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X Avant Is the Toronto Experimental Festival Creating Dialogue Between Diverse Communities

With its eleventh edition kicking off this week, artistic director David Dacks discusses the importance of building sustainable scenes.
Ramzi at X Avant IX, photo by Kevin Jones

For adventurous music lovers, it's difficult to resist the appeal of Toronto's not-for-profit arts centre Music Gallery and their annual flagship festival, X Avant. After all, where else can you see early electro-acoustic pioneers, up-and-coming Canadian musicians, and internationally-acclaimed poets, all within the consecrated walls of a Victorian-era Anglican church?

The theme of the eleventh edition—which takes place Oct. 13-16—is "Reverberations," with the eclectic lineup including American composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros, Canadian experimental producer Egyptrixx, Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld, Chicago jazz veteran Roscoe Mitchell, and others. As in past years, it involves a wide variety of performances, lectures, and workshops by local and international artists, with the aspiration of arriving at a more universal experience.


"I realized about halfway through developing the program, Reverberations really isn't that dissimilar from the other themes that I've had over the years," Music Gallery artistic director David Dacks tells THUMP over the phone. "Basically it's been a lot of things about defining community, and in order to have a community, usually there's a center point to it or a set of ideas that reverberates to a certain amount of people. As a community becomes larger, these ideas carry through a more general population."

Citing newcomer multidisciplinary festivals like Unsound, FORMS (both of which are sponsored by THUMP), and It's Not U It's Me's summer event series at the Power Plant Gallery, Dacks says he's encouraged by other local event planners' increasing commitment to booking gender-equal and genre-diverse lineups. "Even though our mission is experimental and innovative music, it doesn't matter if we're ahead of some kind of curve or 'the middle of the pack,'" he insists. "What matters is that 'the pack' is moving in the right direction."

DJ Ushka and Lido Pimienta at X Avant IX, photo by Kevin Jones

But when addressing programming, Dacks insists diversity and gender parity are only starting points. Since taking over the role in 2012, working alongside fellow Music Gallery staff and other venues, he's curated X Avant and year-round events to amplify racialized voices as headlining artists, rather than tokenistic "add-ons to round out a bill."

"It's my personal belief that because black American creative music has been the foundation of North American, then global popular culture for over a century, it should always be centered, not just catered to," he says. He points to past shows featuring Kaytranada, Tyondai Braxton, and Laraaji, and a well-attended panel discussion last year featuring artists, journalists, and radio hosts about challenging musical tropes and exploring possibilities for black music, as recent constructive examples of creating dialogues between scenes.


In addition to Toronto spoken word artist and rapper mentor Motion's talk-meets-turntables piece "Bang the Furnace: Music, Culture & Identity in Toronto's Black Aural Spaces," which explores how house parties, Caribana "blocko" parties, clubs, and college radio have shaped and mobilized creatives in the city's black communities, this year's programming includes a performance from Deep Listening Institute artistic director and improv poet Ione, who collaborated with Oliveros on the 2016 album Water Above Sky Below Now.

Tyondai Braxton at X Avant X, photo by Claire Harvie

A member of Chicago non-profit organization Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, as well as a founder of avant-garde jazz collective Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell is another champion of out-of-the-box creative expression ("His association with the origins of the term 'creative music' is paramount to us," says Dacks). He'll close out the festival leading a 15-piece orchestra of Toronto and Montreal musicians through his compositions. The artistic director hopes that through giving credit where it's due and directing funding towards these events, "Toronto's Afro-diasporic community sees in [the Music Gallery] a place where they can pursue their wildest creative projects, even if we're not seen as a black arts center."

This same line of sustainability-first thinking fuels initiatives like the centre's year-round Departures series, which encourages audiences to connect with its partner presenters, while spreading some of its public funding to other spaces across the city. At this year's X Avant, this means attendees can take in Oliveros' artist talk at Toronto's York University or attend a late night dance party organized by independent online radio station TRP (currently on hiatus) at Cinecycle, a DIY bike shop slash underground cinema.


"We're really about community building and having a dedicated, thoroughgoing sonic experience that's relevant to the city, and the unfolding of music in general," says Dacks. "We're just trying to push it forward in every way."

X Avant XI runs October 13 to October 16 at the Music Gallery and other venues across Toronto, tickets and more info can be found here.

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