Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gig: Keir Neuringer

Keir Neuringer (Jonathan Adjemian / Ghost Eye)

The Earth Ship. Saturday, March 26, 2011.

I kinda suspected that this wasn't going to be the regular sort of show. The listing required an RSVP, and the reply to the email I sent giving me the address to the mysterious Earth Ship listed me as "#13 of 35". So not a big crowd, then. And the address directed one to a "Rear Coach House", making me wonder whether this was going to be in someone's glorified garage.

It turned out to be far more elaborate than that. Passing through the door, the vestibule gave the impression of a gateway to something different, with toy record players spinning broken discs. And then, through a sheet... and into the warm and friendly outpost of The Earth Ship. Attached to the printmaking shop of local artist Jeff Garcia, this living space was filled to the brim with his works, like a giant three-dimensional collage drawn from his mind.

I don't know much about the art world, so I can't speak to all of the context he's working in, but I was immediately drawn to Garcia's work. I had seen him before at a few gigs, though, and I could easily grip the connections between local-sourced, organic music and the DIY approach in his art. Applying a sort of post-apocalyptic bricolage to the world of today, Garcia's art is often sourced from found materials, and has a funky, off-the-grid vibe. In so doing, he makes a strong statement against the crass disposability of our society, every item insisting: we could wring out so much more value from all this stuff we have casually thrown away.

One wall of the high-ceilinged main space was dominated by a giant sculpture of pinecones, each glued to a magnet and attached to a wall in a 30×30 grid, allowing for a near-infinite variety of patterns to be created by removing some. A rope sculpture dangled from above, and it appeared to be a giant plaything for Shouty, the housecat who had the serene self-possession of someone who knows they're really the ones in charge. Every show should have a cat that will climb up onto your lap and cuddle.

Very much a casual, friends-hanging-out vibe, with hearty warm drinks and a wide selection of music playing in the background. At one point, musician Isla Craig pulled out an opera album and played a cut. Perhaps appropriate for a show like this, the place gave the impression that everything was an improvisation and all the terrain was up for grabs — even where openers Simeon Abbott and Steve Ward were going to play took some deliberation before they started setting up essentially in the middle of the space.

Appearing as Ghost Eye, Ward and Abbott would be joined by a visual collaborator, and as a slow rumble of noise built up, Ward playing some low trombone notes over it, pixellated colours from a projector danced over the musicians and onto the pinecones behind them. With some creative applications of new technology, both musicians were using their iThings as instruments in this set, at first for playback to add muttering found-sound voices in the background as well as reverse-masked plinking noises. After a bit, Ward also used it as a microphone, holding it in the bell of his horn to grab sounds for further treatment — and later on, he'd pull up a keyboard app to use as an instrument. Meanwhile, Abbott, his guitar laying flat on the floor, was sticking things in the strings while manipulating sounds with pedals and his own phone.

A mini-fog machine sprayed into the projector's light-path made its digitized blocks seem as indeterminate as the music, which blurred in and out of focus. After one quiet interlude, Abbott started gently hammering his guitar strings while Ward introduced a quiet trombone line behind, using a CD as a mute. Not long after, Abbott was bowing the guitar's strings while Ward added soundbursts from a tape recorder and loop pedal, the sound eventually receding into buzzing-bee washes of looped trombone before finishing with a spooky concrète close.

It's fascinating to list of all the creative innovations used in producing the music, but it wasn't just toy time. The end result was stretched-out but not lax; contemplative but not self-absorbed.1

Listen to an excerpt form this set here.

Instead of taking over the spot in the centre of the room where Ghost Eye had played, Jonathan Adjemian was perched like a mostly unseen, somewhat-unpredictable oracle on the landing above the entryway. There was an old wooden ladder extending out horizontally from the ledge, as as Adjemian began, Shouty the cat strolled down it to find a perch above the audience and settled in for a nap.

There would be a different sort of improvisation at hand here, as before getting down to the sort of solo keyboard work I'd heard before from Adjemian, he began by telling the story of a traveller arriving in a small town to award them with a statue of one of their leading citizens. Unable to put one of their number above the whole, the stranger proceeded to create statues of everyone in the town — as well as the town itself. Relating the story in a friendly, conversational manner as wizzling analog synth noises built up behind the words, Jeff Garcia, in the kitchen area below, added some live foley by flipping the curtain and slamming the freezer door.

