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The Squiggle Game Alexander MacSween

From the album liner notes:

Soon after beginning work on this record I experienced a stifling creative block characterised not by an absence of inspiration but by an excess of ideas as to what it could be. Seeking a strategy to overcome this I asked Fabrizio Gilardino, co-owner of this label and designer of its album covers, to design a cover in advance of the music. I proposed this would be done complete with titles and durations for each piece, invented by Fabrizio, as well as credits for guest musicians of his own choosing. My task would then be to create the music that fit within these parameters. Fabrizio obliged enthusiastically and a few months later I received a draft of a blue and gold cover for a record called Dust that contained thirteen tracks with very inventive titles.

Although the plan worked well initially, I soon began to feel constrained, particularly by the titles and durations of the pieces, which seemed more and more in conflict with the music that was emerging. I persevered but soon realised it was pointless to let the music be compromised by a set of rules that were meant to inspire it.

At this time I was reading about the English psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, who played a game with his child patients in which he would draw a squiggle on a piece of paper then ask the children to continue the drawing. He called this ‘the squiggle game’. Reading this, it occurred to me that Fabrizio’s album cover and the included information, rather than functioning as a kind of musical colouring book, could be treated as a set of squiggles on which I could elaborate more freely.

Neither the original graphics nor any of the original titles remain, although many of the durations are quite close to the originals. The only thing unchanged from the original cover is the inclusion of the three exceptional musicians whose contribution to this record is, more than anything, what made it what it is. Corinne, Nicolas and Sam, merci, merci, merci.

Alexander MacSween

The Squiggle Game

Alexander MacSween

In the Press

  • Cyrille Lanoë, Revue & Corrigée, December 21, 2015
    L’artiste Alexander MacSween s’est inspiré de ce qu’allaient devenir les titres, les durées, la pochette (par Fabrizio Gilardino), pour composer cet album…
  • The Wire, no. 380, October 1, 2015
  • Gennaro Fucile, Musica Jazz, no. 778, September 1, 2015
  • Lorraine Carpenter, Cult#Mtl, August 1, 2015
    MacSween & co. really trigger the imagination as they bob and weave and lock in to intense vamps, and the loose, unsettling moments only add colour to a vivid picture.
  • Jonathan Bunce, Musicworks, no. 125, June 21, 2015
    The Squiggle Game is that rarest of beasts, the free-improv disc you can air-drum along to.
  • Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy, no. 85, May 1, 2015
  • Stefano Isidoro Bianchi, Blow Up, no. 204, May 1, 2015
    7/10
  • Réjean Beaucage, Voir, April 21, 2015
    … le contenu en est extrêmement varié et les 11 pièces évoquent autant d’univers dans lesquels l’auditeur se laisse guider avec un plaisir chaque fois renouvelé.
  • Frans de Waard, Vital, no. 979, April 20, 2015
    This is a highly varied record, which goes from strong song to another song. Anyone with an open mind should seek this out.
  • Ed Pinsent, The Sound Projector, April 8, 2015
    We’ve rarely been privileged to hear such idiosyncratic and unusual approaches to the construction of instrumental music, and the results are quite thrilling with their unexpected byways, forays and sojourns in unfamiliar turfs.

Chronique

Cyrille Lanoë, Revue & Corrigée, December 21, 2015

Direction Montréal avec les labels Atrito Afeito et & Records. […] On change complétement de registre tout en restant à Montréal avec le label & Records. Un label (qui semble ne plus exister) où l’on retrouve un catalogue garni de musiciens et/ou formations déjà bien implantées sur les vingt cinq dernières années ou plus, dans les scènes jazz, impro et jazz-rock: Klaxon Gueule, Philippe Lauzier (voir en fin de chronique), Fortner Anderson (dont on a déjà parlé), Martin Tétreault, Alexandre St-Onge, Sam Shalabi (qui joue ici) ou Michel F Côté (qui produit ici). L’artiste Alexander MacSween s’est inspiré de ce qu’allaient devenir les titres, les durées, la pochette (par Fabrizio Gilardino), pour composer cet album à qui il a remis l’interprétation aux musiciens Corinne René (marimba, vibraphone, percussions), Nicolas Caloia (contrebasse, korg) et Sam Shalabi (guitare électrique et électroacoustique). Alexander MacSween quant à lui est aux samplers, claviers, voix et batterie entre autres. Onze titres qui tournent autour du jazz-rock, ou rock tout court, avec parfois des incursions proches de Robert Wyatt sur Crocodiles, ou Him (projet de Doug Sharin) sur That Gum You Like qui ouvre le disque. D’ailleurs certaines plages un peu world rappellent toujours Him, sur Scarsdale par exemple. Et qui ouvre l’album à des sonorités pour cette deuxième partie du disque, avec une touche «impro» qui ne s’écoutait pas au début. Avec plus de place pour les cordes. Définitivement ma partie préférée, qui rejoint (un peu) le disque dont vous lirez les quelques propos dans notre numéro papier 106 à sortir prochainement, de Philippe Lauzier avec Eric Normand. Avec pour ma part une légère préférence pour ce dernier par rapport à ce Squiggle Game, qui reste néanmoins particulier et intéressant.

