Noise on the Western Front: Music and Sound around Mount Pleasant

The young Vancouver-based artists who founded the Western Front in 1973 came from a variety of art practices and traditions, and in this context, new music was seen at the outset as an integral component of a multimodal interdisciplinary landscape. Through the many artists’ residencies and the regular performances that have taken place in the Front’s expansive performance space, known as the “Grande Luxe,” these artists guided the organization as it evolved into one of the most important centers in the world for audacious musical experimentation. My intention in this essay is to highlight just a few of the central tropes that animate the Western Front’s history in new music.


To that end, first, a memoir: By the time I first visited Vancouver in the late 1980s, the Western Front and its artists had already achieved legendary status for many of us in the United States. I already knew something of the work of Martin Bartlett, the interactive computer music pioneer and Indonesian music teacher who co-founded the electronic music studio at Simon Fraser University, and via concerts in Toronto in the mid-1970s, I had encountered something of the history of Hank Bull’s work with Eric Metcalfe, the visual artist whose detailed knowledge of the music of the bebop generation surpasses that of many self-described historians of the tradition. Once at the Front itself, I was welcomed by Bull and Kate Craig, whose video work combined image and sound in ways that, as Grant Arnold noted, evinced“ a persistent concern with the relationship between image, perception and consciousness.”[1]

On a subsequent visit to the Front, Metcalfe brought me into the video editing suite (at that time based on 3/4” tape), to meet the young Stan Douglas. I’ve watched with great excitement as Douglas, whose knowledge and love of music is deep and abiding, became one of the country’s most exciting film and installation artists. At the time, Douglas was working on a video piece called Monodramas, the successor to his 1987 Television Spots. These pieces were sets of 30-second “commercials,” designed for insertion into the normal programming day of a television station, but having a decidedly, though not jarringly, different character. In a 2000 article on the Television Spots in a volume on Canadian experimental video, I extended Vancouver curator Scott Watson’s observation that that Douglas’s “spots” act as a form of intervention; my contention was that the work represented “not only a formalist reflection upon television’s structure, but a confrontation with the political and economic sources of television’s power.”[2] As Douglas himself observed of his media strategy, “I couldn’t tell audiences that I was an artist and that what they were seeing was ‘art’ because as soon as that happened, they would no longer think that ‘television’ was speaking.”[3]

Those who watched Douglas’s “commercials” might well have noted a kind of ironic whimsy, seemingly a persistent trope in Vancouver experimental video, as in certain works of Paul Wong or Elizabeth Vanderzaag, or in the hilariously absurdist Sax Island (1984) by Metcalfe and Hank Bull.[4] As one program note survival, somewhere on the Web, had it, “If you’ve never heard of Sax Island, it’s shaped like a saxophone and is located somewhere between South America and Africa.” A similar whimsy has often marked Western Front music-making, as exemplified by this account of a 1975 Bartlett performance:

“Bartlett cooked a cauliflower curry on a table connected to his hand-made synthesizer. The sounds of chopping and simmering were transformed in four channel electronic music. At various points he read from texts on food, such as The Raw and the Cooked, by Claude Levi-Strauss. When the dish was cooked and the sounds subsided, there was indeed one piece for everyone.”[5]

Later, Bartlett’s founding of the “Music of Two Worlds” Summer Music Intensives in the late 1980s constituted an important and particularly prescient early embrace of the realities of the changing demographics of British Columbia. At this time, Canada itself was gradually moving away from its two-European-languages identity model toward self-recognition as a multi-ethnic society with a strong and rapidly growing Asian component. According to the 2001 census, for example, more than half of B.C.’s total immigrant influx was of Asian origin, with immigration from Europe running a distant second, while nationally, Asian immigration to Canada closely rivaled its European counterpart.[6] The most recent figures from Statistics Canada reveal that between July 2005 and July 2006, immigration exceeded births as a component of the population growth of British Columbia.[7]

