Phantom Orchard @ the Music Gallery, Oct. 22
With the Ken Aldcroft Convergence Ensemble
Chris Bilton, Eye Magazine October 23, 2009

It's appropriate that Ken Aldcroft's Convergence Ensemble is opening the second night of the fourth annual X Avant festival since, as Music Gallery director Jonny Bunce tells the almost-full house gathered at St. George the Martyr Church, this year’s festival theme of "Convergence and Collaboration" is inspired by their name. The ensemble begin their set with lots of fluttery spit valve action, which is tough to dig at first but gets happening soon thereafter as the sextet pluck melodies out of the craziness and pair up for some truly inspired lead duels.

"Work Song" and "Cheeky" from the band's new record Our Hospitality make up the better part of what comes across like a half-hour suite, seeing how the songs are bridged with a free-blowing breakdown. Adding to the sonic strangeness, the players sound at times almost as if they are purposefully hindering their own performance — like Nicole Rampersaud’s pinched trumpet notes and trombonist Scott Thompson blowing ethereal long tones over gurgly noise — and yet all are still playing masterfully. In particular, Aldcroft takes a wicked muted solo that's both tensely hushed and packed full of astonishing phrases. The band's romp though "Our Hospitality (version I)" employs a whimsical melody backed by birdcall percussion and, as with much of the set, highlights the drummer Joe Sorbara's ability to adopt any object into his kit.

The nearly endless applause for the Convergence Ensemble definitely outs them as the hometown favourite, but it’s clear from the turnout that the Toronto audience knows a good bill when they see it, especially when it involves a chance to behold two avant-garde masters engaged in such an unique collaboration. Fittingly, the laptop and harp duo Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins don't waste any time tweaking the crowd's sonic sensibilities, as Parkins plucks out a flurry of notes — weirdly muffled by a long sheaf of plastic intertwined through her harp strings — to the beat of Mori's twitching electronics. They quickly proceed into more familiar, yet equally idiosyncratic territory by moving through a number of the pieces ("Inquisitive Fingers", "Gysoflia") from their latest Phantom Orchard release Orra.

Things get unhinged when Parkins moves over to electric harp and turns the otherwise romantic-sounding instrument into something closer to Jimi Hendrix. This sonic assault is paired with Mori's video projections, which she manipulates while creating her end of the music (she's not just checking her email on that MacBook) and which feature kaleidoscopically altered insects, jagged loops of backwards fish and one creepy segment involving ominous statues. As with the song sequence on Orra, Phantom Orchard save the most brutal number for last, and deliver "Kiss that Conquers" with the kind of low register whammy-bar action (yes, the electric harp has one of those) that calls out for someone — maybe even the Music Gallery director himself — to utter the phrase "I…am… Iron… Harp." Finally, someone has harnessed the sound of Joanna Newsome converging with Black Sabbath.