[iks]: The Iksperience, Alive and Well


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Those of you who've had the opportunity to hear the Montreal-based contemporary jazz band [iks] have, I'm certain, immediately felt one of two things: nonplussed or absolute love; it's one of those bands. Those who've felt the former and awarded this band the necessary attention along with those who've instantly felt the latter are probably reading this and thinking, "Oh yeah. It's a real shame that the band disappeared."

Officially, despite the few years of absence around a brief return and the release of a little-known DVD recording of a 2007 live performance piece, (Le Cauchemar De L'horloger (Ora, 2008)), and given the five years since their 6th CD release, Inner Whatever (Ora, 2005), [iks] has never left the music scene albeit the necessary breaks imposed by life, studies, the desire to focus on different projects, and the shift in band members these entailed.

A major upset in the band's history occurred in the spring of 2008—what many assumed was the end of the group— when co-founder/bassist/composer, and electronics wizard Pierre Alexandre Tremblay officially announced what many already expected: he was leaving the group for a permanent move to Huddersfield, UK. Tremblay now teaches electroacoustic composition at the Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield while pursuing other solo and group projects (ars circa musicæ being one of them), and also acts as producer and session bassist for a wide array of groups. He earned a Ph.D from Huddersfield in 2005 and was already spending most of his time there prior to and after, one of the reasons for the slowdown in the group's activities; his departure was nothing more than a formality at that point.

"It was a tough decision," recalls Tremblay, "but I was offered an opportunity which, I felt, I couldn't pass up, and although we discussed the possibility, realistically, the physical distance made it impossible for me to continue on with the group in any way. The only logical and fair thing to do was to cede entire leadership of the band over to Sylvain."

Tremblay is, of course, referring to guitarist/composer Sylvain Pohu, his long-time friend and collaborator with whom he founded [iks] and the Ora music label in 1996. They still own and manage Ora together, and although the Tremblay/Pohu dynamic is no longer a part of [iks], the two continue to play and record as a duo—under the name, de type inconnu—whenever they can get together; they plan to release an album soon.

"Sylvain and I are continually in touch, and I'm still there for the band, but mostly in spirit," says Tremblay. "It was never my band, it was always our band; now it's his. I trust and respect whatever direction he chooses to take."

It's no coincidence that Tremblay wants this to be clear. Based on personalities and the roles assumed by each—Tremblay acted as Artistic Director—it was easy for fans to be mislead into thinking that Tremblay was the sole leader and thus, easier still to believe that his departure announced the band's demise. However, after an adjustment period, Pohu, a highly gifted and, in my opinion, shamefully overlooked guitarist, has taken full control, sincerely proving otherwise. [iks] is wholly back in action. The band has already given a series of concerts in 2010, and indeed, having attended two of these, I can attest that the essence of [iks] is still very much alive and healthy.

It's true that Tremblay was a major element in the group, his infectious, unyielding approach and staunch devotion to music rarely paralleled, but his departure has a plus in that these same traits are now more evident in Pohu as well—albeit the clear difference in approach—as he assumes his new role as leader and Artistic Director of the group. At their "unofficially official" re-launch concert given in December '09 to a small gathering of devout listeners, I quickly learned to set aside my disappointments in regards to Tremblay's departure, for, as true fans know all too well, changes are an inherent part of [iks], and [iks] has always known how to embrace change. Other than Tremblay and Pohu, none of the seven albums produced so far have featured the same line up.

The "New" [iks] I witnessed had far more electronic gadgets than I recalled, delving slightly more into live-sound processing. That isn't to say that they are drifting away from their organic, improvisational approach to music making; the purity and integrity of individual creativity remains uncompromised—their music still emerges from real instruments and lives in the "now," always a reflection of the moment, and that's true whether live or in the studio. Therefore, their music is sometimes crude, occasionally awkward, but it is always brilliantly honest. And because of this, called upon to describe [iks] using one quick "sound bite," that phrase would still have to be: Rebellion without the angst. In one word: Art.

