Alexandre St-Onge

L’Envers and Gordon Allen

Adam Kinner, The Gazette, January 30, 2009

Walking into L’Envers is like entering a scene from the ’70s East Village. If Patti Smith were on the old couch in the corner talking to the motley assortment of Montréal improvisers, artists, gallerists and dancers typical of a L’Envers audience I wouldn’t bat an eye. This is the newest music venue in the Mile-End and everything from the large photos on the wall—by the very talented Marie-Ève Dompierre — to the warehouse-style windows, the turn-of-the-century wooden support beams, and the homemade feel of the space suggests that this is a space run by artists for artists and audiences alike.

The mastermind behind the scenes is Gordon Allen. An incredible trumpet player and improviser, a talented organizer, a quick-witted schmoozer, an hilarious MC and a big-hearted friend of at least half of the musicians in Montréal, Allen is just what Montréal needs to get its improvised music scene off and running. He’ll emerge from the dense crowd, clad in a porkpie hat and cuffed shirt, beaming at how well the evening is going, how well the musicians are playing, and how many great people have showed up.

Along with three other like-minded musicians, he’s responsible for this new hotspot. Together they’ve worked to create a space committed to presenting music, dance, and performance — “anything that involves improvisation” — that would otherwise have trouble being shown. Their mandate is to offer the excellent musicians of Montréal a comfortable place to play, and to build an audience that comes curious, listens carefully, and leaves satisfied.

But Allen is a far busier man than his carefree, joyous demeanor might suggest. He has been organizing the improvised music community since he arrived in Montréal from Guelph in 2005. The monthly series at Casa Del Popolo “Improvising Montréal” came under his control in 2006; and Mardi Spaghetti, a weekly series he curates along with three other improvisers at Cagibi, is going to celebrate its first anniversary in March.

On Saturday, January 17th, L’Envers opened its new year of programming with a celebration of Art’s Birthday. (It took a couple of weeks for the members of their mailing list to realize that they weren’t talking about a guy named Arthur, but rather celebrating the birth of Art, which Robert Filliou famously starting celebrating in 1963. Check this out.) CKUT was there with their live broadcasting gear. Six bands were slated to play. There was a birthday cake competition and West-Coast artist Glenn Lewis re-enacted the birth of Art.

I arrived just as Gordon took the stage with his trio Pink Saliva, with drummer Michel F Côté and bassist Alexandre St-Onge. Their layered, richly textured mix of acoustic improvisation and electronics sent a hush over the hundred or more gathered. Many took a seat on the floor and listened to the flow of expressive sounds, ranging from beautiful trumpet melody to the harsh but effective noise-electronics of Côté and St-Onge.

Even the loud students next to me stopped talking and I saw their facial expressions change to concentrated curiosity as they craned their necks to see how those three musicians were making such otherworldly sounds.

“When audiences are more attentive,” Gordon had told me earlier in the week, “the musicians have to scrutinize their own work more. Consequently we’re pushed harder to create, and the music advances. I’ve seen that here, and it’s an incredible thing to be a part of. Worth all the work we’ve put into it.”

Walking into L’Envers is like entering a scene from the ‘70s East Village. If Patti Smith were on the old couch in the corner talking to the motley assortment of Montréal improvisers, artists, gallerists and dancers typical of a L’Envers audience I wouldn’t bat an eye.

(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.

Sonic Voyageurs

Alexander Varty, The Georgia Straight, October 20, 2005

Montréal is just a five-hour flight away, but the cultural capital of Francophone Canada can sometimes seem as remote as Antarctica. West Coast residents know the city as the home of relaxed liquor laws, good restaurants, and great delis, but we’re rarely exposed to the music that’s made there—and that’s almost entirely because most of it, whether pop, rock, or contemporary classical, is not sung in English.

