Pleiades, a work for percussion by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, forced me to wear ear plugs for the first time. With all respect to Dionysus, it was the loudest music I’d ever heard.
But not as loud as Austra, an electro-acoustic band formed in 2009 in Toronto. Its members are percussionist Maya Postepski, singer Katie Stelmanis and bassist Dorian Wolf. Austra, as they say in the bizz, has a buzz. Their first CD, Feel it Break (2011) was a New York Magazine Top Ten Album of the Year and received a Juno Award nomination for Electronic Album of the Year and came within a decibel of winning. (Check out Lose It). They’re beginning to make it, particularly in France, Germany and England. Austra’s been on the road for three years and If any couch potato wants to feel queazy, check out their current touring schedule:<http://www.austramusic.com>).
Maya studied music and percussion at the University of Toronto and played for 4 years in the Faculty Percussion Ensemble. At the same time, Stelmanis was a voice major in the faculty opera department. Wolf is a veteran of many bands and no mean photographer. While still in school, Maya invited me to hear their fledgling group in a local venue used primarily by young musicians. The band was too large, a bit unwieldy and the house sound system did them no favours. After that trial run, Austra pared itself down to a trio and Maya’s contributions have bloomed with the purchase of conga drums, a viberaphone, glockenspiel, some traps and a complete drum set. Austra has also acquired managers and agents and most important for the trio’s music, a full time, professional soundman.
A few weeks ago Maya and I reconnected over dinner. She invited me to Austra’s concert in Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre. Besides free admission, she gave me a back stage pass for food and drinks at the after concert party. My first.
I met up with three former U of T students, two percussionists and a flutist. We had our picture taken with Maya before the concert and sat in the balcony at the back of the theatre.
I had been told to bring earplugs. I didn’t. The first tune hit like a solid wall of sound so loud, I felt my dinner beginning to digest. I sat stone still, trying to relax. Conversation with friends was impossible. Cripes I thought, how could the kids pressed against the stage bear this Maginot line barrage?
Nearby, a tall delicate girl dressed in diaphanous white began moving her arms over head, her hips side to side, in a slow meditative choreography to the music. She kept this up for Austra’s entire set, providing me an occasional diversion. As the evening progressed, I began to hear voices moving in the walls of sound. Stuff was happening in there.
Even so, I had difficulty separating electronic from acoustic sounds. Electronic percussion cannot easily be distinguished from its “real” counterparts, especially in a sound spectrum as heavily mixed as the one I was hearing. I wanted to know for sure what Maya was playing and what was electronically pre-recorded, but my vision is not too sharp and with the flashing lights, I rarely caught more than a fleeting glimpse of Maya and some mysteries about her work remain.
The trio is growing on me. Stelmanis has a voice with a band saw vibrato, an edgy intensity that could be interpreted as anger, but overall, floats with an indefinable poignancy that draws one in. She covers a range of emotions larger than the tessitura of her songs, singing with complete control and in tune. The bed for her voice consists of a solid bass and the driving pulse of percussion. For me, Austra has been a taste worth acquiring.
Austra is paying dues, but they are doing what they love and that’s aplenty. Rumour has it they’ll soon be playing Hollywood Bowl.
Whenever she can, Maya and a group of her friends manage to trundle percussion instruments across Eigensinn Farm, the home of Chef Michael Stadtlander’s internationally famous restaurant. Every summer Michael hosts a Wild Leek Festival. As many as 15 chefs prepare their specialties at stations around the farm and offer appropriate wines donated by Ontario wineries. The music of Maya and her friends accompany the moving feast. Stadtlander was voted one of the world’s top ten chefs and some aficionados fly into nearby Collingwood to savor his cuisine. Michael is also a leader in the use of local foods and has enrolled Ontario farmers and chefs nationwide to cultivate and use locally grown food. This past year he rallied friends, foodies, chefs, farmers and businesses to defeat plans for a mega quarry. An expansion that would have polluted the headwaters of five Ontario rivers.