Thus, the Summer Intensives at Simon Fraser reflected the emerging hybridity in the surrounding community. In a way, these Intensives might have been dubbed “Music of Two Minds”; participants were privileged to learn the techniques of both Indonesian gamelan and dance, and the still-emerging techniques of interactive computer music. The residencies were unique, the students intrepid and eager, the faculty unbelievable: K.R.T Wasitodipuro, I Nyoman Wenten, Nanik Wenten, and Hardja Susilo, four of the most important Indonesian musicians of our time, taught Balinese and Javanese music and dance, while Bartlett, Daniel Scheidt, and Martin Gotfrit joined David Rosenboom and myself, among others, taught computer music. This potent intercultural combination of tradition with the avant-garde even reached Indonesia itself, with an account published in Tempo, the major Jakarta newsmagazine, on a concert at the Front attended by the consul general of the country.[8]

In the ensuing years, the students who emerged from these residencies, such as Kenneth Newby, Matt Rogalsky, Ken Gregory, and Karen Thornton, have gone on to forge their own innovations in the field of interactive art. Meanwhile, in the new century, gamelan continues to serve as an important component of the Western Front’s identity, particularly with the presence of the Vancouver Community Gamelan, which plays its concerts on Gamelan Kyai Madu Sari, a beautifully made set of instruments specially donated to SFU by the Indonesian government.


One imagines that it was difficult for young artists in the prime of their energetic and creative lives to imagine that the institutions they created might well outlive them. In that sense, the perspicacity of the Front’s founders continues to astonish. The passing of Martin Bartlett and Kate Craig did not dim the Front’s commitment to new ideas. Indeed, a strong group of younger artists, including Peter Courtemanche, Rob Kozinuk, and DB Boyko, who were attuned to the changed situation of the contemporary artist as needing creativity in both artistic and administrative domains, were attracted to the Front. These artists and others transformed and expanded Front programs into new and ambitious areas that reflected the changing world of new music, while retaining its essential nature as a haven for experimentalism and interdisciplinarity.

The early assertion of the intercultural at the Front has been pursued with alacrity in the Front’s programs in new music over the years. In much of this work—indeed, in a good deal of the Front’s musical directions—the practice of improvisation has played a critical role. The improvisors presented at the Front constitute a Who’s Who of the field—far too many to list in anything short of the full history of the Western Front that some Canadian historian will hopefully produce in the coming decade, although one would be remiss not to mention the presence at the Front in 1977 of members of the Canadian Creative Music Collective, including Peter Anson, Larry Dubin, Nobuo Kubota, Allan Mattes, Michael Snow and Casey Sokol.[9]

Recently, scholars such as Jason Stanyek have pointed out the crucial role that improvisation plays in fostering intercultural communication, both in music and in everyday discourse. Stanyek’s analysis of pan-African jazz encounters in the 1940s highlights the crucial role played by face-to-face, improvisation-imbued intercultural collaboration in helping artists and audiences to imagine new musical vistas. In the 20th Century, as Stanyek and many others have recognized, improvisation presaged new models of social organization that foregrounded agency, history, memory, identity, personality, embodiment, cultural difference and self-determination. In the cross-cultural improvisative space, Stanyek observes, there is “a ceding of complete control over the final “product” in exchange for certain advantages that intercultural and interpersonal contact create.” For Stanyek, these advantages encompass not only “shared problem solving” and “a wider sonic palette,” but also, and just as importantly, “embodied collective learning.”[10]

The 2001 edition of the Front’s Asian Heritage Month events, held each May, was particularly resonant with Stanyek’s observations. A group of musicians from widely divergent traditions of music-making—Chinese, Vietnamese, Afro-Cuban, and Canadian—worked together in a Front residency, presenting the results of their labor in an event titled “Crossing Borders.” The Front’s description of the event promised that “musicians and the public will learn and listen to improvisational techniques performed by a brilliant group musicians from different cultural backgrounds and musical traditions.” The musicians, all Vancouver-based, included Mei Han (zheng), Lan Tung (erhu), DB Boyko (voice), Joseph Pepe Danza (percussion) Travis Baker (bass) and the Vietnamese multi-instrumentalist Bich Hoang, as well as the co-Artistic Directors of Vancouver’s internationally respected NOW Orchestra, guitarist Ron Samworth and saxophonist Coat Cooke.[11]

