"I shoulda brought a towel" said multi-instrumentalist and composer (and cyclist) Kyle Brenders (above left) as we sat down to chat on a hot Friday morning last week in The Junction over in the west end of Toronto. I was melting a bit myself, having arrived early for our 10am interview. Saxophonist, arranger and composer Allison Au (right) joined us right on time at The Good Neighbour, arriving by TTC.
Darin White here doing a little guest blogging for Open Ears. I went on this field trip to give you a small visual preview into the personalities of these two talented musicians before their show this week in Waterloo. Fueled by coffee and enthusiasm, we talked about connections to Waterloo Region, Laurier Music, composition and engaging a broader audience.
OE16 is presenting Kyle's Dodecaphunk on Thursday, June 2, 10-11:30pm at The Jazz Room. This is going to be an interesting mash-up of 12-tone music from Webern and Schoenberg with funk interpretation in the George Clinton tradition. The former I had to look up on Wikipedia to understand. The latter I know much better as a funk-loving forty-something. I'm putting a hand out to you, saying join me at The Jazz Room to hear something you've never heard before. It will be great and we'll be together.
Allison is opening the show with some Brazilian music and then joining in with Kyle's 7-piece Big Band. I suggested that her name may forever more be prepended with "Juno Award Winning" as her quartet took home Best Jazz Album: Group this year, having been also nominated in 2013. "That's not a bad thing", she smiled, "I'll take it."
Kyle joked "I used to live at Dundas and Keele. I gentrified this neighbourhood. I was the artist. I wasn't the only one. There was cheap rent and it was a cool place to live outside of the downtown core. We moved here when there was only one kind of shitty coffee shop. Now there are coffee shops and a Starbucks and restaurants and a hip taco place seven years later."
Kyle apologized for switching to sunglasses, noting that he once had a job as a life guard and ever since has been fairly sensitive to bright light. I said the sunglasses work well, injecting the mystique of the cool musician.
I asked if Kyle grew up in Toronto. "No, St. Thomas, just south of London. Then I went to school at Laurier."
Darin White: The Laurier music scene doesn't seem to get a lot of recognition outside of music circles.
Kyle Brenders: I don't know why. I think it should get more. It's not a complacency, but the scene is happy to be there.
Composer and Laurier professor Peter Hatch asked Kyle to perform for Laurier's 40th anniversary of their Faculty of Music this year but Kyle was already headed for Scotland.
KB: I graduated in 2005, and there are a lot of us working as musicians or curators or performers. [Peter] said 'I don't want all the 2005'ers to hang out as a group'. The Thin Edge New Music Collective and Ensemble Paramirabo out of Montreal are made up from people in my year or the year just after us. Even in the show in Waterloo for Open Ears, Brandon who is playing drums is someone I went to school with. We started playing together in first year university. I know the date: it was Halloween and it was Nick Storring. He and I were playing in the improvisation concerts ensemble, which is one of the reasons I went to Laurier. We were improvising and jamming and realized we needed someone else to play with. We were walking through the practice rooms and thought 'let's ask Brandon'. So that was Halloween of 2001, the second month of school. Since then the three of us have worked together a lot, in and out, playing different groups. We still maintain that relationship.
KB: Should I pose? Like this?
DW: Is the music community among Waterloo, Toronto, Montreal a small one? I talk with you and you know Nick and he's connected to Kitchener. It all seems connected.
KB: It becomes that way. The music that we make... it's not highly specialized... I've worked really hard to make myself completely unemployable. The impetus for all my music is about improvisation and creativity and individual vocabulary and that kind of thing. To me, that makes me question the status quo and the generalist music esthetic that is more popular and that people want to hear more. So what I do is questioning those things. There are a lot of us that do that in different ways and I think that we connect with one another because we see some kind of affinity in each other's music. It could be drastically different esthetics, but there's a searching, there's a learning, there's a way of creating music that we're all attracted to. So we start to connect to one another and you start to realize 'you're connected to this guy', it's the six degrees of separation except it's only two or three degrees.