A New Album for Spring 2011

The band spent three days in a recording studio in August ('10) and at last, they will be releasing an album in mid-April, 2011. "We don't have a name for it yet, but the launch is scheduled to coincide with our 15th anniversary," Pohu tells me.

At the time I spoke with him, he was working on getting the tracks ready for mixing. When asked what the theme of the album was, if any, Pohu simply offered, "I don't know; I'm still working on it... The way we work, the theme always seems to emerge rather than being preplanned... but the album does have an ambient feel to it that's not present on the other discs."

The Supersilent project having come up in a few conversations, I asked whether this album paralleled them in any way. "I'm really drawn towards the Supersilent aesthetic and it's what I had in mind when we started recording, but I'm just one guy in the band," Pohu replied. "Everybody brings their part... and well, if everyone else isn't in the same place I am... So yeah, the new album won't have any elements of the Supersilent sound. Maybe the next one will incorporate more of their approach. We never know; we'll see."

So, not much info to offer on the new album, but it will feature entirely new compositions, mostly by Pohu, as well as a composition or collaboration from each of the other members. They've been trying out the compositions since last winter, performing them live. However, "composition" in the [iks] vernacular means "framework," and plenty of that "carpe diem" attitude.

Brault, whose studio the group used for the recording, was entirely responsible for shaping and engineering the album's sound, his proven talents filling the gap for Tremblay's in this respect as well as in the role of bassist.

The line up features: Sylvain Pohu: guitar and laptop; Philippe Brault: bass and laptop; Nicolas Boucher: piano; Sébastien Arcand-Tourigny: sax; Joao Catalao: drums.

The New/Current Face of [iks]

Guitarist/composer Sylvain Pohu is now at the helm, though he scarcely likes to use the word "leader," preferring director or organiser since he gives the musicians free range within the artistic directions he sets, allowing each to take full control over their particular domain/role. Pohu, who is completing doctorate studies in electroacoustic composition at the Université de Montréal, now provides the bulk of compositional material—he already has a few awards and several collaboration credits under his belt—and continues to bring his own very personal chordal textures, spatial rhythms, distinctly coloured leads, and his quick fire reflexes, agility, and ingenuity on guitar. Pohu is active with the Ligue d'improvisation musicale de Montréal (Montreal Musical Improvisation League) where he hones his improvisational skills; he's also a founding member of Point d'écoute, a musical collective seeking to promote the evolution of electroacoustic music in Quebec.

Here's a brief anecdote that's very revealing of Pohu's unpretentiousness, and plain honesty, both in regards to his musical approach and personal attitude: after one of their concerts, I was besotted by Pohu's complex and overflowing pedal board and asked the obvious question, "ever get confused?"

"Uh... yeah," Pohu had replied with an embarrassed smirk. "It happens, I mean, there's so many of them, sometimes in the heat of things, I do press the wrong one." Laughter. "Now that's real improv, no? But you can't stop and act surprised, you gotta go with it."

Montreal free jazz pianist Nicolas Boucher has been a mainstay with the band since 1998, appearing on all except the first [iks] album. Through his work with Les Impromptistes, an electroacoustic improvisation group, Boucher had experimented heavily with real-time processing, an aspect he brought with him to [iks]; he is primarily responsible for the group's continued exploration of real-time processing of acoustic instruments, what has now become a distinguishing characteristic of the band since 2000, and also the focus of their fifth album abstr cncr (Ora, 2003), pronounced "abstract concrete."
Boucher finds inspiration in the full range of chord voicings, mixing from various traditions as he nimbly lays the syncopated landscape and textural dimensions. Active in several projects, he also regularly appears in percussionist Guillaume Coutu Dumonts' Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts electro-funk project. It should be noted that Dumonts appeared on two [iks] albums: Une Heure Vole au Temps (Ora, 1999), and Le journal de sable (Ora, 2002).