The NOW Orchestra itself was an outgrowth of the Vancouver-born New Orchestra Workshop, a cooperative (like the Front) founded in 1977 by Lisle Ellis, Don Druick, Ralph Eppel, Gregg Simpson, Paul Plimley, Paul Cram and Robert Linsley. The purpose, as stated in a Front program note from 1978, was

“to present and sustain creative music (improvisation) through the promotion of original works by its members…Following closely the developments made by organizations such as the A.A.C.M. (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in Chicago and the Creative Music Foundation in New York, NOW offers to the community training programs which cover elementary and advanced areas of music, integrating properties of theatre, music, poetry and visual art into a unique form of total expression.”[12]

By all accounts, the results of the Asian Heritage Month proceedings exemplified Stanyek’s view that intercultural music making is less about transcending difference than about how to “take account of the expected and unexpected collisions that occur when musicians come together to engender a collective space.”[13] At this writing, the NOW Orchestra continues to play a vital and innovative role in Canadian new music, and similar engenderings of collective learning took place under the direction of NOW during the Orchestra’s “New Orchestra Improvisation Workshops,” which took place at the Front between October and December of 2005. Guest instructors included not only Vancouver-based musicians such as Cooke, trumpeter Bill Clark, and saxophonist Graham Ord, but also the Swiss violinist and video artist Charlotte Hug, and US composer Ellen Fullman, the primary exponent in music and sonic art of “long strings,” wires of up to thirty meters in length, assembled into a unique performance instrument.[14]

In fact, in the new hybrid nation-state, interculturalism begins at home, and the 1980 Western Front event, “Music from the New Wilderness” evidently provided a dramatic case in point. In this two-week long event, the Front’s strong interface with the world of poetry brought the ethnopoetics of Jerome Rothenberg together with First Nations dances by Kwakiutl artists, organized by Chief James Sewid of Alert Bay. The tape compositions and acoustic environments of Vancouver sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp and the poetry of Norbert Ruebsaat animated each other, along with the work of Mexican composer, percussionist and instrument builder Antonio Zepeda, whose pieces reflect his researches into the music of pre-Columbian civilizations.[15] 1991 saw the furthering of yet another homegrown intercultural direction, with the deepening of the Front’s interface with Quebec’s experimental scene. The now-canonical Montreal-based record label, Empreintes Digitales, made its West Coast debut in that year, with performances by Lori Freedman, Pauline Vaillancourt, Jacques Drouin, Trevor Tureski, and others, in works by Daniel Scheidt, Claude Schryer, Alain Thibaut, Robert Normandeau and Christian Calon.[16]

In 2006, composer Miya Masaoka’s work Chironomy drew upon the Front’s ongoing innovations in video technology, extending the intercultural impulse across national borders via live Internet streaming video and audio in a joint performance between herself (koto), François Houle (clarinet), and Giorgio Magnanensi (electronics), performing in the Grande Luxe, and two members of what has been whimsically called “the Third Viennese School,” laptop artist Klaus Filip and guitarist Burkhard Stangl, playing from the studios of Kunstradio ORF in Vienna.[17] The work took place as a part of a major initiative between the Front and Kunstradio, founded by Hank Bull and, in Bull’s whimsically ironic style, titled “Wiencouver.”

Already in the Orwell-resonant year of 1984, when the world was still impaled upon the nuclear-tipped horns of a border dilemma being pursued by the United States and the Soviet Union, Bull was envisioning ways in which artists could use new technology to create art without walls:

“Wiencouver is an imaginary city hanging invisible in the space between its two poles: Vienna and Vancouver. Seen from Europe, both cities are at the end of the road, one on the Pacific rim of North America, the other just 65 km from the soviet bloc. They are each on the edge of the art world’s magnetic field, able to observe from a distance, and equally able to turn the other way, one toward the far east and one toward the near east. Vienna and Vancouver are wealthy, regional cities with international perspectives. This, coupled with their linguistic and historical differences, makes them ideal correspondents.[18]