KB: I played with Nick in a show at The Grad Room at the University of Waterloo in 2004 with this other band who had Brad Weber who is the drummer for Caribou, and Caribou was looking for a bunch of horn players and Brad contacted Nick. Nick said 'hey, you've heard Kyle and Colin Fisher' so that's how I got connected to Caribou. So I was instantly connected to that scene and that world. That kind of stuff seems to happen a lot.
KB: Even the band that's coming [for Dodecaphunk] is all connected. We've all played with each other in different configurations. I have this band, I'm now the lead of The Massey Hall Band, which is a new thing that Massey Hall is doing. It's like the house band for Massey Hall. It's kind of being the 'voice of the walls'. If the walls could talk, this is the music. It's not a bunch of jobbing musicians in Toronto. It's more creative and unconventional musicians. The players in the Dodecaphunk band are pulled out of that, but they're also pulled out of my own Big Band which is kind of what became the Massey Hall Band. Allison, Brandon and I have played in another group. Nicole and I have played together for years. Tom and Scott, the trombone player and the bass player lived together for a while. That's the thing that seems to happen.
DW: I love the whole improvisation slant. Did you come wired that way? Or were you classically training and had some changing experience?
KB: The classical training came after. I forget what the order was. I wanted to play the saxophone. In Grade 7 band class, there were two weeks where you got to play all the instruments and then you took a rudiments test and you listed the top three instruments that you wanted to play. Everybody put saxophone. This was the era of The Simpsons and Lisa Simpson. Ninety percent of the people put saxophone.
KB: So I got perfect on that test because I wanted to play the saxophone. Then around the same time, my brother was a guitar player, like in the Nirvana-grunge guitar player type thing. But the high school band teacher asked him to play in the jazz band. We went to see some music festival and my brother had a solo in 'Summertime' and I thought 'He just gets to play whatever he wants?' I want to do that. And that was kind of it. My high school band teacher was a saxophone player and really into jazz. He also had classical training. He went to Western and was a classical saxophonist but also played jazz. So I could see that.
KB: And I studied with Dave Wiffen who is in Waterloo, also the same kind of classical/jazz training and improvisation. It's always been the balancing of traditions, and understanding notation, and reading and playing saxophone and improvising. It all culminated in my Masters on Anthony Braxton who is the godfather of a very particular type of music coming out of the south side of Chicago in the '60's. He was the first person to do a solo saxophone LP. A 2-LP set, just alto saxophone. He really extended the language of the instrument. [Improvisation] is integral to what I've done. The reason I went to Humber College and I left was because it wasn't creative enough. It was very technical, and I got a lot out of it, but I wanted to do more. I went to the audition at Laurier, my second audition because I had auditioned before, didn't go, and then I went again. That's where I had the interview with Glenn Buhr and he was talking about the improvisation concerts ensemble that he had started. I thought 'oh, that sounds really cool. I want to do that.' So that's where that started, too. I got more connected to the classical world, because all the players were classical and I was coming from a jazz world playing saxophone. There were two violins, an acoustic guitar. The dynamic range in that band was like this [hands wide apart], and I was the loudest pretty much all the time. All of these things have been a part of what my idea of music is.
KB: I don't like the definitions of how people isolate improvisation and isolate composition and separate the two in classical and jazz and all the stylistic differences. These are the things I fight against.
DW: As a music outsider, these differences are lost on me. I'm somewhat indifferent to them. I don't need to define a genre. I'll just come and see Kyle play.
KB: That's what I would hope. It comes out of the 20th century music industry where you got siloed into the bin. That's affected how people learn, how people talk about music, how criticism works. Hopefully we can get rid of that.
DW: I'm trying to help Open Ears open up their audience. I'm using layman's terms. How do we get people engaged? I thought you and Allison might have some thoughts on that.
KB: It's just getting them in the door. We're going to give it everything. There's all this insider knowledge in Dodecaphunk because it's based on the 12-tone serialist composers of high modernism. This is the age-old problem of getting people to understand what they're going to come see, but they're afraid to check out something new because they're afraid they're not going to get the inside joke. The inside thing. It's been really hard for me on this project to make sure that it's not about the insider.
