Interview: Ian Ferrier
Part of the Montreal
Fall Books Spectacular
Ian Ferrier has been a catalyst in the
world of performance poetry in Montreal and beyond for the past decade.
Headman, a CD/book was released by Planete Rebelle press in
1999 and garnered attention to the form, and was perhaps one of the last
major works released in what can now be called a significant boom period
for Spoken Word in Montreal.
The scene is still vibrant, with published
authors and staunch spoken word artists (seasoned and new) converging at
events all over the city. Ferrier's new CD is What
Is This Place? (available from Bongobeat.com).
Correspondent Mary Williamson
interviewed Ian Ferrier on the spoken word scene, his new CD and the
I first met Ian Ferrier during FTA
(Festival TransAmériques) outside
La Piscine in Montreal at a preview of Dana
Gringas's SmashUp. I expected a booming voice to resonate
from his towering frame as he approached from a motorcycle and set his
powerful gaze. Ian Ferrier is a soft spoken, thoughtful and
intense listener whose interest in the creative projects of the
artists around him is boundless and enthusiastic. "Spoken
Word" is a literary genre that often occupies a volatile space in
Canadian letters; it is both highly revered and severely mocked.
I met up with Ian to discuss the
form and to engage him in a conversation regarding his most recent
Spoken Word CD What is This Place , which was launched recently
Previously when we spoke after the
Words and Music Show on August 19th
[with Robert Priest, Paula Belina, Jordi Rosen and Ilona Martonfi],
you discussed a certain reverence and investment in
"silence", "nothingness" and
"voice". How do these themes figure into your work and
how are they related or unrelated?
Maybe think of Samuel Beckett a
bit. Voice as the signature of our consciousness scratching on the
abyss. Voice as the moving signature of what's human. I seem
to remember Beckett has a play where a person is reduced to a head, and
finally to a mouth. Another part of my interest stems from music,
in which the terms are note and rest, sound and silence. If you
think of a person or an animal in motion, or any composition in time,
these are the two core elements.
I heard you started on the radio....is that correct?
Yes we did a project called Wired on Words, where we recorded about sixteen poets
onto playable media and put them in the DJ booth at CKUT 90.3 FM.All the show hosts
could play them in the same way they usually played songs. Poets started to the appear in
the radio top 40 charts, and one hit #1.
The project won that year's Standard
Broadcasting Award for originality in programming, and we used the money
from the award to do a CD. That CD—Millennium Cabaret—had
over 20 works by different poets, and to my mind it still defines some
of the best in spoken word. Of the artists on that CD—Catherine
Kidd, Heather O'Neill, Fortner
Anderson, Corey Frost, Geneviéve Letarte,
Todd Swift and a host of others—a
good slice have made a career out of literature, and done well at
it. We still reprint that CD from time to time.
As for the promoting other artists
part, you have to realize that when we started there was no spoken word
scene. So if we wanted room to work we had to build an audience
for the work. And make it fun to be part of. I still define art as
thinking there's something you'd like to see or hear in the culture, and
then making it happen.
What are some of the distinguishing
elements of spoken word scenes in places other than Montreal?
There are spoken word and poetry
festivals in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Durham, Kingston, Montreal and
(for the first time this year) Halifax. Many of them have at least one
poetry slam going on: a place where up-and-coming poets and
performers can present works to an audience. Other places, and
many of the larger cities, combine this with poetry shows, words &
music shows, hip hop shows etc.
Montreal is unusual in that the poetry
slam part only existed for a few years quite a long time ago. And—at
least in the English speaking scene—it hasn't been back. We're
much more words & music oriented here. Although just lately
slam is coming back, but this time in the French culture. By
slam I mean poetry contests where each poet has three minutes to say
something to an audience, and one of them is judged as the best
Could you tell me about the
collaborators on this project?
Most of the people on the CD are people
I've done shows with in the past. That's how I met the Diviners,
who were doing haunting blues harmonies. The first track with
them, What is this Place?, represents the first completely
imagined project I've ever done. I heard their voices, and
imagined in detail what a project with them might be like, and then
built it. That was really exciting. There's 24 tracks of
multiple vocal harmonies in that piece.
Shows are also where I met Normand
Guilbeault, Jean Derome, Pierre Tanguey, Gordon Krieger and Kathy
Kennedy. Sam Shalabi, André Asselin and Jay Scodnick—who play
on Blue Train—all worked on my first CD. I worked with
sax player Bryan Highbloom for years. His horn appears on three tracks
of the new CD.
The major new work has been the improv
work with Pharmakon. This all arose out of meeting Kris Mah at DNA
Studios. I guess he'd heard some of my work being mixed there, and
he suggested getting together with the rest of Pharmakon.
