There's a new branch of scholarship, sprung from the loins of science fiction, that studies "alternative" or "speculative" history: What if Hitler were never born? What if there'd been no Martin Luther, no Einstein, no Mao? Part of the debate is whether historical forces simply would have summoned up a substitute, the way a new vampire slayer is always called to replace the last, or if the course of events would be warped beyond recognition.
It's scary to think how altered a city might be if just a few pivotal people were gone (as Jimmy Stewart reminds us on TV every Christmas): What would San Francisco have become without Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his City Lights bookstore? Or New York without Andy Warhol's Factory?
Worse yet, the indispensables are usually not that conspicuous.
Independent presenters, for instance, are kind of the working mothers of the music world (though they'd have to get in line behind many male musicians' wives and girlfriends to prove it). They're like the shoemaker's elves, working like crazy when nobody's looking to cobble together an event out of nails and scraps of leather, then disappearing into the night.
When the event is a concert of free improvised noise or pratfalling cabaret jazz, mind you, the crowd may consist of a dozen people, among whom it's hard to stay hidden.
So after moving to Toronto five years ago, I soon noticed that at most such events, I could spot a rangy bespectacled guy propped up against a pillar or post, nervous energy jitterbugging across his shoulders until he sprinted off to shoot down some trouble.
That was Ron Gaskin, who for the better part of a decade has been haunting the premises of the Music Gallery (when it has premises), the Downtown Jazz Festival (when it's not too skittish), the Rex Hotel, the Goethe Institut and any other venue willing to lend an amen to what he calls "Ron's Ministry of Music," his "candy-striping for jazz" -- that is, the international concert events he produces under the alias of Rough Idea.
He's a flurry of activity right now, presenting five shows in the next week and a half:
Philip Jeck, the British artist whose work with grotty vintage turntables and flea-market records bridges the distance between John Cage and Grandmaster Flash, creating dusty sonatas of memory and foreboding (Saturday at the New Work Studio, 319 Spadina Ave., second floor, 9 p.m., $10).
Ab Baars Trio, part of Gaskin's continuing collaboration with the loopy Dutch jazz scene, including recent performances at the Rex by Available Jelly and the Willem Breuker Kollektif (Sunday at the Music Gallery, 197 John St., 8 p.m., see Mark Miller's interview on R4).
Otomo Yoshihide, who with 150 albums is known as "the hardest-working man in Japanese noise," uses turntables to generate electronic tone poems that reach in and rearrange your internal organs (Monday at the Goethe Institut, 167 King St. West, 8 p.m., $20).
Konk Pack, another trio, with two Brits (drummer Roger Turner and guitar and trumpet player Tim Hodgkinson) and one German (synthesizer virtuoso Thomas Lehn), who've all worked alongside the most formidable musicians in European improvisation (and a little art-rock), and who amalgamate electronic and acoustic music in a high-stakes pinball game of music and sound (Oct. 30 at the Goethe Institut, 8 p.m., $15/$20).
Gert-Jan Prins, another flying Dutchman and also another electronic abstractionist, who splits the difference between the comic antics and lyrical vulnerabilities of his jazz compatriots and the fuzztoned menace of his fellow decks-and-gizmos warriors -- and finds a gentler homespun futurism in the gap (Nov. 1, New Work Studio, 9 p.m., $10) .
Look close and you can see some themes there, but Gaskin doesn't pretend to be grandly curatorial: "There is a certain Rubik's Cube quality about it," he told me this week. "If you move this colour to this side, that suggests there's now room for yellow."
Mostly, Gaskin has to be nurtured by necessity. He nudges acts that are playing festivals in other cities to set up supporting gigs here, collaborates with presenters elsewhere and relies on the kindness of foreign governments -- the heavy Dutch presence is partly explained by the Netherlands' vigorous support of music beyond the usual classical and heritage programs, which helps balance the lacklustre funding here.
But who is Ron Gaskin, really? He's older than he looks, letting slip an anecdote that puts him in "pre-Rochdale" Yorkville in the 1960s. His Google trail heats up with a much-circulated zine interview with art-rock guitarist Robert Fripp from 1979, but his version resumes with college-radio programming at Trent University (in Peterborough) in the late 1980s, managing bands such as the CeeDees and the Polka Dogs, and working the legendary Pirate 90 radio station on the Island (where he still lives).
Five years running the Next Wave series at the jazz festival ended in tears, and so began What Next at the Music Gallery in 1996, with a concert by "out" jazz pianist Matthew Shipp. Gaskin's tie to the Gallery is now "a relationship," he says: "It's no longer just about the joy of taking your clothes off. It's, 'Did you buy any laundry soap?' " The Gallery was evicted from its building three years ago, and now shares space in a downtown church, where it has to work around the congregation and other community groups' needs. Gaskin finds inventive alternatives, but he lights into the city for letting meccas such as the Gallery's old space and the Theatre Centre, where performers could rehearse night and day, go extinct. "It'll be interesting to see, over the term of our next city management, how we'll mature."
Meanwhile, he gets by on the occasional grant, his 10-show-a-year Music Gallery contract and, with luck, a decent box-office take. "If it was grant-driven only it would terminate. The thing that makes it sustainable is when the public comes."
That pressure seems to sharpen Gaskin's sense of what his audience is eager to hear, and his shoestring budgeting has allowed him to present hundreds of acts that on paper "should have cost gazillions to do." Without him, there'd be a missing piece in the musical life of Toronto, and a soft deflation would be felt across the cultural scene.
He admits the risk of burnout. "There is the danger of cessation, but at the same time there's always emergent activity. . . . You and I look at [the weekly indie-scene series]Wavelength, for instance, and think it's really inspired -- whereas to the skater punk down the street, it's already old school. At some point you're old and in the way."
Until then, Gaskin will keep hoeing his row, avoiding the bureaucratic soul-suck it could mean for Rough Idea to achieve institutional status itself. "It could take the edge off, but it's like methadone," he says. "Would William Burroughs have been happy on methadone?"
It's a wonderful life.