Some members of the “Compose Yourself” band. From left to right: Parmela Attariwala, Rob Clutton, Christine Duncan, Tilman Lewis, and Jean Martin. Photo by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist.
“I think usually my audiences see two naked penguins smoking cigarettes,” said filmmaker John Greyson at The Music Gallery on Thursday night to the twelve-member band that had just finished spontaneously interpreting his remake of John Genet’s silent short film, Un chant d’amour. “What you have done is restore some of the tragedy to Genet’s film.”
Genet’s film is a moody, surrealistic depiction of imprisonment and homoerotic love. Greyson’s version is the same, except the two male leads are wearing giant penguin heads, and nothing else.
The event, called “Compose Yourself,” was a fundraiser (and season closer) for The Music Gallery, a performance space for experimental and avant-garde music, which was founded in 1976. The venue currently operates out of a small working church on John Street, just south of the AGO and OCAD U (as it’s now known). The idea for the night’s performance was that Toronto-area notables with no musical background would act as “guest composers” for a band of skilled local concert musicians with ties to the Gallery. The press release was vague as to what, exactly, this non-musical composition would consist of.
Greyson was the first guest composer; his composition was his film. Following him was former Toronto Maple Leaf Boyd Devereaux (currently playing for a team in Switzerland), whose idea was less highbrow. Invoking as examples the HBO series Deadwood and a trip he’d recently taken to the Yukon, Devereaux challenged the band to make music to remind him of “lonesome, epic landscapes.” His composition, in other words, was a suggestion for a particular type of mood.
The band had never played together as a group before, and there was no sheet music for them to rely upon. Everything would have to be made up on the spot.
Vocalist Christine Duncan picked up what looked like a megaphone, but was actually the reverse: instead of making her sound louder and more immediate, it diminished her voice, and made her sound very small and far away. Cellist Tilman Lewis used his instrument to fill the small, airless church sanctuary (ceiling fans were the only air circulation equipment on hand) with long, melodious groans. Against this baseline of noise, other members of the band would occasionally allow their instruments to speak up. Every so often a bell would toll, or the piano would emit some discordant notes.
Other guest composers had different approaches to the task at hand. Daniel Cooper, retiring chair of The Music Gallery’s board of directors, supplied a little tune his parents would whistle to one another when they became separated in crowds, for the band to use as the basis for a song.
Shaun Micallef—the Eye Weekly psychogeography columnist, Spacing editor, and Yonge Street managing editor—was a guest composer, as well. His inspiration for the band consisted of a Powerpoint presentation of forty of his tweets about life on Toronto’s streets. “This is the one time my dad actually understands what I’m doing,” he said, nodding at Devereaux, “because I’m doing it with a Maple Leaf.”
Visual artist Charles Pachter, known for his iconic paintings of the Canadian flag, was absent in the flesh. In a pre-recorded video projected on a screen above the stage, he asked the band to somehow adapt “O Canada” and “The Maple Leaf Forever” into a single composition. What the band improvised ended up sounding nothing like either.
One difficult thing about an improvisational performance like this one, in which the band has no framework or common experience to draw upon, is that the individual musicians are left to search for cues from one another while playing. Because of this, the impromptu compositions began extremely tentatively, with each of the twelve band members gradually feeling each other out. Rhythm and melody were impossible. The experience was more like wading through a fog of sound, and occasionally encountering something solid: a trill of violin, say, or the sound of a voice.
The songs had no set length, and had to end by consensus. At one point during the performance, a song slowly died down until there was nothing but silence in the room. Every member of the band remained at attention, with hands still poised over their instruments, as if to play. The quiet in the tiny church sanctuary lasted for a full, unbearably tense minute.
And then, the entire audience burst into laughter.