A genre-bender with a crazy touch; The P*P show takes this Toronto trio into the territory of pop and jazz
The Globe Review
1013 Words
25 March 2008
The Globe and Mail
2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

If you glance at the program notes to Toca Loca's current show, you might be forgiven for thinking, initially, that you were in for business as usual, in that “new music” way. Here, for instance, is how Toronto composer Erik Ross describes his newly minted piece: “Fibodoiccannez Splice is a play on the Fibonacci [number] series going forward and backwards at the same time and a dozen providing security. … Moments of stasis happen just before all of the upper Fibonacci moments, and the piece ends where 12X12 hits the Fibonacci at 144.”

Ooooookay! But if you keep reading, you'll find names like Michael Jackson, Alanis Morissette and Earl Hines popping up (no pun intended) in the notes to other pieces. The composers' roster includes jazz musicians such as saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff, a performance artist (Myra Davies) and Nicole Lizée, the McGill University music grad whose master's thesis was a work for turntables and orchestra and who plays keyboards in the indie band Besnard Lakes.

Welcome to the touring show P*P, Toca Loca's foray into new music-pop genre-bending. And if that conjures up images of stiff, classically trained musicians trying in vain to fit into the new, pop-worshipping CBC, don't run away. As that mysterious asterisk in the show's title reveals, Toca Loca has its own delightful, quirky style. It would also be tough to find a new-music group with more integrity than this Toronto-based trio, whose members are pianists Gregory Oh and Simon Docking, and percussionist Aiyun Huang. Toca Loca's mixture of electrifying performances, free-spirited curiosity, discerning musical taste and a whimsical sense of humour has made it an irresistible presence on the new-music scene since its birth in 2001. The name sets the tone: Oh, the group's artistic director, explained recently that it “doesn't exactly mean anything, but ‘toca' means ‘play' (an instrument) or touch [in Spanish] ... ‘loca' (feminine singular) means ‘crazy.' ‘Toca' can also be some sort of weird hairstyle … I think … also a headdress of some sort. So to recap: play crazy; touch crazy; crazy hairstyle; crazy hat … of course, this is coming from a non-native speaker who only learned Spanish because he was in love with an Argentinean poet.”

Back in 2006, Toca Loca contacted “a group of carefully selected individuals,” according to the program notes, and “drew them into the dark corridors of P*Pdom. … These individuals were charged with a formidable task: to write a piece based in some way on P*P.”

The asterisk, the composers were told, is “a wild card that can represent whatever you wish. Be careful what you wish for …” But Oh's final instruction to the composers was: “Write what you want to write.”

U.K.-based Hywel Davies took full advantage of the wild card and called his piece PUP. (“Watch out for the percussionist throwing sticks for her new dogs,” he writes in the program notes.) Several composers covered pop tunes in their own style; many focused on some aspect of pop culture beyond the purely musical. Andrew Staniland's Made in China was inspired by his discovery, after the birth of his daughter, “that nearly everything she touches is ‘Made in China' – “her crib, clothes, toys … you name it.”

The subject line of a piece of spam e-mail provided the title and text for Aaron Gervais's Do you crave to shoot like a film star, bro? Oh explained that the shooting refers to a porn star's ejaculation, but Gervais insists the text offers many meanings, which he prefers to leave to the reader. For the word “film,” for instance, he chose a diminished seventh chord – “a cliché from silent films” laden with cheesy associations of tension.

Gervais says that his piece is “explosive” in a way that he may not have written if he had been writing for anyone other than Toca Loca. “I knew they could handle it. Aiyun has to change instruments every quarter note in first part of piece. I knew that she wouldn't ask me to make it easier.”

Oh, meanwhile, is no stranger to pop music, his two masters degrees in classical music notwithstanding. He plays with the band the Lollipop People and confesses that he has “always had a secret life as a lounge singer.”

“What I love about pop music,” Oh says, “is that there's a groove. There's a shying away from over-intellectualization. The audience can enjoy themselves and make noise; the performers can feel a little more free. I really enjoy that feeling of being able to do whatever I want onstage.”

Oh sensed the same spirit of liberation in many of the pieces. “A lot of the composers wrote something especially good, because they didn't feel they hadn't had to adhere to a rigid code of conduct,” he said.

That takes us back to the asterisk, and the question of musical genres. “If something is ‘classical,' does that make it by nature of a higher art form,” Oh asks. “People are still saying: ‘Is [the Québécois band] Arcade Fire art music or pop (in a pejorative sense)?' And when some of the really slick string quartets, like the Kronos or Turtle Island, or Alarm Will Sound play a piece, does it automatically become art music because it's done by a classically trained string quartet?”

Oh likes to ponder these questions, but doesn't worry about finding answers, “because there's a lot of room in life for beautiful things and probably not enough time to worry about whether they're going to be in museums in 100 years.”

Toca Loca's P*P tour plays at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto tonight at 8 p.m., Halifax tomorrow and Montreal April 1.

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