Photo: Lori Freedman
With the music world moving at a breakneck pace toward Peak Festival, X Avant is a reminder why we bother going to these things at all. It’s a living argument in favour of small, meticulously curated festivals that appeal to an active and innovative community.
This year’s incarnation was easily one of its most memorable, as the organizers presented a combination of top-tier acts, thoughtful panels, and community discussions examining the event and its future. It stimulated the mind, the eyes, and the ears, so much so in the latter case that earplugs were mandatory at Tyondai Braxton‘s performance on Saturday night.
Now in its 10th year, X Avant (or X Avant X, as it was called this year per its anniversary) was launched to celebrate avant-garde and experimental musicians. It has grown over the years into a well-respected highlight in Toronto’s festival calendar, but much to its benefit, it hasn’t grown all that much. The main festival events take place over a single weekend and occur almost entirely at a single venue.
That venue is The Music Gallery, an institution and a space that is as inseparable from the festivals as its performers. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Music Gallery has a rich history of fostering experimental music, blurring genres and disciplines, and asking the radical question of how music can exist as a high art form in an institutional setting.
And speaking of setting, the Music Gallery provides X Avant with one of the most beautiful and immersive venues of any festival in the city. The main performances take place in St. George the Martyr Church, a stone building with a serene, wood beam-lined sanctuary, sitting in an urban oasis near OCAD and the AGO. Going there for X Avant has turned into one of my favourite yearly pilgrimages, and I was excited when things kicked off last week. Here are four show-stopping performances that made this year’s X Avant the best yet. Thanks to the Music Gallery for the photos and videos.
Who knew that a solo clarinet player could make so much noise? The internationally renowned avant-garde artist performed her new show The Virtuosity of Excess, which explored “the beauty of extremes” in a format meant to evoke a full course meal. That range spanned extremes of noise and quiet, as Lori Freedman commanded the stage like a warrior combined with a possessed demon, stomping an contorting her way through the compositions and improvisations. It was a wonder she could stand afterward, and that the audience could still hear.
The seven-piece gong ensemble Pantayo opened Saturday night’s performances with a show that ranged from soothing to dissonant, frantic to uplifting, and reshaped what listeners can expect from a traditional musical form. Adding modern flourishes like bass and kick drum to kulintang-rooted compositions, they offered something fresh and energetic that seemed simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Their speech about parallel indigenous issues in Canada and the Philippines was all the more poignant with the Federal election looming at the end of the weekend.
Talk about high expectations – Tyondai Braxton is both the former frontman of Battles, the beloved experimental rock band, and the son of Anthony Braxton, the pioneering free jazz artist. Fortunately for him and the audience alike, Braxton led us through a maze of compositions from his recent album, HIVE1, which takes everything you thought you knew about electronic music, turns it on its head, and cranks it up to ear-bleeding decibels. He presented occasional familiar sounds – like a string quartet – before bending, melting, and deconstructing it before our eyes into something unrecognizable.
As should be expected from Toronto art-rock trio Absolutely Free, they rose to the occasion and made the Music Gallery their own for the night. Taking the stage underneath hanging pillows while surrounded by responsive lighting, the band offered a completely unique performance that felt less like a concert and more like a secret that only this one audience was let in on. They were joined by avant-pop luminary Sandro Perri, who added his distinct personality to the mix without stealing the show. It came off more as a meeting of friends, much as X Avant as a whole felt this year.