by carl wilson

CCMC vs. Kaiser (w/ Lukas Ligeti
as Conscientious Noncombatant)

From left, John Oswald, Michael Snow (not playing, which is a misrepresentation) and Lukas Ligeti.
Not seen: Henry Kaiser (which is a fairly accurate representation) and Casey Sokol, who sat at his
own piano, out of frame to the left of this shot. (Thus preserving his valued anonymity...)

I've got a new camera, and you're going to have to suffer through it. I took some better pics of Sunday night's gig at the Music Gallery with Henry Kaiser, Lukas Ligeti and past and present members of Toronto's CCMC (John Oswald, Michael Snow and Casey Sokol), but my deft handling of data-transfer resulted in their simultaneous deletion from both camera and computer. Pardon the murky image, but the aptitude will improve.

Meanwhile, you can read my review in today's Globe and Mail (or by clicking "Read More" below). The headline - "Improv guests have to fight for playing room" - spins the piece much more negatively than it was meant. My point was closer to, "Big-name foreign guests yield to dazzling Torontonian fireworks." If you look closely, it even includes some jottings towards a formula for the gunpowder. But perhaps I succumbed to that tendency of improv reviews to sound too much like the sports page. Then again, Mike Snow really did give 110%.

Improv guests have to fight for playing room

The Globe and Mail
March 28, 2005

Henry Kaiser, Lucas Ligeti,
John Oswald, Michael Snow
and Casey Sokol
At the Music Gallery
In Toronto on Sunday

For devotees of riskily rudderless, improvised sounds, the ensemble at the Music Gallery this weekend was practically a supergroup.

The first, and rarest, visitor was California guitarist Henry Kaiser. At 53, Kaiser has a yards-long discography that crosses paths with everyone from funky Herbie Hancock to folkie Richard Thompson to iconoclast John Zorn, with stopovers from Norway to Madagascar and Japan.

Then there were two current members of Toronto veteran improvisation unit CCMC - celebrated multidisciplinary artists Michael Snow and John Oswald. They were joined by CCMC founder Casey Sokol, who has inducted younger generations into the rites of improv in his classes at York University. (The acronym CCMC, by the way, has no fixed meaning, fittingly enough for a continually concocting musical crew.)

Finally there was a lesser-known quantity, the Austrian-born and New York-based drummer and composer Lukas Ligeti. His aura draws juice from the fact that he is the son of monumental modern composer Gyorgy Ligeti. But his global musical and multimedia projects make a daunting résumé in their own right.

As it transpired, though, the CCMC disciples in the sizable crowd that turned out to the Gallery's current home at Toronto's St. George the Martyr Church probably went away more content than the Henry Kaiser fans.

Snow and Sokol were the most on their game, each with a grand piano and a couple of synthesizers to hand. Oswald and Ligeti made personable and occasionally dramatic interventions, often nudging the pianists onto more challenging ramparts.

Kaiser, on the other hand, seemed generally reticent and, later on, damn near reclusive. Strange for a player who is often a dominating shredder. But mood is always an issue in a form where spontaneity is all.

In the first set, the full group showed an unexpected swagger - Snow making like Dr. Who on his vintage synth, Ligeti layering low toms and high chimes, Kaiser rambling in the bass range and Oswald pulling bronzed harmonic overtones out of the ozone. At moments it sounded almost like a psychedelic-era funk band, but one that omitted notes and rhythms and played only the multicoloured intervals between.

The second set began with a ringing piano duet in which Snow's bebop accents and Sokol's more lyrical tendencies merged into a glinting cubist mobile of harmonic fragments. They were joined by Ligeti for a more agitated kind of meditation, a series of long oscillating waves in which both pianists played the insides of their instruments, with Snow tossing around a set of bright green oven dishes on the strings of the big black grand.

Finally the full group reassembled, beginning with an ultra-quiet improv that gnawed at the threads separating sound and silence. In that piece, Kaiser provided rippling, near-subliminal ornament by plucking an unamplified electric guitar.

Oddly, though, as the others ramped back up, Kaiser never plugged back in. He hardly played at all, but when he did he couldn't be heard. Ligeti showed some hesitation, too. But in the end, when the CCMC players cleared the way for their guests to shine, Kaiser wandered right off-stage and never returned.