L’artiste Alexander MacSween s’est inspiré de ce qu’allaient devenir les titres, les durées, la pochette (par Fabrizio Gilardino), pour composer cet album…

Review

Lorraine Carpenter, Cult#Mtl, August 1, 2015

This Montréal drummer/composer is well known to followers of the local experimental/improvv and punk/rock scenes, having played with the Nils, Bionic and Detention — he’s currently a member of La Dauphine and plays solo (with drum machine) as MACHEEN. But The Squiggle Game (released online back in March) is a largely instrumental exercise, featuring MacSween (samples, programming, keys, drums, percussion), Corinne René (percussion), Nicolas Caloia (contrabass, keys) and Sam Shalabi (guitar). It’s esoteric, but not entirely without melody, coherent rhythms, beginnings, middles and ends. MacSween & co. really trigger the imagination as they bob and weave and lock in to intense vamps, and the loose, unsettling moments only add colour to a vivid picture. (7.5 / 10)

MacSween & co. really trigger the imagination as they bob and weave and lock in to intense vamps, and the loose, unsettling moments only add colour to a vivid picture.

Review

Jonathan Bunce, Musicworks, no. 125, June 21, 2015

The Squiggle Game is that rarest of beasts, the free-improv disc you can air-drum along to. Its absorbing rhythmic heft, especially on tracks like the lead-off That Gum You Like, is unsurprising when you realize that it’s the brainchild of a drummer. Alexander MacSween has been a part of the Montreal music underground since the late 1970s, working on every shade of the spectrum between rock and jazz: with punk and indie icons such as The Nils, Pest 5000, and Bionic; numerous improvised music collaborations, such as Detention, his ongoing duo with guitarist Sam Shalabi, founded in 1998; as well as music for dance, theatre, film, and multimedia pieces. The Squiggle Game is an anti-concept album, in which MacSween aimed to overcome a writers’ block consisting of a surplus (rather than deficit) of ideas. He asked &records co-owner Fabrizio Gilardino to design an album cover in advance, including titles, durations, and even guest musicians. The plan initially worked well to help the artist overcome his block, but soon he felt creatively constrained by the parameters and began colouring outside the lines, so to speak. He’d just read English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s description of “the squiggle game,” created for his child patients, in which he would doodle on a piece of paper and get the children to continue the drawing. MacSween’s pieces indeed have a childlike sense of playfulness, squiggling across the border between composition and improvisation. MacSween, who commands the drum set, marimba, keyboards, and rhythm programming, is joined by frequent collaborator Shalabi on electric and nylon-string guitar, as well as Ratchet Orchestra bassist Nicolas Caloia (who also adds some Korg synth action), and the revelatory playing of percussionist Corinne René, who fills in much of the tonal space between the other players, turning aural doodles into sonic paintings.

The Squiggle Game is that rarest of beasts, the free-improv disc you can air-drum along to.

