Sonic improvisation: experimental sounds from Civvie and Trio Telfær



Sometimes music can sound a little bit less like ‘music’, and more like an exploration of space, textures, and tones. Abandoning the classic chorus/verse, or head/solo structure for songs can offer artists brand new room to play and to create.

Winnipeg artists Civvie and Trio Telfær have stepped away from structure in favour of music that is constantly changing – relying on the tradition of improvisation and on picking up new sound-making strategies in the creation of their unique music.

Consisting of Alex Eastley, Natanielle Felicitas, and Kelly Ruth, Civvie is a trio that makes experimental sounds and music from a weaving loom, a bassoon, and a cello.

Felicitas plays the cello through a number of pedals that allow her to explore new sounds, while Eastley plays bassoon and Ruth plays the weaving loom through a series of contact mics.

Ruth says the uncommon sight of a loom on stage is about more than just music-making.

“I aim to give the loom a voice, which speaks throughout history, sharing with us it’s perspective of civilization,” Ruth said.

“I use these sounds quite abstractly as I’m less interested in the literal sound of weaving and more interested in the sounds derived from weaving and the physicality of the loom.”

The band formed while Eastley was working at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, while Felicitas and Ruth were playing together in a project called Cantor Dust. They got together for a jam, as musicians are known to do, and things clicked.

“Kelly and I became friends, having previously played together in the project Cantor Dust. She noticed the percussive potential of her weaving loom and suggested we try and make music together,” Felicitas said.

Felicitas and Ruth had already begun the journey of getting sounds from the loom when Eastley joined for a jam. Coming from a structured classical music background, Eastley said improvisational music can often be a liberating break from work.  

The group’s performances are entirely improvisational. Their album Inheritance is simply a collection of the best moments from spending eight hours in the studio.

“Improvisation is so liberating, especially coming from classical training,” Felicitas said. “It's also one of the few projects where I get to experiment with effects pedals to conjure very unexpected sounds from my instrument.

“What I love about the Civvie instrumentation is that a listener might not even discern which sound is coming from which instrument!”

Civvie offers a setting a for the trio to push the boundaries they’re usually confined to in classical or pop music.

“Similar to jazz, we pass the conversation around to each other throughout a performance and respond to the sounds the others are making,” said Ruth.

”We have to really listen to each other and think on our feet in order to respond in interesting ways using the knowledge we have of our instruments and their extended capabilities.”

The three musicians now live in separate cities, but they are always eager to perform when they have the chance. Considering the music is all improvised, they don’t write songs or pieces while apart. But for the audiences they perform for, they create a sonic landscape bred of strong conversation between these musicians.

Trio Telfær

Trio Telfær

Trio Telfær, sometimes consisting of Cornelius Hoch, Ryan Luck, and Rick Rob, began making music in a mouldy basement, to which they attribute a good portion of their creative process.

“As the basement filled with instruments – and mould – we, the occupants of the home began marinating in the loving aura of the basement's mould,” said Hoch.

“Over the course of time the concept of structure and desire to plan, or ‘write’ prior to picking up instruments began to dissipate,.”

The group first released music in 2013, with a two-song EP, with both songs lasting about 14 minutes. Four people are credited on the Bandcamp page for this first recording, but those names change throughout the following 23(!) releases.

“Our process varies depending on who is involved and the space we are in. All of our albums are recorded live on a Tascam DR-05 handheld recorder. Other than that we are not allowed to divulge information on our process,” Luck said.

The group is also entirely improvisational, although the instrumentation is a bit more familiar for most listeners. Drums, guitars, electric bass, and samples – primarily of voices – comprise the majority of Trio’s offerings to date.

The method of making music as a result of absorbing mould is not a common creative method. According to Luck, the space is crucial to the sounds the group will produce at any given performance.

“Not every space feels the same as the basement, and while performing, we can feel it too, whether it be the dimensions of the space causing our instruments to sound or feel different,” he said.

“Basements lend (themselves) to staccato rhythms and a very sensitive volume dynamic, as well as a fine tuned musical connection between members.”

For both groups, every chance to see them play is the only chance to see them play that particular piece, song, or composition. The nature of improvisation, coupled with constant musical exploration, creates an inherently impermanent and inevitably new sonic experience.

You can catch both groups live at JazzFest x CMHR, June 18 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Jen Doerksen