Dumont's project also includes other returning [iks] member, saxophonist Sébastien Arcand-Tourigny, who appeared on the first album, Punctum (Ora, 1997) then went on to do work on other projects before rejoining [iks] in 2004 for their 6th and 7th albums. Arcan-Tourigny has come a long way since Punctum, his rough, uninhibited yet rapidly tempered Julius Hemphill style gaining much more contours and shades; he's become a very skilful, soulful soloist and a powerful improviser who's totally at home in a creative environment like [iks].

Philippe Brault and João Catalão are entirely new to [iks] though not without their own repute or experiential baggage.

Basist Philippe Brault had already appeared on several stages across Quebec but it was after joining, in 2004, Quebec pop sensation Pierre Lapointe's group as arranger/Musical Director/bassist that he really made a name for himself for his important role in the creation of many of Lapointe's highly-heralded live shows and albums; in 2007, Brault (with Jean Massicotte) received a Felix for Best Musical Arrangement for Pierre Lapointe' highly successful platinum album, La forêt des mal-aimés (Audiogram, 2006). Along with [iks], Brault is also currently active with Erlenmeyer, an improvisation/spoken word collective launched by D. Kimm, which also features such improv heavyweights as Michel F Côté, Diane Labrosse, and Martin Tétreault.

Brazilian-born drummer/composer João Catalão studied first in Brasil, then France before making his way to Montreal to obtain a doctorate degree in Music Interpretation at the Université de Montréal, where he met Pohu. Catalão, the recipient of prestigious awards, is part of the UdM-affiliated percussions ensemble Sixtrum; Pohu also colloborates and has composed music for this group and he will be joining them on a tour of Quebec over the winter. The times I've seen Catalão play drums in the [iks] setting, a cross between Pierre Tanguay and Joey Baron is the only comparison that comes to mind. How can that not be a compliment?

The quintet formation has always been at the core of [iks], even if some albums have included additional percussionists and/or the occasional collaborations, such as clarinetist Robert Marcel Lepage and saxophonists Remi Bolduc and Charles Papasoff who each appeared on a separate album. But, be it a quintet, the group's dynamic doesn't adhere to the common rhythm/soloist roles usually assigned within such ensembles. Sure, there's plenty of solos and interchange, but there's no real predominating voice; each player is given plenty of space and brings a dimension that can neither be considered "supportive" or "ornamental," but, simply, an equally important part of the whole.

For the un-initiated:

[iks] officially saw the light of day in 1996, the concretisation of a common vision that occurred when Guitarist Sylvain Pohu and bassist Pierre Alexandre Tremblay met while undertaking electroacoustic undergraduate music studies at the Université de Montréal, their friendship and mutual respect bonded by a deep admiration for each other's musical and compositional abilities, Their shared interests and passion became the kernel which propelled them to launch [iks] and the Ora music label.

Ora embodies Tremblay and Pohu's visions, their frustrations and forecasts vis-à-vis the shifts currently affecting the music industry; it's how they manage to cope with an indifferent market, and it's important to mention here simply due to the absolute, no-compromise freedom owning one's own label entails.

But don't be fooled, this shouldn't deter from their credibility—as if a major label guaranteed a better product. They are consummate artists, and this, at all levels, from composing to packaging the CD's; the final product is of the highest quality possible, the depth of the recordings a pure joy. In fact, that they are left to produce all aspects of each of their albums is a primary reason behind their critical success; it's clear that they aren't making popular music, nor do they have false aspirations.

Crudely categorized—a label for the sake of labels—[iks] is a Montreal-based contemporary jazz band. More precisely, they're an experimental electroacoustic improvisation band. The compositions range from full-on improvisation to the written, the soloist finding freedom as the music, which seems to live in the space that exists between tones and melodies, adapts and flexes over a vast array of structural developments. But, unlike what you may expect, they don't sound anything like chaos. It's intelligent music with a soul, not intellectualized noise.

