Matthew Toffoletto: Music on Main performs Wolfe, Schroeder’s Stircrazer I
“People love to speculate about the big brown stone building with the clock tower at the corner of Main Street and 15th Avenue.” That’s the first thing you see on Heritage Hall’s website in a section titled “Our Story.” As a newcomer to Vancouver who, like many, has walked by this curious building many times and assumed, without cause or extended inspection, that it was a cathedral, I was immensely curious to know more about this old, gothic rock collection as soon as I stepped inside. There were no rows of wooden benches with cushioned pads to kneel on. There was no altar. The layout was not at all cross-like, the glass not stained. It seemed I had been fooled by my own lack of attention to detail. However, the most immediate answer to my question (it was a post office, now it’s mostly used for weddings) was decidedly less interesting than anything I had hoped for, and did nothing to explain exactly why the building has the particular style it does. Nor did their website.
However, my purpose in visiting the Mount Pleasant venue was not originally or primarily architectural and historical curiosity. Rather, I was there to attend the premiere of a new work by Music on Main’s 2019-2021 Composer in Residence, Sabrina Schroeder. The work, Stircrazer I, was part of Music on Main’s latest concert featuring Architek Percussion (Noam Bierstone, Ben Duinker, Alexander Haupt, and Alessandro Valiante), a quartet out of Montréal, who also performed Julia Wolfe’s Dark Full Ride.
What I experienced was neither an architecture lesson nor a historical tour. Instead, it was a kind of noisy somatic indulgence in space itself.
Music on Main frequents the venue—the group’s name pinpoints the hall as a kind of home base. In both works, with their torrent of drum and rhythm, I felt a different kind of answer to my question about the old landmark, one replete with vibration and otherwise spatialities.
Schroeder’s work is often about “body-feel” as a companion to or even center-point of audible sound. The heavy vibrations and wide diffusion of Stircrazer I invited as much listening as they did a kind of co-vibration with the various drums. And this music of the body was heightened, at least for me, by the presence of Collide Entertainment, who were filming both performances. Throughout both works, cameras orbited their own way within and around the circular arrangements of listeners, themselves dispersed around a pattern of four percussionists hammering and bowing and pedaling their way through almost 90 minutes of music. What these cameras experienced of the intensely haptic musicality I don’t know.
Characteristic of the most popular function of Heritage Hall, the performance unfolded a bit like a wedding. In the first part—Wolfe’s piece for four drumsets—we sat in essentially uniform arrangement, neatly organized as witnesses to a tense, if familiar, unfolding. Then a set change transformed the space, replacing rows of seating with open floorspace, cocktail tables, irregular chairs with their backs to the outer wall, and a general sense of spatial indecision. In four corners were the members of the ensemble, enclosed in unique arrays of oddly positioned drums, along with laptops and music stands. Four loudspeakers aimed inwards into an area that seemed on one hand the best place to listen from while on the other hand the red zone for the warning not to block the site-lines between the four drummers as they cued each other through Schroeder’s score. The mass of sound that unfolded over nearly an hour was dizzying, the hammering of drums sliding over us as low harmony, thunder, loudspeaker blur, and sheer vibration. Direction seemed lost. As with every wedding after party I’ve ever been to, I was never quite sure where to put my body. The slowly transforming web of vibration and percussive articulation swelled in performance with the resonations of the large rectangular space. And as with every wedding after party I’ve ever been to, I wasn’t sure if my awkwardness about physical space was an intended collaborator in the unfolding process or simply a byproduct of the various configurations.
In many of Schroeder’s previous works—such as the YouTube publication of Stircrazer II (2013) from its performance with Music on Main in 2019—she asks people to find “a still and quiet space” and to listen with headphones. This is a listening environment that has been all too familiar in recent times for those of us who have continued to attempt a connection to contemporary music in its various pandemic manifestations. For me, it’s also an often welcome and engaging way of listening. I find I can understand things better in this space if only for the consistent proximity of my headphone’s tiny transducers. My first experiences of many of Schroeder’s works—like Bone Games (2016) and Exits + Defences (2005)—was in this form. But so much of her work (Stircrazer I included) is about transducers in contact with less-than-ordinary resonating bodies. For this piece, it was large drums, extra rattlers like tambourines, and the additional sound-warping of bowed bass-drums, complete with bridges borrowed from some or another member of the violin family.
What results is an experience of visceral imprint. While I may have entered the room thinking of history and architecture, Schroeder’s resonating assemblage prompted a very different kind of question and answer articulated with and through the blurriness of bodies in space. For me at least, the piece became a journey through and against those stones around me. I don’t know what they were made to be or why, but I can feel their impression in my kidneys.
Music on Main is planning to release video of Wolfe’s piece soon. On the other hand, Schroeder plans to remap Stircrazer I extensively using the gathered footage. I’m curious what fractions of this distinct experience of sound, space, and body will come through in that iteration.
Matthew Toffoletto is a writer, composer, director, and sound artist. He is fascinated by drone music, dinner parties, sociophonetics, classical epic poetry, optics, polyphony, and bread, and combines these interests in performance and fixed media works that explore themes of nostalgia and preservation.