MY LIFE IN THE BUS OF GHOSTS

by Vincent Rondeau

I recently went on a trip across North America on a bus pass for five weeks. I witnessed countless singular occurrences along the way: morning fog and midnight mist flurries in San Francisco, a scheduled demolition in Denver, a storm moving over mountaintops and pregnant Mormon girls dancing at a free Big Boi show in Utah. But possibly the most fascinating part of it all, and certainly the weirdest, was talking with the people I met on buses. Here are some of the more interesting characters I met:

A girl headed for Haleybury, Ontario, but I thought she said “Halle Berry” at first, and when she introduced herself I should have asked her to repeat her name because I heard “Jelly”;

A guy from Montréal who’d just biked for hundreds of kilometres in the middle of nowhere, Northern Ontario, and was going to see his girlfriend in Calgary, but then I met him again at the bus station there and he said he’d lost his bike between buses;

Two Scottish girls, Allie from Lanark and Carolyn from Carluke, who had just spent a week in Winnipeg and were now going straight to Kelowna, which they pronounced wonderfully in their otherwise monstrous accents;

Tchiago, a young Brazilian who had been in Toronto for six months then Calgary for a month, and was headed for Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, and catching a flight from there back to Sao Paulo, and we watched a sunset on the Rockies;

A very serious-looking German couple waiting for the bus in Banff, just starting an almost year-long trip through North America, then South America; they spoke short German sentences in low voices and took pictures of each other by the train station, and pronounced Vancouver “Wank-hoo-fuh”;

Stefan from Essen, Germany, who had lived in Montréal for almost a year and was travelling with a bus pass like me, had a strange accent that sounded more Swedish than German, gave me directions to a hostel in Seattle and later got drunk at a bar and told me all about it the next morning;

Adrian and Isabel, brother and sister from England, who were staying at the hostel in Seattle and renting a car to drive down the Pacific coast, and we met again at random in Portland as they were taking a guided walking tour and I was just walking;

The girl and her friend at the station who kept asking the two Australian ladies next to me all about kangaroos, if they’d ever seen a kangaroo, if they’d ever eaten kangaroo meat and what it tasted like;

Tom from Bakersfield, California, the redneck teddy bear who was moving for the first time in his life, to Yakima, Washington with his dad, and who insisted on showing me his collection of Beatles CDs though he also had one by the Beach Boys and one by Bryan Adams;

A guy with tattoos and piercings who spoke with a sort of manic glee and who would have been quite the shady character if he hadn’t been accompanying his young daughter on the bus all the way from Seattle to Denver and caring for her attentively;

A helpless old Mexican couple going from Portland to El Paso, Texas with barely a word of English; I helped them until we transferred in Sacramento with broken Spanish;

A young black guy with dreadlocks and a huge woollen cap who got in a fight on the bus with the dirty-looking old guy who wouldn’t let him have more space, and on a later bus made me listen to his psychedelic hip-hop music; he said something about jamming with a guy who played with Paul Simon, he said Alice Coltrane was his “keyboard sensei” and he gave me his business card;

A cynical strawberry blonde girl with a vacant stare and weird smile who was going to Vallejo, California to meet her entire biological family for the first time;

A shady-looking dude who was moving to rural Michigan with just a backpack, and said he’d been working on a weed farm in Northern California, and smelled like weed intensely, and the driver got really angry when she smelled it because she thought someone had been smoking inside the bus, and at Salt Lake City the security guy pulled out enormous bags of suspicious green stuff from his things yet he somehow put them back and the dude got on the bus all right, and he told me all kinds of crazy stories, for example saying he’d lived on a deserted island in the Pacific ocean, but when a tsunami made most of the archipelago’s population homeless he was sent back to the States as a diplomatic reflex;

An unbelievable Hulk Hogan lookalike with long hair, moustache, deep blue eyes, bandana, black shorts and white socks stretched almost to his knees, and a t-shirt that said “BEER: it’s not just for breakfast anymore”; he almost didn’t talk at all though his two awkward-looking, wiry sons were travelling with him, but every five to ten minutes he would go cough, cough, hngrkkk;

Victoria from England, curly red hair, who tried to explain to me exactly what “posh” meant, and who was also travelling with a bus pass;

Exuberant, fantastical Philipp from a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, who had been couchsurfing for a few nights in Minneapolis and was going to Kansas City to see some friends (he’d studied in rural Missouri two or three years before) and his unbreakable spirit and tales of walking for miles in the Alps convinced me to take a walk with him towards breakfast, museums and eventual lunch, which ended up taking three hours and giving me the most elaborate sunburn I’ve had in my life; we sat by a fountain and exchanged musical suggestions, went to the library, ate wonderful barbecue and parted ways at the museum, only to meet again a few hours later on the street;

