Ah, Saskatchewan. Land of green spring and tawny fall wheatfields and endlessly billowing clouds. Land of snowy winter plains and summer clouds of mosquitoes. And, perhaps counterintuitively, land of generous landfills. Let’s not forget the human impact on the Prairie province’s natural environment, for without it Music on Main’s composer in residence, Nicole Lizée, would not be the artist that she is today.
One thing is perfectly clear: the 45-year-old musician’s hectic sonic structures and penchant for polyphonic collage did not spring out of some unconscious need to fill her home terrain’s empty landscape.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been asked about that,” Lizée tells the Straight, on the line from her Montreal studio. “People will immediately think of, yes, that vastness, that open space in Saskatchewan—but I don’t think of it that way. I remember being really young and going inside machinery, farm machinery, and things like that. I spent a lot of time in my dad’s [electronic repair] store, which meant being inside with the innards of TV sets.…I’d be looking at the schematics and seeing the link to music. So for me, Saskatchewan was complex. The vast space that should have been there was actually filled by things.
“I saw a lot of landfills,” she adds, laughing. “My dad would go to landfills and look for, you know, wiring. That was his life: he was fixing things, and so he would have to go and find the parts that were not immediately available. This included machinery from the ’60s, so I would go with him and look at all this stuff that was now landfill, and he would go through it and know what was actually kind of precious, kind of in demand. So it was there, the vast countryside and the wheatfields, but when I think of growing up, I always see pylons and farm machinery and electronics.”
Lizée has shot to international fame for multimedia works such as Hitchcock Études and La Callas Fantasie, which combine archival film footage, often artfully or unintentionally degraded, with sampled soundtracks, cheap electronic noisemakers, and her sophisticated, enigmatic writing for acoustic instruments. The past is almost always present in her work, which exemplifies a recently developed musical genre that some dub “hauntology”. But nowhere is her Saskatchewan youth more fully explored than in her band SaskPWR, which makes its local debut next week as part of One Night Stand: Nicole Lizée.
A collaboration with her partner, guitarist Steve Raegele, and percussionist Ben Reimer, SaskPWR is a conceptualist’s idea of a psychedelic rock band, right down to the fact that it began as little more than a graphic stolen from a utility company and some joke merch.
“We had logos and we had lollipops, but we didn’t actually exist,” Lizée recalls. She did, however, have an idea for music that would somehow convey a sense of danger in the everyday, based in part on the public face of what was once the Saskatchewan Power Corporation. “They were very in-your-face,” she recalls. “Looking back on those old signs and warnings about electrocution, I suppose, just stirred these emotions in me, these eerie feelings, and I wanted to build on that.”
Bolstered by local string virtuosos Rebecca Whitling, Tawnya Popoff, and Rebecca Wenham, SaskPWR’s Music on Main show will consist of two long-form compositions, Suite From Sasktronica and The Criterion Collection, plus Reimer’s solo feature Katana of Choice. Some idea of the content can be gleaned from the names of individual movements: “Lovesick”, “Cubist Television”, “Make-Out Music”, and “Scherzo Suicidio” all hint at teen angst remembered wryly. But until SaskPWR actually takes the stage, it’s hard to say just how they’ll sound.
“We don’t really have records, or anything like that,” Lizée says. “We don’t have a website. But we have T-shirts!”
Music on Main presents One Night Stand: Nicole Lizée at the Fox Cabaret on Tuesday (April 17).