North America’s largest French-speaking city is home to a thriving music industry and a club scene that we can only envy, but connecting with them seems difficult, thanks to the barrier of language. It’s ironic, then, that one of Montréal’s lesser-known contributions to the world of sound might end up being Vancouver’s entrée to Quebec’s musical life. Musique actuelle—a hybrid style that emerged in Montréal during the mid-1980s—is a largely instrumental form, so unilingual Vancouverites need not be scared off by incomprehensible texts. And although the idiom is so all-embracing that it’s hard to define, it’s animated by the kind of exploratory spirit that’s drives Vancouver groups like Talking Pictures and the Hard Rubber Orchestra. So it shouldn’t be that difficult for B.C. ears to appreciate Montréal’s sonic explorers, and we’ll get a chance to do just that this week, thanks to the Vancouver New Music Society’s Interférence: Statique X Statique festival.

Although the event, which runs at the Scotiabank Dance Centre until Saturday (October 22), features non-Francophone artists such as the U.K.’s Fred Frith and Janek Schaeffer, most of the performers hail from Quebec, and many of them, like Diane Labrosse, are 20-year veterans of the musique actuelle scene. Nonetheless, the otherwise charmingly articulate keyboardist still finds it difficult to explain what it is, exactly, that her chosen style includes—and that, it seems, is not only a linguistic issue.

“It’s a hard thing to do, describing a music that’s so broad,” Labrosse says, on the line from her Montréal home. “Of course at first there was progressive rock, and then improv came along, and then came the idea of putting together different styles of music. Some musicians began to draw on the roots of jazz, and also using more traditional or folkloric stuff, and then putting all of this together to make a new hybrid of music, which we called musique actuelle. We even find these different direct references within the same piece.”

The style’s name, like the music itself, contains a wealth of inferences and possibilities. Its sounds are “actuelle” because they’re real music made by real musicians, as opposed to machine-made, bottom-line-driven pop, but also because they reflect the kaleidoscopic reality of today’s media environment. The argument Labrosse makes is that few people confine their listening to just one genre, so why should musicians suffer self- imposed limitations on what they play?

Her own career reflects this wide-open attitude. She’s written scores for dance, penned twisted avant-pop tunes, worked extensively with sample-based music, and performed with a global array of free improvisers. And in her Thursday-night concert at the Dance Centre, she’ll move a step or two toward abstract sound, in the company of multimedia artist Jean-Pierre Gauthier.

“Jean-Pierre is more known in the visual arts,” Labrosse notes. “He started out as a sculptor, a visual artist, and then he started to make some sound sculptures. This is where we got involved together quite a few years ago, maybe in 1998 or 2000 or whatever. We did a project where he was working with rubber tubes and compressors and bird whistles, things of that nature, so it was a noisy kind of culture. That started him doing shows, or doing performances; before that he was more of a sound installer, working in galleries and things like that. But he’s always done very fine work, juxtaposing visual and audio stuff.”

Labrosse reveals that she doesn’t yet know what Gauthier will be bringing to their Interférence show. “He told me that it’s very small, and that it’s something that he’s made, and that it varies from one performance to another.”

With that in mind, she’s readying herself for a performance that will be improvised from start to finish, as will several of the other bookings that Vancouver New Music artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi has arranged for his festival. Following Labrosse on Thursday will be the cross-country quartet of Pierre Tanguay, Bernard Falaise, Dylan van der Schyff, and Ron Samworth, a group she describes as well worth hearing.

“It’s a double-duo sort of thing: two drummers that work in a similar fashion, and two guitarists that also work in a similar fashion,” she explains. “But everybody’s very different and has a real personality. I saw this band in Montréal, and it was quite a nice concert.”

Friday night (October 21) features performances by sound artist Magali Babin and saxophonist Joane Hétu, followed by Klaxon Gueule, a trio that includes guitarist Falaise, percussionist Michel F Côté, and pianist Alexandre St-Onge. Like Labrosse’s collaboration with Gauthier, both of these ensembles patrol the grey area between sound sculpture and more conventional forms of improvisation, a zone that increasingly draws practitioners of musique actuelle.

“You start with finding new sounds on your guitar or your bass or your drums,” Labrosse notes. “And you move from there to adding effects, and then to [computer-based] processing, or even to building your own instruments.”

Fittingly, then, Interférence’s musique actuelle survey will conclude on Saturday with Morceaux_de_Machines, an abrasive and intense collaboration between sound designers Aimé Dontigny and Érick d’Orion that has earned comparisons to noise innovators Einstürzende Neubauten and Otomo Yoshihide.

