by Daniel Emberg
field//// has been active around Winnipeg since late 2010, and are about to embark on a follow-up to last year’s debut album. The group recently sat down with Stylus on the patio of a local diner to chat about that, some upcoming video projects, and the philosophical stance that partly guides their work.
The members of field//// know that their work is distinctive because they had to come up with a term to explain it: arranged freeform. Trying to place that in more widely familiar terms, Greg Hanec says, “We’re kind of between the academic new classical and rock,” but a lot of what drives field//// can only be explained in terms that do not quite fit into record shop taxonomy.
Hanec and his bandmates (Thor Aitkenhead, Scott Ellenberger, and Tavis Walker) put out their first album last year, and this weekend will be heading out to a cabin to record hours of music that will be whittled down to The Whitemouth River Sessions. Some recording may be done by the water, some will definitely be in a field (get it?), and some will be played with sticks, rocks, or whatever else is around. By explicit design, this group leaves a lot to chance and circumstance.
Arranged freeform is a challenging style within which to work because a lot of it depends on rules that hamper certain forms of control considered necessary for most music. For example, each member of field//// must be prepared to play six or more instruments every time they perform. Entering each show, the only thing each player knows is which instruments will be played and the times at which those must change. They are dependent on little more than shared history and intuition to suggest what the others will be doing, which keeps the excitement level high for everyone.
The results of this process are obviously not as predictable as the cover band that does Tuesdays at your neighbourhood pub, but that is the point. Aside from the demand to play so many instruments, the only other crucial prescription for field//// is the timed sequence in which they are played—there’s your “arranged” part. In terms of how the players actually use those instruments, there is no map from “Point A” to “Point B” because they trust the journey enough to accept, rather than dictate, its destination—there’s your “freeform” part. Any given performance might sound radically different from the next, because even whatever instruments are common to both performances will not likely be heard in the same sequence or style.
Each field//// performance has been recorded in at least “some primitive way,” and somewhere along the line the band realized they were tapping into something special. What was intended to be a one-off show has proven so rewarding that the band is currently working on a feature-length documentary in which they grapple with wide-ranging questions about freeform: attempting to elucidate its benefits, acknowledging inherent risks, and pondering how individual audience members might receive their music are just part of the discussion.
They even explore whether freeform should be thought of as good for society. According to Ellenberger, “Thor is quite an activist, so everything he does [is for a reason]….He’s brought that question up a couple of times and we all have a different perspective for sure.”
Another project to be carried out at Whitemouth River is the second of three interview sessions the band has planned for use in the documentary. Even the setup of these interviews can be described as arranged freeform in that each member will be interviewing one of the others but they don’t yet know the pairings or the exact locations, both of those factors being left to chance.
Much of the documentary will also be about showcasing the range of work field//// has done. Hanec believes this will be, “actually one of the best things we’ll have to show all the different colours,” that may not be expected or even discerned after seeing them play just once.
There is certainly much that unites the group, but they explain the appeal of arranged freeform in very distinct ways. Hanec has been pursuing freeform for over two decades and says, “I’ve tried…my whole career to be unique, like something no one else has done and with this I really feel like we’re getting that.”
Ellenberger appreciates the outlet for working with a broader range of instruments than he gets to use with his “regular” rock bands. He notes that working with field//// also has an effect on how he plays more conventionally composed music: “It’s [become] a lot easier to kind of freeform the subtleties. Even though there are set parts there’s all this other expression that you can get into.”
High on the list of motivators for Walker is a love of experimental and improvised music that was simply not being fulfilled by his previous work. He says “cathartic,” and his bandmates rise to attention so immediately that one gets the sense they had both been flipping through their mental dictionaries for the same word. The members also unanimously agree that they cannot find anyone else in the music world working under similar rules, even in the freeform world.
“I’ve tried looking online,” says Ellenberger, “and I don’t find what we’re doing….there might be something out there that’s just gonna be really hard to find.”
Hanec offers an evocative explanatory metaphor. “You have to react like you’ve been put down on an alien planet….You have to have wits, awareness, quick thinking, cunning, patience.” He speaks with ease about an approach he has been honing for decades, which is not to say the process itself is easy. Working in what he describes as “survival mode” means it is crucial to pick one’s spots and allow silences their space rather than needing to be constantly playing. Hanec says it took him over ten years to learn this lesson, but he now describes silence as one of his instruments. Disregarding the situation for the sake of making noise, he says, “is like barging into a conversation, it’s brutish.”
“I think we explore more moods, maybe,” Walker suggests. “You can hear struggle in our music and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just another mood that we take advantage of.”
Check out what field//// sounds like on their Soundcloud page, where the first public results of The Whitemouth River Sessions will be posted by mid-August, and keep up with the group on Facebook to be in the loop regarding upcoming shows. In addition to their documentary project, there is also a live performance DVD in the works. It will be entitled Between Drawn Lines, and was recorded on six cameras at a show this past January.