The Squiggle Game (& Records) is a true oddity from the hands and brain of the Canadian percussionist Alexander MacSween. We’ve rarely been privileged to hear such idiosyncratic and unusual approaches to the construction of instrumental music, and the results are quite thrilling with their unexpected byways, forays and sojourns in unfamiliar turfs. As an additional benefit, the instrumentation is odd, sparsely arranged, and performed with an interesting and quite modest restraint. On top of all that there’s MacSween curious vocal interjections and sparing use of the sampler insinuating themselves into the gaps. How did such a quaint item get made?
The answer may lie with MacSween’s own process, or rather the lack of it. Blighted by a creative block when faced with making this record, he tried to trick his brain into lifting itself out of the quagmire. “Do me a drawing,” he proposed to Fabrizio Gilardino who co-runs the label, “and I’ll make an album around your image. Matter of fact, do the titles while you’re at it. And write the credits for the whole thing, using the names of whatever musicians you think I should play with.” “Are you nuts?!” sputtered Fabrizio, nearly choking on his own panini.
Undeterred, MacSween received a completed package of art and credits. All he had to do now was fill it up with some music. At this point he realised that building a record back-to-front might not have been the best idea. This dawned on him while observing some construction workers at the top of a ladder attempting to build a factory chimney from the top downwards. His next step was to draw inspiration from the work of Donald Winnicott, the English psycho-analyst who had his own method for extracting the creative potential from his patients, especially children. He’d pass them an unfinished drawing and tell them to finish it. He called it The Squiggle Game; it might make sense to think of it as a more interactive version of the Rorschach ink-blot test.
MacSween achieved creative breakthrough when he finally saw the trap he’d built for himself. Instead of following his own ground rules, he took Gilardino’s work and “elaborated more freely”, thus producing the resulting album. We still have many guest players — Corinne René supplying even more percussion, the contrabass of Nicolas Caloia on two tracks, and the guitar playing of Sam Shalabi who provides much-needed detail and weight to this rather insubstantial set of nontunes. (Shalabi has also worked with The Invisible Hands and Fortner Anderson.) But it’s not clear if this is the original Gilardino dream-team lineup, or what. That’s not even his drawing on the front cover (in fact, it’s by Michal MacSween). Drive yourself bonkers figuring out at what point MacSween’s re-elaboration kicks in. I was reminded for some reason of Alessandro Bosetti’s work by this album, but in fact it contains far fewer vocals than I remember on first spin, and certainly not as many words per square inch as Bosetti crams into his releases. MacSween is also notable for his contribution to an old 2006 project at Mutek Montréal, where he teamed up with Martin Tétreault to produce a conceptual tribute to Ringo Starr.