Stemming from their popular Sound + Vision concert series, the Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) have revamped their progamming, offering a weekend of Sound + Vision events, titled The SONIC GLOW. From September 19-22, over 25 performers — inlcuding the likes of Jennifer Castle, Fly Pan Am, Laurie Brown, The Gallery Players of Niagara, Wild Side & Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet — will be presented at four venues on the East end of St. Paul St. in St. Catharines, where they will be accompianied by moving images from a variety of artists. We caught up with Steve Remus, the Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources at the NAC to get the lowdown on The SONIC GLOW.
For those unfamiliar with The SONIC GLOW, can you explain the concept behind it?
Pretty straightforward, really. We’re putting musicians and sound artists together with visual artists and VJs to create single experiences for audiences. We’re exploring sound and the moving image.
On first take this probably doesn’t seem that fresh, and we know that the merger’s nothing new. I mean Isaac Newton was making equations that linked music scales to colour back forever ago, so no secret that there’s a rich relationship there to explore. The history is deep, but things have been happening fast, especially with technology. When motion pictures come along, live music’s an integral part of that. Think 1920s, a guy at a piano with an arm garter and a cigarette looking up at a flickering image of Buster Keaton and pounding something out bringing that scene to life. When sound eventually becomes fully-embedded in movies, and then TV, strings, orchestras, Danny Elfman, ugh — a whole system of codes audiences can get cues from for suspense, intimacy has been established — followed by the huge but brief music video phenomena, MJ’s Thriller, MTV, Much Music, that whole thing. The tech we have today continues to build on merging sound and visuals. I mean the DJ and VJ tools are now combined into the same devices. It just keeps going.
SONIC GLOW hits on a bunch of different points in this space where artists making things to hear and artists making things to see get presented together. So we have a film from the silent era — Hitchcock’s The Lodger — with an improvised, contemporary score provided by members of the Gallery Players and we have VJs using digital technology to manipulate moving images in real time to bands of all kinds playing their stuff. We have this sound poet Kaie Kellough who needs to be experienced to be believed, backed with his own visuals, and there’s also some unusual bottom-feeder technologies in play – 35mm slides, 16mm films, things you don’t see anymore.
The SONIC GLOW is about creating a small space where we can think about the relationship between sound and sight a little more attentively, a way to slow it down and soak it up. We also know that when you put great artists together, dynamic things happen, it’s a type of alchemy. We guarantee moments when things click in mysterious and epiphanic ways. None of this is packaged or polished, whatever magic happens, it’ll happen once and that’s that. You’re there to see it or maybe you’re not. It’ll never happen again.
With so many niche festivals disappearing, why did you decide to forego regularly scheduled programming for a more festival-type event?
Whatever’s going on in the festival marketplace is outside of NAC’s world, really. Though I’d guess it may have a lot to do with changes in the way people are living their lives – that thing where you hole-up in your digs with your computer or phone or Netflix or whatever and pop out every once in a while for a jar of Nutella. That’s bad style. Getting out and being social is what makes the place you’re living in good. People have to talk to each other and they have to talk to people they don’t know or they just get weird and locked into crazy ways of thinking. Anyway, there’s that. It might also have something to do with a shift away from the idea of the festival itself. We experience a lot of ‘spectacle,’ even in our day-to-day. I think people are turning off that. It seems like a strange time to get messed up, lose your mind, and bounce a giant beach ball around with thousands of other freaks. I don’t know if you can know what’s in the news and be in that mood.
We’re also not thinking of The SONIC GLOW as a festival. It’s just a concentrated program exploring this idea of sound and moving image together. Everything is on a small and intimate tip. And we’re trying to find new ways to bring joy — and things to think on — to audiences outside of the party chant atmosphere, a little clearing in the woods where our senses of hearing and sight can be pleased in the company of others. A beer, a glass of wine, a toke, sure, but slowed down and smartened up a bit.
Is there a story behind The SONIC GLOW name?
Not really. I mean we did discover after running with SOUND+VISION for a couple years — which we thought was a really tidy title — that there was another SOUND+VISION in Norwich, England. We probably would’ve let it ride but then we saw that it was presented by the Norwich Arts Council — so it was, NAC presents SOUND+VISION. We were like, wow, we’ve got a really bad case of being the new originals here, we need to change that up.
One of the key aspects of SONIC GLOW is that it offers a diverse and adventurous lineup that tries to appeal to many different demographics. What sort of planning goes into curating / organizing a festival like this? Were you forcing yourself to avoid ‘easy line-up solutions’? Can you tell us about how you came to choose these acts for this festival? Should audiences expect any surprises?
NAC is fortunate in that we’ve been around a longtime, put on some very bizarre shows like STRUTT and the Voix de Ville Extravagonzo, and we got to know a lot of great artists working in all kinds of disciplines. Our network is big but the artists who are in it are all down with what we do and where we’re coming from, so there’s a crew that’s ready to try things out and mess with expectations.
