I had a coffee with Scott Thomson while he was in Montreal for his performance project BELGOrientation which featured thirty musicians playing in Montreal’s Belo Building. I asked him about his current and future projects as well as his activities as the founder of Toronto’s “Somewhere There” creative music venue. Here are some excerpts from our lengthy conversation.
CW: So is this project (Belgorientation) similar to your MUSIC(in)GALLERIES project in Toronto?
ST: Yup. The concepts for these pieces are all related, but they work differently because they are really site-specific. I just try to figure out what will work well in the environment where the project is being presented. MUSIC(in)GALLERIES, in my opinion, works well because it’s structured in a linear manner so that the musicians are immobile. They are requested to stay in one place (the art galleries along queen west), and the audience is mobile, meaning they are free to use their judgment to decide how to move along this sequence of events. Although, other things that I’ve done have involved musicians moving from place to place as well. I call these projects “cartographic” pieces. They use maps as the score and one of the principal characteristics of these works is that the scores don’t tell the musicians what to play, as in traditional notation, but more when to play and where to play.
CW: So is it a relational process? I mean from piece to piece is there a certain dynamic that you expect when your thinking about who will be performing?
ST: Well it’s all the same piece, or that’s how I consider it. I conceive of it as a musical experience for an audience, and more specifically in MUSIC(in)GALLERIES I try to set up contrast. So for example there’s a pretty radical difference between Lina Allemano [link] playing solo trumpet in one gallery and then Michelangelo Iaffaldano playing solo laptop under a rug in the next and then Nichol Robertson [link] playing solo banjo on the Drake Patio. They are all solo improvisations, instant compositions or whatever you want to call it, but the fact of the matter is that if they are juxtaposed in different ways it amplifies the range of creative activity and hopefully expands people’s conception of what improvisation can be. What is consistent from piece to piece is that I always set up a situation where there is more stuff happening than one person can actually experience. In general I’m really interested in active listening and to me an active listener is somebody who, similarly to the musicians playing, is making decisions, and these pieces I think explore a specific faction of this idea of active listening.
CW: How do these projects relate to Somewhere There [link]?
ST: Well in a couple of ways, I mean first of all I love concerts. I love the fourth wall convention that says performers are over there and we are going to sit here quietly for now and see and hear what they do. Whether that’s in a theatre or a club or a studio space like mine, I love concerts. So these pieces are related to Somewhere There in that, as we were saying before about what to expect for each individual performer, the choice of each musician is informed by my work as a programmer. Basically these compositions draw on my experience as a curator either at Somewhere There or AIMToronto (the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto) or other things that I’ve done over the years. It’s pushing one step further the old adage about Duke Ellington composing for specific players. I mean if I gave these scores to another set of players it would be radically, radically different and so the piece really is completely built on the players because they are responsible for all the content. In that sense is has a close relationship with John Zorn’s (game piece) “Cobra”[link].
CW: It’s interesting to me that you mention that because I’m here in Montreal working on a dance piece right now and what I find when working with dancers is that, even when the piece is not improvisational in its presentation, the collaborative process itself is innately responsible for the material that ends up being presented. So when you mentioned “Cobra” I immediately thought of this because both are making material out of a social process and I didn’t realize that you thought of these events as a piece as a whole which is this sort of social event in some ways.
ST: Well I mean the work that I realized I was doing was composing. I didn’t set out with this grand conceptual idea, saying “I’m going to be a composer.” I just started doing things that I thought would be interesting and when I looked at my desk it was full of all these diagrams, and mathematical relationships dealing with numbers of people, and spaces and how it’s going to work within a space with the sound and architectures…
CW: Your making a form.
ST: Yeah, I’m structuring music-making, which in a fundamental way is what all composers do. But I’m not really worried about that, I call it that because that’s what I feel I’m doing but if someone else wants to call me a curator or a director that’s totally fine. I’m not really worried about my own credential in the matter.
I was just going to say, it’s interesting about dancers and improvisation because there’s a fundamental difference between dancers improvising collectively and musicians improvising together because dance in general only really makes sense in the logic of being seen. Well, I mean contact improvisation is a little different, but if people are just going to be moving around in a space, like if you and I were to do a dance improvisation right now we wouldn’t be able to experience it from outside of what we are doing.
CW: This idea of the spectacle and the gaze of the audience is something that was being discussed when I was in Amsterdam a few months ago and I sat in on a few classes at the SNDO (School of New Dance Development).
ST: This is where Ame Henderson[link] is studying?
CW: Yeah, and there they are really discussing (and practicing) what they call mind body centering which as far as I understand it, in some ways relates to this idea of creating materiel through the experience of your own body rather than from a perceived experience outside of it.
ST: That’s right, the assumption that everything is a spectacle. Like you and I could improvise musically and move our heads around and close our eyes but we would still hear more or less the same thing. So this means collective improvisation among musicians is slightly different.
Part two here