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Artists Mathieu Bélanger

Mathieu Bélanger

Residence: Montréal (Québec)

  • Writer


Various artists
No Type / IMNT 0306/09 / 2003

Articles written

Ratchet Orchestra

Mathieu Bélanger, Panpot, July 4, 2008

A look at the most recent Ratchet Orchestra performance, and for good measure, a history lesson on the project led by Nicolas Caloia.

Anyone familiar with Montréal’s “musiques actuelles” scene should already be familiar with Nicolas Caloia. The bassist and sometimes cellist is a member of multiple projects such as FReC – a trio with Lori Freedman and Danielle Palardy Roger – and the Murray Street Band. Moreover, he can frequently be heard and seen as part of ad hoc improvising groupings. On the other hand, very few people know Nicolas Caloia for his own projects. The reason for this is very simple: in past years, Caloia has presented those on a handful of occasions.

This affair actually conferred an almost mythical status to the Ratchet Orchestra, for Caloia’s biography always mentions it, yet very few really knew what the Ratchet Orchestra was. Truth is, the Ratchet Orchestra really exists and has for some ten years. The first CD of the Ratchet Orchestra – recorded as a quartet by the way – suggests it was put together in the mid or late 1990’s. On the other hand, its long history did not exactly translate into an overdose of public activity: its Suoni Per Il Popolo appearance was apparently its fourth ever!

On June 24th, the Ratchet Orchestra performed at La Sala Rossa as a 26-piece band. The orchestra was made of a string section – two violins, two violas, two cellos and Caloia’s double bass, a 12-piece reed and horn section ranging from sopranino saxophone to sousaphone, two electric guitarists, one pianist and four percussionists. The personnel itself featured some of Montréal’s most active musicians such as Jean Derome (flute and alto saxophone), Sam Shalabi (guitar) and Gordon Allen (trumpet), some well-established, but infrequently seen figures like Guillaume Dostaler on piano, Norsola Johnson on cello and Bruce Cawdron on glockenspiel, claves and other percussion, but also some who perform infrequently such as Thea Pratt on French horn or Ken Doolittle on percussion.

The Ratchet Orchestra interpreted some compositions of Caloia in addition to Sun Ra originals. The music performed showed the specificities of Caloia’s approach to orchestral jazz. Indeed, from the traditional big bands to the London Improvisers Orchestra by way of the Sun Ra Arkestra and William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Orchestra, the history of jazz and improvised music has seen many large ensembles and as many different conceptions of the orchestra. Yet, the concert proved that the Ratchet Orchestra has an identity of its own. First, the songs are based on melodies. However, one song will sometimes incorporate two or three melodies played simultaneously by the ensemble. For example, the end of Soak featured the reed and horn section playing a melody while the strings played a different although complementary progression. Second, the music leaves a lot of room for solos. However, the pieces are not organized around a succession of solos. Some large ensemble will start with a theme after which the rhythm section will establish and maintain a pulse over which various solos will happen. In the Ratchet Orchestra, a musician rarely solos over the rhythm section. There is usually something else happening: the strings will punctuate the rhythm, some subset will play a melody in the background, etc. For example, Jean René’s viola solo in T(h)rust built up into a crescendo that involved the whole orchestra. Third, Caloia has found a good way to mix composed and improvised moments. Indeed, the improvisational dimension is not restricted to the solos in that some compositions present some free sections.

The main criticism one could formulate relates to the pacing of the concert itself. One long 80-minute set instead of two sets, as they did on June 24th, might have worked better. Indeed, the first set ended on a high note with Wish and T(h)rust, two pieces whose finale feature all 26 musicians playing at high power. The 30-something minute intermission interrupted an “air d’aller” the group had acquired by the end of the first set. At the beginning of Tiny Pyramids, the piece that opened the second set, it was obvious the Ratchet Orchestra had to gain back its focus. Let’s say things were a little looser… The same applies to the audience who had to get into it again.

For those who missed the concert, but would like to hear the Ratchet Orchestra, a CDR was recently self-released by Nicolas Caloia. Entitled “Live at the Sala Rosa [sic] November 28, 2007,” it features, as one can easily guess, most of the concert played by the ensemble on the given date. It might be the next best thing to hearing the 26-piece ensemble from a few meters… until the next Ratchet Orchestra concert of course!

… 26 musicians playing at high power.

Quatuor Bozzini (Suoni Per Il Popolo)

Mathieu Bélanger, Panpot, June 3, 2008

So you missed this double effort, you say? Contributor Mathieu Bélanger provides a full rundown from a remarkably distinct evening of music.

