Toronto ensemble Contact smash classical music perceptions

December 07, 2015

Contact-Jason Gallop-1
The members of Contact. Credit: Jason Gallop

Toronto classical ensemble Contact  has made it their mission to play music that bends genres and perceptions, playing 14-minute ambient soundscapes with amplified vibraphones, and avant-garde samples.

Founded by percussionist, arranger, and composer Jerry Pergolesi, the group’s most recent offering, released on November 13 2015, is a new take on Brian Eno’s seminal 1975 release, Discreet Music. What Contact has done is reimagined the album as an instrumental piece of music—taking the lush, provocative synthesizer sounds from the original, and arranging them for the makeup of their band.

The first track off of Contact’s new album Discreet Music released on the New York based label Cantaloupe Music.

The result is satisfying, but also surprising if you’re someone who’s used to your classical music being a Mozart piano concerto played on the radio as the background to a Saturday morning.

Discreet Music is the band’s third album. Previously, they released two albums featuring the music of Canadian composers Alison Cameron and Jordan Nobles.

Simulacrum, composed by Jordan Nobles and performed by Contact on their 2011 album Undercurrents.

Over the phone Pergolesi is a bundle of enthusiasm, every thought bringing on a flood of new ones. He is passionate and idealistic, something that comes in handy when dealing with centuries of entrenched tradition.

“In the classical world, you tend to have to fit inside a box,” says Pergolesi when discussing some of the difficulties of Contact’s endeavours. “This music needs to have a place in the world. It has to be relevant. It can’t keep being about doing concerts for a small, elite crowd who know the music.”

Contact is part of a growing movement in classical music to experiment with other genres rather than shun them. In fact, the band should be considering among those who paved the way for this type of music-making in Canada.

What’s refreshing is Pergolesi’s casual habit of referring to Contact as a “band.” Anyone with exposure to the classical music world would be familiar with the more common terminology of “ensemble,” “collective,” or anything else you can think of that wipes clean any residue of popular music.

There’s nothing wrong these terms but Pergolesi’s habit of avoiding them in conversation is a sign of how different he wants Contact to be and not just for the sake of being different.

“I wanted the attitude and spirit of us being in a band,” says Pergolesi.

More importantly, he wanted Contact to find their sound through the same process as a rock band, by getting to know how they worked as a group, jamming with one another, and becoming friends.

To Pergolesi, this was the most important part. “I would be just as happy to grab someone with no formal training whatsoever, but who fit in like a dirty shirt, rather than someone with lots of talent and training who we couldn’t get along with,” says Pergolesi.

That’s not to say that the members of Contact aren’t talented, which Pergolesi is quick to reiterate. “Let’s put it this way, if someone else was running the show at this point I would be fired, because now I’ve become the schlub that doesn’t belong,” he says.

Contact performing live at the Richard Bradshaw amphitheatre in the Four Seasons Centre, home of the Canadian Opera Company. Credit: Karen Reeves.

Schlub or not, Pergolesi and Contact have added a much needed voice to classical music in Canada. They’re the kind of band that’s willing to look outside the concert hall and see something of value. It’s not about getting caught up in the minutiae of the music, as Pergolesi puts it, but more in focusing on the possibilities that exist outside the usual venues and practices.

The Police Picnic of 1981—basically Oakville Ontario’s response to Woodstock, which featured the likes of the Police, Killing Joke, Oingo Boingo, Iggy Pop, and many more—is one such example. For Pergolesi, this was the seed that planted his desire to bring music to as many people as possible.

Footage from the Police Picnic in Oakville, Ontario in 1981.

“I always wanted in on music,” he says. “It just affected me somehow, but for some reason it always felt removed from my everyday experience.”

With their two initiatives INTERsection and Music from Scratch, Contact have taken themselves from being just a band to something more. They’re making music part of people’s everyday experience.

Ever year, the band—along with a rotating roster of guests—takes their music outside to one of Toronto’s busiest spots: Yonge-Dundas Square. The spectacle is called INTERsection, and exposes the general public to the sounds of experimental music for eight hours as they go about their day.

Music from Scratch is a unique, week-long workshop that brings together young musicians from a diverse musical background to work with a professional composer and Contact. What makes the program unique is that the participants don’t need musical training or experience in any particular genre, something that fits in perfectly with Contact’s philosophy.

“We all have things to learn from each other, and we all have a musical voice,” says Pergolesi. “It’s a matter of mining that and finding it.”

The idea is that by gathering these different groups together, you not only give some young musicians a chance to compose, but you might also create something pretty cool along the way.

And it’s an idea that’s worked. The most recent workshop produced two compositions, created by two young musicians in collaboration with a composer and Contact, that has since made it into Contact’s regular performance repertoire.

When asked about the future goals of Contact, Pergolesi, after some thought, arrives at the conclusion that all he wants to do is give people a “big musical hug” through music that doesn’t feel removed from our everyday lives, as it sometimes did for him.

If this doesn’t happen to fit into preconceived ideas of genre or practice, that’s fine. All it has to do is fit in our ears.

About the Author

Nathaniel Schmidt

Born and raised in the Comox Valley, Nathaniel is a composer, teacher, writer, and reluctant pianist who has been freelancing in Calgary in various capacities for over seven years. He freely admits to enjoying everything Sting has done pre-1998 (including Dune).

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