The porous boundaries between music and sound art continue to be transgressed at the Front, as exemplified by the performances and installations of Canadian artist Gordon Monahan. Monahan’s current series of installation works evolved in considerable measure from the kinds of pieces he presented in a 1984 Front performance, which drew upon his fascination with the electromechanical bodies that literally carry technologically mediated sound—in the most well known case, the heavy audio speakers that Monahan managed to twirl around his head in his athletic “Speaker-Swinging” series of performances.”[19]

No less audacious is the British composer-performer Jon Rose, a long-time resident of Australia who has become emblematic of that country’s unique experimental music scene. Like Canada, Australia is a Pacific Rim nation whose cultural identity is in rapid evolution; again, an interface with Asia is the driving force. As a part of Wiencouver 2000, Rose, a violinist who constructs his own unique string instruments, presented a version of his ongoing series of performances titled The Relative Violin. Rose conceived his Wiencouver “mini-festival” as taking place in a virtual “museum (databank) of the violin/violin-music/violin-images/violin-objects and all the cultural notions related to this instrument-turned-icon.” The goal was to present a “history and present of the violin” through different media and spaces, constantly recombining and recontextualising the pieces/fragments/samples and thus producing/adding more material to the museum.”[20]

The ambivalence expressed by this critique of Western musical heroism recalls the thesis of philosopher Lydia Goehr’s important 1992 monograph, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. As Goehr writes,

“The view of the musical world the romantic aesthetic originally provided has continued, since 1800, to be the dominant view. This view is so entrenched in contemporary thought that its constitutive concepts are taken for granted. We have before us in fact a clear case of conceptual imperialism. It all began around 1800 when musicians began to reconstruct musical history to make it look as if musicians had always thought about their activities in modern terms. Reconstructing or rewriting the past was and remains one of the most characteristic ways for persons to legitimate their present, for the process aids in the general forgetfulness that things could be different from how they presently are.”[21]

Certainly, the Romantic image continues to crucially inform our image of the violin, and in contemplating Rose’s transgressive recontextualizations of the pieces/fragments/samples of Western music history, so clearly aimed at bringing audiences to grips with how different things could be, we find his thesis anticipated by Goehr’s only partially humorously meant query: “Why, when playing a Beethoven Sonata, do performers begin with the first note indicated in the score? Why don’t they feel free to improvise around the Sonata’s central theme?”[22] At the same time, Rose’s prediction about the outcome of his networked performance seemed to corroborate Jason Stanyek’s understanding. “It could well be,” Rose remarked, “the differences between musicians and their sonic resources and locations that tend to create the moments…rather than the similarities.”[23]

The long history of jazz at the Western Front, as well as the Front’s collaboration with Vancouver’s premier international jazz presenter, the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, reached a new and higher register in 1986 with the first of the long series of collaborations between the two organization around the Vancouver Jazz Festival. The collaboration that year reintroduced Steve Lacy and his sextet to the city, renewing the long love affair between Lacy, Irene Aebi and Vancouver’s art scene that ended for Steve only with his passing in 2004.[24]

An important area of emphasis at the Western Front has involved the connections between new music and the academic world. One undoubtedly exciting event was the 2002 visit of sound artist and media theorist Andra McCartney to the Front’s new music program. McCartney, a professor at Montreal’s Concordia University who had just published an important article on Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Cyborg Experiences: Contradictions and Tensions of Technology, Nature, and the Body,”[25]presented a webcast about a new research project concerning

“the issues at stake for Canadian women working with sound technologies. Andra’s aim is to enhance community and critical discourse by bringing together women sound producers. Interviews and discussions will culminate in a multi-media DVD celebrating women’s work with sound. This roundtable discussion is a public event, and all women working with sound are invited to take part. All interested are welcome.”[26]

Earlier that same month, the Front’s music program sponsored a media conference for “Made in March,” a festival of women artists celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. As the Front’s program notice had it, “Women’s art in Vancouver is outspoken, outlandish, and beautiful. Made in March lifts up women—creating art, practicing art, and enjoying the energy, verve, wit and power of performing arts—to the world plane of celebrating. We’re women artists doing the inevitable: getting together and calling it a Festival.”[27]


Inevitable, indeed; getting together and calling it a festival is something that happens rather often throughout the history of the Western Front, where ultimately, communitarianism has become the trope of tropes. Celebrating its 30th Anniversary in 2003, the Front held a “Neighbourhood Block Party” with performances by community arts groups, bagpipe ensembles, dance troupes, and much more.