On June 3rd, the Quatuor Bozzini with special guest Malcolm Goldstein performed at La Sala Rossa as part of the 8th edition of the Suoni Per Il Popolo. The concert happened in two parts. The first part featured two compositions of Malcolm Goldstein. The evening began with A New Song of Many Faces for in These Times, a string quartet the Quatuor Bozzini commissioned in 2002. Goldstein himself then played his Hardscrabble Songs. The second part saw the Quatuor Bozzini perform the North-American premiere of Jean Derome and Joane Hétu’s Le Mensonge et l’identité.

Malcolm Goldstein’s musical practice could be described as two-folded. The first aspect of his work relates to improvised music, that is music where no decisions are taken in advance in order to leave the sound follows its own path. The second aspect would encompass composition and scored pieces. Yet, such a distinction would be too simple for it would overlook one crucial fact: composition and improvisation, as a sound production method, are indissociable in Goldstein’s pieces. Indeed, these are structured improvisations. Here, a structured improvisation would be best-described as a piece whose overall structure is fixed through a score and is hence composed, but whose actual sound material is up to the musician and produced through improvisation.

Based on the above considerations, A New Song of Many Faces for in These Times is genuine Goldstein. As stated in the program notes, this string quartet comprises four sections (I. a gently flowing song; II. a brutal song; III. an agitated song; IV. a song of inner vision) and a coda. The score specifies the global development of the piece in addition to the sound signature of each section, but the specific sounds are left for the musicians to decide within the prescribed frame. The sections suggest various melodic lines and, through their sound signature, show them in different colors in accordance with their respective titles. Pizzicato notes and strong attacks and bow pressure give its brutality to the second section while the extensive use of sustained tones, muted strings and harmonics give a contemplative color to the fourth one. The coda, which amounts to about a quarter of the 19-minute piece, is a long rendition of a melody to which other segments taken from Ives and Beethoven — according to the program notes again as one can’t really identified them — are incorporated.

As a composition, Hardscrabble Songs is a series of four songs, each evoking aspects of the history and politics of the United States since the 1940s. It is of course no coincidence that the covered time frame goes from Goldstein’s youth up to now. Moreover, the word “song” is appropriate since they feature extensive lyrics and melodies although most of them are fractured and deconstructed through Goldstein’s unique style. For example, the first and last songs respectively reference Frank Sinatra’s The House I Live In (That’s America to Me) as well as The Star Spangled Banner and Jimi Hendrix. Interestingly, this particular interpretation of the Hardscrabble Songs put forward the words as they were pronounced with greater clarity than in previous times. In conjunction with the large space that is La Sala Rossa, it contributed to make Hardscrabble Songs softer.

Le Mensonge et l’identité, a 60-minute composition for string quartet and tape by Jean Derome and Joane Hétu, was premiered last April as part of the Forum Neuer Musik in Köln and was a commission of the Quautuor Bozzini and the Deutschlandfunk (that’s a radio by the way). As mentioned above, the Suoni Per Il Popolo marked its North-American premiere.

Le Mensonge et l’identité clearly puts forward a reflection on the notion of identity. This reflection happens on two levels — the identity of the individuals and that of the entity — and participates both to the form of the piece and to its musical content.

On the formal side, the composition is in three parts, each representing a step in the unraveling of the string quartet. In the first part, the music is strictly notated and the quartet plays a single entity, that is according to its traditional conception. The second part marks a certain departure from this unity while the third part irremediably breaks the string quartet as an entity into four singular entities: two violinists, a violist and a cellist. At this point, the musicians are no longer performing a common score through individual parts. Actually, they are no longer playing a part, but are simply playing individually. Not only could they choose to go to one of the 20 or so lecterns placed on the floor, but each presented them with a score made up of general indications. An improvisational component thus entered the picture.

This unraveling reflects itself in the scenic organization. In the first part, the musicians played side by side, faithfully to the traditional configuration of a string quartet. In opposition, during the third part, the four individuals were moving around on the “scene” — which was the floor of La Sala Rossa for the occasion — carrying lecterns from one point to the other, sometimes turning their back to the audience, etc.

On the content side, the individuality of the musicians is emphasized. On the tape, each introduced himself, both as a person and as a member of the Quatuor Bozzini. This statement included biographical information such a name, date and place of birth, civil status, ownership of domestic animals — Nadia Francavilla has two cats for example — reasons for playing in a string quartet, administrative role in the Quatuor Bozzini as a organism — Clemens Merkel is in charge of concerts abroad to mention but one —, etc. Moreover, each member used a different language: Italian for Isabelle Bozzini, French for Stéphanie Bozzini, German for Clemens Merkel and English for Nadia Francavilla.

Musically, the string work was on the soft and airy side. It actually was strangely reminiscent of Feldman’s later piece for strings in terms of touch and continuity, although without the perpetual permutation of patterns so typical of the late American composer. Strange because Derome and Hétu’s esthetics usually have little in common with Feldman’s, but nevertheless were pleasantly surprising. Speaking of Feldman, it is interesting to note that, at one point during the third part, violist Stéphanie Bozzini played for a few minutes a melody that was very reminiscent of the famous one that closes Rothko Chapel. On the other hand, the first part featured some quotes from the likes of physicist Hubert Reeves, comedian Brigitte Poupart and writer Madeleine Gagnon. Those inscribed themselves in an exploration of everyday nature quite prominent in Hétu’s work, and to a lesser extent in Derome’s, but proved to be less convincing in this particular composition for their effect withered quickly and their pertinence failed to establish itself.