Trucker Jim who had just sold his truck in Indiana; he said his paternal grandfather was French-Canadian, and he remembered him saying “J’ai mal à la tête” when he was a child; he also said he was a descendent of Roald Amundsen on his mother’s side; he told me all about his girlfriend in Massachusetts, who used to be a trucker with him but her daughter had gotten sick with cancer and she’d gone back to be near her, and he was going there as well; I heard countless stories of the glorious trucking life, AC malfunctions in Texas, doing 720 miles in one 11-hour stretch, driving from Florida to California and swimming in the ocean;

Skinny vegetarian stripper Katie from Buffalo, living in Chicago, whose first words to me, out of nowhere, were “Cleveland sucks”, in the middle of the Cleveland bus station; we started talking; she was super-excited because she was going to Montréal for the first time, staying in a St-Henri punk house collective for a week with just over $100; we went for breakfast in Albany and she reorganized her entire suitcase in the middle of the dimly lit diner; she had brought beer for the hosts but I pointed out that she had to declare it at the border and wasn’t even allowed to carry it on the bus in the first place, so we just had a few sips of each bottle in a parking lot and gave the rest to a grateful blonde-haired dude travelling from Arkansas; as we neared customs I made her a list of places she should go in Montréal; she was refused entry at the border.

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I Have a Special Plan for This World

Selections by Vincent Rondeau

1. Disco Inferno – “Starbound: All Burnt Out and Nowhere to Go” (D.I. Go Pop, 1994)

A few years back, deep in my Prog and post-rock phase, I happened upon this album in the discount bin of a very classic-rock-and-blues Ottawa record store. Suffice it to say it took me a while to understand what this band was about, let alone appreciate it. I can only describe them as a weird cross between the angular, stop-start dynamic action of Slint and the sheer noisy weirdness of early Faust. This track in particular is among the weirdest things I've heard, and showcases their production approach pretty well. Slightly atonal, synthy shimmers, a few lonely guitars, and in the absence of percussion, the rhythm being carried by a weird sort of children's-chorus-like tape loop. On top of everything, a British dude with a punk accent reciting autistic nonsense. In typical unpredictable fashion, after half an hour of this kind of stuff, the album closes with “Footprints in Snow”, the cutest, most melancholy little tune this side of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”.

2. Péloquin-Sauvageau – “Emiliano” (Laissez-nous vous embrasser où vous avez mal…, 1972)

[MP3]

What can I say about this one, except that every track on this album is a serious contender for weirdest shit ever? A bit of context: Jean Sauvageau made electronic music and built synthesizers. His most celebrated creation, “La machine à Sauvageau” (Sauvageau's Machine) brought Robert Moog and Pink Floyd to Montreal to gawk at its technological wonder. Claude Péloquin was a bummed-out, cynical urban acid poet. In 1972, the duo recorded their only full-length collaboration, Laissez-nous vous embrasser où vous avez mal… (Let Us Kiss You Where It Hurts…). There's an a capella choral song about tall, mute aliens with laser eyes invading Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood, there's three minutes of applause and synthetic noodling with Péloquin just saying “thank you” in different languages, there's a song that sounds simultaneously like Celtic fiddling, Gershon Kingsley's “Popcorn” and a dirty old Québécois man. “Emiliano” features Péloquin and a Mexican guy, drinking beer by the train track, talking about revolution, dynamite, fireworks and Mexico. The sonic background sounds here like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, there like Popol Vuh, until all of a sudden a train stops by and violins break into a half-assed jig. Sample lyrics: “Frontiers are the hemorrhoids around a nationalist rash.”

3. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – “Die liederliche Gesellschaft vom allerley Humor” (Battalia a 10, 1673)

The entire Battalia was pretty weird by Baroque standards, but these 45-or-so seconds are still pretty weird today. This little bit of strikingly effective program music, its title roughly translating to “The Messy Company of Various Humours”, attemps to depict a garrison of drunken soldiers all singing different folk songs out of tune. It ends up sounding like the mutant child of Schönberg and Bartók. In 1673.