Kritik

Rigobert Dittmann, Bad Alchemy, no. 85, May 1, 2015

Beats’n’Bass? Beats’n’Guitar? Beides. MacSween gibt mit Rhythm Programming & Sampler und seinen Erfahrungen mit Bernard Falaise und Martin Tetreault den Ton an, Nicolas Caloia (Ratchet Orchestra) spielt Kontrabass & Korg, Corinne René klopft und streicht Marimba, Woodblocks, Tympani, Gongs, Cymbal etc., Sam Shalabi, MacSweens Duopartner in Detention und rundum einer von Montréals umtriebigsten Köpfen, etwa mit Shalabi Effect oder Land Of Kush, spielt E- & Nylonstringgitarre. Zusammen wildern sie Eisbären oder Krokodile, sie kauen Gummi oder Pflaumen und krakeln, wie es der Phantasie beliebt. Wobei das erste Klangbild eher einem Tüpfeln gleicht, mit seinen punktuellen Gesten und Kürzeln, die in straightes Drumming von René münden, während Shalabi frei drauflos improvisiert. Nach ähnlicher Rezeptur entstanden so 11 Tracks, jedoch mit jeweils besonderer perkussiver Finesse und Klangfarbe, mal mit qualliger Pauke und geschraubtem Knarren, mal mit dadaistischen Spracheinwürfen und krumm genagelten Bluesnoten. Shalabi lässt sich jedenfalls immer ein bisschen was anderes einfallen und trumpft sogar mal als ironischer Coq-Roqer auf. In Zweifelsfall ist es meist MacSween, der einem ein X für ein U vormacht, mit Automatengetickel zu Marimageklöppel und Knarrbass bei ’Uncle Flabbius’, mit seltsamen Wooshes, U U U U-Kampfrufen und systemwidrigem Verhalten von Krokodilen bei ’Crocodile’. Wenn es komisch flötet oder rauscht, ist er der Haupt­verdächtige. Wenn es nicht wie bei ’Scarsdale’ doch der gestrichene Gong und eine aufbrausende Gitarre ist. Die dann auch fies jaulende Schlingen legt. Caloia streicht Pflaumenmus, bei ’Onward’ ticken Sekunden zunehmend groovy und stompy. Auch das Finish ist groovy, mit Korg und Marimba und einem schnellen, treibenden Shufflebeat. Ich fühle mich bestens besquigglet.

Waves. Impro Rock

Stefano Isidoro Bianchi, Blow Up, no. 204, May 1, 2015

Qualcuno ricorderà, nove anni fa, l’unico album dei canadesi Foodsoon che potremmo definire "band collaterale" dei Klaxon Gueule; ecco, a distanza di tanto tempo ritroviamo il batterista Alexander MacSween all’esordio a nome personale dopo una carriera andata avanti per anni e anni alla corte di molte delle migliori formazioni di imrpo-jazz/rock attive a Montréal. Con lui (batteria, programmazione, sampler e tastiere) ci sono Corinne René (marimba, timpani, gong, vibrafono, percussioni), Nicolas Caloia (contrabbasso) e Sam Shalabi (chitarra elettrica) e al centro di tutto c’è, inutile dire, il (senso del) ritmo. Guidato però più da Shalabi che da MacSween: è la sua chitarra rigurgitata e singultante che dà l’abbrivio a quasi tutti i pezzi, ora più decisi (That Gum You Like, DCVI), ora più astratti (Eleanor Bone, la jazzata Crocodiles), ora vagamente technoidi (Uncle Flabbius, Onward), ora completamente sfasciati e disgregati (Scarsdale, The Poacher’s Dream). Il responsabile primo programma tempi e controtempi (Love Me On Tuesday) e con gli altri "comprimari" aggiunge sample, rimbrotti, botte, rimbalzi. Tutto è essenziale fino ad apparire spartano e talvolta interrogativo: bel disco. (7/10)

7/10

Critique

Réjean Beaucage, Voir, April 21, 2015

Batteur et bidouilleur dont la palette stylistique s’étend du rockabilly jusqu’aux explorations «actualistes», Alexander MacSween est aussi compositeur de musiques pour le théâtre, la danse ou le cinéma. Cet éclectisme se reflète sur son premier recueil personnel; le contenu en est extrêmement varié et les 11 pièces évoquent autant d’univers dans lesquels l’auditeur se laisse guider avec un plaisir chaque fois renouvelé. Le guitariste Sam Shalabi s’illustre avec inventivité sur quelques titres, comme la percussionniste Corinne René, qui colore certaines ambiances, et le contrebassiste Nicolas Caloia, discret, mais efficace. MacSween a composé, enregistré et mixé le tout avec brio et le résultat peut être écouté en boucle sans lasser. Il s’agit malheureusement de l’un des derniers disques à paraître sous cette audacieuse étiquette.

… le contenu en est extrêmement varié et les 11 pièces évoquent autant d’univers dans lesquels l’auditeur se laisse guider avec un plaisir chaque fois renouvelé.

