by Ben Hollihan
The concept of a bring your own headphones show was a strange and almost comic one for me. It conjures up images of headphone discos, glow sticks and the sound of heavy breathing and squeaking shoes for anyone not plugged in. Bring Your Headphones, an event put on by record label Mangled Tapes, in tandem with a show promotion and curation organization Sweaty Palms, both based in Edmonton, was nothing like that. It could hardly be called a music performance at all, but rather a live and spontaneous art installation.
With my photographer, Kali Wells, I showed up at Bleeding Heart Art Space in the heart of Edmonton’s downtown a few hours before the show began and to much dismay, we could not locate the venue. Feeling suddenly like an alien in my hometown, we wandered around for twenty minutes, checking between Google Maps and the street signs, before noticing the small bleeding heart logo in a otherwise nondescript doorway. Unbeknownst to us, Bleeding Heart Art Space was literally that, a small art gallery, not exactly ideal for live performances, but as we were shown, it was the perfect venue for an event like this.
We ascended the stairs into a tiny room, one in which forty people would have at capacity. Hanging on the bleach white walls, illuminated by a low winter sun, was an art installation, Contemporary Relics, by Dominika Koziak. There were four or five long tables, each with their own amp heads that were all hooked-up to a master, providing plenty of opportunities to plug in and listen. Shuffling about the room, setting up chairs, projector, and ensuring all the amps were connected and working were Matthew Belton (Westfalia) and Mustafa Rafiq (Family Injera), the organizers and performers of the event.
While Belton and Rafiq paced around the room, plugging in equipment and testing gear, I chatted a bit with them about who they are and their music and the idea behind putting on this show. Rafiq spoke about his history of being involved with theatre before being fully converted—following an experience with the Japanese band Mono at a psychedelia festival in Austin—to a life dedicated to promoting and performing experimental music.
“[They] completely changed the way I thought about music,” said Rafiq.
For Rafiq and Belton, ambient music shifts from a perfectly rehearsed package in which performers follow a set structure and have total knowledge of what comes next, to a more visceral one, where the music comes alive through total improvisation. Both of these musicians also work heavily in the music industry outside of performing, by producing, tracking, and curating events for things like Found Festival, Nextfest, or for their own companies, Sweaty Palms and Mangled Tapes.
With show time approaching, the performers made final adjustments, and the projectionist, Courteney Morin, ensured that all presets were in place to have creative freedom with projection. The mish-mash of cords and technical instruments slowly found their way into a configuration with chairs surrounding the circumference of the room, water provided for all, and at the head of the room a table full of gear and laptops. As the chatter in the room died down, everyone ensured that their headphones were plugged in (despite clearing out every Long and McQuade in the city for amp heads, we still had to make more inputs using splitters), volume was adjusted, the room breathed in anticipation, and the music begun.
Rafiq’s (Family Injera) set was guitar-based which he then processed live. The music had a distinct post-rock feel as his songs started from nothing but, by layering guitar and synths, slowly built to a climax. Belton’s (Westfalia) was more digitally focused and included a standout use of distinguished percussion, mostly comprised of what sounded like a Roland 808 or 909.
Matthew Cardinal and Kris Burwash (aka K. Burwash) were the night’s other two performers. Cardinal’s set was more edgy, with less building and more repetition. The tones were smooth in timbre, but the shifts from tone to tone had a quicker, sharper quality to them, punctuated to an abrupt end to the set. It shifted the feel of the music from drone to a more groove based electronic sound. K. Burwash, who was up last, had a set comprised of clean, cool tones that modulated frequently, not seeming to stay on any one pitch for too long.
Altogether the sets were haunting and hypnotic with sounds and tones that ranged from crystal clear pitches to muddy noise, played over one another, cycled again and again, and with no clear start or end to any track. Working hand in hand with Morin’s projections, the performances created a relaxed, meditative state in the room as all eyes and ears were taken over.
Morin’s mesmerizing projections were cast on a large blank wall directly behind each performer. What initially began as a small spectacle art space, grey laminate floors boxed in by four white walls, had become an intriguing and unusual performance space, cables snaking around tables and everyone watching seated people create art. The projections varied from looped textured grids of hills to mirror images of clouds, incurring a feel of hypnotic transcendence, or perhaps a feeling of connection with true reality.
Before the show began, Rafiq told me that too often shows become more about being seen and about how he had to take a step back from some Edmonton shows. “These shows should be about the music, not about who is there. The community was getting too exclusive, too much,” he said.
Bring Your Headphones was a night celebrating art. It had a familiar DIY punk tinge of many Edmonton based shows, yet everyone there felt more comfortable about being there, allowing themselves to solely focus on letting everything go through the means of drone and projection. Everyone was there to have their own, separate but connected experiences with the music. A refreshing take on building a music community for all ages, something that Sweaty Palms very strongly encourages.