Time Flies fest makes sport of improvisation

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      Some athletes—the lucky few, perhaps—quit at the top of their game. Most, however, find that fate tells them when it’s time to go, and it’s not always on a high.

      Such was the case for clarinettist Franí§ois Houle, who might conceivably have gone on to a career in pro hockey had he not been more concerned with protecting his future as a musician.

      “I was not a bad goalie,” he recalls, reached at his Vancouver home just before jetting off for some shows in Paris. “It was just that my most tragic moment was the last game I ever played in organized hockey, where we actually went to the finals of my division. I remember my dad telling me ”˜Just stay on your feet. Don’t drop on the ice right away. Make sure you follow the puck,’ and all that. And of course it was the third period, and it was tied, and I remember falling to the ice and watching the puck trickling over the red line. We lost the tournament and everything, and I was like, ”˜Oh, okay, I think that’s about it.’

      “Actually, I think the main reason I quit hockey was that the guys were getting bigger, the pucks were coming at me a lot faster, and I was getting more and more seriously into pursuing a career in music,” he continues. “So I just thought, ”˜Well, before I lose my front teeth, maybe I should quit while I’m ahead.’ ”

      As tragic trumpeter Chet Baker found out, reed and brass players don’t function all that well with dentures. Houle kept his choppers (and his chops), and now he’s going to get a chance to relive his goalie days when he leads a team of Canadian all-stars against their brawny Swedish counterparts in Ice Hockey, one of the more creative examples of your Olympic tax dollars at work.

      Up first, though, is the 21st edition of Time Flies, the annual improvised-music meeting that, this year, will serve as a scouting match for the big event. Both dress a similar roster of players: Time Flies will feature local performers Houle, Dylan van der Schyff (percussion), Peggy Lee (cello) and Torsten Mí¼ller (bass), plus Swedes Mats Gustafsson on reeds, Per-Ake Holmander on tuba, Christian Munthe on guitar, and Raymond Strid on drums. Once the players divide into teams, however, Lee will bow out and the Canucks will add violinist Jesse Zubot, guitarist Tony Wilson, and trumpeter John Korsrud, while the men in the IKEA colours will be bolstered by Magnus Broo on trumpet and Kjell Nordeson on vibes. Danish laptop jockey Jakob Riis and American keyboardist Wayne Horvitz have been booked to referee.

      The Ice Hockey format, the Montreal-born-and-raised Houle explains, is two-fold: Gustafsson is designing a structured improvisation that will involve three periods, overtime, and a musical shootout, while he’s penning a series of musical vignettes based on iconic moments from the frozen game. Many, of course, will feature legendary figures from the glory days of the Habs.

      “I think it’s kind of fun, because we love hockey and we love music,” says Strid, speaking on behalf of Team Sweden from his home in Stockholm. “And sometimes we can make music with an aspect of sports: it’s not like a competition, of course, but more like a playful thing.”

      Strid, like Houle, is in a good position to compare the no-holds-barred world of free improvisation with the slightly more regulated arena of pro sports. He, too, was a goalie—or, as he is careful to point out, a goalkeeper—as well as an aspiring track-and-field star.

      “There is a kind of musicality in being a good athlete,” he says. “I mean, for instance, if you’re a good hockey player you have this very good sense of timing. And then you need rhythm; you have to have a very good sense of reading the game. And that’s what you need also when you’re an improviser in music: you have to use your ears to read the play, just as hockey players read the game on the ice.”

      And while Strid admits that there’s something ridiculous about basing an artistic undertaking on a team sport, some of his teammates are treating Ice Hockey as seriously as a run for the Stanley Cup or an Olympics championship.

      “Mats seems very, very confident that they’re going to run away with the gold, and he’s been sending some pretty nasty e-mails my way about that,” reports Houle. “But we’ve got one of the meanest defensemen in the world with Torsten Mí¼ller. He’s the biggest player, so if they try to get heavy we’ll let Torsten loose, and we’ll be just fine.

      “And we’ve also got something that they don’t have: a Flying Frenchman,” he adds, laughing. “So it should be fun.”

      Time Flies runs at the Ironworks from Thursday to Saturday (February 5 to 7). Ice Hockey takes place at the Ironworks next Thursday (February 12).