Here are my liner notes to Martin Arnold, Enamel (Rat-drifting, forthcoming late 2023):
In the dark doldrums of February 2021, I was thrown a lifeline by Michel Levasseur, who proposed that I play a solo concert at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, Quebec, in May 2021, my first in-person concert since things had shut down. Michel insisted that the concert be at least fifty minutes long; while I had played more than one hundred improvised solo concerts over the previous seven years, none had been longer than about thirty. So, I had a few months to rather radically expand both my range of playable ideas and the stamina needed to play them. For lack of much else tangibly motivating me, I threw myself into the preparation with what feels like, in hindsight, impossible dedication.
The concert was great, a spark of spring joy after a Montreal winter snuffed out by curfews and ennui. It also felt like punctuation, an ‘okay that’s done what now?’ moment. The process had transformed my playing, but the physical demands of the ‘training’ felt overbearing and unnecessary for lack of immediate application to follow. It was around then that I asked Martin, a bit sheepishly, if he would write me a solo. Knowing his musical loves, I anticipated something far less physically taxing than my solo improvising, but that would challenge me differently but no less expansively. I hoped for melody, probably of a slowly unspooling sort, and sought the avenues to wonder that his writing so deftly paves.
Touchingly, Martin was unequivocally excited by the prospect. When he asked what I had in mind, I proposed something that still obtained pandemic logic, a solo of about ten minutes with open-enough parameters to justify numerous recorded versions. I’d independently record versions more-or-less daily for a dedicated work period of weeks or months. When Martin asked me, “Well how much music do you want to record?” I suggested a couple of hours’ worth, to which he replied without a pause, “Then I’ll just write you a really long piece,” to be recorded in segments.
In the end, Enamel comprises ‘merely’ 30-35 minutes of notation, but points toward perpetuity. There are about a dozen not-quite-repeating melodic cells that unfold without proposing anything like ‘development,’ and beginnings and endings feel arbitrary; when I get to the end of the last page of notation, I can simply continue from ‘the top’ (an unhelpful visual metaphor given what’s going on in this music). The vital richness of detail at the core of Enamel derives from Martin’s invitation to ornament virtually every note differently. As I worked on the piece, through trial-and-error, I found that I prefer improvising these ornaments instead of etching them onto the score.
As such, Enamel is both through-composed and entirely improvised, both wholly Martin’s and wholly mine. The latter is the outcome of his boundless generosity and support as a listener and maker, an act of sharing that I continue to find very moving.
As I worked on Enamel over the months, amid the shifting social landscape in which live performance became increasingly possible and common, my focus gravitated away from independent recording and toward eventual performance and studio recording. Included here are an impromptu recording in an empty theatre (Janine-Sutto), a studio recording by Jean Martin (The Farm), plus the premiere at the 2023 Suoni per il Popolo festival (Casa del Popolo), where I invited the audience to enter and leave as they please during a concert that would last “about three hours.” My interest in longer durations was provoked by the improvised nature of the ornamentation, which demanded exponentially more attention and energy as I sought to detail each note differently, musically, and with a different musicality. Occasionally, throughout these five hours of music, I get there.
While vastly less ‘athletic’ than the pre-FIMAV preparation period, the Enamel working process was no less compelling and enriching. Likewise, it has transformed my playing and my thinking about playing. I am grateful to Martin for this opportunity and for the steadfast trust he invested in my work with and through his rich and fecund ideas; and to Eric Chenaux and Rat-drifting for the opportunity to share this music here.
• Scott Thomson, November 2023
1) Enamel (Maison de la culture Janine-Sutto) 1h7min
2) Enamel (The Farm) 1h13min
3) Enamel (Casa del Popolo) 2h45min
All music composed by Martin Arnold (SOCAN) and played by Scott Thomson (tenor trombone with Harmon mute). Track one was recorded on 20 July, 2023, in Montreal by Raphaël Foisy-Couture. Track two was recorded on 17 June, 2023, in Toronto by Jean Martin. Track three was recorded on 5 June, 2023, in Montreal by Mathieu Bélanger. Mixing and mastering by Jean Martin at The Farm, Toronto. Photography by Scott Thomson. The Canada Council for the Arts helped to make Enamel possible.