Four Toronto music curators fill a void with TONE Festival

There's a lack of adventurous experimental music getting booked at summer fests, they say


TONE FESTIVAL with HAILU MERGIA, DKV, MARILYN LERNER & NICOLE RAMPERSAUD, GRUNEN, PERCH, HEN BROCK & RAINJOE MORRIS, SOOK-YIN LEE & ADAM LITOVITZ, ANNE BOURNE & MATT ROGALSKY and others at Burdock (1184 Bloor West), Array Space (155 Walnut), Jam Factory (2 Matilda), Ratio (284 College) and Tranzac (292 Brunswick), June 14 to 29. $10-$22, four-show pass $45, festival pass $85. circusbooksandmusic.com, rotate.com, soundscapesmusic.com, tonetoronto.tumblr.com


Toronto has a new music festival, and it’s about as ideologically different from the average summer festival as one could possibly be. 

TONE is a showcase of innovators, like German avant-jazz group Grünen, master percussionist/gong player Tatsuya Nakatani and Ethiopian jazz legend Hailu Mergia. 

It’s the brainchild of Karen Ng, Tad Michalak, Ron Gaskin and Daniel Pencer, all active in the local scene as musicians and event organizers. 

Their goal?

“To present adventurous music and connect people,” explains Ng from Rome, where she’s on a tour stop as part of Andy Shauf’s band. 

The organizers curate avant-jazz, improvised and experimental shows on their own (and sometimes together) throughout the year through their various collectives – Burn Down the Capital, Somewhere There, Feast in the East, Rough Idea – but noticed an absence of opportunities for such musicians during festival season. 

“Many artists we had relationships with would be touring the festival circuit in Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton,” says Michalak. “More often than not the Toronto festivals would pass on these artists, forcing them to either skip Toronto or approach one of us for a last-minute show. 

“Year after year it got disheartening to see a scene we worked year-round to build and invigorate get ignored by many major festivals. TONE came about essentially out of necessity.” 

Other differences?

It’s not an outdoor festival. Shows take place at the Tranzac, Array Space, Jam Factory, Burdock and Ratio.

“There’s no main stage or headliner, and we’re not trying to cram in as many people as possible into large spaces not ideal for listening,” says Ng. “We’re simply giving an opportunity for visiting musicians to experience our favourite local venues and collaborate with local musicians. Decisions are being made with the music, performers and audiences in mind.”

“There’s a real focus on creating connections between touring artists and the local scene,” says Michalak, “whether it be through curation or collaborative sets involving players from Toronto with players from abroad.”

Take the June 22 gig featuring American guitar legend Joe Morris. It’s in the Tranzac’s Southern Cross, which feels like a living room and sounds great. Michalak points out that Morris will be accompanied by saxophonist Daniel Pencer and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, former students of Morris’s. 

Sook-Yin Lee & Adam Litovitz, meanwhile, open for Arrington de Dionyso and Pierre-Luc Simon’s duo on June 24 – the final show at Ratio. Lee and Dionyso recently collaborated on a film, “so we wanted to put them together in a different context,” says Michalak. 

Ingrid Laubrock

Ingrid Laubrock performs as part of Perch, Hen Brock & Rain on June 20 at Array Space.

Operating on a shoestring budget and without any grants, TONE is a grassroots, DIY effort akin to Electric Eclectics or the Music Gallery’s X Avant, something Ng sees a need for at a time when Toronto’s festival market has become saturated by more capitalistic ventures.  

“The majority of festivals aim for big-time headliners or are looking to sell products, both musical and commercial, to a particular demographic,” says Ng. 

“The over-saturation of festivals, in my mind, [is about] the ones supported by large corporations. Their aim is to be large and exploit major headliners and other acts in order to make their brands visible and make money. There can only be so many of those before it’s too much for a city to handle.”

TONE is about experiencing the process of creation rather than presenting a “shiny, polished product,” Ng says.

“Though it may not seem like accessible music or profitable to some, I believe that doesn’t have to be the goal for the music to be enjoyed or supported. I love being a part of anything where the interests of economic gain aren’t the priority. Toronto has a strong experimental community that I’m extremely proud to be a part of.”

TONE’s programming is diverse, genre-wise, but Ng and Michalak say the performers have a common thread and approach to life.  

“They’re committed to adventurous music,” says Ng, “and it’s worth the risk to make it happen, no matter how impossible it may seem in the eyes of others.” 

See full schedule and ticket info at tonetoronto.tumblr.com.

carlag@nowtoronto.com | @carlagillis

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