Despite the fact that it has had a vibrant avant-garde music scene for some time, most people know Montréal for some of the city’s big-name exports in indie music, post-rock, or electronica. Moreover, despite much cross-over between music scenes here in town, there is still a lot of music-making that takes place very much under the radar. Which is why it was so good to see such a strong turnout so soon after the holidays for a show featuring both local and visiting musicians, on a bill that was more clearly avant-garde than indie.
On the bill that evening (January 8, 2011) at L’Envers were the trio of Peter Evans (trumpet/piccolo trumpet; Mostly Other People do the Killing), Mary Halvorson (electric guitar), and Weasel Walter (drums; Flying Luttenbachers). Opening up for them was Pink Saliva, a local noise music and improvisation group. The trio included Gordon Allen (a.k.a. Ellwood Epps) on trumpet; Michel F Côté (Klaxon Geule, Mecha Fixes Clocks) on drums and electronics; and Alexandre St-Onge (Shalabi Effect) on electric bass.
Pink Saliva recently celebrated their first release (Pink Saliva) on &records, a label run by Côté and Fabrizio Gilardino. As a mix of noise, feedback, free improv, and jazz (for this concert, there were also some twangy riffs), the music of this group is best said in their own words: “Comme toujours, il est préférable que vous décidiez par vous-mêmes”/“As always, it is best for you to decide for yourself.”
The Pink Saliva set opened with a duo between Côté and St-Onge. Côté approaches his kit like a set of orchestral percussion instruments, rather than a standard rock/jazz drum set. Carefully eliciting an assortment of timbres and tones from his instruments, Côté’s relatively sparse and carefully crafted mallet work left plenty of room for St-Onge, who filled in the space with dense, manipulated — but still quiet — static and feedback. The round, warm sounds of Côté’s playing paired with his electronics (microphones and portable speakers) meant that his drum set was transformed into a melodic rather than a percussive instrument. In turn, St-Onge’s bass (a five string fretless with two outputs, one of which is MIDI) allowed him to show off the full range of his musical technique. St-Onge seemed to spend much of the night bending notes at will, and layering them over a sustained bed of deliciously enticing textures. His playing was never gimmicky or overly obvious, but, like Côté’s, very well-crafted. Allen’s eventual entrance into the music featured his characteristically raspy and bleating tone, which blended seamlessly with St-Onge’s white noise-like textures and twangs, increasing the already thickly gritty sound that stayed just shy of being immersively overwhelming.
What is striking about this trio is how the conventional roles of the instruments are often reversed. The musical pulse (I hesitate to say “beat”) was provided by Côté or St-Onge, although rarely together. Instead, they seemed to pass between them the roles of “melody” and “pulse,” with one taking over from the other when a passage or idea ended. Further emphasizing this idea of role reversal, the horn (at least this evening) primarily had a background function, rather than being front and center as would be the case in a more conventional ensemble. Despite brief forays into his higher register, Allen’s trumpet stayed mostly within his mid-range, his static-y sounds functioning as a sonic carpet beneath the phrases, pulses, and melodic material provided by the other two. During a brief interlude with St-Onge in a groove-based “surf-rock”-like passage, Allen almost broke out into a sustained passage of quasi-melodic material, but ultimately stayed within his comfort zone of spewing broken arpeggios, sustained tones, and blurts. Collectively, the trio created a lugubrious and forceful sound that was never overwhelming in its density. Their passages of “almost” melodic and harmonic material felt like rays of light accidentally breaking through, providing just enough guidance to direct the audience through their beguiling musical forays.