The Victorians loved to crowd several pianos on a single stage, fill the benches with a couple of players each and call the results a monster concert. Montreal guitarist and composer Tim Brady brought the monster spirit to St. George the Martyr Church in Toronto on Thursday, with a performance by 20 guitarists for the opening concert of the Music Gallery's sixth annual X Avant Festival.
Brady's 20 Quarter Inch Jacks (2002) was a half-hour guided tour of some of this ubiquitous instrument's many personas, from the heavy Black Sabbath-like riff that dominoed through the group in the Metal movement, to the layered, wave-versus-particle physics of Waves.
The eight movements overall felt like études designed for a musicians' play date – structured fun, channelled in single directions each time, with a few chances to run wild (in Harmonic Fields, for instance, the only movement Brady didn't conduct). I didn't quite get the point of Brady's Orlando di Lasso tribute – a rather earnest ensemble cover of the two-part religious motet Beatus Vir – and I hope it was only a fluke that the players (mostly students rustled up from Humber College and York University) were all men. There are lots of terrific women guitarists out there too.
Brady's 13 excerpts from his recent work 24 Frames sometimes sounded like a cluster of guitarists, but there was only one onstage – the composer, who is also a monster soloist. His nimble-fingered virtuosity was a big part of these systematic adventures for electric guitar, with and without delay pedals, unusual tunings and video imagery (by Montreal artists Martin Messier and Nelly-Eve Rajotte).
One excerpt teased several contrapuntal parts from a rippling flow of arpeggios, another worked a gnarly solo variation on the supporting role of rhythm guitar, while others layered shimmering loops of material or chased Debussyan open chords up and down the fretboard. There were a few slow ariosos with accompaniment tucked in at the edges, but mostly this was a high-energy group of very idiomatic pieces.
I think they might have been stronger if Brady (whom I've known since the days when his music was much less euphonious) had sometimes written against the grain of his instrument. A few pieces felt padded by the ease with which he could generate material by moving the same chord formation around the fretboard. For all the apparent variety of these pieces, we seemed after a while to be cycling through a limited kit of compositional strategies. It would have been good to hear some of the more sociable parts of 24 Frames, which includes several duos with voice or other instruments.
The videos mostly enhanced the pieces, and sometimes seemed like a direct visual description of what we were hearing. Messier's imagery for Strumming (Hommage à John Lennon) multiplied a grainy black and white shot of a guitarist's strumming hand till the screen was filled with piston-like unison movement. By that point, Brady's overdubbing had bulked up to a great rhythm choir of guitars, surging over an independent bass.
The show opened with three short atmospheric electronic pieces by Ian Battenfield Headley, Steve Janisse and Nicola Monopoli, all winners of Musicworks magazine's 2011 Electronic Music Contest. They're not yet on the magazine's website, but I hope they will be soon.
X Avant Festival
- Tim Brady
- At the Music Gallery
- In Toronto on Thursday
The X Avant Festival continues at Toronto's Music Gallery with Lori Freedman, Buke and Gass and Mantra Percussion playing Michael Gordon's music on Saturday night, and on Sunday with the Nihilist Spasm Band and Contact Contemporary Music. There are also lectures at various locations by Markus Popp and Michael Gordon. For full details, see musicgallery.org .