As for ‘curating’ we try to leave that to people ordering sandwiches at Subway. NAC’s an Artist-run Centre so we’re always trying to put the artists in the lead. NAC created the platform, and then I’d say about half the line-up was determined by NAC member artists saying, “I’d like to do this”, or “could we get this band or artist”. It’s just about pulling it together. So Vicki Fagan connected us to Laurie Brown, who was part of a great conversational series that Henry of Pelham put on last winter. Laurie’s the former host of CBC’s The Signal, a cool-tipped coast-to-coast radio wind-down that was on for years. She’s got a brand new deal called, Pondercast. NAC’s roofdeck will host a live recording of an episode accompanied by music by Joe Lapinski and Alex Ring — on a theremin — and visuals by Adam CK Vollick who works with Neil Young and Daniel Lanois. We’ve also lined up Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet who’ve somehow come to have a soft spot for St. Catharines. It could be because they like cats and we’ve got some. For whatever reason, they’re kicking the thing off with the Co-Efficient of Drag, a local VJ collective. Suitcase in Point threw in some ideas too as they’re a big part of making it. Honestly, it’s probably a little harder to do it the way it’s happening, cobbling it all together, but it makes certain that there are more voices, more ideas, and lots of angles.
As for surprises, I think that’s a given. Every performance is a mix of artists so the performers themselves aren’t exactly sure what’s going to happen. Surprises for everyone! The old Bits and Bites thing, every handful is a whole new ballgame.
Was there anybody that you wanted to book that you couldn’t?
Oh yeh, of course. Dion, Neal Peart would’ve been cool, Fontaines DC, Solange probably would have drawn. Thing is, NAC’s a tree-fort with a budget so money’s tigher than two sticks. Thankfully, the Ontario Arts Council invested in this, the PAC chipped in, and the Downtown Association did too so we can pay the artists guaranteed fees. We’ve made a very little go a long way. We’re pretty chuffed to have Jennifer Castle playing. If you missed her at Massey Hall, guess what? You get a chance to see her on NAC’s roofdeck with about sixty other people. It’ll be like she’s playing a show in your backyard.
Spaces are integral to the things that happen within them, how will the artists presented at the festival change the spaces that we’re normally accustomed to?
The venues are all on the east end of St. Paul, from the PAC Film House down to Silver Spire. It’s the end of St. Paul that tends to see a little less action. The venues themselves are unusual. We have performances in the sanctuary in the Silver Spire Church, on NAC’s Thomas Craig Oliver Terrace, and at the Kwong Chow – a great old school Chinese-Canadian Restaurant. All of the venues have pretty extraordinary acoustics and the images that we’ll be projecting around the spaces will make some of them unrecognizable. I’m looking forward to shows at The Film House on Sunday, we think that whole space could be opened up for future performance events.
Co-creation and participation are always widely welcomed by audiences, will attendees of SONIC GLOW have the opportunity to create alongside the featured artists?
There might be some of that, it’s really up to the artists. I agree that these experiences are great, I’m thinking specifically of what Suitcase in Point does with its Rhizomes program at In the Soil. That’s an amazing thing, all interactive. SONIC GLOW is clearly angled differently. I wouldn’t say we’re pitching passive experiences but audiences will be able to enjoy the ride.
How would you describe the music scene here in St. Catharines / Niagara and how much of it gets featured in the programming?
NAC has seen a lot of changes in the music scene. And NAC’s been around for so long, fifty years when we roll into 2020, so there’s stuff you could fairly describe as history. The Evil, Ron Sexsmith, Kurt Swinghammer, Alexisonfire, Christine Bougie, those are just some of the bands and artists connected at one time or another to the scene at NAC.
The larger scene ebbs and flows, for sure. I think the new venues in downtown the last few years have been really positive. The Performing Arts Centre, of course, and the Warehouse. Even Mahtay Café, which is small but doing all kinds of stuff has a music program that contributes in real ways to the scene. You can get nostalgic about Jerry’s Alley, and I think we still need a place like that, but overall things have definitely improved.
SONIC GLOW’s strong on the local, almost all the visual artists are Niagara based. Northern Arm is playing and I think almost every musician in St. Catharines is in that band — for sure every drummer — Wild Side, TZT, Miniscule and The Gallery Players are in it and they’re all real local. And, then there’s lots of Niagara connections as well, members of bands who have roots here. That’s always a priority, to make these things that are ours, but you also want that balance where great artists come from outside to inspire us. You need the mix.
To finish, what have been some of your personal favourite moments from the Sound + Vision Festival?
This whole thing started pretty small so there’s only two years and about a dozen performances we have to look back on. The Ferns put on a show on NAC’s roofdeck somewhere along the line and I think the opening act was quick — kind of hit it and quit it — and then the Ferns had like two hours for their set, so when they were done with their originals — great stuff — they’re like, uh, OK, what are some other songs we can play? Then they went through this catalogue of pop-rock covers that was completely unrelated except that they were all songs they dug. It was irreverent, weird, and wonderful, like some kind of James Last party record for the moment, off the cuff.
Other than that, I remember Attic Daddy playing one time — a legendary Dain City rock-a-billy outfit that’s outlasted a lot of the vinyl siding in Niagara — and things went sideways. At one point a cymbal fell off the drum kit and actually sliced a mic cable and cut out a guitar. I remember everybody thinking that was like voodoo or something, like the show was hexed. I mean it’s still a highlight, the band just furrowed their brows a bit, shook their heads a sec, and kept on. Everybody had a good time.
More information about The SONIC GLOW can be found at nac.org