DW: So you're very conscious about this in the preparation?
KB: Yes, because some people will want to hear the 12-tone serialist thing. They want to recognize Webern and Schoenberg, but then there's most people who don't give a shit. They just want to hear this band play. That was the first thing to me. Before I started arranging music, it was arranging the band, knowing what players will complement and support each other and push each other to create this thing that is always burbling at this high energy.
KB: This is the other thing that I'm constantly thinking about: it's really easy to sit at home and watch Netflix. I do it all the time. What I want to give to people, what I want them to understand is this experience that they will get in the concert is a one-time thing. It's not something that can be recorded and then you'll listen back and have the same experience. It's that immediate connection, that immersivity of being in that room and being connected to those musicians. That's something I want when I talk to the audience. Trying to bring them into the music before we play anything, so they feel comfortable, to try to make it informal. It's like audience practice. If they don't know what to do, when to clap, how to sit or if they can talk to their friend, then they don't do it. They don't take that chance. To me, it's so important that you don't worry about that. It's about experiencing the music how you want to experience it. If you want to take out your phone and videotape it and look through your phone, that's cool. I want people to have that kind of experience, to feel open and to take a chance."
KB: I've been using this analogy a lot lately: the way that people are obsessed about food culture, trying to find the most bespoke bread or some obscure sandwich place. They will search that out. But they won't go into a concert and listen to music they haven't heard before. So the culture has shifted from taking chances and music being an activity that you go out to and now it's this subservient thing, in the background most of the time. If I could just get a little bit of the foodiness, that interest in eating a weird foam... That was a long answer.
DW: Something that inhibits our cultural risk-taking as an audience is the expectation of "satisfaction guaranteed".
Allison Au: Maybe it's a general internet thing. We get everything to come to us now. That all-access pass. The internet is a funny thing, especially with social media now. It's so easy to criticize and judge things with all these new platforms to voice our opinions. With YouTube and Netflix access, it's tapped into this instinct in humans where we like the comfort and everybody wants to be in this bubble of comfort. They feel they're in control of how they want to consume media or listen to music.
AA: What was the original question?
KB: How can speak in more layman's terms and get more people to come to the show?
AA: That's a good question. That's a theme that comes up with a lot of musicians in general. I was hanging out with [friends] a couple of nights ago and we were talking about [a big jazz festival] and how few local bands it's booking. It's challenging because ultimately why do festivals continue to book the same acts each time? I think there's a whole marketing thing. I think musicians are still trying to figure out ways to draw in other people. It's nothing crazy: it's just music. And it's not about having to understand all these required topics or information: just come and check it out. It's either good or bad.
KB: [I did] a little bit of studying with David Mott, a saxophone player, and he has this eastern philosophy about music and energy. It's about that transference of energy in the space. We're working really hard up there. And we want to give that to the audience to create this sizzle. There's this other term called 'lifting the bandstand', it's a Thelonius Monk term, where everything just starts to lift off and is floating. And that's when you know it's happening. It's not just an experience for the band or for the people that understand. It's something that's visceral and can be understood on an internal level and it doesn't have to be intellectual.
AA: Yes, that's awesome. Going back to the promo side of things, if there was more support for local [bands]. And if we said 'these are all great musicians'. A simple phrase like that would boost local talent with laymen. I just find it's never marketed that way in Canada. Across the board, actually.
DW: I think a lot about humanizing the artist. I may not have your domain expertise, but I can connect with you as a person beyond (or in addition to) the music. Standing in line for coffee, I learned Kyle is a dad and I can relate to that. Allison, when I was doing background for this interview I read about your early connection to music through your father's collection of music and I can relate to that, too.
AA: I think your coverage alone is helping because someone is covering the show that is coming up. If we all work together across disciplines then it will be better for the community as a whole. I just find generally speaking there isn't interest on the promotional side of things among musicians to cross into other circles of arts, just to communicate that there's actually a show happening.
