Marina paces around the armoury space and pauses, listening. The dress rehearsal is well under way. She gives only minimal direction, letting the piece play out as a collective interpretation. As she experiences the sound, eyes closed, Marina herself becomes the performance, embracing her archetypal role of a newyorkaise composer in the throes of creating a disruptive abstraction. Free Exercise is still being conceived, even now, minutes before the premiere. The Artist’s mind never ceases to operate: sections are removed, others amended, ultimately striving to design a performance that would meet the expectations of the Montreal avant-garde audience. “This can go on for hours,” she comments, as she decides to leave out all repeats. Creative abandon gives way to a practical, shrewd sense for the economy of attention: “We can expect that people will begin to leave after about thirty minutes.”
Free Exercise involves the participation of a band of military musicians and a group of civilian performers, but the piece is less about music or the notion of military encounters with the public than about the performativity of composition and the act of composing. In a way, the performance has already begun long before the rehearsals, and would go on long after the last note has died out and the musicians have gone home, because the goal of the exercise is to foreground the figure of the creator. Thus, rather than remain in the shadows, as a “traditional” composer might during the performance of her work, Marina is front-and-centre, visibly present among the performers, profoundly engaged, and available for the photographer.
The piece itself is a roadmap of socio-acoustic relations. The score thumbs its nose at the obedience required by the standards of music notation and the classical conventions of performance. A set of geometric figures on staff paper indicates where military musicians should stand, while an ultraminimalist notation chart gives a general direction of how sound is to be organized. The composition is deceptively simple and involves many moving parts: a pedal effects artist, civilian and military musical directors, two percussion sections and two drummers, in addition to theatrical stationary and mobile lighting and live sound reinforcement. If the venue’s got it, it’s in the piece. The music presents several ongoing oppositional encounters: between the military band and a small quartet of civilian musicians; between the winds, brass, and the percussionists; between this entire group and the two drummer soloists, who in turn battle it out among each-other. The civilian musicians deliberately find themselves in the way of the military band, which moves in a loosely choreographed fashion following orders. All of this is superimposed upon the effects pedalist’s “dark drone” (as the sound effect is described in the score) which lends a foreboding sense of despair to the “exercise.” Throughout the piece, the military musicians adopt various rank, file, and chevron formations, followed closely by the civilian ensemble’s improvised musical commentary, while the drummers express their unabashed individualism in counterpoint to the uniform physicality of choreographed bodies.
Marina remains ambiguous about the meaning of her use of military musicians and drill halls, a practice she began with a version of Free Exercise performed by a band from the Royal Norwegian Navy. Although this initial collaboration, back in 2014, was the result of a commission from the Borealis Festival in Norway rather than a spontaneous artistic concept or a deliberate political statement, her ongoing interest in engaging with the industrial-military-entertainment complex would suggest the existence of an artistic vision that has been described as a tendency “to recast both sculptural and social conditions as musical, blurring the line demarcating the improvised or incidental from the composed.” A key to the meaning of the work is readily available in the title itself. “Free Exercise” is an exercise in freedom, but to show freedom one must also represent its opposite: oppressive order. Through the social struggle hinted at in the choreography, we witness that the exercise in question is, in fact, not free at all, but is circumscribed by societal norms which are inflexible, unflinching, unmovable, oppressive. It is a strange brand of political commentary on social order, one that exists in a copacetic, career benefiting, and lucrative symbiosis with the very structures it seeks to critique.
On performance night, discerning members of Montreal’s avant-garde cognoscenti soak up the experience. They walk around, in small groups, pointing to various components and whispering amidst the cavernous acoustics of the Régiment de Maisonneuve’s drill hall. When the music begins, several of the more socially confident individuals break off from the crowd and “trespass” into the performance area, focusing intently on the acoustic subtleties of the space (in reality, it’s a regular gymnasium complete with the sour smell of old fitness gear and disinfectant). Free Exercise invites such controlled social transgressions by setting up an environment where the boundaries between stage and audience, military and civilian, regulated and disorderly, music and noise are elusive, and perhaps inapplicable.