Monday, May 18, 2015

Live: Borbetomagus

Borbetomagus, The Music Gallery, Toronto, 1989

WHEN I POSTED MY LAST WEEK OF LIVE MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHY, I noted that I didn't enjoy shooting bands in concert. I have a lot of this stuff, though, and it seemed appropriate somehow that I find a way to share my pain with you. And so we have Borbetomagus, the avant garde jazz noise trio, playing at the Music Gallery as the '80s drew to a close

My years at Nerve had left me with a condition that my friend Alan Zweig has called "neophilia" - an insatiable appetite for new music. Years pursuing ever louder and faster sounds had pushed my taste into the realm of what might charitably be called "ungodly noise," and it was with Borbetomagus that I pushed out to the furthest edge of that proclivity.

The band had formed a decade earlier, but it was Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth who had lately drawn them to the attention of record geeks and music perverts, which is probably one reason why they showed up in Toronto, playing at the Music Gallery, which was then in what was once the basement swimming pool of a Victorian YMCA building.

My friend and musical magus Tim Powis browbeat me into going, and for some reason I brought along a camera and plenty of film, though I can't imagine who I thought would buy the pictures. Which makes this shoot a true rarity - a live music shoot I did purely for fun.

Borbetomagus, The Music Gallery, Toronto, 1989

"Fun" is, of course, a subjective term. Most people wouldn't consider an evening spent with Borbetomagus much fun, but rather a kind of weaponized harrowing. And for the first five or ten minutes of their show, I might have thought the same.

The band's sound is simple enough; while guitarist Donald Miller attacked his instrument with various tools arrayed on a piano bench in front of him, saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich chose from among their array of horns to blow a cacophony of sounds ranging from guttural to piercing. Their big showpiece, however, was something known as "bells together," which involved holding the bells of their instruments an inch or two apart to use each other's horns as resonators.

At the Music Hall show, all three of them were plugged into a single big speaker cabinet in the centre of the stage, which must have been an exceptionally fine one since it could handle the freight train of sound they were forcing through it and fill the room without adding harshness or distortion beyond what the musicians were producing at the source.

Borbetomagus, The Music Gallery, Toronto, 1989

What started as an assault began, as the minutes passed, to turn into something awesome in the strictest meaning of the word; a huge, breathing monolith of sound that - through some acoustic principle I'm not quite able to understand - used the room to produce extra harmonies that you could feel in your bones. As I moved around the group with my camera, you could feel it change in tone and intensity in different parts of the hall.

It remains, in my memory, one of the most indelible concert experiences I've ever witnessed - up there with Fela Kuti or Tackhead or Husker Du or the P-Funk All-Stars. I'm not sure my photos do it justice, but I've always cherished them as a document, though this the first time anyone has ever seen them. Another memory is that no one - neither the audience or the band - took any notice of me as I wandered the periphery of the stage shooting three rolls; it was as if everyone, onstage or off, was completely transfixed with the effort required to will that extra dimension of sound into the air.

I can't promise a recording will do justice to the experience, but see what you think - and don't say I didn't warn you.


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