“BRING SOMETHING TO GRILL ON THE BARBEQUE” went the call, and I can see myself right now, sitting on the Front’s back porch with a plate full of food, gazing out upon North Van and the mountains.


  1. 1. Grant Arnold, Kate Craig: Ma (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2006 [cited November 12 2006]); available from
  2. 2. Scott Watson, “Stan Douglas’ Uncertain Subjects,” in Stan Douglas: Monodramas and Loops, ed. Catherine David (Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1992). # 3. George Lewis, “Stan Douglas: Hors-champs, toujours et pour toujours,” inMagnetic North: Experimental Video, ed. Jenny Lion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
  3. 3. Scott Watson, Diana Thater and Carol J. Clover, Stan Douglas (London: Phaidon, 1998).
  4. 4. Hank Bull and Eric Metcalfe: Sax Island (Program notice, Western Front event of September 15, 1984) (1984 [cited November 15 2006]); available from
  5. 5. Martin Bartlett: One Piece for Everyone (Program notice, Western Front event of March 15, 1975) (1975 [cited November 10 2006]); available from
  6. 6. Statistics Canada, Immigrant Population by Place of Birth, by Province and Territory (2001 Census) (2006 [cited November 11 2006]); available from
  7. 7. Statistics Canada, Components of Population Growth, by Province and Territory (2006 [cited November 11 2006]); available from
  8. 8. See “Menabuh dan Menari lewat Sarung Tangan,” Tempo (Indonesia), August 17 1991.
  9. 9. Free Improvisation (Program notice, Western Front event of December 8, 1977) (1977 [cited November 10 2006]); available from
  10. 10. Jason Stanyek, “Transmissions of an Interculture: Pan-African Jazz and Intercultural Improvisation,” in The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities In Dialogue, ed. Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 95.
  11. 11. In Concert: New Orchestra Workshop (Program note, Western Front event of October 6, 1978) (1978 [cited November 10 2006]); available from
  12. 12. Ibid.([cited).
  13. 13. Stanyek, “Transmissions of an Interculture: Pan-African Jazz and Intercultural Improvisation.”
  14. 14. In Concert: New Orchestra Workshop (Program note, Western Front event of October 6, 1978) ([cited).
  15. 15. Music from the New Wilderness (Program notice, Western Front events of March 14-30, 1980) (1980 [cited November 10 2006]); available from
  16. 16. Diffusion i Media (Program notice, Western Front events of February 22 and 23, 1991) (1991 [cited November 10 2006]); available from
  17. 17. Chironomy (Program notice, Western Front event of January 15, 2006) (2006 [cited November 15 2006]); available from In the interests of full disclosure, Masaoka is my spouse.
  18. 20. Hank Bull, A Brief History of WIENCOUVER (1984 [cited November 9 2006]); available from
  19. 19. Piano Mechanics, Speaker-Swinging, Tape-Pulling, Guitaring (Program notice, Western Front event of March 16, 1984)(1984 [cited November 15 2006]); available from
  20. 20. Jon Rose, The Relative Violin: Vienna-Vancouver (2000 [cited November 9 2006]); available from
  21. 21. Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 245.
  22. 22. Ibid., 285.
  23. 23. Rose, The Relative Violin: Vienna-Vancouver ([cited).
  24. 24. 1st duMaurier International Jazz Festival (Program notice, Western Front events of June 24-28, 1986) (1986 [cited November 10 2006]); available from
  25. 25. Andra McCartney, “Cyborg Experiences: Contradictions and Tensions of Technology, Nature, and the Body in Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Breathing Room,” in Music and Gender, ed. Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
  26. 26. In and Out of the Studio (Program notice, Western Front event of March 24, 2002) (2002 [cited November 13 2006]); available from
  27. 27. Made in March—How dare we? Festival Preview and Media Conference (Program notice, Western Front event of February 21, 2002) (2002 [cited November 10 2006]); available from