Percussionist Jesse Stewart, a professor in the school for studies in art and culture, explores the sonic world in projects that range from the profound to the seemingly bizarre. Combining the perspective of a writer, visual artist, academic and musician, Stewart creates works that expand on notions of space and sound. Charting a career path in four portrait-profiles
He concentrates ferociously, almost glowering, lips scrunched tightly together. Sometimes his whole body moves. Playing his drum kit, Jesse Stewart is on some other planet, focused on keeping time. And time is passing, although no one in the audience has checked a watch. All seem engrossed in Stewart’s mysterious sonic world.
Everyone’s involved as he thrums the membrane of a floor tom with one hand—all digits engaged—and, with the other, taps and snaps for punctuation. Layers of sound build up, louder, then softer. Then Stewart beats with both hands as if working the bongos. The large cymbal crashes, for all the world like waves, until he draws his drumstick against it, eliciting an eeriness turned silvery as his voice comes in on an extended note. Stewart calls the performance “an invitation to lose one’s self in the moment, the expandable moment, almost beyond time.” Eternity in an hour.
At the Gallery
Throughout August and September, Stewart exhibited his artwork at the Karsh-Masson Gallery in Ottawa. Walking in, a visitor heard the intermittent sound of a drip—a hanging intravenous bag dripping onto the membrane of a transparent snare drum. Little by little, the accumulation of water changed the timbre of the drum, lowering its pitch. When the drumhead filled completely, the drops fell without a sound. “Our first drum—the ultimate timekeeper,” says Stewart, likening the sculpture to our own pulsing hearts.
Upstairs were other works measuring time. One contained pieces of glass collected over 20-odd years, pale bits worn away by waves lapping onto beaches. Each day Stewart adds one more fragment to the more than 13,000 in this arrangement of concentric rings. Each glassy bit represents the passing of one more day in Stewart’s life.
Instead of giving the usual artist’s talk at Karsh-Masson, Stewart appeared for a performance, a first for the gallery. He played his trap kit, turning aside to spin vinyl on a turntable. The needle scratched and skipped across the square pattern he had sandblasted into the record, reminiscent of hip-hop turntablism. Only fragments of the spoken-word record could be made out, tantalizing snippets such as: “Time … the inexplicable material of our existence …”
Over coffee, Stewart picks up the white ceramic salt and pepper shakers on the table. Tapping the two bulbous bases against each other, he produces a dull clacking. “This does resemble the sound of two little rounded stones being struck together,” Stewart says, almost surprised, as if he had wanted to mimic that very sound. Tapping the shakers together again, he moves them to his lips, formed into an O shape. With his mouth as resonator, like the hollow body of a guitar, the clacks amplify, wowing in vibration.
“When performing,” Stewart explains, “I want to generate interest through a nice balance between the repetition of the beat and the variations between timbre and pitch.” And so, while drumming on plate glass, if he finds that its dull resonance makes for dull listening, he’ll drag or rub his homemade mallets, capped with toy bouncy balls, across the surface. A sustained otherworldly note ensues.
Stewart wants to “explore non-musical sounds and make them musical, elicit some kind of secret, coax new sounds from them.” Every day he listens; every day he wonders. Stewart is nothing if not inquisitive, sharing his curiosity with others who show any interest. Ordinary objects. What else can they be? What else could they be?
He has used steel bowls, electrical conduits, canoe paddles and a sheet of paper. He has played a reconfigured, almost unrecognizable drum set. And he plays with water. One evening this past summer, he played next to John Ceprano’s Balanced Rock sculpture on the Ottawa River. Listening to the sounds of the water, he made a soft answer with his hand drum. As the river replied, Stewart playfully thrummed back. When no sound came back, that silence was heard as never before. As a bird uttered a cry, he grabbed the waterfowl call he had picked up at a hunting store. Bird and man made unfamiliar music together.
Up the Tree House
In Stewart’s backyard is a tree house he built for his two children. It’s solid, nothing rickety. The stairs are steep, ladder-like—and once up, you see the splayed trunk of the silver maple emerging through sawn holes.
Two windows have shutters with gingerbread cut-outs. Two skylights let in daylight, and battery-operated lights serve in the evening. Inside are a desk, benches and a bed, hideaway furniture made of simple boards. There’s a shallow cupboard for storing the weatherproof cushions.
Stewart intends to give concerts up here. It wouldn’t take many for a full house. There’s no room for a whole drum set, but Stewart’s simple frame drum fits just fine. So would other small instruments: pebbles, shells, a salad bowl. Voice might get into the picture. Here, “the space itself becomes the improv partner.”
Back in the ’90s, Stewart played jazz and rock in bar bands. A few years later, as his visual work went on display, he left the dark dinginess of a club for the clean light of an art gallery. Attentive audiences were a nice change too.
Since then, Stewart has been drawn to different acoustic environments. He’s played at a second-hand store in St. John’s, surrounded by playable blocks of ice at Toronto’s WinterCity in Nathan Phillips Square, at Vancouver’s International Jazz Festival and at the National Gallery of Canada in front of Barnett Newman’s immense, minimal Voice of Fire.
So far, the tree house accommodates only three people, with perhaps a fourth perched on the tiny balcony. Up here, Stewart is reminded that many children don’t have a tree house in which to play, quietly or madly. Some don’t even have a real home. He proposes audience members pay by donation to their favourite children’s charity.
Down in the Cave
Stewart spent the whole of the last night in September recording his 21st (or so) CD in the Bonnechere Caves in Eganville. He took his two heaviest instruments to strike, scrape and roll, to mark time. Both are made of stone. One is a collection of rock core samples, the other a marimba he made from 97 pieces of cut, polished marble, weighing almost 145 kilograms. Playing in the main cave, the connected network of side caves and tunnels made for unusual acoustics amid what he calls “the poetic sensibility of stone with stone.”
Ever restless, Stewart is exploring the periodic table as a template for a new series. He’s working from the premise of every chemical element being defined by the number of protons in its atomic nucleus. The simplest element, hydrogen, has only one, which we take to represent its atomic number. Stewart proposes matching atomic numbers to pitches. Thus hydrogen would equal one pitch; oxygen, with its eight protons, eight pitches, and so on. A dense composition that’s tricky to pull off.
He knows that the Bonnechere Caves are 500,000 years old, that his marimba marble is younger, and that the earth’s molten metal, some in his cymbal, was thrown 4.54 billion years ago. And the universe? Cosmologists reckon that nine billion years before the birth of the earth, the Big Bang happened and somehow all 118 chemical elements were produced. From somewhere. Where have we come from? Where are we going? Jesse Stewart keeps up his never-ending inquiries.