KB: Talking about the personal side of it is really important. I hate it when musicians and composers are talked about at a distance when we are just people. The musical genius/auteur thing really bothers me. I know there's a small group of people that this music resonates with no matter what. They get it. They know who we are. They're invested in it. They understand the 'Dodecaphunk'. They understand the joke there which is a really insider thing. So how do you resonate with that next layer. There are the purists that will always come, but then you want to reach the people who are the curious listeners.
DW: Allison, I have to congratulate you on the Juno. That's a big deal.
AA: Thank you.
DW: How did that feel?
AA: It was cool. We went with my band to check it out. It was a fun experience. This was our second nomination so it was pretty overwhelming. It was an interesting weekend too because you get a slice of the picture that is the industry. It's mostly pop and some of the bigger acts and then a lot of people who look like managers. It was a great experience. We did a backstage interview after the award and someone asked me about meeting with all these different musicians who are coming together [for the awards ceremony]. On the evening where they present the jazz awards they also present aboriginal music, francophone, children's music. All these categories that they don't broadcast on the Sunday night show. There are like fifty categories in this gala. It's very eye-opening.
DW: Can you give me a perspective on Open Ears from Toronto?
AA: I had never heard of it. It was new to me. How long has it been running?
KB: Since '98? I'm deep inside it. Peter Hatch was the one that started it and I was his student when I was at Laurier. I'm very attached to it. It's unknown [in Toronto].
AA: Let's change that.
DW: Is this foray into atonal music intersected with funk a bit out of your general domain, Allison?
AA: Generally, but there are still lot of projects I do that involve experimental music. This specific project I haven't done in a funk setting.
KB: Nobody has.
DW: So this is an exciting change of gears?
AA: I think so. Every time you're in a new musical situation, you're challenged to look at your instrument in a different way. I think especially with Kyle's projects. Even the formatting of some of the charts is unique where you'll have more like pictographs instead of specific notation. You have a nice mix of notation that you use. The format through which Kyle communicates some of his arrangements or compositions is really different from what I work with typically in other ensembles. The visuals sometimes can make you think of very different ideas than reading conventional sheet music.
I could have listened to Allison and Kyle talk music all day. It's a really rewarding privilege of this work to get a glimpse inside an unfamiliar domain from people who are so passionate about their work and so generous in sharing it. I wanted to get a few photos in a different setting, so we headed...
outside, wandering down to a small park just north of High Park. I confessed that musicians are one of my favourite subjects for photography. They absolutely glow when in the flow of a performance and it really comes through in photos.
It turns out that musicians also make good subjects outside of their gigs when they are as funny and chill as these two. Kyle, partnered with someone completely not in these photos, laughed that this was "looking a lot like engagement photos."
In setting up this interview, I was unsure if Allison and Kyle even knew each other.
Based on the amount of laughing and joking and chatting, it seems they're very good friends indeed.
On the drive over to Toronto, I had been wondering how I was going to tell this story without any instruments or studio or other visuals from the domain.
It occurred to me that everything else I had read/watched about Kyle and Allison had them posed with saxophone in hand or in the midst of the band. So maybe the differentiator was to show them as people you pass on the sidewalk or in the coffee house.
We headed back up toward the coffee shop.
Allison and Kyle chatted about other upcoming gigs. It's interesting to hear the language and lingo and to hear about the logistics of putting gigs together.
"Wait!" I said, "I want to shoot you against this hedge. Allison, keep an eye out for traffic so I don't get schwacked." "With the bike?" asked Kyle. Yes, I think there are few things more humanizing than your bike.
Allison's turn. "Should I dance?" says she. Click.
Kyle: "You'd better get a shot of that bag."
Allison: "I'm going to fulfill some stereotype by pulling out this umbrella for the sun."
And off they went, heading for the subway station...
while I headed home to Waterloo, smiling, my head full of thoughts on music and new friends and the Toronto-Waterloo Region music connection through Open Ears. Come to the show Thursday night. It will be fun. You can sit with me. Open mind, open ears.