Exploring the Innovative World of Experimental Music
On a hot, spring afternoon in Minto Park, a group of onlookers basked in the sun, relaxing in a crescent of collapsible chairs. Ottawa's Ravenswing DIY Fair 2010 was underway, and had attracted a large crowd of craft-seekers, park-goers and inquisitive pedestrians. At the stage area in the north end of the park, an eclectic mix of twenty-somethings, fifty-somethings, young parents and face-painted children savoured the pre-summer breeze while watching local performers flood the park with music. Politico-cowpunkers The Mudplots kicked off the event, followed by the soft, indie-folk melodizing of Sarah Hallman. Next in line was Adam Saikaley, who approached the stage area with an eager smile and two arms full of gear: several mixing boards, two VCRs and a tangled mass of audio cables and extension cords. After quickly assembling a curious network of audio gadgetry on the ground, he flicked on a VCR and started his performance. Swelling layers of visceral tones and glowing notes bled slowly from the speakers, rising, falling and weaving together as he controlled his collage of sound with a series of dials, buttons and wire adjustments. The crowd looked mildly confused, and yet nobody left, or even looked away.
Through his involvement with numerous bands and radio stations, Saikaley’s breadth of music experience eclipses that of some career musicians — not bad for a 25-year-old. During his time in Ottawa, he has played in several well-known bands, including As the Poets Affirm, Videotape, and his new experimental pop-groove outfit, Silkken Laumann. Since October 2010, he has hosted CBC Radio’s Saturday music show, Bandwidth, a program that reports on Ontario’s oft-overlooked music scene. Many, however, know him for his solo experimental work, which includes music composed for piano, cassettes, keyboards and his no-input mixer/VCR setup. His most recent solo release, “Tropigogic” (2009), is a sprawling, vivid montage of sonic textures, blended into a single 20-minute track. His live performances incorporate a wide range of techniques used to sculpt sound into experiences that are frequently mesmerizing, occasionally bewildering and always interesting. Through his solo work, he has shared the stage with a wide range of renowned musicians, such as Daniel Francis Doyle, Sato Yukie, Pauline Oliveros and Trevor Dunn.
Distinguishing musical genres is inherently tricky, since it involves imposing arbitrary parameters on creativity, but regardless of the definition one chooses, Saikaley’s work is unquestionably “experimental music.” Composers and performers of experimental music challenge and expand our conceptions of composition and performance. In the process, they often generate their sounds in unconventional ways, forcing us to question our subjective distinctions between “noise” and “music.”
Saikaley’s no-input mixer setup involves a series of mixing boards that are plugged into themselves in order to create “self-circuiting feedback,” providing him with noise for manipulation and composition. He was inspired to try this unconventional setup after watching a performance by Japanese experimental artist Sachiko M, who had used test-tone frequencies as the primary audio source for her show. As he explains, “That got the ball rolling in my head about using musical hardware as an instrument and just having the music come from that object itself, something that uses outside sources, only there are no outside sources.” The no-input mixer/VCR combo is a staple of Saikaley's solo performances, however, few of his shows are alike. He regularly incorporates other audio sources into his performances, including acoustic piano, cassette decks, keyboards and any other tools that will produce the sound he desires.
While his interest in experimental music predates his university years, Saikaley’s experience with the Classical Music and Sonic Design programs at Carleton University greatly influenced his ideas about sound. Sonic design, he says, helps him to think about sound as a synaesthesic art, one that can be selectively shaped to convey colourful, layered experiences. “Imagery helps sculpt it, inform a piece. It’s easy to think of something physical and try to translate that into sound. That’s pretty much how I’ve always done it, whether it be glass breaking, or whatever.”
Starting in 2004, Saikaley hosted Rabbit Ears, an experimental music show on Carleton’s CKCU-FM, which was fuelled by his growing love for music on the fringe. It was during this period that he began composing and performing experimental music of his own, quickly gaining notoriety as a new voice in Ottawa’s underground scene. Before long, he was playing regular shows around the city, eventually finding larger audiences at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, Pop Montreal, Ottawa Bluesfest and the 2009 Bulgasari Festival in South Korea. He particularly enjoyed the Bulgasari Festival, a gathering of experimental, electronic, and avant-garde performers. “Probably the most memorable thing was having dinner with them and hearing the way they talked about music. It was pretty exciting,” he says.
The proliferation of electronic instruments has had a significant effect on modern experimental music, both in terms of expanding aesthetic possibilities and attracting new audiences. However, the genre has a rich history of pushing musical boundaries. As early as the 1910s, the "Futurist" movement inspired artists such as Luigi Russolo to rebel against traditional conceptions of music. The artist-turned-composer embraced noise as the new basis for music, shunning conventional notions of composition and "appropriate" sound. In his 1914 manifesto, The Art of Noises, he declared: “Pure sound, with its littleness and its monotony, now fails to arouse any emotion.” His controversial performances featured his own noise-making inventions, collectively dubbed the intonarumori. These large, hand-powered instruments emulated the drones, screeches and howls of industrial machines, often to the shock of dumbfounded spectators; a 1914 performance in Rome was so jarring and anti-traditional that it drove the crowd to riot in the streets. While much of Russolo’s work has since faded from public consciousness, his ideas were ground-breaking, and he is now considered one of the first theorists of electronic music.
Russolo is just one of countless experimentalists who have reshaped people’s understanding of music with new mediums — a tradition later carried on by a new generation of abstract composers such as John Cage and Steve Reich. More recently, the proliferation of affordable recording and electronic instruments has attracted musicians that eagerly embrace new technologies as tools of performance and composition. Their music is often intertwined with, and inseparable from, the tools used to compose it. Similarly, Saikaley’s pieces are the result of the interaction between artist and medium. “It’s definitely directed by the technology,” he insists. But while the medium may direct the form of his music, his vision provides the content. “Nothing is improvised,” he stresses, “It’s almost pop-based, like verse-chorus-verse, but over, like, half an hour.” While his musical projects may differ in style, Saikaley’s painstaking attention to structure and aesthetics shape all of his work.
In a city like Ottawa, which is not well known for experimental music, it’s hard not to wonder how performers manage to find regular audiences. However, Saikaley has found ample support among fellow musicians, music lovers, and select venues. He has performed numerous times at Raw Sugar, Club Saw and at various house shows, as well as on both of Ottawa's university radio stations, CHUO and CKCU. While his one-of-a-kind performances sometimes leave a few audience members perplexed, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He has grown accustomed to baffled crowds: “I find that if you do anything that demonstrates that work has gone into it, people enjoy it no matter what — whether they’re head-scratching, whether they say ‘well, it’s not my thing, but I find it interesting’ then fine, that’s all I’m really looking for.”
With his numerous bands, collaborations and solo work still on the go, Saikaley lives a perpetually hectic life as a musician. His ever-backlogged pile of new ideas and projects leave him little time for extended rest, a reality he accepts as a side-effect of his enthusiasm. He continues to create music that is at once stimulating and thought-provoking — work that rattles our conceptual cages while helping to stave off musical stagnation and tired clichés. Musicians like Saikaley create work that covers more territory than any other genre, a result of their willingness to embrace the new, the different and the unusual. Their music, and Saikley’s, is a manifestation of their curiosity and ingenuity — art that deserves merit for its ability to push the boundaries of our imaginations in entertaining and provocative ways.