4. Sound sequence from L’âge d’or directed by Luis Buñuel (1930)

A year after the well-known short Un chien andalou, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí collaborated again on the full-length L'âge d'or (The Golden Age), Buñuel's first foray into sound. The relatively plotless film mostly revolves around a young couple constantly separated by external factors. After one such separation, the girl goes into her bedroom to sulk and finds a cow on her bed. The ensuing sequence is barely three minutes long, but it's possibly the most enthralling and unusual three minutes in cinema, a nearly perfect synchronization and interplay of sound and image. Watch and listen.

5. Jean-Claude Vannier – “L’enfant, la mouche et les allumettes” (L’enfant assassin des mouches, 1972)

[MP3]

Jean-Claude Vannier is perhaps best known as the creator of the spectacular arrangements for most of Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson. He’s also collaborated with an impressive roster of French chansonniers, from Gilbert Bécaud and Georges Moustaki to Michel Polnareff and Alain Bashung. This first solo album is the full and frankly ridiculous expression of his youthful individuality. It’s got it all: a full orchestra with strings and horns aplenty, yawning-and-stretching wah guitar, tribal percussion, a full choir, and so on. The album follows a vague storyline about a kid and some flies, with titles like “Dance of the Child and the Fly King” or “The Guards Fly to the Rescue of the King” or “Small Agony of the Killer Child”.

6. The Residents – “The Angry Angakok” (Eskimo, 1979)

The Residents’ Eskimo is out of this world. Before its release, the album was announced by the band as ‘wind noises and grunting’, and while there are some slightly melodic and percussive bits interspersed, it’s quite an accurate description. If you’ve ever heard the music of The Residents, it’s not overstating it to say that they’re one of the weirdest bands out there, and so what if it’s obviously what they’re aiming for? It works, and nowhere does it work better than on Eskimo. By the way, they also released a disco remix 12” of this the following year, called – what else? – Diskomo. It has to be heard to be believed.

7. Cecil Leuter – “Pop Electronique #2” (Pop Electronique, 1969)

French composer Roger Roger had a long, obscure career in film and television music, but under his pseudonym of Cecil Leuter he released the wonderful Pop Electronique, which has aged either tremendously well or poorly, depending on your point of view. I mean just look at the cover art, there you go. The basic pattern for all eight tracks is the same: amazingly clean drums, some light guitar or other unintrusive instrumental accompaniment, and a Moog synthesizer going absolutely nuts. Please just listen to it. Please.

8. Nobukazu Takemura – “Icefall” (Scope, 1999)

If you’ve ever heard Oval's breakthrough release 94 diskont, you'll surely agree with me that it's rather far out. Nobukazu Takemura’s Scope, also on Thrill Jockey, takes this to the next level. This guy has collaborated with Zu as well as the Boredoms’ Yamatsuka Eye, and did the sound design for Sony’s creepy robotic dog. There's an amazing sense of melody and atmosphere that keeps on revealing itself the more you listen to this album.

9. The Yamasuki Singers – “Yamasuki” (Le monde fabuleux des Yamasuki, 1971)

Erykah Badu sampled “Kono Samourai” off this album for her song “The Healer”, but this one is my favourite. The concept of this record is simple: take a French funk-pop duo, pair them with a Japanese children’s choir and some vaguely Oriental instrumentation, and add a guy who sounds like he's out of Sword of Doom or something, screaming all over nearly every track.

10. Current 93 – “I Have a Special Plan for This World” (I Have a Special Plan for This World, 2000)

David Tibet telling a creepy, Lovecraftian story over a Steven Stapleton dark ambient background. This kind of thing is standard fare for fans of Current 93 and Nurse with Wound, and I normally wouldn’t include it in a list like this. Except… that sound, when he stops talking every once in a while. The Internet tells me this is a circuit-bent Speak & Spell, which makes sense. But my ears tell me it’s the goddamn creepiest sound in the world, like the sound of a horrible nightmare about Bicentennial Man and Tetsuo and Cthulhu all at once, and Robin Williams’ face melting off and his throat growing metal tentacles and shit. It makes me shudder every time.

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Deep thoughts

The uncanny resonance of Pauline Oliveros' sound philosophy

By Vincent Rondeau

Pauline Oliveros - Courtesy of Pietr Kers

I am by no means a Pauline Oliveros connoisseur. However, last summer I had the chance to attend a free Deep Listening™ workshop as part of the Suoni Per Il Popolo experimental music festival in Montreal, followed by a (paid) free-improvisation concert by the Timeless Pulse quintet, featuring Oliveros herself on accordion. The concert was unbearable, and my friend and I left halfway through; one audience member was overheard remarking, “It’s like being in a trance from hell.”

