[Review of Music/Sound, 1948—1993: The Michael Snow Project, Knopf, 1994 in Fuse Magazine, Volume 17, No. 5 + 6, 1994.]


Michael Snow's Music/Sound


Of the four books connected to "The Michael Snow Project," the Music/Sound volume is probably the one we needed least. As Snow admits in the introduction "ninety-nine per cent of the readers of this book will have no direct listening experience of the music discussed." While this claim is somewhat of an exaggeration, the general idea is true. This is a book about music that remains largely unheard, recordings that are rare or out of circulation and improvised performances attended by small audiences.

I can't help but look at this particular publication as symptomatic of the entire "The Michael Snow Project." This book did not come into being because a body of work needed to be documented and critically discussed. This book exists merely to complement a "celebration of Snow" staged through an unprecedented cooperation of Toronto's largest cultural institutions for contemporary visual art. In fact it seems as if it was forced into existence as a long and heavy footnote to this enterprise of genius-building.

Beautifully designed by Bruce Mau, the book features lots of performance photographs, facsimile memorabilia (newspaper reviews, concert announcements), a transcription of a conversation and a half dozen written texts.

The first of these written texts is David Lancashire's "Blues in the Clock Tower," an engaging account of Snow's years as a jazz musician. Part history, part personal remembrance, it covers 1948 (Snow still a teenager) to 1972 (Snow returns to Toronto from New York).

A sort of passive-aggressive hagiography is at play here, largely through the positioning of names. On the first pages of his introduction Snow reproduces his liner notes for his "The Artists' Jazz Band" 1973 release, crossing out all but the proper names leaving a list of musicians he particularly admires. The project of much of the book is to spin out this list into a genealogy of musical greats and position Snow's name within this history.

The next section documents Snow's activity with the CCMC, who have performed weekly improvisational concerts at Toronto's Music gallery since 1975. One long text transcribes a conversation between Snow and two of the other CCMC co-founders, Al Mattes and Nobua Kubota. Unfortunately, the transcript is largely unedited, leaving in all the incomplete sentences, the many ahs and ums. The result is casual and personal, but I found it impenetrably boring.

More direct in its lavish praise is Raymond Gervais' "Les Disques de Michael Snow," reprinted here in translation. However, Gervais is so intent on the project of genius-building he undermines his own attempts at analysis. Again, there's a lot of naming going on, with Snow and Glenn Gould set up as the binary stars of the Canadian musical universe.

Much more interesting is the dialogue between Bruce Elder and Michael Snow. Elder spins out long analyses/questions/comments, often developing several lines of thought in tandem, some very quickly, others with painstaking slowness. Snow responds with measured deflections that are never less than engaging, often downright illuminating. It seems that their dialogue could continue indefinitely, and I wish it would.

Part of the problem is that much of Snow's sound work was done as part of his film and installation work and is likely better of being discussed in these contexts. (What I'd really like to see is a substantial critical piece on Snow's brilliant The Last LP.) Also, because his own writing on his recordings has been included in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow rather than this book. It seems that after everything was divvied up, not much of substance was left for this volume.