That was a complete rush. The 2nd
tune on the CD is the first tune we ever did, from our first live show
at Casa del Popolo in Montreal. NOBODY gets a CD quality tune from
their first live show! The other Pharmakon track is an
improv that's gone through Jon Stein magic (he mixes for Pharmakon) and
come out the other side. What we're doing in these tracks is
creating and then looping multiple melodies together in real time.
You mentioned to me that Robbie
Robertson is a significant influence.
Could you expand a little about how he figures on the first track of
your new CD?
I think it was specifically from
listening to Peyote Healing on his Contact from the Underworld
of Redboy CD. That gave me the idea that you could repeat a long
poetic line like a mantra, and then modulate it as you went along.
So that each repetition added some variation or some layer of meaning to
This is dangerous ground in poetry, how
to work with repetition and retain meaning at the same time….
"This Fire" is a video
component on your new CD (with Marlene Millar).
It features dance, and sculptural installation. How do these
elements outside of sound, written or spoken language alter your work
and your perception of the possibilities of Spoken Word?
I first went to college with artists,
dancers, musicians—all working in the same program. So I'm quite
comfortable with ideas from other disciplines, and very happy for the
chance to collaborate with other artists.
As to that particular piece, everything
I do is about motion. Life is motion. That's what allows us
to watch TV for hours. We're hard wired to watch things
move. The only thing screens cut out is the part about us moving
So in that video, everything's
moving. The piece itself is about passion against the motion of
snow, so the installation's red velvet and white porcelain shards are
not much of a stretch. Nor is the work of Peter Trotszmer dancing, or
the nice editing by Marlene Millar. I love working with
dancers. They hardly ever say a word…so that leaves me lots of
room in the score.
How do voice, intent and language
change when you apply a musical score?
Music is so attractive that unless
you're careful it can be a real crutch. Think of analyzing the
words to your favourite songs. Now think of saying those words
without music….Most of the time you'll find they're complete
I want the words to be just as strong
as the music. That's been the core aesthetic all the way
through. The pieces work like a film in a way….the story and
images are projected by the words, and music provides the environment
and the ambience. One thing music does is it allows you to shut up
from time to time…which is an excellent thing for a poet to do.
You explained to me that you want parts
of What Is This Place? to
resemble a voice whispered in the listener's ear as they lay their
head on a pillow. What or who's work does this for you?
Nobody's. That's why I did it. There's
some early work by Tricky that resembles what I'm looking
for. But the major impetus comes from childhood I think.
Lying back on a pillow and being transported by the stories my father
told. Or later in my life, lying back with a woman in the dark,
and creating a world from touch and from voices in the dark.
I still find voice to be the medium
that most transports me. Much more so than film or music. That's why
spoken word has worked so well on radio. You'd be alone in your car, or
studying late at night, and a spoken word piece would appear without any
introduction or context. Nobody said it was poetry, so it just sounded
like somebody speaking about their lives….And many listeners found
that experience to be completely transporting. Because oops the
medium forgot to tell you it was poetry. And in doing so it
totally bypassed the worst of your literary education.
I remember one really nice example of
this. We were putting on a show at the Yellow Door in
Montreal. Heather O'Neill was supposed to appear and for some
reason she couldn't make it. So when it came to her place in the
show we left the stage empty, introduced her, and played the amazing
piece she recorded for Millennium Cabaret over the sound system.
And the whole audience just disappeared
into that piece. I'm sure it's still one of the most powerful
performances she's ever done.
What is gained and/or lost when Spoken
Word is recorded?
It depends on the performer
really. Some people's work so relies on their presence that it
doesn't translate to CD. Others sound like they're born to be
As to the medium itself, CD does for
spoken word what Gutenberg did for writing. It gives us an
archival medium for our work. It allows us to present works that
only unfold all their content after being heard many times. And,
now that it's part of the digital age, it allows us to transmit this
virus all over the planet via the internet. One track on the new
CD—Fire Hot are the Deserts of Men—is being released on CD in
Australia as we speak.
What is you next CD about?
The amazing thing about this project is
how it was built. A huge slice of the content comes from taking a
house on the West Island in Montreal and wiring it for sound for three
months. We had drums in the basement, a guitar amp in another
room, vocal booth upstairs, and 16 tracks running to computer.
When we had the whole house on a headphone mix we started improvising,
and we did voice and music improv for three months. Voice appears
in a lot of different contexts, and sometimes you can barely hear
words. They just catch on the edge of consciousness. So
there are numerous pieces where voice is much more of an
instrument. That's the work we're mixing now, and it will join work
already mixed from our first studio session in 2006. I've never
heard anything like it.