It seems that the Montréal-born idiom known as musique actuelle really is capable of embracing almost everything from the minimalist gestures of Babin and Hétu to the ear-scorching aural firestorms of Dontigny and d’Orion. Close observers of the Vancouver scene will note that our own creative musicians are capable of a very similar range of styles; perhaps the gulf between East and West, between Francophone and Anglophone, is narrowing at last.

… the Montréal-born idiom known as musique actuelle really is capable of embracing almost everything from the minimalist gestures of Babin and Hétu to the ear-scorching aural firestorms of Dontigny and d’Orion.


Fabrice Eglin, Revue & Corrigée, no. 52, June 1, 2002

Brouillard contre transparence, puissance de la perturbation. Aujourdhui cinéma partout. Ça donne l’idée de ce qui se déroule, progrès dans la vulgarité et coquetteries de bizut pour prime. Les expressions (sonores, visuelles…) qui réalisent la mode refusent tout questionnement de la représentation: une volonté de transparence pour ideologie métaphysique. Haine du désir, technicité, ardeur répressive… Porno? “[…] s’interroger […] sur la frontiere du visible et de l’invisible, sur l’ambition du cinéma de donner à voir l’invisible, le mystère même des êtres par les moyens du visible” écrivent Jacques Joubert et Dominique Renard dans Une partie de campagne (Éd. Belin). Mehdi Belhaj Kacem d’ajouter (revue Lignes n°36): “Le porno se veut d’ailleurs heuristique et pédoyagique: il veut prévenir les corps et les formes (les “décoincer”, etc.) leur dire que leurs gestes les précedent comme une ombre, et que tous ceux qu’ils pourront faire ne seront que re-production de ce que le porno montre avec une synchronie parfaite […]”

Transparence toujours, durant ces conversations apparemment sans mobile et sans fil où le lexique trahit: “J’assume” remplaçant “Je m’en fous”, équivalence délicate du “Je gère quelque part” (“Je me rembourse” / “Je meurs en bourse”?); l’optimisme professionnel et agressif, boudeur des torsions sémantiques, la langue chargée; le cynisme à court terme. Il se conchie lui-même, entre l’Être et l’étron. Mais cette haine est aussi portée à l’autre, si l’autre a pris le pouvoir du miroir inversant et renversant (1). Ça thésaurise et l’envie de plus-value s’exhibe. Naturisme sentimental, tautologie du vide de la transparence. Et pourtant ce matin, c’est un peu de printemps et sa musique.

Un CD. Pas un de plus, réalité compactée, ça d’autres s’en chargent et ça plait, régressif et narcissique. On peut tenter d’en rire, leurs dérapages font lois… Mais ici, c’est autre chose. Et les problèmes du sens s’inaugurent avec l’objet. Aucune information. L’enigme proposée exige qu’on l’écoute et la pense, comme on gagne du terrain sur l’ignorance de l’Autre; en permanence l’inachevé. Et pas de lot de consolation, la teneur ne remplit pas l’espace affecté à la representation mais la déchire et l’ouvre d’une consistance singulière; capable d’aspirer le présent, d’instituer une séparation. Ça ne nous isole ni ne nous désigne. Lieu limite. Où l’on reçoit le concret comme métaphore frontale: dérobé (mis à nu), ouvert, à l’improviste; le sens libéré dans sa puissance. Brises, bribes et debris. Et là où tout n’est qu’énigme ça sérotise… ça colle au réel… Temps suspendu. Limites. Des lois, du langage, de soi (“Le sortir de soi” d’Artaud). Profanation, coupure: mise en brêche du temps et de son orientation marchande, un glissement de l’expression quotidienne (l’ordinaire), tout ce qui ne s’aligne pas et que l’on rencontre sans savoir. L’invisibilité dans sa souveraine incandescence. Rien n’est stable: éclatements d’existence, sculptures mobiles en vrilles puissantes d’imbrications - faille concrète l’intérieur rejoint l’extérieur - hologrammes fugitifs. On cède à cette force, seule capable d’offrir les champs sauvages de l’expérience. Déraison et inutilité capitales. Aux bénefices du doute l’à-faire est entendu, l’action s’oppose à la vision (ça granule, ça grésille, ça caresse, ça râpe, ça coupe: ça jouit (2))…

