040502 Live Magnetic Air, Ottawa, ON

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A poster from the final LMA concert, 2002

Very close to the end of my final year of university it came to my attention that we music students were required to join an extracurricular performance group (of our choosing) every year, or else we wouldn’t be allowed to graduate.  I don’t know how this vital piece of information had eluded me for so long, but fortunately I had three of my four bases covered.  In my first year I had been required to join the choir, a rule that had been quickly rescinded, but I remained anyway.  In my second year I joined something else – I forget what – and in my third I jammed with the secondary jazz band every week, both just for fun, so I had inadvertently fulfilled three of my required performance groups.

But my fourth year had kept me busy and I had joined nothing.  By the time I discovered the problem the year was almost over.  Now what was I supposed to do?

Turns out my electronic music instructor directed a group I had never heard of before, the Carleton University Contemporary Music Ensemble, and they were short a performer or two for their year-end recital.  I rushed to the next rehearsal – which was the last one of the year – and was surprised to see a classmate pitching a new piece at such a late hour.  It was an absurd percussion experiment that gave about a half-dozen players simple rhythmic figures to repeat and they were all supposed to match up at the end.  The problem was, we each had to repeat our bits for a stupid amount of times, like “You repeat your part 373 times, he’ll repeat his part 291 times, she’ll repeat her part 448 times, and…”

In other words: simple as it seemed it was in fact completely, utterly impossible to play.

And so the next Friday afternoon we gathered in the music department’s main classroom and gave a silly little hour-long wildly unrehearsed recital to a handful of parents and fellow students under the cold glare of fluorescent lights.

It was very unorganized, barely (if at all) musical, and offered nothing in the way of personal musical development.  But for some reason I joined again at the beginning of the next scholastic year – even though I had already graduated – and I attended the rehearsals every single Friday.

Somehow (perhaps because I was now alumni) I started helping the lecturer out, even taking over the class a few times when he had to leave the sessions early.  Eventually we came to the end of the year and things had been going pretty well.  We had some nifty pieces ready and our improvs had been getting pretty good but I abhorred the idea of another noon-hour year-end recital.

So I approached the instructor and suggested we do the show in the evening.  He said “go for it,” and stepped back.  Like, really, really far back.

This was right around the time that I was booking local shows – give or take – and I had been playing gigs for several years so I had learned a thing or two.  For example, I knew that we really needed cool lighting for this sort of show.  I approached the university’s staging crew and was promised full professional rigging free of charge, but then I discovered that the main music room wasn’t wired for such a high capacity.

Undaunted, I approached my good friend – who just happened to be President of the Student Council – and was told that each student society was allowed a yearly stipend for events, including the music society. With his help I not only got the stipend (of about $450) but I also got the stipends that were leftover from other student groups that hadn’t used theirs (which came to about $3,000 more).

I also knew that we had to have a bar but I soon discovered that all on-campus liquor sales had to be operated by Marriott Services, the campus caterer.  In other words, we would have to pay a $425 fee to have a cash bar set up, and all alcohol profits would go straight to Marriott.

But (I queried), how about all of the on-campus mixers and social events I had attended over the years?  Occasionally there had been wine or beer available at those…

Well (I was told), it was all fine so long as you weren’t actually selling the alcohol.  Marriott only needed to be involved if you charged for the drinks.

So I used the three grand to have the room completely rewired, shelled out $10 to photocopy a handful of posters to put up around campus and dropped another $15 on potato chips to feed the crowd.  I spent the remaining $425 purchasing several kegs of beer.

I nicked the event’s name from a Max Webster poster that hung in my dorm room – mostly because I liked the wacky font – and we put posters up all over the school:

Live Magnetic Air

An evening of composed and improvised electro-acoustic music

Saturday, 8pm

9th Floor, Loeb Building

Free beer

We got a packed house.  It was a great concert.

After a year or two the instructor drifted out and I replaced him on a volunteer basis.  A few years later my loyal students successfully lobbied the music department to find some money to actually pay me for running the group every week, which was pretty sweet.  The group continued to grow and got more and more interesting, and every year we’d host another Live Magnetic Air.

Now, I don’t have much info on these but I have found tapes from several of the concerts.  The latest one I can find is from April 5th, 2002, which I think was probably the last year we did it.  The cassette is marked “Live Magnetic Air VIII”, so we can extrapolate…let’s see….MMII minus VIII…carry the D…and…

…it looks like Live Magnetic Air began in MCMXCIV (1994).  I just found some old posters from several of the concerts and the math checks out.

Since I don’t have much (if any) information from several of the instalments I’ll roll all eight of the shows into this one single ticket story:

These concerts were amazing.  

Arranging the department’s remarkable collection of instruments (vibraphones, grand pianos, tubular bells…oh it was so fun) on one side of the room we lit the space with the same concert lighting available to the many major touring bands that were booked into the university’s multiple venues, with the addition of a data projector that broadcast trippy and cutting edge screensavers on the wall behind the musicians (they were pretty cutting edge at the time anyway – I thought it looked like the Allman Brothers’s stage show).  On the other side of the room some student volunteers would be pouring beers steadily and silently into plastic cups.

We decorated the hallways and the bathrooms and even had live musicians playing in the elevator.  If it was creative and it made sounds it was part of the show.

And oh, the music!  

  • Click here to listen to Live Magnetic Air V (April 9th, 1999) in it’s entirety.

In addition to a lot of improvised pieces there would always be several wacky composed works which generally relied heavily on concept and atonality.  When there was a dearth of these pieces I’d write some.  I remember spending hours and hours working on a medley of King Of Pain by the Police, a composition from a weird band of Berklee profs called Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic, and was it a Joni Mitchell song? all with a hammered dulcimer as the main instrument.  I recall writing a piece for two separate orchestras, each playing in their own key at either end of the room while the audience was left to choose aural sides in the middle.

A sketch my friend Alex Pearson made of a poster idea for the first ever LMA. I believe Alex was also the MC for that show, where he sang one of my pieces as well.

I once wrote a libretto to a friend’s beautiful vocal piece called Hiroshima Sunset, while at another show a trio of students performed a song from my fourth year composition thesis, a musical I wrote called Bardo.

And oh, the student compositions!  It was such a vibrant, exciting, inspirational time.

Then I started working with a rock band and knowing I’d have to be on the road an awful lot I resigned my position as Director of the Contemporary Music Group (we all called it “Contemp” but I think a few of the students would often add a “t” at the end).  Two weeks after that meeting I received a contract in the mail offering me the position for a ninth year with a 150% pay increase and nary a word about my recent resignation.

Do I regret tearing up that contract?  Maybe.  

Do I miss lying awake every Thursday night wondering how I would tackle the weekly frustration of trying to convince classically-trained note-reading players to freely improvise whilst simultaneously worrying that perhaps this would be the week that everyone would finally realize that I had no idea what I was doing, that I had no right to be teaching a university class, and that I would (at long last) be discovered as the musical/educational sham that I was?

Surprisingly and honestly: also maybe.  But it is nice to have my Friday mornings free.

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