The workshop was far more interesting, though its participative nature was a bit intimidating and the whole thing smelled a bit like New Age. At one point, each member of the audience was kindly but firmly directed to put one hand on their chest and the other behind their right-hand neighbour’s back, and sing loudly, in a group healing effort. There was also a sound meditation session.

By far the most interesting activity was when Oliveros asked everyone to choose a song they loved and knew by heart, and sing it one syllable at a time, as slowly as possible, while pacing around the room at random. The result was truly magnificent, a loud, unrecordable mess of male and female voices seemingly calling down at us from the ceiling. The only other experience I can compare it to is Janet Cardiff’s ultra-surround sound installation The Forty-Part Motet, a recording of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium, with one channel/speaker per vocalist, all 40 of them disposed in an oval shape.

The best part of the entire workshop experience was when I stopped singing myself and went into the adjacent washroom. Muted by walls and doors, the sound lost its piercing quality and became the smoothest, dreamiest ambient music, adding an uncanny resonance to the small room’s atmosphere.

In her own words, the basic tenet of Oliveros' sound philosophy is understanding “that there's a difference between hearing and listening.” Deep Listening™ is basically “listening to everything all the time and reminding yourself when you're not listening.” In a way, she wants us, the listeners, to treat every waking second as a performance of John Cage's 4'33". She further distinguishes between inclusive listening — the practice of taking everything in at once, being open to every sound and considering one’s entire sonic environment, versus exclusive listening, or focusing on one element at a time. It's all a bit simplistic, sure, but someone had to point it out, and she did.

And with that in mind, in 1988, Oliveros, trombonist Stuart Dempster and multi-instrumentalist weirdo Panaiotis, as The Deep Listening Band, went into the underground cistern at Fort Worden State Park, WA, with a bunch of instruments and a recording engineer. The result is Deep Listening, released in 1989 on New Albion Records. Now, this underground cistern is particular because of its reputed 45-second natural reverb, which effectively expands even percussive noises into drone-like washes of sound, creating a unique, rich atmosphere, and giving the listener time to appreciate and, um, deep-listen to each sound. The music here is all improvised, but it flows remarkably well.

The mood is extremely slow throughout the four lengthy pieces on the album, and the use of dynamics is remarkable — you'll never notice it, but the music can go from barely tangible to huge and orchestral. According to the booklet, the first and longest track, “Lear”, was used in the very last scene of a production of King Lear, and it’s fittingly funereal, revolving around a long sequence of fabulous interplay between Oliveros’ just-intonation accordion and Dempster’s trombone, and ending with a long didgeridoo drone.

The next track, “Suiren”, is the most absent-sounding of the bunch, and despite it being dedicated to Dempster’s wife, it sounds, fittingly enough, like the silence beyond despair after the end of King Lear. “Ione”, dedicated to a friend of Oliveros’, starts much as “Suiren” ended, but gets brighter, almost pastoral, as it goes on. The slow and droning mood is offset only by the last piece, “Nike”, that makes extensive use of dry, metallic percussion, conch shells, sharp horn stabs and whistling.

To tell the truth, it all sounds a bit like Brian Eno et al.'s brand of droney ambient music, and that can be a problem. Of course Oliveros comes from quite a different background — classically trained and John Cage-worshipping as she is, she doesn't sound like someone who'd cite Eno or the New Age as influences. Indeed, during the question period at the end of the workshop, a young, enthusiastic girl made the deadly faux pas of likening Oliveros' approach to Eno's Music for Airports and asking her whether she was influenced by his Ambient series. Her reaction: a pause, then "Get outta here, Brian Eno!” General nervous laughter. Next question.

It’s true that, just in choosing improvisation, she’s less influenced by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young et al. than most ambient musicians, but there's no denying the similarities. And in the end, the ambient scene got the best of her: newer bands like Stars of the Lid or Biosphere channel the sound of Deep Listening the album, while disregarding Deep Listening™ the concept.

The album is indeed regarded as a landmark of ambient music by many. A recent appearance by Dempster, playing conch shells no less, on doom-metal band Sunn O)))'s Monoliths and Dimensions seems to wave back at Deep Listening, bridging the gap between its theoretically-inclined, heady improvisation and Sunn O)))'s calculated yet visceral and low-brow-influenced rumble. Oliveros' dictating how to listen to this, how to interpret that, ultimately has little effect to this new brand of listeners, who ascribe less fundamental value to the processes, ideas or concepts behind a recording, as long as it sounds good. And it does.

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