“People living in big cities tend to believe that doing art in smaller places is just orbiting the center. In French, we tend to say that Rimouski is ‘en région,’ countryside. It’s so common in Québec to think that everything done outside of Montréal is a ‘regional by-product,’ something that should be treated as some kind of ‘terroir,’ or special soil, and it’s a courageous, but naive initiative. But for me, Montréal is an outside region. It’s got its typical dynamics that are recognizable as terroir as well, and it’s not the center of our cultural universe, and we are not orbiting around it, at least not in my own perception. I heard someone say that FIMAV should be in Montréal because it’s where the artists are anyways. I believe this is the kind of mentality that needs to be readjusted.” — Raphaël Arsenault, GGRIL
There’s a certain tradition of populist radicalism that runs through Québécois culture. It manifests itself in the special quality of FIMAV, the Festival International Musique Actuelle held annually in the small city of Victoriaville. It’s not a jazz festival per se, not even a largely free jazz festival like Guelph’s. It celebrates musical differences, whether it’s electronica or noise, free improvisation or death metal. It’s the kind of festival where Anthony Braxton and Wolf Eyes might cross paths and even make music together (as they did in 2005), and it presents people like John Zorn and Evan Parker in a hockey arena. This year FIMAV, celebrating its 30th incarnation, presented a band that demonstrates just how deep the impulse to radical music runs in rural Québec. GGRIL (Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée) is a 14-member improvising orchestra that resides in Rimouski. You can get an idea of how far off the usual cultural map Rimouski is by the way a bartender in Victoriaville exclaims, “Did you meet the band from Rimouski?” with the kind of surprise that might suggest Victoriaville is sort of Manhattan or Paris (France, that is, not Ontario), but Rimouski?
It’s about 330 miles northeast of Montréal following the St. Lawrence River. The current population is 46,000, not many for a place founded in 1696. Rimouski has an annual jazz festival that should embarrass a place like Toronto — Ari Hoenig, Steve Kuhn and Lee Konitz are featured at this August’s Festi International de Jazz, while Chaka Khan, Melissa Etheridge and David Clayton-Thomas headline Toronto. Apart from having some idea about what “jazz” means, the little-populated towns of Québec have a streak of distinct radicalism. It might date back to the Québec movement called Les Automatistes. Spearheaded by painters, it also included poets, filmmakers, choreographers and other artists and insisted on the social dimensions of artistic freedom.
It looked like Abstract Expressionism but was much closer to the political roots of Surrealism, including socialism as well as chance procedures and spontaneous unconscious activity. If Québec independence and the sense of community come with the hard, cold soil, the art of chance and spontaneity comes from Automatism. Those roots reappear strongly in GGRIL’s commitment to free improvisation and even to its particular adaptation of conduction. It’s a convenient and flexible tool that gives a group immediate focus; in GGRIL’s hands, it can also verge on theatre of the absurd.
GGRIL started in 2007 and currently rehearses one day a month from 9:00 to 4:00. it already has a discography — starting with a free download on the Swiss Insubordinations label with collaborations with Montréal saxophonist Jean Derome and Les Poules. They followed that up in 2012 with Vivaces, documenting a tour with Evan Parker and Toronto trombonist Scott Thomson. In 2013 they released Combines, a red vinyl LP in a clear vinyl sleeve. It’s the kind of thing you notice, but you’d notice GGRIL anyway.
When I asked Evan Parker about his experience with GGRIL, he thought the group’s location made perfect sense: “They have an art centre in Rimouski where they can work and play while musicians in London are pushed aside by speculation in hyper-inflated property. Now I don’t think it’s practical for musicians to rush off and settle in places like Rimouski, but there’s much to learn from the GGRIL experience and the special qualities that define its practice and music. Among the musicians who make up GGRIL, there are very different kinds of musical experience. That’s what happens when you have a small community: you can’t just play with your twins. The result is fresh exchange and new collective forms.”