Contemplation. Italiques points de suspension, dans cette monotonie lumineuse surgissent heurts et séismes scintillants, présence diaphane de la multiplicité des matières à embras(s)er, des obstacles à féconder. Apparitions / Disparitions. Passage instable dissolution, labyrinthe monstrueux et l’âpreté en filigranes, le secret pour crime. Stratégique? Il y a là comme un au-delà de la dialectique, sans propriétaire, peut-être rien; quelque chose derrière la pensée… Ça intrigue, ça joue des moments de flottements - l’écoute s’éloigne mais ne lâche pas le corps, ruptures et conflits d’espace privent la fixation (fabriquer une image, se rassurer) et obligent à construire autrement. Une autre idée du déroulement, une logique esthétique (éthique) où les matières sont élements constitutifs de l’exposé. Et propres à faire advenir le silence. Sa révolution paradoxale. Plus tard l’engramme persiste présent fragile, la fin pour suite… ailleurs Légendes des trésors cachés? Fraîcheur et lucidité se marient sans frasques dans l’irrespect du confort - l’intimité dans l’intimité - incitent au theâtre d’un lien baroque; l’altérité évanescente dans son insistance même. Étrange charme d’une phénoménologie précieuse, comme le sucre se dissout dans l’eau. Sans laisser de traces visibles.

Acuité au centre des possibles, des souvenirs et des fantasmes qui, tour à tour, s’incarnent et se mélangent. La part maintenue entre rêve et mémoire, ce plaisir corrosif que distille l’insolence poétique; cette rivalité amoureuse de l’artiste sur le philosophe. À la propagande de la transparence s’oppose une poétique de la dissimulation, de l’écart. Poésie ou fumisterie récréative? D’un péril l’Autre (précarité de l’opinion), beauté polémique. Dès que le soupçon s’installe et gagne du terrain, tout disparaît. Pas de schématisation necessaire à une pédagogie trouble, pas plus l’ineffable (réflexe propriétaire et retour de la présence sacralisée). Simplement ce transport. Expérience de vie que celle de rendre sensible à chaque instant la dramaturgie de toute beauté, cette étrange sensation des matières non revendiquées - l’absence de signature - contre la forme, processus allusif et clandestin qui parasite les mécanismes explicatifs du tout rationnel sociologisant (calculs et taxinomies), déchire les ensembles représentatifs et re-lance le jeu réflexif. Engagé dans l’exploration du mystère partageable, cet acte s’inscrit dans la dépense, potlatch dont l’auteur est moins le maître que la houle porteuse. Espace en questions, il ne s’agit pas ici de spéculer sur le contenu mais de ce qui s’y décale: sa projection. Expérience fuyante, l’exprimer avec justesse nous échappe. L’agrément de la nuit traversée jusqu’à l’aube, quelles sont ces heures?

(1) Francois Pemer, L’amour, Séminaire 1970-71, coll. Pluriel, Hachette Littératures.

(2) Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte, Le Seuil, 1973.

… dans cette monotonie lumineuse surgissent heurts et séismes scintillants, présence diaphane de la multiplicité des matières à embras(s)er…


