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Somewhere There is the heart of Toronto’s creative music scene

March 7, 2016

The festival for impossible and unreasonable music-making builds a space of its own.

Photo: Nicole Rampersaud (all photos by Tom Beedham)

Early enough on a late February Saturday that Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood is just receiving the first waves of the weekend warriors and university students it’ll wrestle with until last call, just off the beaten club path on Brunswick Avenue, at the back of the Tranzac Club, a packed audience is watching a curious, engrossing scene unfold.

Kyle Brenders, switching between a saxophone and electronics, is leading a 10-piece ensemble through his six-part “Grasslands” compositions. This means that, amongst other things, Ben Grossman is plucking the sympathetic strings and knocking on the side of his hurdy-gurdy, Germaine Liu and Brandon Valdivia are attacking dual drum kits from all possible angles, Nicole Rampersaud is letting a CD rattle against the inside of her trumpet bell, and Cheldon Patterson – a self-described sci-fi turntablist who has remixed the likes of Austra and Most People – is lending the extraterrestrial whirs and hums typical of his SlowPitchSound project to the mix.

By the time they’re all done creating these spiraling, rich sound environments, the night’s closing act the Polka Dogs has already started in the front room, and there isn’t enough space for everyone to get in. When the crowd filters out after the Kyle Brenders Ensemble, the door volunteers are counting how many people they let in. It’s probably an afterthought.

This is what Somewhere There – the fourth annual flagship festival from the ongoing series of the same name – looks like in 2016.

Photo: Kyle Brenders Ensemble

When I interview Kyle Brenders Ensemble member and Somewhere There co-organizer Karen Ng by the bar in the interim between a matinee and Saturday’s evening events, I’m told this sort of occurrence isn’t typical of Somewhere There; the portrait Ng paints of the musician-run not-for-profit and its festival depicts a scene that is markedly less attended.

Founded by Scott Thomson in 2007, Somewhere There began as a DIY space in Toronto’s Parkdale district, where it was possible to find what the series’ promotional materials call “impossible and unreasonable music-making” (“experimental” is not a label that is taken lightly here, but it’s not a swear word, either) seven nights a week, even if it only meant joining an audience of three. After circumstances like gentrification and (presumably very confused) noise complaints lead it to operate as a venue at other spaces, Somewhere There has strictly been a presenting body since 2013, putting on shows wherever they will be had – places like Array Space, Ratio, and the Tranzac – but the legacy of its infamous three-guest shows continues.

If it isn’t clear enough, Ng spells out the underlying issue here: “This music is not moneymaking music.”

Photo: Joe Strutt

The night before, Joe Strutt opened the festival’s commencing ceremonies by presenting (and of course bootlegging) a talk informed by his varied familiarity with some of the city’s music communities. As a self-proclaimed citizen archivist, Strutt has been closely observing music in Toronto for the past seven years, recording and documenting more than 2,800 live performances on his music blog Mechanical Forest Sound since beginning in 2009.

More recently, Strutt has also been creating and curating culture in more direct, public ways, collaborating with Long Winter (a series that, full disclosure, I help organize alongside 13 others) and Audiopollination to bring improvised performances to one of the former’s monthly inter-arts community revues. Strutt also hosts/organizes his own monthly music series, Track Could Bend, and performs as lo-fi keyboard looper Heraclitus Akimbo.

Curiously titled “Music as Community: contingency, fungibility, and solidarity,” the talk he offered was an inspiring if pragmatic take on the state of creative music-making in Toronto. Speaking to some of the nagging existential dread that Ng alluded to in our interview, he asked the audience to look at the situation through the lens of Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill for all eternity.

“This constant unremitting failure is probably pretty relatable to anyone in this room who’s tried to make a go of it at creative or improvised music.”

But, as Strutt went on to explain, if Somewhere There can’t always be deemed successful in the industrialist, capitalist sense of the word, there is a liberating quality to its lack of commitment to those hegemonic frameworks.

Photo: Nick Storring Band

Presenting audiences with music involving strangled, skronky saxophone solo improvisations, spinning marbles around and out of steel pans, and artists that banged on ceramic bowls ad nauseum at this year’s festival, the music Somewhere There is concerned with couldn’t be further removed from the PR hype building game. So, I was legitimately surprised when an email care of festival performer Nick Storring landed in my inbox just weeks before the event, complete with a six-page press release and program attachment.

Given Somewhere There’s brand and the displacement and cultural obscurity it experiences are the same, I find the dedication more endearing here than the standard one-sheet blast I’m bombarded with daily. The acts it trumpeted weren’t leveraged with buzzy pull quotes from popular publications (or even the niche’s regional authorities like Soundstreams or festival sponsor Musicworks); the first groups mentioned aren’t even on the lineup.

Photo: Ways

Instead, Somewhere There touts opportunities to see “familiar players” from acts like Caribou’s Vibration Ensemble, Deep Dark United, Drumheller, Minotaurs, Picastro, and Tasseomancy – not as heard in these contexts, mind you, but “in fresh and exploratory configurations.”

And that says a lot about what Somewhere There is about. When this creative music presenting body curates its exclusively local festival, priority is given, Ng says, to artistic diversity and “people that are trying to do new things.”

That means that, at the same festival where you can count on finding the latest ensembles from local out-jazz veterans, you can also find young composers and improvisers currently attending Humber College.

Photo: Germaine Liu

By virtue of its localist mandate, this does also lend itself to some lineup overlaps (when the Kyle Brenders Ensemble plays its headlining set on the Saturday, most of its 10 members have already performed at this year’s iteration of the festival; Germaine Liu, Karen Ng, and Nicole Rampersaud have already played twice, and they’ll take the stage in different contexts again the next day), but each appearance presents a performer a different way, building nuance as well as provoking dialogues about larger social conditions.

“Everyone, just based on our financial situation, we all have to do lots of different kinds of gigs or jobs or whatever you need to do to survive personally,” Ng says. “It’s really trying to open things up and get at some of the social barriers that exist. There’s a lot of things between, say, free improvised music or new music… there’s a lot sonically that we share, but I think in social or professional circles, we don’t interact that much. So a big goal is just to try and get a bunch of people in a room talking about music.”

Strutt identifies this another mark of Somewhere There’s success, claiming it takes what is “a real divide between audience and performer” and makes it into something “more porous,” creating “a feeling of community, a sense of being all in it together.”

“I think there is a real value to the sort of show that groups like Somewhere There put on, and there’s something special about the space that they create,” Strutt expounds. “Even if that space isn’t contained in one venue, the community that they’re building and the support that they give to their ‘impossible and unreasonable music-making’ is a valuable thing. And I think that what they’re doing is making some of our boulders easier to push.”

Photo: SlowPitchSound

With plenty working against them, Somewhere There and the communities it encompasses demonstrate that it is by accepting their shared fate and putting their collective energies into creativity that they are able to sustain themselves.

Rather than attempting to measure its identity against invisible barriers and the spectres of absent concertgoers, Somewhere There demonstrates that, wherever it may be at the time – at Array Space, Ratio, or the Tranzac – in order to locate or establish inspiring, adventurous new music, it is often only required that you simply be present.

And looking at this year’s festival in the rear-view, I’m glad I was, too.

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