One place the community roots show is in the instrumentation. Along with trumpet, three reeds and percussion, there’s a substantial emphasis on guitars and strings: the fourteen-piece band that played at FIMAV included two guitars, baritone guitars and electric bass; two violins, cello and acoustic bass; and accordionist Robin Servant is one of the more prominent solo voices. The group uses the guitars as part of dense orchestral textures that give the group a character of its own.
In the performance at FIMAV, it was apparent how thoroughly GGRIL has entered the elite of Québec’s musical avant-garde. Composer Robert Marcel Lepage appeared as guest conductor, leading the band in both his own Alice — tableau 1 et 2 and Jean Derome’s La courbe du moment, complex works that blurred lines between score, conduction and collective improvisation. GGRIL also played two pieces from their recent LP Combines, bassist and founder Éric Normand’s Jeu de Cartes, based on the random distribution of improvising instructions to the band and also Situation à deux chefs, in which the dual conduction by Normand and violinist Raphaël Arsenault becomes aggressively competitive to the point of warfare.
Normand has been developing his own improvising practice for years, as well as the label Tour de Bras which has issued a host of improvising projects, frequently documenting Québec musicians in their interactions with European improvisers, including Malcolm Goldstein with Thomas Lehn and Jean Derome and Le Quan Ninh. Normand traces GGRIL’s beginnings to 2007: “It came together really slowly. I’d made posters saying ‘Improvisation Ensemble Looking for Members’ and some people came. At that time, I was already playing with a few people in Rimouski: Robin Servant, Patrick Desjardins and my wife, Catherine S. Massicotte. We rehearsed once a month, all day long. Some people were coming, never the same, we were five or six every month, just playing and trying to create compositions.
“At this time, I started to organize workshops or master classes with musicians invited for concerts — René Lussier, Jean Derome, Evan Parker — and the core of the band kind of grew from those workshops. More and more players here were interested in exploring the potential of group composition for improvising musicians. Then we were 9… then 12… then 15, all coming from different musical backgrounds, and we created a band that has a unique sound. Maybe we’re less influenced by what’s going around. If you start an improv band in the city, the people who come in will be people already doing improv stuff. That was not the case with many of the people in GGRIL.
“We started exploring different compositional strategies — graphic scores, collaborations — and did this first web album with Jean Derome. At once, we realized that what we love to do the most is face the unknown. We wanted to create compositions that have no fixed time line, we wanted improvisers’ decisions influencing the structure of the piece. That’s why we have worked more and more, on one hand, with games, and on the other, with conductions. Anyway, that’s what we’re doing now, and it sounds good to me.
“I’ve wanted to do a local improvising ensemble since I’ve been doing improvised music. It’s two completely different things to do improvised solo, duo or quartet music and to create collective compositions in a large ensemble. And I’ve always wanted to do both, because I’m as interested in composition as I’m interested in instrumental playing or in invented instruments and sounds.
“I’ve always been interested in composition but not really in musical notation, so I was feeling that new ideas need new languages. I have in mind this quote from Einstein: ‘madness is always doing the same thing and thinking things will change.’ And I was really into literature at that time: Calvino, Queneau, Perec… You know OULIPO? Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle… the combination of art, mathematics and playfulness. That was a big inspiration at the very beginning. And then we realized these kinds of games create great musical situations, moving like a living composition, with the main elements never occurring at the same time, but bringing forms and making sense anyway.
“And now, as we’re a real band, we also have thoughts about our ‘roles,’ and it’s becoming part of our compositional process. We love conductions because we don’t know at the beginning what is going to happen. So we’ve explored them for a long time now, adding and removing things. We do pieces with 2 conductors, with changing conductors, or with players proposing material to the conductor. It’s live composition. We have to communicate clearly and also to let players play, that’s the balance to find.
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Conversations with a few members of GGRIL quickly reveal just how different their paths to large-group improvisation have been, but also the richness of the rewards. The following narratives are adapted from e-mail interviews.