The driving force is passion. These guys, each well-trained and schooled musicians truly are making music purely and simply for the sake of music—creation born out of a need to create, not out of false expectations. And you can feel it. The group is actually led by that all ever important mix of raw passion and reigned talent propelled by an honest curiosity to explore new grounds in various ways, as much in regards to structure and style as in their live integration of technological wizardry. There's a whole technical side to [iks], one that seeks to push the limits of technology, instruments, and sound, but, and one of the reasons making this band hard to classify, whilst never allowing this aspect to take precedence over musicianship.

Clearly it is jazz; the sense of freedom inherent to jazz is there, their compositions merely acting as frameworks for the heartfelt communication that is about to unfold, effortlessly told with remarkable insight in a complex language that combines various styles and melodic influences, confined only by emotions and skills. Listeners are carried into recognizable music-scapes in truly unique ways; yet the minute you think you've put your finger on it, a transformation has already taken place, exploded, coalesced new genres that carry listeners into another dimension; this, from song to song, and album to album.

A phrase Tremblay likes to repeat and, no doubt, his and Pohu's mantra: "The day I release an album that's exactly like my last is the day I stop making music."

For this reason, [iks] has so far maintained a rare freshness with each of its seven albums, approaching each project as an opportunity to capture the group's moment—with all of its metaphysical implications—by utilising all of the collective knowledge gained up to that point, and drawing on the emotions present at that period of their lives. This is what makes those inevitable, reality-imposed changes in members the band has had to endure incredibly palatable to fans rather than detrimental; the per project approach frees new members from having to be imitations of their predecessor. It allows and adapts to each player's individual dexterity and versatility as musicians, as opposed to mere band members, and their ability to communicate that individuality, but as a whole. Yet the [iks] concept is so well defined and their goal so well understood amongst the musicians involved in each project that the band manages to pull off and achieve what so very few seem to attain—a unique and identifiable sound. Hence, every project truly is a new iksperience.

And indeed, from their weaker though nonetheless pioneering, rap-incorporating first album, Punctum (Ora, 1997), le journal de sable (ORA, 2002), the result of the group's 3-month long journey in Africa, all the way through to their phenomenal, push-all-studio-boundaries album, Inner Whatever (Ora, 2005), and their self-imposed video/audio challenge performance piece, Le Cauchemar De L'horloger (Ora, 2008), each album offers an entirely different approach and focus. Albeit that, when compared to subsequent albums, Punctum can best be described as a fusion of styles rather than a true breakthrough in the group's sound, but since each album chronicles their evolution, it's an apt debut for the band as well as for listeners.

I'm really hard pressed to find comparisons for this band. It would be easier for me to find relations between any random cacophonous freeform group than between this and other bands. The combination of electronics/sound processing with raw instruments is mostly what gives their music an unfamiliar feel; strong compositional skills add further to this unclassifiability.

The Paris-based band L e B r u i t d u [ s i gn ] comes to mind, but there's also a clear relation between these two bands which would account for any similitude. Like-minded folks always find a way to connect, and so did Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, saxophonist/composer Nicolas Stephan, and drummer Seb Brun. The latter two are founding members of L e B r u i t d u [ s i gn ] with whom Tremblay collaborated on an album, all three also forming the raw, electroacoustic garage trio ars circa musicæ. Nicolas Stephan also collaborated on [iks]'s Inner Whatever.

This band is part of an emergent musical movement, one that adheres to a clear mentality guided by some still unwritten manifesto, its roots in Montreal, Paris, and Huddersfield. Some may see this new school purely as a natural extension/progression of Pierre Schaeffer's radical contributions in the 50's and the Paris-based Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète that consequently formed then divided, spawning various branches, but this would be an inaccurate and reductive view of the [iks] aesthetic; although acousmatic sounds have played an increasingly integral part of this band's repertoire, it is far from being their focus.