As the story ended, leaving the listeners to reflect upon the difference between the world and simulacra of the world and the consequences of the replication replacing the original, the music slowly built up to some haunting synth-generated noises that sounded like loons or perhaps drifting spirits calling out. As that segued into the "song", Garcia was improvising on an overhead projector, grabbing things at hand to add to a water pan that was being projected onto the wall.

Adjemian started to add a pow-wow like beat as he played a warbling synth solo over top — the effect was strongly evocative of the NFB's Dance vignette. That moved into some more sawtooth patterns, and as it ended, the loon-like cries returned. Given the emotional arc of the music, it almost felt like a retelling of the same story as before. As it finished, when the audience down on the floor started to applaud, Shouty stood up and stretched her back, and walked off the perch like a thespian returning to the wings, as if were a matter of course that the applause was for her.2

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

New Yorker Keir Neuringer was the night's out-of-town headliner. I hadn't heard of him at all previously, but he fit into the vibe perfectly. Neuringer came off like a solitary traveller reporting on a collapsing society, a road-bound Cassandra staying one step ahead of the flames of destruction or the pitchfork-bearing mobs preferring to ignore the situation and watch TV. The percussion-plus-spoken-word "Conquistadors" was like the work of a doomy beat poet or a we-told-you-so Last Poet, leading off: "First they came for the forests and I did not speak out because I did not live in the forests", a constant pounding rhythm churning like the industrial state looking for more and more raw materials.

He shifted over to his Farfisa to power "Rocket Ships" with a sort of funhouse dread vibe, his statements punctuated with a kickdrum at his feet, then improvised a sawtooth segue to the scorched-earth visions of "Strange Lands", a constant low warble of unease set off against a feedback-y howl. The songs felt like dispatches from a post-Empire America, with old boundaries and categories in flux, a feeling that was heightened even further on "What We Have", where suddenly his roadtrip felt less like Kerouac and more like Cormac McCarthy:

some will fall to their knees

some will stand shoulder to shoulder

some will not even flinch

some have already begun to brace themselves

some will eat flesh

some will shed flesh

Ending with the pronouncement "whatever it is, we all have it... this has all happened already" the song trailed off into an extended coda that melded into an instrumental. After a couple minutes, Neuringer reached over to stick a tape in a cassette player, adding a disembodied, warbling voice halfspeaking in zwippling fastforward bursts with one hand, while the other alternated between keyboard vamps and knob-twiddling effects on the voice, which never quite settled into mere comprehensibility. The whole thing sped up into a whirl, like a frenzied society driving itself to collapse — an apt vision, for I realized afterward that the voice belonged to Helen Caldicott, prophet of nuclear doom and familiar to Canadians as the subject of the NFB doc If You Love This Planet.

But after that, the night ended with some ascension as Neuringer strapped on his saxophone, matched the drone from his keyboard, and as that cut out, kept playing. And playing — with circular breathing that slowly transformed from being a straight drone to a repeating ostinado figure, which became increasingly punctuated by squeals and then finally into something that might sound like a conventional, if wayward solo, series of notes suddenly slowing down like he again was fiddling with the playback head of a tape player. This solo sax piece is titled "The Love Story" and it sounded like a soul-cry against all the previous dark emotions in the songs, Neuringer playing with a restless verve, pushing onward, never stopping.

The whole set, going past forty-five minutes, was non-stop. The circular breathing impressed as a feat of sheer endurance (though, in an attempt to demystify it, Neuringer gathered the crowd in a circle at the end and gave quick tutorial on the basics of the technique) but it was the songs that stuck with me afterward.3 On the whole, a really inspiring night, and the sort of show where you feel privileged to be sharing an earthship journey with such creative passengers.

Listen to a track from this set here.


1 Besides playing in a variety of groups (as well as solo — his Lone Bone project is rather worth seeing), Ward is also busy as a musical curator, putting together shows of boundary-pushing music in his Panic! series, Monday nights at Somewhere There.

2 Adjemian also operates under the bandonym Hoover Party, and can be found playing in a terrific lineup tomorrow night (January 19, 2012) at Holy Oak Café alongside Isla Craig, Alex Lukashevsky and Tenderness.

3 The songs he played derive from a pair of 2011 EP's Neuringer released under the moniker "Afghanistan" — you can check them out on his bandcamp.

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