Here's a string, it makes a pitch, and you wrap it around the rest of the apparatus and that's going to have a huge impact on it.
—Jesse Krause, musician
In the basement workshop of his River Heights home, Jesse Krause is playing a moose antler.
To be more specific, Jesse Krause is playing a moose antler that he found years ago in a neighbour's backyard. He is playing a moose antler he drilled and pegged with strings, that plucks like a harp and rings like a guitar. And he's playing the wild instrument the way he and his brother Thomas will play it at the West End Cultural Centre on Wednesday, when Krause debuts his 30-minute musical journey tracing the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar's descent into insanity.
The gig is an opening slot for Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld at the New Music Festival 's Pop Nuit, and Krause's choral suite Belteshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar is new music made in part by old things. There's that worn-down moose antler, and old bicycle chains, and a weathered log studded with strings that tingle when you push on a pedal. Krause made all these instruments, tuned them to a D scale, and accepted that sometimes, they'll find their own way to sing.
Jesse Krause and his moose antlers (Melissa Martin/CBC)
"I'm sort of allowing the instruments to push their own agenda of what they sound like," says Krause, otherwise known as frontman of indie-pop outfit Flying Fox and the Hunter Gatherers. "The instruments are not designed to go out of tune, but they do. So we just use that while it's happening to sort of amp up the intensity."
In that way, Krause says, the instrumentation allows him to bring music down to the basics, the universals of sound. Instead of focusing on achieving sonic perfection, the instruments demand to let a little chaos in. Take the device called the rotary octochord, for instance. It's played with a bow, and can moan like a cello; it can also howl and sputter like wind against cliffs.
"Some of the sounds that (the rotary octochord) make sound very Asian, some sound very Western, some sound very unorthodox," he says. "But the thing that it's founded on is physics. Here's a string, it makes a pitch, and you wrap it around the rest of the apparatus and that's going to have a huge impact on it. I suppose it's more of a naturalist approach to music."
If the instruments are the showpiece, the composition is still the scaffold and the soul. Inspired by Anglican and Gregorian chants, Krause originally composed the piece for his Riel Gentlemen's Choir, to be sung while chopping down trees. But that vision proved rather ambitious for a community choral group.
Instead, Krause adapted and completed the piece as a solo work. In place of a full chorus, and without traditional rhythmic cues, the wild instruments and the Krause brothers' voices will carry the story of Nebuchadnezzar and his dreams. The effect is to bridge sounds both new and ancient, and it may be a little far out for an event called Pop Nuit - but isn't that just the point?
"There's no pop music in this," Krause says. "So it's funny that it's for a pop music event, but I'm interested in playing with the boundaries of what music is, as a broader thing. And then however we fit into this idea of 'this is popular music,' or 'this is art music.' At some point, it becomes an irrelevant discussion.
"It's just, this is a new kind of music." Jesse Krause will debut Belteshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at the West End Cultural Centre, when he opens New Music Festival's Pop Nuit featuring Arcade Fire's Sarah Neufeld.