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Friday, October 7, 2022

The Master and the Transit System: Toronto’s INTERsection Festival, Sept 1-5, 2022

By Stuart Broomer

Toronto’s INTERsection Festival is a long-standing event that presents sometimes edgy music in unusual locales. Returning after a two-year Covid-hiatus, it strives to put things together – challenging music, the quotidian city – sometimes in ways that might not match up. At times it might be thought of as a confrontation festival, even a collision festival, putting unfamiliar music where you might not expect it. Its website provides an excellent summary of its broad and definitely experimental community programming.

INTERsection includes a host of contemporary idioms, from hip-hop to community drum corps and choirs to electronic music. This year it presented a Saturday afternoon of music at the city’s Dundas Square, a major downtown gathering place (one participant generously called it “fake Times Square” on a Facebook post). Free jazz and noise musicians were presented to the unsuspecting mob of shoppers, tourists and street people who gather there daily. Who will be noisier? Sometimes it's easier to imagine a performance than attend it.

System of Transport: Anthony Braxton and James Fei

As events in the festival went, the Braxton performance more resembled a conventional event than perhaps any other. Braxton and Fei stood facing each other, a few feet apart, on a stage – a temporarily disengaged altar, to be precise -- in St. Anne’s Anglican Church, an old church by Toronto standards. I’d like to be more precise about the series and opus number of the piece that Braxton and James Fei performed, but I missed it. It bore a strong family resemblance to Composition No.429, which can be heard on YouTube.

Braxton has, to say the least, a reputation for both scale and complexity, from the initial For Alto of 1969 to the six-hour Sonic Genome at Jazzfest Berlin 2019. What is remarkable about his work is that any of its myriad components is capable of suggesting the conceptual scale of the totality present in a work like the Sonic Genome.

Braxton and Fei played for about an hour. Braxton played alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones, Fei alto and sopranino. Braxton also worked over a computer, making adjustments, triggering electronic musical events -- blasts of feedback, esoteric melodies, distinct polyphonies – that likely shaped and paced themselves as in the Diamond Curtain Wall pieces, sometimes unpredictably. Each musician had a thick stack of score sheets. As Braxton turned his, he would signal to Fei with hand gestures and countdowns, directing the flow of events. The episodes were alternately jagged, lyrical and pointillist. An occasional episode would consist of violent extended free blowing (an alto duet near the mid-point was as intense as music gets), others were the most lyrical effusions; much of it was subtle, elusive, constantly arising and arriving at the borderline of form.

Form here grows inevitably, also slowly and generously, allowing us to enjoy all its aspects, including even our persistent stages of unknowing. Is this free jazz? Yes, but perhaps in its subtlest sense: it’s partially improvised music that aims at liberation, perhaps at times from an excess of form. The music stretches its formal resources, including more and more within its grasp, its forms passing beyond form, its most intense moments liberating performers and listeners alike, an act of music that is literally the end, that is, the goal of music: transport. Here Braxton’s score, his diagrams, etc. reflect a kind of transit system. Like a map, Braxton’s compositions are things to be negotiated, complex acts of exploration and synthesis in which wonder gradually emerges.

System of Transit: The Queen West Streetcar Loop

Much of the INTERsection Festival deals literally with intersections, streets and transit systems. On September 1, the festival’s opening day, afternoon performances took place in three different sites, each intimately connected with the city’s transit system. Two were located in streetcar (trams to the British) loops at opposite ends of the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) Queen Street line, running east-west close to the city’s Lake Ontario waterfront. The route runs 25 kilometers, one of North America’s longest streetcar routes. Five groups appeared at each of the East and West loops, three at the unrelated downtown Regent Park hub. Sheer distances made attendance at multiple events unlikely (Toronto is vast and congested and in a perpetual state of coming into being, which is less a philosophical state than an endless traffic jam: it took 75 minutes by car to get from the city’s central mid-town to the Western limit of the Queen streetcar line).

Various species of pop, hip hop and electronica were prominent at the East loop, community choirs and bands at Regent Park. I went to the West loop, where the performers included some of Toronto’s most creative improvisers. Alto saxophonist Brodie West’s trio includes bass clarinetist Naomi McCarroll-Butler and guitarist Patrick O'Reilly. It’s a more intimate ensemble than his usual quintet or Eucalyptus Octet. While the latter can suggest the Sun Ra Arkestra in dream-state mode, the trio is more akin to Webern’s chamber music. It’s also very quiet. The other group is Kind Mind, bassist Josh Cole’s trio with saxophonist Karen Ng and vibraphonist Michael Davidson (I regularly cover Canadian music in two periodicals, Musicworks and The WholeNote).

The site was experienced at the same time as the music, but it’s easier to describe, in part because its principal effect was to make the music almost

inaudible. It’s a transit loop. It’s both bucolic and industrial, the loop nestled in a gully with grass and trees as well as a lot of cement. There’s a small station house and the musicians nestled under an overhang. Although the groups were lightly amplified, they were hard to hear, with idling buses, a commuter rail line, a shopping mall and a major traffic artery nearby. It’s afternoon on a weekday, there are diminished Covid precautions, the city is bursting with life, which here sounds like a traffic jam.

Another festival element involved phone apps that when used on the right streetcar resulted in hearing a piece of music by one of nine of the groups performing at the festival. The Brodie West Trio and Kind Minds also had pieces on specific street cars.