement that’s inspired this whole thing. We worked together first with Cluster in 2012 doing the drag queen opera No Masque for Good Measure with Ricketts. It was a fantastic opera and jaymez was doing all the lighting, visuals and sound tech.
jaymez: And we did Gashlycrumb Tinies at Exchange Community Church.
SK: And that was a big, fun collaborative mess. Then I asked jaymez to work with me on a recital project called "Apocalyptic intercourse: songs about sex and the end of the world." It was super fun, and we did some edgy stuff, like playing footage of gender reassignment surgery while I sang the first aria from Poulenc's Mammelles de Tirésias.
j: I studied video at the University of Manitoba, in the Fine Arts Department. I started exploring videos as a live performance medium when I was in university. I really loved the idea of being able to edit and create videos improvised on the fly. So I started working with a few bands, toured with them, did stuff with Cluster, DJ shows, raves. I’ve been touring across the country doing live projections for about ten years now.
Gashlycrumb Tinies in 2012 was when Sarah and I got the bug to work together. We did her recital piece, and came up with the idea to start a project for Cluster. The first time we ever performed as The Gritty was at Cluster 2013. We didn’t do much for a while, and then we got asked to play with the New Music Festival at the Westminster Church. I projection mapped the pipe organ – took the whole pipe organ, broke it down into sections and elements, and mapped video to it.
FULL: Is that an example of you editing or putting things together on the fly? Can you explain to me how that works? What do you start with and how does that process unfold?
j: I spend a lot of time watching videos. Hours and hours watching them for short 5 to 10 second sections. I take the sections and I cut them out and I build loops. I’ve got libraries upon libraries of these loops, and I can pull them up and layer them up to ten layers at a time and blend them in and out, which becomes this improvised video performance.
FULL: So you have these videos and you can put them together as you go, but what does the structure look like for you? Do you have a starting point and markers you’re trying to hit, or is it looser than that?
j: Depends on what I’m doing. I’ll usually build ten starting layers and then go from there. If I’m working with DJs, I have a bunch of banks ready, and I can swap through them and make changes, but it’s a lot more fast-paced, so I have to be really on my toes. With more improvised new music pieces, I can bring a clip, affect it, and then slowly bring in another clip. I have a little more freedom to explore that way.
FULL: How structured is the plan for this particular show?
SK: It’s a bit more outlined. Our rehearsal process is us sitting in a room – me messing around with sound, jaymez messing around with video, until we find these magical alignments. Sometimes they happen when we’re apart and sometimes they happen when we’re in the same room. It’s collaborative on both sides. We see or hear something that the other is doing that is appealing or that we resonate with; it’s a very organic process.
j: But we do work under a structured improv. There’s no score, just a loose structure.
FULL: I feel like to be able to do that kind of work you have to have a really strong relationship where you’ve developed that ability to pay attention to each other and respond in time.
SK: I think that it’s also just a matter of creative chemistry. Some people you automatically have that with and some you don’t. I don’t think we’ve ever struggled to find that, which has been very lucky, because with some collaborators you do.
j: I think personally we’re very different people (Sarah laughs), but creatively we’re cut from the same cloth.
SK: We have the same creative morality.
FULL: The name of the show is Prairie Drone Companion. What does that name mean to Cluster?
Eliot Britton: We knew that we wanted to do something different. We wanted to up our game visually and from a technological perspective. A lot of times we do gallery shows, but here, we’re jumping to the West End Cultural Centre, where we have a lot of stuff built in. We can afford to make it slicker and bigger and sublime and magnificent.
Cluster also does these structured improv shows, like The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which usually integrate a lot of different types of art. We wanted a theme that would resonate with all the different artists we were going to bring in, and that theme was drone. Not drone as in the flying robots, but meaning a long, intoned, stable, slow moving note with a melody overtop perhaps. The Gritty has been the centre of that exploration, and we brought in other artists to collaborate around the themes of drone and the prairies.
We also happened to get an artist that submitted some amazing, high technology video, so now we have the drone, the prairies, and technology. Matthew Schoen is a video artist and electric music composer from Montreal. Because his stuff is fixed, it’s kind of the backbone. The idea of all these different parts coming together, it's crazy.
I’m a quite cynical, prepared and organized kind of person, but working with Cluster, I’ve learned that you can do incredible things by bringing in artists of different types and asking them to collaborate and work together. And in this specific case, I built the outline and assembled this structure with a backbone of video and storytelling, with The Gritty at the helm, and beautiful things are going to happen.
FULL: The word companion in the title of the show. Is there a reason why you would choose that word?
EB: The idea initially was that the show would be a companion guide, a brief summary of all the different ways to look at drones on the prairies. In some ways we’re asking, what are Winnipeg’s ways of looking at a drone? We have Jamie Oliviero telling stories; Rosa Reaper doing extended vocal techniques and building up a different kind of drone with her voice; the video elements from jaymez and Matthew with Sarah’s audio that add that same kind of static, almost like a visual drone; and I’m going to be adding some electro-acoustic layers that will be static in the background; and Reiko of course, with her broken instrument. It’s very much a sampling of different types of drones expressing the prairies. And while it’s not just artists from the prairies that we’ve brought in, it’s a summary, a companion guide, a sampler.
