by carl wilson

Whatever Happened to...

morris_roof.jpg

... Morris Palter, the original drummer of Toronto alt-rock-era favourites Treble Charger, who was kicked out just as they peaked in popularity? As I report in the Globe today, he's doing some pretty amazing shit. (As he'll show at the Music Gallery on Sat. night.) And what happened to Treble Charger? They're doing shit, but not the amazing kind. One for the "blessings in disguise" file - chicken soup for the punk-rock soul. [...]

Hitting, scratching, rubbing

By CARL WILSON
The Globe & Mail Review
Friday, December 10, 2004

Morris Palter's career is a musical demonstration of Newton's Third Law of Physics. In the early nineties, he was the founding drummer in one of Ontario's most acclaimed alt-rock bands, Treble Charger, opening for the likes of Radiohead. But when he was unceremoniously booted out, the kick seemed to send Treble Charger hurtling toward the blandest horizon of forgettable Canadian pop-punk -- and Palter in an opposite, more fantastical direction.

He ended up in the Netherlands and then California, studying experimental contemporary percussion music and performance. He went from rock clubs and arenas to international festivals and even Carnegie Hall. This weekend at the Music Gallery, he'll bring the results back to a Toronto stage for the first time since Treble Charger's heyday.

Tomorrow's solo recital will find him "hitting, scratching and rubbing" an array of instruments, from drum kit to found objects such as circular-saw blades or a car's brake drum. These spacious, exploratory pieces, including two that Palter commissioned from Canadian composers, may not be suitable for a mosh pit. But audiences still have a visceral reaction.

"When I see a flute player, I see how technical it is, with the fingers moving in a blur, the player blowing at an angle over the hole," a chatty Palter says by phone from San Diego, Calif., where he will complete his doctorate of musical arts this spring. "But when I stand in front of an audience and pick up a stick and hit something, people can relate: 'I could do that!'

"They can see the drum skin vibrating, or I come down with a hammer on an anvil and they hear this explosive sound. There's no great mystery, although the sound itself may be mysterious."

Unlike after a cello recital, he says, audience members after a percussion show find themselves drawn up to touch the instruments. "Kids especially love it. They freak out."

It's not the stretch it might seem for the performer, either. Growing up in Mississauga, Palter's father would bring the family out to Sunday symphony matinees and art galleries. When Treble Charger started (originally as NC-17), he was doing his undergraduate music degree at the University of Toronto, where he encountered the avant-garde percussion pieces of John Cage or minimalist Steven Reich.

Rock celebrity, then, was a kind of detour -- and not even the most intriguing side road Palter has followed.

Ruled too uncommercial a drummer for Treble Charger in 1996, a "devastated" Palter began "noodling around" with the only other instrument in his basement apartment, a xylophone, playing the charts of some old-fashioned ragtime he'd learned at school. Soon he rang up Bob Becker of the veteran Nexus percussion ensemble for lessons. Becker happens to be the foremost xylophonist in the world, a bragging right Toronto generally neglects to exercise.

Together, they explored the lost universe of ragtime xylophone improvisation. That early 20th-century genre is normally associated with piano, but Palter says that in the early 1920s, delirious "novelty xylophone" music became a craze, partly because it registered so well on early wax-cylinder recordings. "At the penny slot machines on the boardwalk, the music was xylophone."

As technology improved, ragtime piano again triumphed, though you can hear novelty xylophone's influence in the scores of early Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Today, Palter is one of the few prominent performers of the genre, serving as "musical sorbet" at American ragtime festivals among countless pianists. He's released a ragtime CD and teaches a popular course in it at UC San Diego.

"We start with African slave music, plantation songs, field hollers and work songs, all the way up to rich white Europeans using ragtime elements in classical music," he says. "It lets you examine the ugly dark side of American music, coon songs and minstrelsy and the burnt-cork era. So [ragtime] is a hobby that really took off."

Palter has also toured with percussion group Red Fish Blue Fish, founded a San Diego chamber ensemble called Noise, made a solo percussion disc (Remedy) and started composing for a California dance troupe, while applying for postdoctoral academic positions. With his expansive interests, he's lucky to be in percussion -- at once the oldest instrumental music and as a formal concert specialty among the newest, with repertory tracing only to the 1950s, its possibilities still greatly undefined.

Palter is particularly keen to develop material for his first love, the drum set, "using the elements of jazz and rock, but in a non-traditional way." He is even eager to play rock again -- but not to repeat the Treble Charger experience.

"Early on we had total control, as these indie darlings of Toronto. But as soon as you sign to a major label you lose that. There are all these hierarchies of power. . . . If I did go back to the rock thing I'd like to go back as a hired gun: Just show up for the gig, play and leave."

Meanwhile, Palter delights in using his mallets and sticks to play with other laws of physics -- all, it seems, except the conservation of energy.

Morris Palter's solo recital is at the Music Gallery, 197 John St., tomorrow at 8 p.m. $15 (students $5). 416-204-1080.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, December 10 at 5:27 PM | Linking Posts

 

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