It's music that draws from mentalities, not modes of expressions. It combines elements of the well-known polystylism of the downtown New York jazz scene, the unruliness of German free jazz within progressive rock structure, the ingenuity of Leon Theremin, the easy flow of minimalism, the attitude of postmodern classical music, and the spirituality of the Beat generation.

And that's what's so invigorating about [iks]; it's a uniting concept and creative force; it's a vision and an approach to music. Too structured for Musique Actuelle and too wild for traditional jazz, the result is not eclectic and disparate, it's a new language. The influences range from classical to pop all the way through to Afro-American. The musical themes are strongly stated, the ideas and goals clear, but the melodic phrasing and the playing is anything but hackneyed.

As mentioned, [iks] isn't entirely unique in this respect. They're a part of a fresh new mind-set, one that explores all the limits of technology within an acoustic world, whilst producing music that doesn't put any focus on the technology. They possess that rare ability to transcend genre labels despite an albeit classifiable approach.

The band does have its quirks, but I can't think of one off-putting aspect other than it's been so long for them to produce another album.

[iks] is available on the Ora music label. You can sample some of their music on Myspace.


Punctum (1997)


All music published by Punctum Publishing (SOCAN/SODRAC). Montreal, September 10—October 10, 1997.

Tracks: Strato; Ze...; Le Chat; Si vis bellum; Epitaphion; Die Kreisel: im Taumel der Flucht; Escepticismo; Slide in the Zamboni Zone; Quelques pas dans l'inachevé (un).

Personnel: Jean-Sébastien Nicol: drums; Pierre Alexandre Tremblay: bass; Jean- François Paiement: piano, keyboard; Sylvain Pohu: guitars; Sébastien Arcand- Tourigny: saxophone.

Collaborators : Dice B: rap/voice; David Fafard: percussions.

Le fil (2000)


All music published by Punctum Publishing (SOCAN/SODRAC). Morin Heights, Québec, September 6-12, 2000.

Tracks: Le chat (remiks A); Seul au monde; Le seuil; Avoir su; Le chat (remiks B); No Nu Tune; Cortège (du destin); So Yellow; La sincérité du geste; Le chat (remiks C).

Personnel: Sébastien Côté: drums; Pierre Alexandre Tremblay: bass and direction; Nicolas Boucher: piano and sampler; Sylvain Pohu: guitars; Jean-François Blais: tenor saxophone.

Collaborators: Remi Bolduc: alto saxophone (Track #6); Pascal Rollin: narration (Track #7)

Le journal de sable (The Sand Diaries) (2002)


All music published by Punctum Publishing (SOCAN/SODRAC). Montreal, July 16-22, 2001.

Tracks: Courir pour rien; L'éphémère; La brûlerie (45° à l'ombre); L'oeil de la chèvre; Temps désertés; La belote; Afriks; Dakar; Toubab !; L'âne qui tousse; La carcasse; L'ennui; Carte postale; Le journal de sable.

Personnel: Sébastien Côté: drums; Guillaume Coutu-Dumont: percussions; Pierre Alexandre Tremblay: bass and direction; Nicolas Boucher: piano and sampler; Sylvain Pohu: guitars; Jean-François Blais: tenor saxophone.

Collaborators: Idrissa "Zal" Cissokho: kora (track #7); El Hadji Fall Diouf: sabar (Tracks #1, 14); Pape Abdou Kkarim Diouf: djembé (Tracks #1, 14)

abstr cncr (2003)


All music published by Punctum Publishing (SOCAN/SODRAC). Montreal, April 14-20, 2003.

