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Halifax Experimental Music Festival #9

Experimental or Just Plain Mental?

You know what's weird? The Halifax Experimental Music Festival is weird. Up until this weekend, I had never attented before. "The whole thing," people told me, is "Weird weird weird weird music."

All right, I thought, the music is weird. But what's experimental about being weird? What the hell is "experimental" music, anyway? Does it involve test tubes and chemicals and explosions, like all other experiments? Are zombie accidents involved? What is the square root of 349? Who has been sitting in my chair? Why does that wall look like it's breathing? This past Saturday evening, I stumbled up to The Church on North Street to find out what the heck was going on.

The Halifax Experimental Music Festival is a yearly showcase of music "with an experimental inclination," according to show organizer Phil Walling. He studied experimental electronic music and its history for two years at Dal, and started making that music himself in the early 1980's. At the time, sampling and looping (using reel to reel tape machines) was hardly common practice in Halifax, and Walling had a hard time finding venues that allowed him to perform his work. So, in 1995, Walling started the Halifax Experimental Music Festival. The rest, as they say...

I arrive at the festival late. I buy a glass of red wine, because it's the same price as the beer. I sit down.

The first piece I hear is a prerecorded electroacoustic piece by Darlene Chepil Reid. She has come from Ontario to present it, and the piece is full of clanks and booms and singing. Now there is nothing wrong with electroacoustic music. It is okay to like it. No, really. Because this piece is prerecorded however, it lacks spark as a performance. No explosions or zombies. Just prerecorded noise. I finish my wine and go for a refill.

FDH (aka Frank den Haan), is up next with an ambient electronic set. Den Haan is a young computer and laptop musician from Halifax. His music is dark and melodic, with occasionally heavy distortion. It's enjoyable, but I find my mind wandering as I listen. I sip as the music drifts in and out of my brain. Is this experimental? What is the experiment?

FDH - Wheel and Light.mp3

Rose Bolton and Janice Jackson are up next with a work composed by Bolton that uses violin and voice. Bolton plays the violin and Jackson sings. The piece begins innocently enough, with talking over a drone, but its intensity slowly mounts, eventually reaching drool-over-yourself-as-you-let-out-a-primal-scream height. A Halifax Herald reporter once proclaimed that Jackson possessed "...a crystal-cracking voice of astonishing purity," but luckily tonight, my wine is in a plastic cup. This work is at a certain level of disturbing that only years of careful study can attain. I decide to slow down on the wine a little.

Boy Makes Music (aka Gordon Huntley) is next to the stage. He is another young, local electronic musician. His setup consists of an electric guitar, and a series of guitar pedals and effectors arranged on the stage floor. He plays the music live, recording and layering loops with the pedals. At one point he leaves his music running on stage and walks out into the audience. The sound is soothing, as though you are floating in a tropical ocean and there's no such thing as a shark. Boy Makes Music is definitely my favorite act so far. Not very weird, or from what I can gather, experimental, but it's the most enjoyable.

Boy Makes Music - You Will Not Remain Nameless

Moss Abu (aka Jakob Travis), who is supposed to perform an improvised electronic set, doesn't show. He's nowhere to be found. It takes me a moment to realise it, but that might just be the most experimental performance of the evening. Having said that, I had heard Moss Abu's music on NewMusicCanada.ca before and enjoyed it, so I am disappointed not to hear him live.

Moss Abu audio available here.

I am feeling the effects of the wine. It is not late, but I am tired. My brow is furrowed.

Finally, from Toronto, Karl Mohr and his electric clavier accompanist Saint Benjamin take to the stage. Mohr is wearing black leather pants, and a hat with fake horns. Benjamin is wearing a black mask and purple wings. They are playing darkwave, and some of their songs are about vampires. It's loud and silly, and a little weird. Especially when Mohr sings things like: "Well it could be worms, but it could be chocolate, so reach in, take a bite." I hardly even think about whether or not their music is experimental. By the third, atonal operatic encore, I am re-energized. Phil takes to the stage to bid everyone farewell.

Karl Mohr - We Condemn Atomic Power.mp3

I had a good night. But if I were to live it over again, I'd forget the experimental question early on, and get down to what I believe was the real purpose of the evening: enjoying weird music.

[This is an article I wrote for this week's edition of the student paper at Dalhousie -- The Gazette]