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A Gentle Cacophony
Rat-drifting is Toronto's newest indie label. It's music designed for listening
Music Column By Yashin Blake

Rat-drifting is Toronto's newest label for improvised and experimental music. Composer Martin Arnold and guitarist Eric Chenaux debuted Rat-drifting last June with the simultaneous release of four CDs. The project, they say, has been inspired by the multitude of similar artist-run labels coming out of Montreal (labels like Fancy, Squint Fucker Press, and Constellation), and that a lot of good music happening in Toronto has yet to be recorded.

A label generally represents a certain style and quality, so the aim with Rat-drifting is to tempt fans of one band into exploring their label-mates. The four CDs are: Red Whistle by The silt, Treacle Wall by Marmots, L'Histoire Du Chapeau by the Draperies, and a self-titled set by the Guayaveras.

I identified right away with the gentle and suspended cacophony of sounds played by Marmots, and by the low-key, folksy attack of The silt's multi-instrumentalists. The silt are the only ones in this crop to include vocals, thereby making them a little more accessible. The Draperies and Guayaveras recordings, however, struck me as lengthy and circuitous improvised abstractions that are, at times, a little too quiet and painstaking.

I brought this up when I sat down with Chenaux and Arnold. Arnold, one of our town's best composers and improvisational artists, put it like this: "The listener engages in a co-creative process when listening to this music." The joy in these recordings, in other words, is directly related to how much effort you put into them.

Now, that may sound like a vegan telling you the joy of bland grains is in the chewing, but there is a real care for detail and texture in this music; the lack of assertion or bombast is intentional. In fact the label's name is designed to embody this. Rat-drifting is a variation on the driving term "rat running," or using sidestreets to circumvent gridlocks. The switch to "drifting" suggests far less urgency, a less specific destination, and a genuine appreciation of wherever one finds oneself.

Furthermore, Chenaux, who plays on three of these initial releases, could be, as Arnold says, "the best guitar player in the world." This is reason enough to spend some time with music that's designed for listening, especially since the endorsement comes from Arnold, who has a PhD in music and has had his compositions performed everywhere from Saskatoon to Stuttgart.

After spending some late nights with my stereo, I can tell you music by the Draperies and Guayaveras (Chenaux's guitar can be heard on both) is subdued but not without its agitations. Due to the level of musicianship, it's hypnotic but never somnolent or slothful.

Rat-drifting is not a moneymaking project; it's more of an opportunity for collaboration. Each artist pays for their own release while Arnold and Chenaux oversee production and distribution. Designer Lewis Nicholson puts the spiffy packaging together by answering the question: "Why can't the back be the front?" So you get everything you need to know listed on the front, while the back features art, like the kooky notepad doodles by Ryan Driver (of The silt), or artist Marla Hlady's luminescent photographs.

Tentatively, the plan is to release another four CDs in 2003. Recordings of the Ryan Driver Quartet and Golden Melody Awards are already in the can. There is even the possibility of a recording of the highly decorated Whitby bagpiper Robert Livingstone who plays Ceol Mor--a richly detailed style of Gaelic music that originated in the 16th century.

But the one I'm holding my breath for is the riveting, slow-motion duets Chenaux performs with Michelle McAdorey (former lead singer of Crash Vegas). When they opened for The silt last June they were fabulous.

* Available at Soundscapes, Rotate This, and She Said Boom

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