There was plenty else to be savoured amid CCMC's characteristically madcap, archly competitive antics. Hearing Sokol back in the gang was a particular pleasure. But the "supergroup" aspect never quite gelled. You might say the Canadian players were poor hosts who gave their guests too little room. But restraint isn't what CCMC is about. Snow, for example, can and will carve out a place no matter what the dynamic, and expects others will do the same.

Such unassuming boldness, at once impolitic and comical, is a common trait in improv here (arguably in other Toronto music, too). If it brought on some awkward moments with these two other heavy-duty players, it just may have shown that the local style is more distinct and demanding than it looks.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, March 28 at 05:13 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



Hi guys,

I am not sure there is much room for discussion Carl as your
descriptions that included words like unassuming, unassertive and others clearly described the interesting and unique part of the Toronto improv scene that loosely fits under the "Rat Drifting umbrella."

I think it important to be clear that this in no way represents the general sound of the music coming out of Toronto as I don't think there is one.

I have recently been talking with some friends about the development of a "non-star system" for Canadian arts. We were agreeing that it seems ridiculous to adopt the American type star system, when we are clearly different folk up here (as you mentioned above).

The recent idea put forward was the exaggeration of regional "artistic leaders". Geographically, this might make sense since it takes forever to drive between major centers in Canada anyways.

If we were truly going to celebrate local artists in a bolder fashion I think it would be key to not generalize about the style of art that defines a region. This openness would allow many more artists to create new work, find local audiences and affect their local surroundings with what they have to offer. (hopefully giving birth to many new local scenes in each region that may eventually work together and even "check each other out!")

Obviously, this is just an "idea in progress" but it has been fun to organize it into sentences.


Posted by tim posgate on March 29, 2006 11:12 AM



Thanks for picking up on that, Nick. I hoped it would create some discussion: On one hand you're right, a lot of the improv musicians around could use more of that boldness, as I've been heard to say from time to time. But a lot of you clearly have the makings of it, despite (or perhaps within) the concealing modesty - including yourself, the other members of Drumheller (look at Rob and Eric), Martin Arnold, Sandro Perri, Saint Dirt and other Ratdrifting artists - to name a considerable few. Don't miss the "unassuming" part, to which you could add unassertive and even a little antisocial. While Mike Snow and John Oswald are much more self-assured than the younger players, they don't tend to be demonstrative about it, the way a lot of their U.S. or European equivalents would. There's also a tendency (not universal but common) for members of groups to seem relatively disconnected from one another, which is traditionally a fault in improvisation but can also be a style. So various Toronto musicians have these traits in various doses - this capacity to venture fairly far out while holding a fixed pose of stubborn plainness - a juxtaposition that generates a lot of Ontario (not just Toronto) music's humour and eccentricity (and arguably not even just music). It may not always succeed - it can come across as passive-aggressive irritation, or be uncommunicative, among other pitfalls - but it seems for observers like some starter dough for growing a local style. Not that it's a fully baked loaf. But that's no doubt part of why Drumheller, right from the start, excited me, part of why it seemed to have some comparable potential to CCMC, to clarify and articulate and expand the local improv idiom.

Posted by zoilus on March 28, 2006 07:37 PM



Hey, Carl. Do you really think that "unassuming boldness, at once impolitic and comical, is a common trait in improv here"? I'm not so sure... (although I must admit that it's a common trait among Snow and Oswald, god bless them). Sometimes I think the rest of us could use a little MORE unassuming boldness. Thoughts...?

Posted by nick on March 28, 2006 03:29 PM



You know, Carl, they had their game face on that night. They really came to play.

You should have a "Monday morning quarterback" show, with highlight reels.

(seriously, sounds like a great show. music-as-sports -- i like, i like. when it's a win, it's a win for the whole team.)

(unless it's a gladiatorial cutting contest, which don't really happen much if at all any more, as far as i ever hear.)

(More I type, the more I like the highlight reel idea. Kind of what Leonard Bernstein had with his Music For Young People TV shows. Trying to bring the musical knowledge of an audience closer to most people's knowledge of sports.)

Posted by john on March 28, 2006 02:12 PM



i was told there would be a review regarding the fantastic hair of the music gallery staff.

just tragic.

Posted by rachael on March 28, 2006 11:48 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson