A recent article by Bernard Avishai, published by The New Yorker, offers an impressive and detailed portrait of Montreal during the 1960s and ‘70s, a “city of clashing and bonding religious communities”, highlighting how the dynamics of cultural amalgamation, architectural practices, intellectual currents and religious sentiment were voiced by one of the city’s best known artists, Leonard Cohen. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, making “the place half-crazy”, by marking the creation of the welfare-state, the implementation of federalism and the secularisation of society, is said to have constituted the political basis for the creation of a multi-faceted cultural context; being the new Quebecois identity shaped upon the notion that “tolerance meant dialogue and reciprocal recognition, not assimilation”, the artistic scene of Montreal could only re-invent itself as a space in which “contesting religious-linguistic cultures rubbing each other the right way” committed to a pluralistic ideology, incorporating contributions from les Anglais, French Catholics, and the Jewish tradition. Avishai aptly suggests that McGill university soon emerged as the very centre of the city’s cultural regeneration, warning, however, that “regeneration” corresponded to “a new model of political insurrection”, and lists “the restrained, verbose liberalism of John Stuart Mill”, the “scientific doubt” of Scottish enlightenment and the “lyricism of English and Irish poets, from Wordsworth to Yeats” as “insurgent” features of the newly created cultural climate.
Leonard Cohen’s repertoire is said to offer a faithful fresco of the process of intellectual renovation Montreal went through following the Quiet Revolution: his songs seem to merge the religious overtones of his upbringing with the rebellious and innocently adventurous demands of a secularised, politically engaged generation, particularly evident in his collections of poems.
30 years after the release of Cohen’s timeless anthem, “Hallelujah”, Montreal’s music scene is still sticking to the equation of artistic expression and political engagement. It did, at the same time, channel its rebellious nature into a “punk” ethic, turning, de facto, the Quiet Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s into organic, controlled and surprisingly self-aware, noise. At the forefront of the new generation of “revolutionaries” is a small, independent, record label, Constellation Records, founded in 1997 by Ian Ilavsky and Don Wilkie. Home to a number of experimental, breakthrough acts at the end of the 1990s, such as Do Make Say Think, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Fly Pan Am, Constellation is deeply committed to rigid ethics, while fully ignoring the commercial context in which it operates. “We are not – Ilavsky and Wilkie claim – an artist management company and we do not try to aggressively and relentlessly market and monetise the music we release. So, aside form all other artistic and social considerations, artists that we work with have to be excited by the specific work that we do: making really nice albums and getting them out into the world in a subtle, but principled manner”.
At a time when music is becoming increasingly intangible, and big names are systematically adopting technology in order to bend artistic expression to the advantage of money making, certainly failing to please everyone or to encourage the growth of small labels, being stubbornly anchored to a local dimension and adopting commercially debatable approaches to releasing and distributing music is certainly a bold and nonconformist move. As it is admittedly “just trying to be active in ways that bring us closer back to the idea of community and human interaction”, Constellation is faithful to the ideal of a record as an organic and tangible work of art. 18 years after its foundation, the label is still relying on the very same packaging techniques and resources, partly for the sheer pleasure of “ripping apart stuff to see how the flaps and folds and glue came together”, partly for its adherence to a local horizon. In a 2009 interview, Ilavsky and Wilkie recount: “We knew that if we basically did all the labour ourselves with rulers and exacto knives and glue guns, we could make some pretty clumsy but beautiful objects to contain some clumsy but beautiful sounds. […] When we started the label, we wanted to make stuff, not market it. First and foremost, the art direction and additional context that album packaging lends to a recorded work is hugely meaningful to us, and is what we most enjoy thinking about and executing . We have always felt that, if maintained on a human scale, using sustainable/recycled materials and local artisanal techniques and labourers, the artwork and packaging of an album is irreplaceable”.
The history of the label, as well as its commercial and artistic strategies, are inextricably linked with the events taking place in Quebec during the 1980s and ‘90s. The economic and political nationalist claims springing out of the Quiet Revolution sparkled fervid debates, intertwined with wider national politics: the elections held in 1976, in fact, unexpectedly resulted in the leader of the Parti Québécois winning a majority government and the consequent appointment of its leader, René Lévesque, as prime minister of the local government.
The PQ, championing a separatist stance and calling for the creation of a national state, soon decreed that a referendum be held on May, 20th, 1980, but this initiative was met by the opposition of Montreal-born Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who, instead, siding with the liberal front, urged the region to seek empowerment at a federal level by pursuing legislative reforms, encouraging bilingualism and implementing liberal economic measures, promising to carry them out in case the referendum had marked the defeat of the PQ. Many nationalists militating among the ranks of the PQ did interpret these promises as a less drastic way to satisfy the region’s demands for larger autonomy and power. With the ‘Yes’ votes amounting to 59.56%, against 40.44% ‘No’, the Quebecois secession was averted and the nationalist demands inevitably dealt a heavy blow.
Nationalist claims remained somewhat dormant, at least until the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when the disastrous failure of the 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, both proposing a reform of Canadian constitution to remodel the division of powers between federal and provincial governments, revivified the debates concerned with the sovereignty of Quebec, ultimately helping the PQ secure wider support. The Parti Québécois, led by Jacques Parizeau, was then defeated in 1995, when another referendum was won by the liberals by less than one percentage point. While the political aspects of the Quebecois sovereignty debates are clearly too complex to be summarised in a few lines, their cultural and intellectual significance is much more straightforward: there is, in fact, a striking similarity between the cultural semantics deepening their roots in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, and those developed during the 1980s and ‘90s, when the persistence of Quebec nationalism had an intellectual significance comparable to the momentousness of its inception during the revolution.
This is exactly the context in which Constellation emerged. Its founders recall: “We, along with many of the early musicians on the label, moved to Montreal from other parts of Canada in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Whatever our relative fluency in the French language, culturally we were a minority, and decidedly marginal (or more so than we would have been elsewhere, all things being equal). That breeds its own sense of self-reliance, humility and cultural anxiety. Quebec nationalism is a fucked up thing, but it is not easily dismissed, at least not in its origins – it is not simply xenophobic or conservative or racist, and in fact was forged chiefly from left-wing liberation ideologies and anti-clericism in the Sixties and Seventies. On social policy, Quebec remains one of the most overtly liberal cultures in North America. French Catholics turned against the church en masse, and Quebec remains among the most irreligious provinces in Canada as well. Which isn’t to say Anglos were not also identified as the oppressor, and that a central facet of Quebec nationalism isn’t viscerally anti-‘English Canada’. It very much was – and still is, though the whole nationalist position is by this point pretty incoherent, deeply compromised and almost laughably equivocal. Also thanks to Quebec nationalism, there was a huge exodus of English wealth and population from Montreal in particular (which until the mid-Seventies was the industrial and financial capital of Canada). Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, this was a significant feature of the urban geography. The economy here was anaemic and sluggish, and there were tons of empty buildings. But a relatively healthy social welfare state existed as well, so the situation was not extreme – no Detroit-style collapse from within, comparatively little crime. Just piles of cheap apartments and warehouse spaces in perfectly calm and centrally-located neighbourhoods. An artist paradise, really. The extremely low cost of living – and of rents in particular – allowed people to get by on very little while inhabiting comparatively palatial (if run-down) spaces. No doubt this gestated a concentration of autonomous cultural activity, and in very direct terms, kept Constellation overhead very low”.
If political life and debates resulted in economic stagnation, emigration and a deflation in property prices, they also – indirectly – encouraged the establishment of new cultural practices, which immediately emerged as guided by an oppositional stance. And it could not have been otherwise: the 1993 winter was the coldest in the city’s recorded history; the 1994 economic recovery struck everywhere but in Montreal, where unemployment neared 14%; young people left and, in 1996, there were 37% fewer residents aged between 15 and 24 than there had been in 1976; poverty rate reached 41.2%; birthrates dropped, between 1990 and 1996, by 20%. By consequence, the music scene of Montreal was animated by a committed do-it-yourself ethic, by a markedly punk inclination, both in theory and practice, by a sense of community unfolding out of political and civic isolation.
This context had a profound impact on Constellation’s early decisions and releases: in this sense, Ilavsky and Wilkie remember to be “drawn to musicians who had an analysis: who were politically sensitive and thoughtful, who felt instinctively that making ‘art’ or seeking self-expression and creative collaboration and cultural community needed to be forged from and anchored by critique and idealism in delicate and tender balance. The only truly binding artistic and social ideas were self-sufficiency and autonomy fueled by the pooling of resources, shared labour and constructive co-dependence. The only binding political idea was to have an analysis, to recognise that culture and economics were following a regressive and darkening logic on many levels, and to enact some sort of response to that beyond simple escapism and getting your kicks while you could. It was precisely not an identification based on genre or sound or style”.
This inevitably meant, on the one hand, that the label’s horizon was fated to remain local and anchored to the city’s artistic texture; on the other, it made significant growth almost impossible, but the founders of Constellation hardly cared: “Creating artist-friendly, sustainable, alternative spaces was the overriding concern and impetus. […] The idea that being musicians and self-organising, putting on shows and starting a label was going to be a ticket to any sort of financial reward was not even entertained. We were plotting how we could pull off the next weekend, not any grand strategy. […] Our agenda was to make, encourage and enable work locally that felt engaged, constructive and consistent with a wider social and political analysis. We knew full well we were trumped by all sorts of dedicated, deeply committed, seriously selfless bona fide local political activists. But we fucking loved the promise and power of music, and we were (and remain) very much aware and self-critical about what a privilege we were allowing ourselves. So we just absolutely refused to be fucking artistes about it!”
The anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, anti-corporate activism emerging in Quebec at the end of the 1990s and at the beginning of the millennium functioned as an echo chamber for Constellation’s radical ideology: its main features – neo-liberal critique and non-hierarchical organization – found fertile soil in the growing anarchist politics developing in the region and the label quickly came to voice “the challenge to neo-liberal economics, as theory and as practice […]. It was the air we were all breathing and it was the stuff we were reading, researching, engaging with and educating ourselves about”. The events surrounding the Free Trade Area of the Americas conference held in Quebec City during the spring of 2001, in this sense, provide a clear illustration of the political engagement, springing from radical critique and resentment, informing Constellation’s ideology. Left-wing movements sprawling across Quebec at the turn of the century were inspired by “an overwhelming sense that the neo-liberal agenda was going to be at least attenuated if not actually derailed; that general support, knowledge and understanding from the wider population was growing every year, that at least a mild overall shift back to the left (especially in Canada and USA, where there could hardly be called anything left-of-center anymore in the official political spectrum) was almost a foregone conclusion and the only question was to what degree grassroots groups and institutions could help shape and substantiate this shift, contribute to the critique of ‘financialisation’ and the revaluation of honest labour/income equality, and actually connect ideas of ‘direct democracy’ up with general citizenship and the population at large”.
For a while, the front page of Constellation’s website stated that “Economic downturn = progress”. When interviewed on the significance of this statement, Ilavsky and Wilkie argued that “the sole definition of progress on a global scale (starting with the world’s industrialized economies) that we can conceive of at this point will require concepts like contraction, reduced consumption, and the elimination of bubbles and other calculated financial ponzi schemes”. This, in turn, lends itself to a practical question: how can a record label contribute to the erosion of large-scale capitalist economy and encourage progressive economic downturn? At Constellation, they seem to have a rather clear agenda: initiative cannot possibly come from political leaders or large organisation. Rather, there is an ethical imperative calling for action on a local, small-scale level. As a record label, Constellation admittedly aims at enacting “a mode of cultural production that critiques the worst tendencies of the music industry, artistic commodification, and perhaps in some tiny way, the world at large” and at summoning up “some sort of reaction ‘from our own ranks’ as it were, some sort of talk about the impossible promise of indie rock/punk rock”.
This is exactly why, for the label, it is imperative to remain within a genuinely local context. The acts featured in its roster do show evident affiliations with a radical ideology and left-wing critique, too. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a 9-piece outfit combining vast soundscapes á la Ennio Morricone with avant-garde minimalism drenched in raw noise, galloping crescendos with desolate drones, roaring walls of sound with a cumbersome stage presence, are probably one of the most explicitly political bands around. This sounds almost paradoxical, considering that their music is almost entirely instrumental, except a few passages in their discography, adopting spoken-word samples. Yet, they firmly believe that “all music is political. You either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls”. Because “there is no ideology that seems to make any true and clear sense”, they perceive their music as engaging with “a particular junction in history where it’s clear that something has to give – problem is that things could tip any which way”, hence they “sit down and try to make a joyous noise”. Aware of the instrumental nature of their music, they emphasize how, as a collective, they “have to work hard at creating a context that fucks with the document and points in the general direction of resistance and freedom. Otherwise it’s just pretty noise saddled to whatever horse comes along”.
The context, a cauldron of anti-corporate propositions and mistrust of financial government intervention, is created via a skilful use of spoken-word samples, field recordings and the exceptional packaging of their releases. Already in 1997, with Quebec-based anti-capitalist activism on the rise, their first full-length LP, F#A#∞, begins with the declaration that “the government is corrupt/ and we’re on so many drugs/ with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine/ and the machine is bleeding to death”.
Similarly, the general optimism toward the possible erosion of the neo-liberal agenda at the end of the century is captured by the cover of their 1999 EP Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, consisting of a quotation from Genesis 1:2, reading, in transliterated form, “Tohu va bohu”, meaning “empty and shapeless”. While this expression originally describes the Earth before God separated light from dark, it was adopted by the band to describe the status of capitalism at the end of the millennium. It is not surprising, in this sense, that the back of the record features a diagram with instructions on how to craft a molotov cocktail.
Their 2002 LP Yanqui U.X.O. begins with a lengthy track entitled 09-15-00, admittedly describing “Ariel Sharon surrounded by 1,000 Israeli soldiers marching on al-Haram Ash-Sharif & provoking another Intifada”. The track Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls, in its violence of crescendos and tension, reminiscent of planes flying and bombs falling, is a passionate indictment of the United States’ military interventionism in the Middle East.
