Library Residency // A Sound, Fortified

September 27, 2018

By Lisa Conway

I have the Canadian Music Centre to thank for my introduction to the work of Vanese Smith. The music producer / DJ / performer / visual artist who releases experimental electronic music as Pursuit Grooves gave an incredibly inspiring workshop in early 2018 that focused on found sound and sampling. The presentation was open to participants and alumni of EQ: Women in Electronic Music, a program coordinated by Rose Bolton and the CMC. I was instantly taken with Smith’s approach to gear, embrace of limitations, and widespread sonic palette.

Vanese Smith. Photos courtesy of Musicworks Magazine and May Truong Photography

Music has been a lifelong pursuit for Smith - originally from Maryland (just outside of Washington, D.C.), she’s been making things since she was a teenager. She attended a performing arts school before studying film at Vassar College in New York, eventually moving her full focus to music-making. She’s released albums through labels like Tectonic Recordings (UK), Deepblak Recordings (US), as well as through her own label What Rules. Smith has produced re-mixes for Altocamet and The Knife, and graced renowned international festival stages including Sonar (Spain), Elevate (Austria), the Movement Electronic Music Festival (Detroit), and most recently Montreal’s MUTEK. She was part of the Red Bull Music Academy in Barcelona, and her music has been featured on compilations like Rush Hour's Beat Dimensions, and Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Bubblers. Her most recent release, Felt Armour (March 2018), came after a three-year hiatus while Smith took a step back from making music to work on her graphic design and art practice, MO:delic Arts. Inspired to create again, she took a month to focus solely on the record.

The twelve tracks on Felt Armour are enveloping and singular, and I sympathize with reviewers and critics who have struggled to place Smith’s work (she jokes that the underlying sentiment of most reviews is “we don’t know what this is [or what to call it], but it’s really cool”). From the cinematic tension of the continuous high held note in opening track Hide and Slick, the industrial and somewhat jarring opening drum pattern of Steel Care, to the head-twister of a loop in No Surrender, Smith’s universe often contains the melding of disparate ideas and sonic material, resulting in an album that is simultaneously tense and relaxed, smooth yet angular. The title is extremely fitting to say the least.

Through the often glitchy, metallic, and jagged palette, there are still funky basslines, and smooth and soaring synth lines, and rhythms and melodies one could, at moments, dance to. Basically it’s the grooviest musique concrète I’ve heard (try to resist bopping your head in Plex).

As an artist who is continually challenging herself to create work that is different from her previous releases, Smith has found the experimental classical community to be open to her genre-defying and evolving sonic universe, stating she was “really be a storyteller, and go through a journey in tempos and moods,” without being pigeonholed as a certain type of maker. A couple years stint on the Music Gallery Artistic Advisory Committee, as well as putting on shows through other organizations, was a helpful foot in the door, leading to more performances as well as workshops and presentations, and introducing her to folks like the MG’s David Dacks and the CMC’s Matthew Fava.

“The thing with me is that I don’t try and push genre and I don’t try to push particular types of gear….I try to push creative expression and tools, tools for how you can incorporate that [expression] into whatever you do, no matter what type of music you make”, Smith muses.

The strength of working with limitations is something that Smith talked a lot about in her EQ workshop - she’s only recently started using a computer on stage, and swears by her Boss SP505 sampler (she owns three), and recently added the Akai MPC Live sampler to her kit to go alongside a number of synthesizers. Live performance set-ups, particularly in the electronic world, are always evolving and in-progress, and though Smith welcomes the flexibility her laptop allows her, she still doesn’t want it to be the centre of her performance, joking, “I don’t want to look like I’m looking at emails the whole time.”

Musical performances that rely so heavily on technology often require extra consideration and care for space and context. Smith and I talk a lot about how one can elevate the experience for the audience visually - whether it be set design, lighting, or other alternatives. As much as possible, Smith is thoughtful of the presentation involved in every performance - the layout of the stage, the practicality of incorporating visual components, and how the listeners will receive the set - sitting or standing.

Vanese Smith during her keynote presentation at the CMC as part of EQ, March 2018. Photo: Bianca Pugliese

While Felt Armour is an instrumental beast similar to many entries in the Pursuit Grooves catalogue, Smith is both singer and MC on past records. Using her voice is not something that she is decisively against - when she started making music, she was writing lyrics - but being a singer isn’t something she wants to be known for necessarily. Vocal performances often overshadow production or composition work, and Smith wants to be known and recognized as a producer and writer. Times are slowly changing, but unfortunately much of the public still makes assumptions about the role and involvement of singers in the work behind the scenes, particularly with female or female-identifying performers. And though Smith thoroughly enjoys experimenting with vocal textures and layering in a studio context - using the voice more “as an instrument” - she never intends to perform the vocal parts live on stage. Another vocal album isn’t out of the question though, she reveals, reflecting “you never know what you’re going to get with me, and honestly half the time, I don’t even know what I’m going to get from myself … that’s the beauty of it.”

I ask Smith if she has any advice for aspiring producers and music-makers. She replies with a thorough and considered list: “keep positive people around you, listen to other genres, learn things about the industry, don’t try and copy anybody else, challenge yourself, don’t go gear crazy before learning what you have inside and out” and most importantly, “believe in yourself, even if that’s hard”.

“Not everybody’s built for this,” she reflects honestly, “[but] I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to shake this.” She hints she’s feeling very creative and working on things right now, which may involve more collaborative work, teasing “There’s a possibility something might be ready before the year is done”. We’ll all keep our fingers crossed.

Lisa Conway is one of the 2018 CMC Library Artists in Residence and will be contributing a series of blogs profiling works by Canadian composers. Visit the community page on the CMC website regularly for new content.