Few contemporary musical descriptors are as worn, or as meaningless, as “weird.” The term implies music that’s avant-garde, cutting-edge, unconventional; in reality, most modern acts flying its flag are Ariel Pink- or Thee Oh Sees-worshippers with cassette discographies. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these artists — in an indie-rock context, many can be considered inventive, while the term’s ongoing popularity can arguably be linked to the success of true-blue innovators like Tim Hecker or Colin Stetson — but are they unconventional? Barely.
But dig a little deeper, and it’s not hard to find truly mind-expanding musicians. Celebrated local label Bug Incision, for example, is a start. Label founder Chris Dadge is a veteran at unearthing, curating and importing strange sounds to Calgary, the latest of which is Christopher Riggs, a Chicago-based experimental six-stringer. And, along with a workshop at Theatre Junction Grand and a solo performance at the National Music Centre, he’ll also be improvising alongside the Bent Spoon Duo, Dadge and Scott Munro’s apocalyptic electronic project.
“I’ve never actually met him,” says Riggs of Dadge. “But we’ve corresponded over email since 2007 or 2008. I’ve been trying to get him to the States, and we’ve been talking about playing together. I’m excited it’s finally happening, and I’ve been listening to a lot of Bent Spoon Duo [in preparation]. Of course, I’m open to being surprised.”
Those expecting neat classifications for Riggs’ music will be surprised, too. In fact, Riggs has difficulty articulating what his compositions achieve — many of them are abstractions, pushing the capabilities of his chosen instrument. And the results may not be immediately accessible, but they’re certainly rewarding: Whether in the overblown cassette recordings of his Holy Cheever Church project or his diverse one-on-one collaborations with Mike Khoury, Liz Allbee, Graveyards and more, Riggs composes jags of sound that are guttural, unsettling and otherworldly — often within the space of a 10-minute drone.
“I studied classical guitar for a long period of time,” adds Riggs, who was a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory and Wesleyan University. “At Oberlin, I learned how to practise an instrument, how to be efficient with my time. In 2010 and 2011, a lot of my pieces were excuses for me to practise the guitar obsessively. I’m still interested in musical exercise now, but a lot of my music now is a lot more self-aware — and because of that, it’s hard to categorize.”
And to complicate things further: “I spent a lot of my time trying to bridge music written from the classical guitar — like Elliott Carter, modernist composition — but it still sounded like the classical guitar. It didn’t indulge the stuff I listened to. Nothing clicked until I started into different techniques.”
And watching Riggs use those techniques is a reward in itself: Sometimes, he uses viola bows on his strings, producing screeching, buzz-saw effects. Other times, he attaches magnets to his guitars, which distorts the pickup’s signals. At other times, still, he uses guitar loops and overlays to create astonishing fogs of sound. It’s so astonishing, in fact, that it’s hard to believe he achieves these sounds from a guitar.
In other words, Riggs is inventive. Transgressive. And, yes, you could call his work weird — though that’s hardly how he classifies himself.
“I hope I get placed somewhere [in the grand narrative of music]. I’d like to think that I’m in the tradition of Derek Bailey, that my work has a lot to do with free improvisation,” he says.
“But I’m just surprised that anyone’s paying attention. I’m still convinced that going to Calgary, playing there is a joke. That it’s a trick. I’m still thinking, ‘Why me?’ But you never know who can work their way into larger cultural visibility.”