According to the program notes, in Le Mensonge et l’identité, the string quartet, as an entity, is considered a microcosm of society. The exploration of identity that occupies the piece thus inherits a social dimension. Yet, the one question that is not addressed directly through the form and content of the piece, or at least the one that is not resolved explicitly, is that of the lie, of the “mensonge”. In the end, Le Mensonge et l’identité tends to suggest that the lie is the one we, as a society, have been building for ourselves and comforting ourselves in for the last 40 years by refusing to identify ourselves through society, that is by believing one’s identity can be independent of that of a more global ensemble to which we participate and which partly defines us…

… a remarkably distinct evening of music.

(Juste) Claudette (FIMAV)

Mathieu Bélanger, Panpot, May 18, 2008

(Juste) Claudette is Michel F Côté latest project. Its origins go back to an evening of February 2006 when Jesse Levine, Bernard Falaise, the aforementioned Alexandre St-Onge and Côté himself happen to be together in a studio and recorded some improvisations. This music would eventually become the group’s eponymous CD, released last fall on Ambiances Magnétiques.

Michel F Côté likes each of his projects to have a well-defined and distinct identity. A quick listen to the music of Mecha Fixes Clocks (with or without its ‘s’), Flat Fourgonnette or Pink Saliva – a yet-unrecorded trio with trumpeter Gordon Allen and bassist Alexandre St-Onge – should be enough to convince anyone of this claim. (Juste) Claudette is no exception to this fundamental preoccupation. Indeed, Claudette (for the intimates) is all about groove. Yes, groove as in looped patterns, but also as in tap your foot and bob your head.

(Juste) Claudette – let’s stick to the official name to dissipate any impression of promiscuity – performed its second ever concert as part of the 25th Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville. Actually, it is worth emphasizing that it took place on Sunday at midnight at the CEGEP de Victoriaville, one of the three venues used by the festival, as anyone who has visited the small Bois-Francs town would know.

While (Juste) Claudette dedicates itself to groove and rhythm, there was plenty to maintain interest and loads for the brain to chew on (then process). First, drummer Alexander MacSween was added to the line-up, thus turning (Juste) Claudette into a sextet as Côté had already recruited trumpeter Gordon Allen for the group’s live debut, back in October 2007. The addition of a second drummer allowed for some fascinating rhythmic events to occur. In one piece, Côté and MacSween played exactly the same beat, except that MacSween’s hi-hat notes were twice as fast as Côté’s. In others, MacSween would play a basic pattern while Côté would play between the beats in a looser manner or double the beat on his snare.

Second, (Juste) Claudette made it clear that rhythm and groove is not just a drums and bass thing. Sure, in some pieces, the drums and the bass would indeed start a rhythmic pattern and stick to it while the others instruments build upon it. However, in others, the basic rhythmic impetus would come from another instrument such as Falaise’s syncopated strumming.

As mentioned above, this concert took place on Sunday evening, thus near the end of the 2008 FIMAV. On the one hand, the somewhat festive and groovy aspects of (Juste) Claudette were a welcome relief at this point. Remember, this was the 20th concert festival-goers had witnessed in a three and a half day period, including some inevitably dry and less-successful ones.

On the other hand, in past years, the volume of the midnight concerts has often been a problem in that the loudness became an obstacle to a full appreciation of the music. Unfortunately, (Juste) Claudette was no exception. To put it bluntly, the volume was deafening. It makes no doubt that such a group can benefit from some amplification, but in this case, it actually had a negative impact. First, it simply was unbearable without earplugs. Second, some instruments simply did not sound well, the most obvious example being Côté’s carefully crafted toms which suddenly sounded like an amplified beam.

This said, on a strictly musical level, (Juste) Claudette definitely turned out to be one of the most enjoyable concert of the 25th Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville.

(Juste) Claudette definitely turned out to be one of the most enjoyable concert of the 25th Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville.

Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival

Mathieu Bélanger, All About Jazz, August 1, 2005

[…] One of the best concerts of the festival, if not the best, was Klaxon Gueule’s which took place as part of the &records night. The trio, composed of Michel F Côté (percussive objects and microphones), Bernard Falaise (electric guitar) and Alexandre St-Onge (treated electric bass and voice), has an astonishing ability to always redefine, question and push the boundaries of its approach while remaining faithful to its musical identity as a group. […]

One of the best concerts of the festival, if not the best, was Klaxon Gueule’s which took place as part of the &records night.

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