Part One: On Paul Dutton
I love vocal improv. (If you're not sure what that means, click here, or here, or here). It's a small, weird niche of the world of improvised music in which the performers' instruments are their mouths. There is something delightfully populist about this, since everyone has a mouth; there's something that appeals to the linguist in me, because not everyone who has a mouth makes - or even can make - the sounds that vocal improvisers make (...at least not without a lot of practice). Best, there's something highly enjoyable about the discrepancy between the appearance of the form (by which an uncultured outsider might be forgiven for perceiving it as the stuff of Gong Show eccentricity) and the reality (that the primary exponents are prodigiously talented people who have developed their instrument far beyond the realms of the average person). This is shaping up to be a good winter for those who enjoy this unique art form, since both Paul Dutton (bio here) and Phil Minton will be coming to town in the next couple of months (Dutton next week; Minton will be organizing a Feral Choir performance of locals in late January - see the Vancouver New Music website for more).
A Canadian (yay team!), Dutton has had a long and active career as an improviser and sound poet. He was a member of the vocal improv group Four Horsemen (seen in Ron Mann's film Poetry In Motion; alas, Youtube only offers a defective clip and a manipulated one at present). He's recorded several albums, both solo (Mouth Pieces, say - which you can hear online) and in different units (with CCMC, alongside John Oswald and Michael Snow, say). He's even jammed with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, as part of a very enjoyable performance at the No Music Festival 2000, released as part of a box set by the Nihilist Spasm Band). He's written novels and published poetry and is an articulate defender of Canadian arts funding - one of those standing in the path of the neoliberal juggernaut that is determined to mow down anything that separates Canada from our market-worshipping neighbours to the south (Dutton notes that the recent "B.C cuts leave me speechless with disgust, despair, sadness.")
Some of the more delightful qualities of vocal improv are visible in an anecdote Dutton relates about the recording of Five Men Singing (one of the most engaging vocal improv CDs out there, featuring Dutton in collaboration with Jaap Blonk, Koichi Makigami, David Moss and Phil Minton; I'd actually asked if he had a Phil Minton story, thinking ahead to Minton's upcoming event.) He wrote: "in one of the Five Men Singing performances, during which, as is my habit, I was singing with my eyes closed, there came one of the points where we’d left space amid our structured pieces for spontaneous solos or duos or whatever materialized. I was thinking what a nice bit Phil and David Moss were doing together to the left of me, and when I opened my eyes and glanced over, there was David staring mutely off into the distance. What I thought was a duet was Phil singing univocal intervals."
The news: Paul Dutton will be coming through Vancouver as part of a west coast mini-tour that saw him at the Poetry Gabriola Festival this weekend. On Tuesday, November 17th - from 6:30 to 8:30 - he'll be performing for free at the Shortline Reading Series at the Railway Club (579 Dunsmuir St. @ Seymour); the first set will feature Christine Leclerc and Jen Currin, and the second, Dutton and Roy Miki (whom I know better as an SFU prof - he taught a highly politicized Asian-Canadian lit class I took that was one of the most provocative, memorable, and at times maddening courses I encountered at university; he was also one of those behind the movement to get reparations for Japanese Canadians for their internment, and wrote a book on the topic, Redress: Inside The Japanese-Canadian Call For Justice). This will be the first time Dutton has shared a bill with Miki and his first Shortline Reading Series appearance.
More of interest to music fans: thereafter, on Friday November 20th, either starting at 9 or 10 depending on your sources, Dutton tells me he will be part of "two sets of free improv in a trio-plus setting," featuring Alex Varty (guitar) and Coat Cooke (saxes), and Dutton on "soundsinging and mouth harp," at what is being described as the "1067 Loft." I do not know if "Loft" indicates a different space from the one normally used; the entrance is now around the FRONT, I'm told. This is "a free-admission private party" - donations at your discretion - "that anyone can come to (you'll be greeted at the door!)."
I asked Paul if he has any special way of preparing for musical performances. "I’ll prepare for the performance as I would for any free improv performance: by not thinking about it. Same for the poetry reading. Generally for readings, I decide what to read just before going on stage. Sometimes I do a set list, but don’t necessarily stick to it." Dutton may or may not have recordings with him - I highly recommend Mouth Pieces, the CCMC CDs, and Five Men Singing. He tells me he is currently "planning a trio recording with guitarist Tim Posgate and cellist Cheryl Ockrant, for which we’ll collectively improvise, amidst which I’ll also read poems, a new blend for me. I’m planning a book of collected essays, and a new collection of poems. Some time yet before they’ll materialize."
By the way, did anyone else perk up to note that Alex Varty will be performing?