FULL: What does expressing the prairies mean to each of you?
EB: That has been vacillating quite quickly, which is what happens when you have this many artists with different visions coming together. Looking at Matthew’s videos, The Gritty’s work and Jamie’s stories, initially we were talking a lot about communication and warmth as well as isolation and distance, and the tension that happens between those two ideas. So we were there for a while, and now we’ve moved away from that a little bit, but I’m hoping we’ll drift back more again. Even though I set out the structure, I’m trying not to force things to happen, but just let things happen.
FULL: So for you, Sarah and jaymez, this idea of isolation and communication is a starting framework. But are there pieces of your own nuance that you bring to this idea of expressing the prairies through drone?
SK: When Eliot approached me with the concept of drone, that gave me a place to start. The idea of exploring overtone series and the fundamental element of voice, its occupation of space, and how to manipulate it in different ways was something I wanted to explore. I also had a bit of an epiphany thinking about the moment when drone became part of western classical music. That was in the church, from the fourth century and on. St. Augustine in his treatises talks about the alignment of divine music.
Based on that, I brought in some chant, and there’s going to be an element: a short antiphon of 12th century Hildegard of Bingen’s that is very bloody, visceral, and dramatic with fire and brimstone, but still very ethereal. There aren’t many preserved works from female composers of that time, and that was important to me considering that I’m collaborating with Rosa Reaper and Reiko. Femininity as a churning undercurrent of the collaborative element was something that I wanted to contribute.
FULL: That seems appropriate too, given the wealth of female artists and writers on the prairies. I’m interested to learn more about your interpretation too jaymez. It doesn’t appear as though your videos are purely images of prairies, for example.
j: No, the way I’m drone interpreting prairie is through the concept of colour fields. I’m inspired by Wanda Koop's Satellite City paintings. For me, those are the greatest visual representation of life on the prairies, just these colour fields, and little pods and lines to connect them. If you’ve ever driven across these vast prairies, which I have many times, you realise that it’s just straight lines from here to there, and these little bubbles of life. You get to these brilliant prairie cities like Saskatoon, and you expect nothing, and it’s vibrant, the community’s amazing, the people are great, but it’s also so disconnected and so isolated.
There was a great film movement in the late nineties, the isolationist movement, which was a Winnipeg film movement with Guy Madden, and it’s all about this bitter loneliness that we feel and how we form these tight communities because of it. We band together in our segregation from the rest of civilization. I’m trying to interpret those ideas and less literal inclusion of fields. I probably will have some fields (all laugh).
EB: That’s where my role as a kind of producer of this show becomes interesting, because I’m also thinking about the audience, everything unfolding in front of them, the timing, and how it fits with the rest of the festival. I’ll say, “Have you thought about having pictures of actual drones on a prairie?” (all laugh) because I have to be the one with the bigger brush. It’s not an uncomfortable position for me, but I’m trying not to undermine people’s ideas by imposing large restrictions just because I want to make everyone fit together.
The reason I joined with Cluster after Heidi and Luke started it is because I’ve learned lessons with Cluster that I had never experienced anywhere else. Things that seem improbable can suddenly become so beautiful almost like magic. My background has been more like working with an artist from France, who brings a million dollars’ worth of electro-acoustic music across the ocean, sets up for three days, and rebuilds their entire life inside a box, inside a room, does their thing, then leaves. There’s no improv or compromise, so it’s just one expected, consistent result. That’s the world that I come from. The idea that there are other ways than to hyper-prepare down to the minutiae is fascinating to me.
SK: That’s every classical musician though. Anybody who goes to school and gets their doctorate, like you, Eliot, of course they’re going to feel that way. I feel that too. I think all of us as children who got into classical music, that’s the way we’re wired in our youth. Improvising for me was such a huge leap. I was used to having an anchor, something that I didn’t have to take responsibility for. If something is not right with this music, it’s not my fault, because this is the music. I’m going to do what’s on the page, follow these instructions, and be as evocative as I can be. As soon as I have to make my own god damn music, it’s hard. The risk is immense all of the sudden. And you’re right, risk is a huge part of it, and that’s what makes Cluster so unique. You have both the incredibly structured and the incredibly spontaneous. That’s why I keep coming back, why I want to be involved every year.
Eliot: The risk and the unforeseen result is a very exciting thing about Cluster. But one of the fundamental differences between you and I is that, as a composer, it’s nobody’s fault if it sucks in the traditional classical model, but for the composer, if it’s terrible, it is nobody’s fault but your own. There is no, “I’m doing what the composer said, I’m following the instructions, and it still sucks.” For me, if it’s sucks it’s because I suck, or I didn’t express the details in the proper way.
So having something beautiful that emerges without that level of detail, it’s incredible when it happens, but it doesn’t happen every time. Sometimes I’m watching an improvised show that is spontaneous and is risky, but so boring. Just because it’s risky doesn’t mean that it is good. I think that’s where Cluster is exciting, because, with the risk, and all of the people and quality and attention to detail and structure, it creates things that are larger than the sum of their parts.