The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada
The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada


Sounds Provocative: The Ecology of Experimental Music Performance in Canada is a research project situated at the intersections of ethnomusicology, performance studies, and ecomusicology. It has two purposes:

1) to explore experimental music in Canada
2) to articulate a theory of the ecology of musical performance.

Experimental music performance, broadly defined, entails creative sonic explorations by risk-taking performer/creators who often work at the bleeding edge of musical genres. We interviewed over 150 performers, presenters, technicians, and audience members at nine festivals and three seasonal presenters across Canada, from St. John's, Newfoundland to Vancouver, British Columbia. We documented experimental forms of electronic, multimedia, contemporary classical, jazz, creative improvisation, and popular music. Most of the fieldwork took place from 2003 to 2008, a time of major changes in Canadian broadcasting, recording, and arts funding.

Why take an ecological approach? Musical performance is an indicator of the broader state of the culture in which it is situated because it is both influenced by and works to construct that culture. Information gained from an ecological study of musical performance may well be useful in promoting what we might call cultural environmentalism: a concern with the robustness and diversity of a music culture. Although Sounds Provocative focuses on the field of experimental music performance, an ecological approach to the study of musical performance is applicable to any genre. The ecology of musical performance is one essential tool in developing theories of ecomusicology.

Experimental music performance sounds provocative. It provokes us to question not only conventional aesthetics but also cultural orthodoxies. Canada has traditionally been defined by tropes of nature and place, most famously the "idea of north" that was first expressed in experimental music in Glenn Gould's famous 1969 radio collage of the same name, and made manifest in R. Murray Schafer's massive Patria series of environmental music theatre works (1965 - ), several of which are performed in wilderness locations. More recently, discourses on Canadian identity in music have expanded to address issues such as multiculturalism, "glocalization," and postcolonialism. By focusing on the diversity of contemporary experimental music practices across Canada, Sounds Provocative both critiques and expands received notions of cultural identity. It explores the dissolution of (genre, cultural, and geographical) boundaries due to new technologies. Experimental music is examined in cosmopolitan urban environments and rural retreats and the trenchant role of nature in the Canadian imagination is reexamined.

Far from adopting a closed-borders approach, Sounds Provocative addresses Canadian experimental music in an international context. Canadian music festivals are sites at which international, national, and local artists meet, ideas are exchanged, and important professional connections are made. Although they are delimited temporally and spatially, festivals are volatile sites of meaning making deeply affected by annual vagaries of programming, volunteer boards, funding, audience attendance, and even weather. Instead of representing a stable notion of place rooted in geography, experimental music festivals highlight the fragility and changeability of place, inviting an ecological approach to studying how meaning is made through musical performance.

The Sounds Provocative Team
Ellen Waterman, principal researcher

Research assistants (2003-2019):
Maggie Burton
Tegan Ceschi-Smith
Martin Eckert
Scott Irving
Taylor Moran
Fran├žois Mouillot
Ophelia Ravencroft
Megan-Faye Rothschild
Thomas Silvani
Scott Thomson