Alex Varty, photograph copyright Victor Anthony 2009; used with permission, from his Gabriola Daily Photo blog
Part Two: On Alex Varty
In his writing for the Georgia Straight, Alex Varty sets the standard for writing about avant garde music in Vancouver - a standard I cheerfully admit not to have reached, myself, and never will, since he's an accomplished musician and I just plain ain't. When one hears people praising the Straight, he gets mentioned quickly. When one hears people dissing the Straight, he is immediately brought up as an exception. Varty has performed with a great number of people on the Vancouver scene, including AKA, Resin, Dog Eat Dogma, The Generators, Tim Ray (at times alongside Scott Harding or Pointed Sticks guitarist Bill Napier-Hemy; see here for a link to iTunes downloads of some of these sessions), Tunnel Canary, poets Julie Vik and (Alex's partner) Hilary Peach, and... hell, I don't know the whole of it, actually. (He was part of Mark Spybey's Propellor project for awhile, too, if memory serves.)Alex Varty with AKA onstage at the Commodore, opening for Capt. Beefheart, Jan 16, 1981; taken by Bev Davies; not to be used without permission
Alex Varty tells me he's never actually met Paul Dutton, "but I've been familiar with some aspects of his work for maybe 25 years, especially with the Four Horsemen. Coat Cooke set the gig up, and I don't know why he thought I'd be a good guitarist for it; I'm flattered, and somewhat terrified, and a bit out of practice. I've got three shows to play this week, two of them improv-oriented, so I should be in better shape by the 20th."
Has Alex performed with many vocal improvisers before? "Not many but some: back in the punk-rock days with Dense Milt (AKA), Randy Pandora (Generators), and Ebra Wiwchar (Tunnel Canary), and slightly later (once only) with Al Neil, all of whom included vocal improvisation as part of their performance repertoire. More recently I've been performing in Suitcase Local, a trio with percussionist/renaissance man Andreas Kahre and my partner Hilary Peach (http://www.hilarypeach.com/). Hilary's more into slightly surreal semi-narrative epic monologues, but uses vocal improvisation as part of her creative process and occasionally on stage. She also used to be part of a polyvocal improvising quartet in Vancouver. I've enjoyed two or three entertaining performance encounters with bill bissett; there's something about the combination of his lunarian chanting and my prepared table-steel guitar that seems to work. We even had one person streak us at a show on Gabriola, but apparently that had more to do with bill's magnetic charm than the music...the guilty party had streaked bill before."
Varty, like myself, feels an affinity for vocal improv. I ask if he's tried it himself. "Yes, but not in public."
Does he have a favourite performer or recording in the genre?
"Its charms tend to resist recording, I think, but then I think that of much (but not all) free improv. Favourite performers? Everyone already mentioned, Phil Minton, dB Boyko and Christine Duncan (singly or together), Vivian Houle, D. Kimm, Genevieve Letarte, Tenko, Jaap Blonk, David Moss, Kedrick James, Yoko Ono, Alexis O'Hara, Al Neil, Mike Patton, Mary Margaret O'Hara...and Don Van Vliet." (AKA opened for Captain Beefheart in 1981 at the Commodore, for the Doc At The Radar Station tour). Favourite vocal improv shows seen include "dB and Christine performing as Idiolalla on Gabriola for a very middle-aged, middle-class audience, most of whom got into it...although one elderly woman later said she didn't like 'all that lesbian stuff', waggling her tongue to illustrate." Like me, Varty is much looking forward to Phil Minton's Feral Choir, telling me, "I met Phil a long time ago when I was working at the Western Front, and am continually inspired by his fearlessness."
I asked about the guitar Alex will be playing for the 1067 performance. "Maybe a new Stratocaster-type guitar that ace tech Paul Iverson just assembled that uses an intricate switching system to get a bunch of sounds not normally associated with Fender-style instruments...it was my idea to do this, although I stole the circuitry from someone who had stolen it from Queen's Brian May. No real history with the guitar though - I've only had it a couple of months. If I'm feeling rugged I might also bring along my 40-pound Rickenbacker table steel from the 1950s, which I prepare a la John Cage or Keith Rowe, with paper clips, bits of metal, secondary bridges, small electric motors, etc." (Varty tells me incidentally that Keith Rowe was an influence on Syd Barrett. I'd had no idea).
There are apparently plans afoot to reissue some AKA recordings. Anything else? "I'm not really that interested in documenting my playing, although a couple of people close to me are saying I should do some kind of solo CD. Maybe if they get really pushy? But, basically I don't think I'm all that special...and, unfortunately, this is not false modesty. It's probably telling that I have a house full of instruments and no recording technology other than what I use for doing interviews..."
Though I've read countless of his articles, it will be my first time seeing Alex Varty play guitar on the 20th. Hopefully I can find a way to get back to the suburbs thereafter. I do not want to miss this show, and highly recommend those of you less geographically disadvantaged get out to see it, too.