Review

Frans de Waard, Vital, no. 979, April 20, 2015

Although Alexander MacSween has been making music for thirty years, this is first release under his own name. He was a drummer for Jerry Jerry & The Sons Of Rhythm Orchestra, The Nils, Tinker, Blinker The Star, Pest 5000 and Bionic, but also ventured into improvisation with Sam Shalabi (as Detention) and he’s part of Martin Tetreault’s Turntable Quartet. Solo he sometimes works as Macheen with a drum machine and effect pedals. He is a man of many talents, which comes to great use when recording his own album. He plays here rhythm programming, sampler, tom toms, keyboards, voice, drums and marimba and along there is input from Corinne René on marimba, wood blocks, drum set, tympani, bowed gong, cymbal, percussion, bowed vibraphone, Nicolas Caloia on contrabass and univox MaxiKorg and Shalabi on guitar and nylon string guitar. They play on several of the pieces but not always and not all the time. This is indeed a highly varied album of some excellent music that easily moves around the circles of free jazz, jazz, improvisation, electronics, abstract sound scapes and these circles sometimes bump into each other, and sometimes stay wide apart. There is a fine choice of sampled voices, scattered around sparsely in these pieces. There are fine crafted rock rhythms, and Shalabi’s guitar spins, bows, moves around like he’s trying to kill the damn thing. Sometimes it seems that MacSween wants to play a more or less conventional rock song with some weirdo elements, and then there’s something like White Bear and Under The Plum Tree, with all its abstract electronics and sound scaping and the latter with a soaring cello. Crocodiles with some fine voice samples has a nice film noir ring to it. This is a highly varied record, which goes from strong song to another song. Anyone with an open mind should seek this out.

This is a highly varied record, which goes from strong song to another song. Anyone with an open mind should seek this out.

Review

Ed Pinsent, The Sound Projector, April 8, 2015

The Squiggle Game (& Records) is a true oddity from the hands and brain of the Canadian percussionist Alexander MacSween. We’ve rarely been privileged to hear such idiosyncratic and unusual approaches to the construction of instrumental music, and the results are quite thrilling with their unexpected byways, forays and sojourns in unfamiliar turfs. As an additional benefit, the instrumentation is odd, sparsely arranged, and performed with an interesting and quite modest restraint. On top of all that there’s MacSween curious vocal interjections and sparing use of the sampler insinuating themselves into the gaps. How did such a quaint item get made?

The answer may lie with MacSween’s own process, or rather the lack of it. Blighted by a creative block when faced with making this record, he tried to trick his brain into lifting itself out of the quagmire. “Do me a drawing,” he proposed to Fabrizio Gilardino who co-runs the label, “and I’ll make an album around your image. Matter of fact, do the titles while you’re at it. And write the credits for the whole thing, using the names of whatever musicians you think I should play with.” “Are you nuts?!” sputtered Fabrizio, nearly choking on his own panini.

Undeterred, MacSween received a completed package of art and credits. All he had to do now was fill it up with some music. At this point he realised that building a record back-to-front might not have been the best idea. This dawned on him while observing some construction workers at the top of a ladder attempting to build a factory chimney from the top downwards. His next step was to draw inspiration from the work of Donald Winnicott, the English psycho-analyst who had his own method for extracting the creative potential from his patients, especially children. He’d pass them an unfinished drawing and tell them to finish it. He called it The Squiggle Game; it might make sense to think of it as a more interactive version of the Rorschach ink-blot test.

MacSween achieved creative breakthrough when he finally saw the trap he’d built for himself. Instead of following his own ground rules, he took Gilardino’s work and “elaborated more freely”, thus producing the resulting album. We still have many guest players — Corinne René supplying even more percussion, the contrabass of Nicolas Caloia on two tracks, and the guitar playing of Sam Shalabi who provides much-needed detail and weight to this rather insubstantial set of nontunes. (Shalabi has also worked with The Invisible Hands and Fortner Anderson.) But it’s not clear if this is the original Gilardino dream-team lineup, or what. That’s not even his drawing on the front cover (in fact, it’s by Michal MacSween). Drive yourself bonkers figuring out at what point MacSween’s re-elaboration kicks in. I was reminded for some reason of Alessandro Bosetti’s work by this album, but in fact it contains far fewer vocals than I remember on first spin, and certainly not as many words per square inch as Bosetti crams into his releases. MacSween is also notable for his contribution to an old 2006 project at Mutek Montréal, where he teamed up with Martin Tétreault to produce a conceptual tribute to Ringo Starr.

We’ve rarely been privileged to hear such idiosyncratic and unusual approaches to the construction of instrumental music, and the results are quite thrilling with their unexpected byways, forays and sojourns in unfamiliar turfs.

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