Manu Holterbach, Revue & Corrigée, no. 52, June 1, 2002

Se plonger dans la musique d’Alexandre St-Onge, c’est un peu comme faire l’expérience de l’ombre. Son univers sonore semble dessiner en obscurité les contours du réel le plus ordinaire, d’une part le magnifiant, et d’autre part le faisant glisser dans une belle confusion. Car cette ombre, dont on ne sait exactement l’origine, trouble, déconcerte. Un peu comme si on pouvait rencontrer une ombre détachée de toute origine, une ombre en soi. Imaginons alors que nous pourrions nous y asseoir, nous y fondre: un petit ilot dans lequel le monde se projetterait par l’obscur. Tout y viendrait troublé, étouffé, atténué. Nous pourrions encore y voir (y entendre), mais tout serait étrangement voile et distant. Voilà ce qui se passe dans la musique d’Alexandre St-Onge, qui contrairement au paradième temporel occidental de la composition, ne contient aucun mouvement narratif quelconque, positionnant le present de l’écoute dans un point tangenciel entre passé et avenir. Raison sans doute de notre culture d’écoute impatiente et superficielle, gavée d’attentes qui exigent d’être résolues. Chez Alexandre St-Onge, il s’avère que la musique est suspendue dans un présent immobile. Pas d’avenir, pas d’avant. Tout est immédiatement là, avec cette perception particuliere que l’on a dans ]es moments de stases, ces instants bouche bée où l’on n’attend plus rien. Peut-être estce dans un instant comme celui-la qu’Alexandre St-Onge a décidé de mettre un micro dans sa bouche pour y filtrer l’insaisissable “reel” quotidien, et de l’y faire résonner en frottements avec les mouvements métaboliques. Corps résonnants de la bouche, qui devient aussi oreille, captant les echos des bruits du monde dans les cavités du crâne. Ce qui tend à révéler l’absurdité de ce que nous nommons le récl: ce n’est jamais que l’ombre de la réalité dont nous parlons. De cette facon qu’a le monde de projeter son contour au travers de nos conduits, de nos muqueuses. Rumeurs sereines, et parfois inquiètes d’un univers déboussolé, allegé de toute cardinalité. Ecouter la musique d’Alexandre St-Onge, c’est un peu s’immiscer dans un point d’une extrême etroitesse, mais qui, du fait de son étroitesse même, permettrait de capter avec une infinie acuité l’etrangeté du monde, sa sonore altérité, sans esperer y trouver quelque chose, simplement en partageant ce quelque chose. Profonde expérience de l’immanence, pour qui acceptera ce jeu secret et bouleversant. Kasi Nago est un hommage à Tystnaden (Le silence) d’Ingmar Bergman, on y trouve aussi un hommage parallèle au silence de 4’33” de Cage.

Sur le même label, Alexandre St-Onge a édité le son d’une performance de Vito Acconci, on comprend pourquoi a l’écoute: deux univers se téléscopent. UNDO (Alexandre St-Onge et Christof Migone) y vont de leur “remix”, excellent disque aussi. Saluons à propos de ces deux disques, le soin particulier porté a la pochette, ce qui en fait des objets particulièrement attrayants. Merci.

… l’expérience de l’ombre.…

Portrait: Alexandre St-Onge

François Couture, AllMusic, June 1, 2002

Alexandre St-Onge is an ambiguous artist from Montréal. He started playing free jazz on double bass and quickly developed into a sound/performance artist. He belongs to the generation of experimentalists and improvisors that came after the Ambiances Magnétiques collective and was actually instrumental in establishing some contacts between that group of artists and the younger ones revolving around Godspeed You Black Emperor! He has released a few solo albums and recorded and performed with Klaxon Gueule, Undo, Et Sans and Shalabi Effect.

St-Onge studied double bass. Little is known of his formative years, but his first major musical activity was being recruited by Ambiances Magnétiques drummer Michel F Côté to form the free improv trio Klaxon Gueule (also with Bernard Falaise). A first album, Bavards, came out in 1997 on which St-Onge performs in a classic American free jazz style. By the time the group’s second CD Muets was released two years later he had abandoned conventional playing, focusing on effects, electronics and textures, dragging the formation into European-style electro-acoustic improv.

In the meantime the bassist had met the other, mostly anglophone Montréal avant-garde scene, collaborating with the likes of Sam Shalabi (in his Shalabi Effect with albums out on Alien8 Recordings), David Kristian (the trio Kristian Shalabi St-Onge, also on Alien8), and conceptual artist Christof Migone, once of the Quebec sound art collective Avatar. St-Onge released a first solo album, Image/Négation in early 1999. It established his fondness for the exploration of silence and noise, relating his work to artists like Francisco López, John Duncan, Bernhard Günter and John Hudak.

On his second solo effort, Une mâchoire et deux trous (1999, Namskeio) he built eery textures by putting contact microphones in his mouth. This idea was developed into a performance art concept with Migone in the duo Undo. The pair also founded the record label Squint Fucker Press in 2001. Meanwhile St-Onge reached a certain level of success with the avant-psychedelic outfit Shalabi Effect. He also recorded an album with Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s Roger Tellier-Craig as Et Sans.