Violinist and frequent conductor Raphaël Arsenault was an early collaborator, starting to play with Normand in 2005:
“I had just gotten out of the Conservatoire de Musique in Rimouski. I had to stop my studies because of illness, and I only defined myself as a musician back then, so I tried many different things during that period. Coming out of the classical music environment, improvising was pretty much the unknown, and I was very frustrated with the overabundance of technique from the classical school.
“At first I was mostly curious, and I guess my participation in GGRIL was a reaction to the classical universe. But as time passed we became connected, and I realized there was a lot more to it than I expected at first. I am glad Éric was so stubborn and dedicated. GGRIL actually died a couple of times, but he always gave it another life, in a very natural and stubborn way. As we played, and as we met with people from around the world playing this kind of music, my reactionariness (I know it’s not a word) faded, and there was suddenly a lot of room for the human behind the musician.
“I guess we all discovered that, in some way, at approximately the same time. We had a workshop with Joelle Léandre, and I remember that it changed most of us, that we realized how much deeper we could get. This is when I made peace with my classical background and incorporated it in the improv, without shame or second thoughts. That helped a lot, for me and for the band, because now we are all different shades and colors combining in motion, but honest ones, and it became very natural and close to our humanity. At first it was very black and white, with some shades of gray. Now it’s a full color spectrum, with gold and silver and darkness and light purples and all.
“I now play more in combination with the others, my own technique is less an issue. I believe technique is always a good tool, it makes you freer, but in a 15-piece band, you can trust the others to complement what you can offer. In that sense, I love GGRIL for its openness. Our recipes, our structures, make it possible to incorporate people of any musical baggage. I feel we live in a world where everyone wants to be able to do everything, but I prefer to be together with people who can do what I cannot, and work in close complicity with them. They also receive a lot from my own strengths. It’s an experience of reciprocity.
“It’s very important for me not to take things seriously. I love the colors in music, they’re my personal goal. If our performance was colorful, playful and honest in the process, and I didn’t feel the urge to please anyone, then it’s a success. We talk a lot after shows. We are very critical about how we can be more playful and cohesive. It’s sometimes hard to hear every musical idea that was thrown during a show, since there are so many of us swimming in the sound at the same time. So we try to find new ways to give a rightful place to everyone and to balance our sound.”
Accordionist Robin Servant is a founding member of GGRIL, present since 2007: ”Over the years, there were several lineups, but I’ve always played with the ensemble.
“I’m self taught, playing mostly diatonic accordion and guitar, and I sing as well. I’ve experimented with homemade electronics and no input mixer as well. I’ve always been fascinated with improvised music since I first heard of it as a teenager. A vast continent had opened up for the grungy suburban guitarist I was! I started playing the accordion to play traditional music, which still takes a big place in my musical life, but I soon incorporated it in my improvising practice. For some reason it always felt more natural to improvise on the accordion than the guitar.
“My listening skills have really developed over the years as a member of GGRIL, that’s for sure. In a large band like GGRIL, what and when you choose not to play is often more important than what and when you actually play. I’ve also developed some extended range techniques to push the boundaries of my instrument. All the electric instruments have such a vast spectrum of sonic possibilities with their effects, and I was always stuck with my ‘accordion tone.’ So I found some ways to make my instrument sound like nothing else, developing extended techniques on the accordion that allow me to bend notes and strike harmonics.
“Recently the main change that has occurred in my playing is the addition of a ‘semi-no-input mixer’ along with my accordion playing: I have a no- input mixing console, but one of the entries is actually a microphone from my accordion. That allows me to filter the sound of the mic through different feedbacks and rhythms created by the console. I use that setup in Brugir, a duo with Marie-Neige Besner (who also sings in GGRIL).
“Everything changes from one performance to another depending on the venue, the public, the road we had to drive, etc. I guess the only thing that doesn’t change is my little warm-up routine, which gets me focused and ready to play. Playing with GGRIL is always very ludic and very challenging at the same time. From one performance to the other, there’s always something new, in the way we played together or in the way one musician found something new.
