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Pie à la Modulus: Hot, Sweet & Savory

Music on Main's annual Festival serves up varied fare citywide

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No objectively audible sound, per se, but by then they’ve set up such rhythmic expectations that you can virtually “hear” the patterns they’re playing. So which (as Plato or Cangelosi might ask) is the “purer” percussion; the empirical, sensory thrum of the drumsticks or the induced music in your head?

The next day, Modulus returned to Studio 700 for a reprise of Nancy Tam’s multimedia performance/installation piece Walking at Night by Myself, which Music on Main premiered at last year’s festival. Since then, it has toured Hong Kong and is now being readied for next year’s “sonic & syllable” series in Montreal.

In addition to directing the production and designing the sound, Tam (along with co-star Anjela Magtpantay) took to the stage to execute Lexi Vadja’s “movement dramaturgy” (as credited in the program notes). That’s evidently something different from choreography as such; more like a kind of minimalist trance-dancing, deadpan and achingly slow-moving, like living icons, the better to display Nellie Gossen’s multiple costumes in the glow of Daniel O’Shea’s light projections.

A lot of interplay between growing and shrinking shadows as the dancers glided from foreground to background. Especially eerie when they went right on gyrating even with their faces eclipsed in pitch-black penumbrae.

It all seemed somehow important and innovative, if perhaps a tad portentous, but the CBC venue hardly showed it off to best advantage. In a starkly minimalist display so reliant on subtlest movements and lighting shifts, the Studio’s cluttered sight-lines obscured many of the most telling details.

The program got more relatable towards the end, when the performers reappeared in black-and-white striped spandex to intersect a shifting matrix of cross-hatched projections and “black hole” lacunae on the pitch-dark stage. Mesmeric moirés, but hard to parse.

No such interpretive challenges in Modulus’ two mainstage evenings at the Roundhouse. From Belgium the Festival brought the full Flat Earth Society (FES) big band to enliven German cineaste Ernst Lubitsch’s century-old classic The Oyster Princess. The silent masterpiece “spoke” for itself, with lavish sets, fine-tuned slapstick, barbed social satire and clockwork choreography.

But FES founding director Peter Vermeersch injected a whole other dimension, composing an 80-minute score that gave instrumental “voice” (mostly brass and strings) to the mugging, miming characters. He perfectly caught the pulse of Lubitsch’s rhythmic scenography.

It took fully 15 Flat Earthers to raise the Roundhouse roof on Day One of Modulus weekend. Percussionist Ben Reimer single-handedly managed to overfill the same venue with sound the next – and final – day of the Festival. Volunteers handed out little foam earplugs at the door; helpful, but still unavailing against Reimer’s thrilling sonic assault. He sets the whole room vibrating so that you “hear” him through your navel, the soles of your feet and the hairs on your nape.  

In John Luther Adams’ composition Ilimaq, Reimer wails tirelessly on a stage-filling array of trap drums, tympani, kettles, tuned tom-toms, chimes, woodblocks, gongs and cymbals. The name of the piece is an Alaskan Inuit word for ‘Spirit Journey.” It lives up to its billing as “trance music” par excellence – all the more so as it doubles down on his rhythms with playback loops of its own riffs in  a kind of percussive fugue.

It leaves us too weak-kneed for even a customary Canadian standing ovation. We wobble to our feet, ears ringing louder than our own most enthusiastic applause. But we presently recover enough to join Music on Main’s convivial artistic director, David Pay, for the Festival’s concluding pizza party.

Note in passing: nobody does a Land Acknowledgement like Pay. Each concert is its own, unique, venue- and genre-appropriate riff, far from the usual rote mumblings. Looking forward to what he comes up with for the next Music on Main concerts and for Modulus 2020.

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