My trip to Mutek and Artengine residency in June, Part 1 – Ross Birdwise

Part 1: Mutek and if then do

This June I flew in to Ottawa from Vancouver to visit friends and family and to perform at the Mutek festival in Montreal.  I was performing with the largely Ottawa-Gatineau based electronic music group if then do, of which I am a founding member (I used to live in Ottawa until I moved away in 2006).  Ryan Stec, Artengine’s artistic director, had recently collaborated with if then do in the past using his skills as a VJ and video artist to develop live A/V performances with the group.  For this year’s Mutek, Ryan also did live visuals, in some cases using our real-time, partially improvised audio feeds to modulate the video images he had created. Ryan also invited me to do an Artengine residency at the M70 lab while were at Mutek, but I will save most of that story for my next post…

My friend Nathan Medema and I started if then do sometime in the winter or spring of 2001.  This was the same year that I graduated from the photography program at Algonquin College, and began a degree in Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa.  (I have always had a music/sound practice alongside of, and sometimes intersecting with, my visual art practice.)  The very first if then do shows were a kind of  lo-fi mixture of sounds you might hear on early industrial records by groups such as SPK, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire mixed with sounds you might hear on a record by ‘shoegazer’ groups such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, with a touch of the glitch sounds of artists like Pita and Oval mixed in as well, among other things.  Some of it was pretty noisy and drone-heavy but there was always a trace of melody.  Much later, after I left Ottawa in the summer of 2006 to do a Masters in Media Arts at Emily Carr University, our good friend Simon Guibord joined in.  By this point if then do had already changed significantly, becoming much more of a laptop group than before, with a generally more fractured, precise and digital sound, melding elements of noise, electroacoustic, ambient, industrial, and some popular music influences as well, but in a rather different way than the older material.  Early shows did not involve a computer at all.  Home-made backing tapes recorded on a cheap karaoke-machine, effects pedals, skipping records, skipping CD’s, lo-fidelity field recordings run through distortion, analogue synths and bass guitar were the main instruments and sound sources at that time.

This June’s Mutek show was largely performed on laptops, but was still somewhat of a departure from the recent if then do sound, being somewhat less fractured and more linear in feel, not really a return to the old sound, but not the more recent sound either.  The music was not really composed ahead of time (like much recent if then do material), rather, sets of complimentary home-made samples (sometimes based on field-recordings and recordings of my voice, others based on processed, purely computer generated sound) and effects patches were shared between the three if then do members, with the shared sets of samples devoted to specific ‘pieces’ during the performance. The order of the ‘pieces’ we had decided on before the performance, and we had also made some simple decisions about the narrative flow of the ‘pieces’ before-hand, so our set was not entirely ‘freely improvised’ or more specifically, not entirely ‘freely arranged and freely processed’.  Performance involved the real-time arrangement and live processing of these sets of samples (with a rough agreement on narrative flow), plus a set of contact microphones run through various effects that I could feed into the mix as I felt necessary.  These contact microphones could be rubbed on various surfaces or placed into my mouth, where they would pick up small details of my vocal sound, including the subtle movements of tongue, teeth, throat, air and saliva, as well as more conventional vocal noises I might create.  Ryan developed a Mutek-specific set of video clips (and approaches to effects processing) that he used while we performed, at time modulating them with a live-feed of our sound.

The Mutek show seemed to be well-received in general (judging from the applause mostly) and I also got some very positive and honest feedback from musician friends (several of whom also happened to be playing Mutek too) whose own music and opinions on music I respect.  Hoping that I can play more shows and festivals with Ryan Stec and if then do in the not-so-distant future…

Ryan invited me to do an Artengine Residency when I returned to Ottawa from Montreal, which I agreed to.  The nice thing about this residency is that there is no pressure to complete a work or project.  The residency can be completely oriented towards a creative or technical process or artistic experimentation (rather than a finished product) or pure research if you want.  I decided to explore and work on a number of projects, including an updated, expanded version of a video installation I did a few years ago, as well as some more audio-based work and some research… (To be continued…)

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