Furthermore, the packaging of the album contains an arrow diagram illustrating the relationships among four major record labels (AOL Time-Warner, BMG, Sony, Vivendi Universal) and a number of arms manufacturers. Additionally, the cover of their 2012 LP ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! includes two powerful statements: “Fuck le plan nord”, namely a five-year development plan in Quebec, supported by industrialists, but harshly criticized by environmentalists, and “Fuck la loi 78”, a much debated bill banning student protests. The album’s opening track, Mladic, ends with a recording of a street protest in Montreal.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor are not the only political band signed to Constellation: the very first release by Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra contains a rather explicit proposition: “Let’s kill first the bankers… Let’s televise and broadcast the raping of kings”;
their last, Fuck off, Get Free, We Pour Light on Everything, features a 15-minute jam entitled Austerity Blues, reminding the listener that “thieves and liars rule everything we know/ and thieves and liars rule everything that grows”, adding a note of optimism as “Lord let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down” is repeated at the end of the song.
The folk quarted Black Ox Orkestar, composed of Canadian and American musicians, singing in Yiddish, as an attempt to construct an identity as a Jewish project outside of – and in opposition to – the narrative of an Israeli state, do not adopt a softer tone, either, when referring to police measures in Israel: “Do the oppressed mirror the oppressor?/ The beaten child is on the street with fists/ And the sad race of wise men/ Sends brutes/ To the borders”. Colin Stetson’s abrasive, saxophone-only series New History Warfare, probably one of the most impressive and creative set of compositions in avant-garde jazz, deals with the intersection of progress, technology and conflict.
The Chicago-born, New York-based experimental saxophonist Matana Roberts, in her record series Coin Coin, critically engages with the exploration of black American history, drawing special attention onto the issues of gender, class and race consciousness.
Frankie Sparo’s two experimental folk works, My Red Scare and Welcome Crummy Mystics, are loaded with strong political overtones and the same can be said for Exhaust’s LP Enregistreur, as well as Sackville’s Principles of Science.
Decades ago, Leonard Cohen’s music encapsulated the identity of Montreal: his lyrics, loaded with references to Anglophone literature, Jewish religious sentiment and French history, are clearly illustrative of the coexistence of different cultures and their idiosyncracies within the city and aimed at creating new artistic semantics to bridge the gaps which socio-economic factors had brought into existence. Cohen’s life and artistic endeavours, framed within the context of the Quiet Revolution, are reflective of the emergence of a strong nationalist feeling, characterising the political vicissitudes of the region in the following decades. The aftermath of the debates between secessionists and liberals brought Montreal on the verge of implosion, making it one of the most troubled cities in Canada and rendering its economic recovery slow and problematic. There is, in this sense, a line of continuity between Cohen and Constellation: they both voice a process of cultural change inextricably tied to the city’s ever-changing social and economic life. And they both show a remarkable degree of optimism. The former, in fact, appeals to religious heritage as a means to unite people and foster a sense of community, while the latter locates a radical anti-capitalist ideology at the very core of an ethics of resistance and social regeneration.
A question can naturally be asked, at this point: how viable is Constellation’s strategy? Can their ideological approach to music industry concretely change things? The answer is two-fold: on an economic level, connected with the predominant XXI century narrative of the entertainment business, the answer is ‘to some extent’. With encouraging signals coming from all over the world, such as the unexpected resurgence of vinyl, symbolic of a nostalgic – or, perhaps, merely fashionable – return to the physical dimension of music and a renewed appreciation of its most concrete form, a small, independent label investing a striking amount of resources in packaging, undoubtedly constitutes a rare gem and, while a significant growth in vinyl sales cannot be expected anytime soon (for this reason), it can nonetheless rely on a stable and dedicated niche of enthusiasts.
On a political level, instead, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. All of the artists signed to Constellation engage, in a way or another, with political discontent, social enmity and inequality, and the label stoically offered them a space to develop their ideas in a free and unfiltered manner, to express their creativity in complete indifference to commercial considerations. This is because, ever since its foundation, Constellation sought to offer a space of cultural freedom for local initiatives. The history of Quebec and, more specifically, of Montreal, show that, during the 1990s, the artistic context of the city was struck by the need to foster a culture of opposition, resistance and radical critique. Constellation, in this sense, seems to have never adopted independence as a rather pointless fashion choice, or as a form of escape from mainstream culture, but as a means to locate itself in direct conflict with it. And the more reasons for conflict are offered by a system able to generate financial crises, housing bubbles, social inequality and environmental degradation, the more loudly radical left-wing critique will be required and empowered.
The opening track of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra’s latest LP begins with the voice of a child stating: “We live on an island called Montreal… And we make a lot of noise… Because we love each other!”. As long as there will be grounds for political critique, Montreal will remain a very noisy city.
© Alessandro De Arcangelis, 2015