Behold the ingenious project known as Polytectures. It’s a musical walking tour of the capital’s landmarks — and it’s available for download here (and now!).
By Fateema Sayani
For artists and social critics, urban malaise is a deep well from which to draw. City dwellers faced with the daily bustle, crammed among buildings and one another, tend to lean one of two ways: optimists might find glory and inspiration in their surroundings; pessimists (realists?) might put up a personal brick wall as a means of dealing with the assault on the senses one encounters in the metropolis.
Morrissey, king of mawkishness, summed up the urban dweller’s crisis in the line “It’s the turnstiles that make us hostile” that he sings in We’ll Let You Know. Bam, a one-two punch. If ever there was a cleverer and more artful turn of phrase on the rat race, I’d love to hear it.
But not everyone who has radar for the pulse of a city sees it in such dire terms. Articulating a deeply held feeling comes easily to Montrealer Antoine Bédard, too, though his expression comes in blips and bleeps, samples of “found sound,” and semi-abstract compositions.
Bédard has been producing fragmented sonatas and clubbier electronic music since 2002 under the handle Montag (a nod to the protagonist in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). After completing undergraduate degrees in law (McGill) and communications (UQAM), he avoided day jobs while pursuing an interest in experimental electronic music, which is much more about conveying raw emotion and textures than it is about verbalized stories of love gone wrong.
Music of that type, while lacking the punch of a Morrissey one-liner, is still tasty brain candy because it allows the musician to describe everyday situations by using other means — instrumental ones.
Montag’s rising profile in Montreal has led to other projects: composing for dance performances, scoring for films and, just last year, co-producing an audio guide with architect Sophie Mankowski, called Montreal Moderne. His role was to provide music that would act as background sound for the walk and break up the verbal, historical bits. As the project evolved, Montag began exploring the idea of assigning sounds to structures, as if you could align building shapes and materials with songs to enhance the experience of being in a place.
“Music can bring an emotional dimension to architecture that’s already there but may be really hard to read,” he says. “We walk down the street and forget about the buildings that surround us.” Fuelled by that idea, Montag gathered fellow Montreal musicians together to create a soundtrack for their city. He’ll keep the momentum going when he assembles the Ottawa project, Polytectures.
Polytectures will be available for download to your handheld device. From there, you can print a map and take a self-guided walking tour of 10 selected buildings in the downtown core. In your headphones, you’ll hear Montag’s voice as he offers context to the music and encourages you to explore the space while listening to original compositions by 10 Ottawa-area musicians, including Mark Molnar, Math Rosen, Adam Saikaley, and Simon Guibord. Ottawa architect Matthew Edwards is part of the project too. He’ll describe aspects of the building you’re touring before a three-minute-long song pipes through your headphones.
“The narration is a way to add another layer of reflection on our environment,” Montag says. “I want the connection between the building and the music to be clear, because it can be abstract sometimes.” And it’s not just embellishing a feeling, Montag assures. “It’s about observing how architecture affects the mood of the city. If the building is boring, you’ll hear that too. We want to show the vision or lack of vision of the architect.”
Polytectures is part of Electric Fields, which runs until November 26. The small festival, launched in 2003, is organized by the tech-savvy group Artengine and focuses on electronic arts and other forms of experimental music. Still, the programming is enticing and accessible for the minimally savvy but curious. Events like Nite Ride, organized by Artengine late last year, invited people to download “rich sound pieces for a nighttime driving experience.” The music is designed to play over a specific route mapped out by artists Tim Hecker and Marla Hlady.
And urban sound seeking is picking up speed elsewhere: in Toronto, author Misha Glouberman hosts an event called Terrible Noises for Beautiful People in which participants bond while creating improvised non-verbal sounds.
As part of Montag’s research into the sound walk project, he read up on the relationship between sound and architecture. Is it direct? Can you associate a brick wall with a backbeat? Sort of, but subtler, he says. “You can use a lot of reverberation to invoke spacious places,” he explains. Music can also be used symbolically — to show what a building represents in a city. “If the building is a landmark, the music would have to be really bold,” he says. “It would bring life to a building the same way architecture does. The music becomes the loudspeaker of the architecture.” And just because it’s about architecture doesn’t mean it has to be abstract. “A pop song could fit if it works with the personality of a building.”
Montag is excited about creating the sound walk in downtown Ottawa because so many eras are represented — from Parliament Hill to the old train station to the new Ottawa Convention Centre. The facade is continually changing.
Most people create their own sound-track as they walk around the city, listening to their iPods. With Polytectures, the artists are asking you to tune back in, look up and around, and consider how buildings shape our movement in the city and the influence they have on how we gather and how we isolate ourselves.
Electric Fields runs until November 26.