Tracks: Disk 1: Desert flowers; Maxime (mon juge); Le boeuf et la grenouille; Strato[rmks]; Hitchcock; Deux vies (une rencontre); Mégots; Cloches rose-catholique; La question; While heaven fell. Disk 2: Glas synthétique; Déplaçant mers et monts [rmks]; La carcasse [rmks]; Slide...[rmks]; Carte postale [rmks]; Le chat [rmks L1]; Deux vies (une rencontre) [rmks]; Cortège [rmks]; La poursuite—survie, lot quotidien [rmks]; La nécropole violée; Les tournesols; Le chat [rmks L2]; Boléro (vague).

Personnel: Stefan Schneider: drums and percussions; Pierre Alexandre Tremblay: direction, bass, and real-time processing; Nicolas Boucher: piano, B3, sampler, and real-time processing; Sylvain Pohu: guitar; Sean Craig: tenor saxophone Collaborators: Sienna Dahlen: vocals (Tracks #1-1, 2-4, 2-7); Robert Marcel Lepage: clarinet (Tracks #1-3, 2-6, 2-12); DJ P-Love: turntables (Tracks #1-5, 2-8)

Inner Whatever (2005)


All music published by Punctum Publishing (SOCAN/SODRAC). Montreal, August, 2004—March, 2005.

Tracks: le cri (à M.); petites choses baroques; strt (pour ce qu'il en reste); chanson (à R.); l'étranger (à C.); de dentelle noire; punk tutorial; supa brit agent; brian floyd; queen's gambit declined; we do what we do; walnut season; surexposé.

Personnel: Stefan Schneider: drums, percussions, and piano; Pierre Alexandre Tremblay: electric and acoustic bass, guitar, processing, mechanical piano, balafon; Nicolas Boucher: piano, Wurlitzer, sampler and processong; Sylvain Pohu: electric and acoustic guitars, processing; Sébastien Arcand-Tourigny: alto sax, flute, and shakuhachi.

Collaborators: Sébastien Croteau: throat singing (Track #7); James Duhamel: didgeridoo (Track #1); Danièle Houde: harp (Tracks #2, 4); Jean Félix Mailloux- Desjardins: double bass (Tracks #1,6, 12, 13)

The Sax Galore: Colin Power: alto sax (Tracks #4, 10); Nicolas Stephan: tenor sax (Tracks #4, 10); Charles Papasoff: baritone sax (Tracks #4, 10), bass clarinet (Track#5)

Quintette Aeratus: Sarah Brouillette & Matthew Brown: trumpet (Track #2); Gabriel Mc Cann: French horn (Tracks #2, 4, 13); Charles Benaroya: trombone (Track #2); Christian Leclerc: tuba (Track #2)

Le Cauchemar De L'horloger (2008)—DVD


Personnel: Stefan Schneider: drums, percussions, processing, sound design; Pierre- ALexandreTremblay bass, programmation, processing; Nicolas Boucher: prepared piano, Wurlitzer, processing, video; Sylvain Pohu: guitar, programmation, processing; Sébastien Arcand-Tourigny: saxophone, prepared piano.

Video Collaborators: Louis-Philippe Blain: staging, photography, video; Étienne Deslières: staging, video, photography, graphic design.

Related Acts / Projects

de type inconnu: Pierre Alexandre Tremblay & Sylvain Pohu.

ars circa musicæ: Pierre Alexandre Tremblay; Nicolas Stephan; Seb Brun.

Alter Ego (empreintes DIGITALes, 2006): Pierre Alexandre Tremblay solo acousmatic works.

La rage (empreintes DIGITALes, 2007): Pierre Alexandre Tremblay & Stefan Schneider.

Code 022 (Seven Seas, 2001): CatBurglaz; compositions by Pierre Alexandre Tremblay.

Sixtrum: Percussions ensemble featuring : João Catalão, Julien Grégoire, Philip Hornsey, Kristie Ibrahim, Sandra Joseph, Fabrice Marandola. Collaborator: Sylvain Pohu.

Point d'écoute: Montreal electroacoustic collective, co-founded by Sylvain Pohu.

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