This past month when Tanya Tagaq was announced as the winner of the 2014 Polaris Prize, American press (somewhat predictably) framed it as an out-of-nowhere upset - not Tagaq wins, but Drake and Arcade Fire lose. But for many here in Canada, Tagaq's win wasn't an "outsider" decision; it signalled a shift that was already happening and continues to happen in the Canadian music landscape. As more musicians blur the lines of genre and cultural influence to represent the full, rich diversity of life in Canada, the definition of what constitutes "Canadian music" is also becoming less static.
That presents an interesting position for the Music Gallery, "Toronto's Centre for Creative Music," and its 9th annual X Avant festival of New Music. Artistic Director David Dacks pushes an M.O. that incorporates constant boundary-shifting and expectation-pushing, but as a nearly 40-year-old publically funded institution the Toronto venue also represents some central version of capital-C capital-A "Canadian Art." The first question, then, has to be, well, what is Canadian art?
"We’re Toronto’s centre for creative music, but we’re trying to encourage a form of musical communication that's decentralized, that has more of an array or network component to it than a typical multicultural point of view, which is that there’s a central Canadian culture and then a bunch of little things which sort of plug into it but never truly affect the greater thing," says Dacks. "As you’ve no doubt seen expressed by many people, that just is no longer sufficient for Canada, particularly social media conscious people living in urban centres. So how do we contribute?"
Dacks is addressing that question in the theme of this year's X Avant (which starts tonight): Transculturalism: Moving Beyond Multicuralism. The title comes from a speech by Marc Hollander at the WOMEX (World Music Expo) conference.
As far as I’m concerned this isn’t even pushing into the future. It’s pushing into the present.
Transculturalism isn't without its critics, who consider it "a fig leaf to world music." The way to escape that trap, says Dacks, is "to ask culturally based questions of pretty much everything you program." In that way, the questioning is part of the art. The idea isn't to represent some central idea of Canadian Art, but to interrogate, at every moment of both programming and performance, what that could mean.
You see it in the music of racialized artists like A Tribe Called Red and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, who made waves at this year's Junos, or Tagaq, who uses improvisation to find common ground in an arena where there are no fixed realities, or world music critic Lido Pimienta, who's performing and curating a show at this year's festival.
And you also see it in the breakdown of genre, which is why Music Gallery has ended its genre-based streams. That's represented in performances like the Batuki Music Society co-presentation of Brian Eno-collaborator Laraaji, which questions the cultural baggage of New Age, or Drums and Drones, the experimental side project of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Brian Chase co-presented with Wavelength (whose co-founder Jonathan Bunce was the previous Artistic Director at the Music Gallery, and who Dacks credits with "legitimizing pop music as valid form of expression at the Music Gallery").
Dacks won't say specifically that he's seeking a younger audience at the Musical Gallery, instead using the thumbnail term "music explorers," but many have argued that it's a new generation of fans, artists and musicians who are accepting and pushing this new conception of Canadian music. Take, for instance, the free Mississauga Goddamn panel discussion moderated by Chart Attack contributor Anupa Mistry. Every panel member is under 30, including 17-year-old hip-hop producer Wondagurl. And it reconfigures the Hidden Cameras song, which celebrated the move from the suburbs to the "big city," to examine the cultural collisions that have happened outside of the downtown core.
Dacks anticipates some tension and conflict, but that's to be expected at a festival where cultural questioning is a part of the theme. There's no easy answer to any of these questions, but that's what makes them worth asking. In fact, it's what makes them unignorable.
"As far as I’m concerned this isn’t even pushing into the future," says Dacks. "It’s pushing into the present."