Fitting a 42-minute space rock composition into a concert set list is a challenge. Except when it's a part of a nine-hour live music festival.
This Saturday (Sept 3) marks the fifth annual INTERsection Festival (formerly the New Music Marathon), a free, day-long experimental music festival featuring Nick Storring, Quartetto Graphica, John Kameel Farah, and Flowers Of Hell, the self-proclaimed "trans-Atlantic space rock orchestra" that play the 42-minute opus.
Flowers Of Hell is fronted by Greg Jarvis, a musician who says he has a brain condition called synaesthesia, which causes him to see sounds as shapes.
"In spontaneously conducting O," Jarvis says, "I paint live with sound. There's no score or memorized parts. It's a sometimes-gentle, sometimes-violent monster that takes on a life of its own as I try to guide and control it, directing the Flowers of Hell through a series of improvisations that happen within a loose structure.
"The 42 minutes of O are broken down into a set list-like plan that I follow as I guide the group," he continues, "but it's only an outline; I flow with the feel of the moment. My synaesthesia causes me to see all sounds as abstract shapes around me, so when I'm conducting what I'm actually doing is conjuring shapes out of the instruments and painting a world around me with them."
While all this may seem a bit esoteric to the average music fan, Jarvis - whose band may well be the most traditional rock band on the bill - has faith that Toronto is ready for such an adventure in sight and sound.
"Nuit Blanche has shown that a wide range of Torontonians appreciate the art music bubbling underground in our city," he says. "We've got a vibrant experimental scene that gets international recognition, but the acts don't market themselves much; they're out to make music, not to sell you t-shirts. We gel with their dedication to the non-commercial. Some of these artists' records sell less than 100 copies, yet they go on because it's about pushing the boundaries of what music can be.
Adding to the already experimental vibe is the outdoor venue, which plays host to a variety of social groups, activists, vendors and buskers on any given day. Unlike a ticketed venue, there's no pre-determined agreement that the crowd is going to be open to or interested in the music emanating from the square's giant speakers. There's also a pretty good chance that audience members will want to join the band.
"At last year's festival," Jarvis recalls, "a set from the Ambient Ping got hijacked by a homeless guy taking over a mic, while a busking drummer on the corner blasted out beats over their quiet bits."
So we're going in with blinding lights and a wide orchestral arsenal that can unleash immense sonic thunder. For me, it'll be like playing a video game where you can press the ‘decimate everything' button if the situation around gets too hairy.
"I think you've got to be flexible when playing to a crowd that's got tourists, junkies, street preachers and your mom."