As a rule, composer Christopher Butterfield doesn't spend much time thinking about washrooms - public or otherwise. But these days he is positively flush with bathroom knowledge, able to rhyme off little-known facts about public facilities the world over, historical and contemporary.
"I'd be happy to tell you about the building of both the London and the Paris sewer systems, based on the research that I did, and the Great Stink of 1858 and 1878 in each city respectively," he says from his office at the University of Victoria, where he is an associate professor of composition. "It's really quite fascinating, the history of sewage."
Butterfield's immersion into the topic follows one of the more out-there commissions he has received over his distinguished musical career: a site-specific voice work for two women, about public washrooms.
When I think about public washrooms, I mean particularly for women, it's a place where you just inadvertently start talking to people. DB Boyko
Stall will have its world premiere at Voice Over mind in Vancouver next week, a new biennial festival which promises audiences unusual singers and extreme vocalists. Not to mention an unusual, extreme location: Stall will be performed four times over one night in the women's washroom at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. An audience of 20 people will squeeze into the facility for each performance.
The work will star DB Boyko and Christine Duncan, British Columbia-based voice artists who operate (along with percussionist Jean Martin) as the trio Idiolalla. Boyko and Duncan commissioned the work, wanting a challenging set piece created specifically for them.
"We were trying to find a location or an idea that was slightly contentious and very familiar at the same time," Boyko says at Vancouver's Western Front, where she is director/curator of new music and where she has founded the new festival. "When I think about public washrooms, I mean particularly for women, it's a place where you just inadvertently start talking to people. You come out of a stall, you're washing your hands, you're in a nightclub and there's an exchange. It's a ubiquitous place and yet we don't talk about it very much."
Butterfield's initial reaction at the commission was shocked silence, followed quickly by a why-me, and ultimately by a desire to work through the challenges of writing an improvisational piece - not usually his realm - about women's washrooms, a place where he was spent no time.
"This was an interesting problem," he says. "And I find over the years that the thing that makes this business and life interesting is problems: things that don't have easy answers."
Despite a suggestion from the women that Butterfield don a wig and dress and observe the powder-room dynamic first-hand, he instead had Boyko and Duncan do some reconnaissance recording in women's washrooms to be used as background sound, and he grilled them about their own washroom adventures. He asked them to supply a list of every word they could think of related to a bathroom (among the answers: toilet paper, lipstick, tampons).
He did some extensive bathroom reading - about, not in - including the books Dirt: Filth and Decay in a New World Arcadia and Filth: Dirt, Disgust and Modern Life. He also pored over academic essays exploring topics such as the desperate state of women's facilities in India and the differences in graffiti in men's and women's washrooms at Toronto's York University.
He took his assignment very seriously, determined that the project not be seen as a stunt.
"Immediately the moment you say this to anybody, they'll just think it's a joke," he says. "It'll be a lot of fart noises or something."
It's not. The result is a sort of two-hander opera: a 20-minute work, consisting of 20 one-minute sections. For one of the pieces, Butterfield took some text and literally sliced it up, taking the cut-up pieces of paper and gluing them together in no particular order to create what Boyko calls sound poetry. For another piece, he instructed the performers to put the emphasis on an unusual syllable in each word. "It's like crazy jazz," Boyko says.
Stall's world premiere is one of the highlights of Boyko's inaugural festival, which she dreamed up to expose Vancouver audiences to artists who work with the voice in different ways: think Inuit throat singing, Gregorian chant, or Bobby McFerrin (not Don't Worry Be Happy Bobby McFerrin, but the VOCAbuLarieS one). "Over the years, our clientele, the people who come through the Western Front, have an appetite for the unusual," says Boyko, "and that's what we need to present here."
Butterfield has created a work that may be unusual, but he hopes it's not viewed as an oddity.
"I'm not talking about making a burlesque out of it, or a vaudeville, because I would say it's not a funny piece. It has very funny moments in it, but I'll have failed miserably if people see it only as a kind of curiosity."
Voice Over mind runs April 29 to May 27. Stall will be performed along with two other works May 5 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, and again at Open Space's Voice++ 2010 festival in Victoria on May 9 and at the Harrison Pool in Toronto on May 16, presented by the Music Gallery (front.bc.ca; openspace.ca; musicgallery.org).