”At first GGRIL was just an opportunity to play with many people. Now I consider the music we make a reflection of the sum of the individuals we are as musicians. It’s mostly a matter of how your individual voice is carried through the global voice that the band is. In that sense, I feel that improvising in a large ensemble is a very rich political experience.”
Cellist Rémy Bélanger de Beauport has a strong academic background in music, with a bachelor’s degree in composition and master’s degree in music theory from McGill in Montréal. He’s had formal training on piano and double bass, but is a self-taught cellist: “I started free improv when I was 16-17 years old, messing around with amplified acoustic guitar and bass, feedback, inserted objects, noise … I didn’t know other people were working on that kind of stuff too. I was into Nirvana as much as Karlheinz Stockhausen — I still am. To me, messing around with sound was — is — just a natural thing to do.
“I was born in Québec City and moved to Montréal to go to university. Montréal is where I really got to discover and enjoy my first encounters with improv, as an audience member who soon got very active as an improviser myself.
“It’s hard to tell what kind of influence my studies have actually had on my playing. I’m very interested in form and musical structure, from small scale ‘motives,’ to medium scale ‘chunks of music,’ to large scale, the chunks of music coming together, juxtaposed, referencing one another or not. Once again, it’s hard to tell how much of this has an influence on my playing. It sure informs some musical choices, as do my musical tastes in general, but most of it just comes from the body, hearing the sounds, reacting, proposing, being conscious of my breathing, holding the bow, creating the music as it unfolds. To me, development as a musician happens whether you’re playing or not, it’s influenced by all aspects of life, of which playing in GGRIL is just one part among many others. I like to think that when I play, I play ‘myself.’ I don’t play Bach or Feldman, I play what I am at that moment.
“Almost every time I play, I find something new. Playing with GGRIL is one of those moments, I’ll react to what we are doing differently than if I’m solo or with other people. Different people, different instrumentation, different ideas. I like playing in smaller ensembles: solo, solo with dance, duo and trio are the contexts I prefer to work in for free improv. Playing in a large ensemble is a different thing altogether, and joining GGRIL has allowed me to learn to like the larger ensemble experience. The ensemble members are all dedicated musicians who’ll dive into it no matter what, sometimes softly, sometimes forcefully, sometimes strangely, sometimes in the most beautiful way … and sometimes awfully, but that’s a good sign: improvising is all about taking risks, trying stuff out, no self-censorship or trying too hard to do the ‘right thing,’ and messing up has to be part of it, at the rehearsal space as much as in live performance.
“GGRIL’s music is a shared responsibility. When making improvised music, in any situation, you have to trust your band mates, trust that they’ll be inspired and inspiring, trust that they’ll support your ideas or shut you up if you’re making a fool of yourself. We all care about each other in GGRIL, on the musical but also personal level. Before a performance, I think we all make sure, informally, that our friends are in a good mood for playing.
“I take a certain sense of pride from a performance. Most free improv happens in large cities but Tour de bras here in small-town Rimouski has been a catalyst, and GGRIL is one of its offshoots. The ensemble transforms itself with experience and a constant flow of members joining, leaving, coming back (that’s what you get with a large ensemble), and it really has a sound of its own. So after a performance I’m always proud to have shared what GGRIL sounded like that day. There were times where we sucked, times where we were fantastic, but I think every time we perform we all come back with new ideas, new things to work on individually and as a group.”
Guitarist Olivier D’Amours joined the ensemble in 2009, “not very long after I first moved to Rimouski. Surprisingly, I didn’t know any musicians from around town. I came from Gaspé, a much smaller town, and I was mostly used to work in solo. Éric Normand heard one of my records and invited me to be part of a workshop given by [percussionist] Lê Quan Ninh. That was my first musical training ever! It was a very nice experience indeed and right after that I was invited to become a part of GGRIL.
