The frightening truth about Canadian alt-pop

The frightening truth about Canadian alt-pop

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The composers of the electronic music for Netflix series Stranger Things will perform bits of it live, just in time for the launch of the new season of the show, at the Unsound festival.

It is not surprising that the creators of the international Unsound Festival – a music festival that specializes in the non-verbal and the experiential – would choose Halloween as a peg on which to hang a couple of concerts of atmospheric music, played on instruments both conventional and electronic.

The festival originates in Poland, the brainchild of Mat Schulz (originally from Australia) and Malgorzata Plysa (a Pole), and takes place in dramatic venues around the world. On its past two visits to Toronto, it has been a part of the Luminato arts festival in the spring, and it has happened in a massive abandoned and decaying power plant, which was appropriate for its infernal post-industrial soundscapes. (A highlight of last year was the drone group Sunn O))), whose wall of grainy noise felt like a physical beam penetrating our bodies.)

It's a bit odd that interesting music like this, that comes from the underground of popular culture, is not seen as typically Canadian although we have many practitioners of non-rock here. (One of the most famous noise bands in the world was from London, Ont.; the most revered techno DJ in the world is from Windsor, Ont.) Our official promoter of national culture, the CBC, tends to insist that our national music is of an American rock-and-roll model, and is made by singer-songwriters with mandatory southern U.S. accents. This place seems much more international than that to me.

There will be two Unsound concerts in Toronto: Oct. 27 (branded "Halloween High") and Nov. 3 ("Halloween Hangover"), and their settings are different this year: both will take place in a conventional concert hall rather than in an open space. Audiences will be seated, which will make a change of atmosphere from the club/rave vibe of previous sessions. But Unsound directors have a knack for creating immersive atmospheres and spectacles.

The Friday evening concert includes a dance piece set to the music of underground electronic composer Jlin. The ballet, "Autobiography Edits," is choreographed by the U.K.'s Wayne McGregor and is based on his own genomic sequencing. In it, 23 memories or artifacts from his life are represented, as following his own 23 pairs of chromosomes. The full piece, "Autobiography," was recently performed in London by the Sadler's Wells company; this version is a pared-down one. The original received a five-star review in the Guardian. Jlin, the composer, is a young African-American woman from Indiana whose music emerges from the club scene – it relies a lot on throbbing sub-bass – but is just a little too edgy and unpredictable to be confined to the dance floor. It still contains harsh beats and glitches.

Then the eerie 2013 sci-fi film Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson, will be screened, with a full orchestra performing the score, by Mica Levi, live.

In the next concert, the composers of the electronic music for the scary Netflix series Stranger Things will perform bits of it live, just in time for the launch of the new season of the show. There will be a light show by the German artist MFO (a.k.a. Marcel Weber). Then an audio-visual show by ambient electronica outfit GAS (headed by Wolfgang Voigt, of Kompakt Records). It is said to be inspired by "the dark forests of Germany."

The performance I am most excited about is by the resurrected Polish cult group Księzyc. Their name means "moon" (and the pronunciation, as close as I can get it, is kshieeow-zhitz), and they were popular in the nineties as an all-female experimental band. They are back with male musicians and female singers, and they do eerie wailing music. It's sort of a cross between Slavic folk music, medieval chant and orchestral minimalism, with a touch of Diamanda Galas. They are wont to break into loud witchy cackling, which will add to the Halloween vibe.

Why is this kind of alt-pop music so rarely performed in this country? It's not wildly difficult or off-putting. It is not elitist in any way. It comes from clubs and from film scores, not from the university music departments that produce the atonal "new music" that uneducated audiences generally find too cerebral. This music is fairly simple, musically, and visual and theatrical. It just does not rely on the verse-chorus-verse structure of the pop music we are instructed to revere as being the most Canadian.

There is actually a great deal of music in the world that is fun and even Halloweeny that does not derive from rock and roll, and that is not created by a "singer-songwriter." It's not a surprise that the international artists who make it choose our big sophisticated cities as their audiences. This thing will be packed.

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