“I started playing music about 10 years before I joined GGRIL. I was then in various folk/rock bands. As time went by, I became more and more interested in improvisation, in music as an abstract art form, a bit like abstract painting or spontaneous writing could be. I started working on soundscapes on which I pasted some of my own poetry. I always played music ‘by ear’ and never wanted to follow any kind of musical training. It was probably pretty idealistic, but I wanted my ideas to be free from any kind of dogmas or preconceptions about what music should be. During the first two years I played guitar, I didn’t even want to tune my instrument, because I didn’t want to interfere with what I called ’its natural sound.’
“At first, it was such a relief to see that other people, like me, could perceive music outside of its usual square! We could just take a black and white drawing with ice hockey players and pine trees on it and call it a musical score. For a lot of people it would have been disturbing, but it was all very comforting (and natural) for me.
“Once you learn that there is no such thing as a mistake in music (at least in improvised music), you start to feel it as a flow that is just 100% organic. Of course, some people in the band have more structure and technique than others, but every type of player has his or her place. It’s great, as a band, to be able to build something amazing harmonically, but the blunders and the little accidents are necessary to make our performances special. It’s also great to build something and feel free to destroy it at any time. There really shouldn’t be anything like a comfort zone in art.
“The more players we are, the more we have to think about ways to restrain ourselves from playing all the time! I think we really got to understand this during the past few years. More and more, we follow simple games (card games, sign languages, etc.) when we play. It mostly keeps us from acting all at the same time, which brings even more dynamics and surprises to our performances.
“Of course, when we play 100% free, we are now able to listen more closely to what’s going on, and to play only when we feel like it is needed. But I think we couldn’t have reached this if we wouldn’t have played all these games before. With time, the group has become a Being of its own, and every piece that we play is like a gigantic, organic breath. (Anyways, that’s how I like to see it).
“My playing has changed in the process. As a solo improviser, I think that I became a lot more patient and humble. I mean, it’s great to be able to capture an audience with an infinite amount of incredible guitar moves, but it’s a lot better to just take the time to deeply feel the moment. When you feel like you have to start doing something, you do it. Then you explore it. When you feel like you have to stop, you stop. I believe that most of the time, it is the musical piece that is guiding us and not the opposite.
“As one of the few ‘electrics’ in the GGRIL, after some years of playing I slowly started to understand my role in the band. I think that we are often the noise behind the voices. Most of the time we play without a PA, so we are that tamed growl that can go untamed to break everything. I often change my pedal board. I make drastic choices and keep only a few effects for every gig, sometimes it is not all tested. I like that kind of unpredictability. I also settle on a tuning to start with on my guitar. I stretch my fingers a little bit. That’s about it as far as the technical side goes.
“Then of course — and it might sound a little bit esoteric — but you want to be in touch with yourself if you want to be in touch with the music. So I always try not only to remain centered, but also to have a good time with the other members of the band before the performance.
“Afterwards I appreciate the ‘magical’ moments (surprisingly good transitions, inimitable textures, etc.) and the feedback from the audience. It’s sometimes hard to get the big picture of a performance when you’re free improvising with a large ensemble. So for me, the audience is often the perfect reflection of that big picture, even if they cannot put their feeling in words.”
GGRIL’s music is immediately accessible through free downloads and streaming video. The band’s first recording appeared on the Swiss net label Insubordinations. It included pieces directed by Jean Derome and the trio Les Poules with Joane Hétu, Diane Labrosse, and Danielle Palardy Roger (http://insub.org/insub20/). The group’s wordpress page has performances of conductions with Derome and Michael Fischer of the Vienna Improvisers Orchestra (http://ggril.wordpress.com/). The CD Vivaces with Evan Parker and trombonist Scott Thomson from 2012 and the LP Combines from 2013 can be purchased on-line (http://tourdebras.com). GGRIL is currently recording scores by a wide variety of composers for their next album, Collection, a 3 CD set that includes the pieces by Robert Marcel Lepage and Jean Derome performed at FIMAV.