The Idea of North, Post-Nationalism, and the Changing Ecology of Experimental Music Performance in Canada

For much of the twentieth century, Canada was defined by tropes of nature and place, most famously the “idea of north” that was first expressed in experimental music in Glenn Gould’s famous 1967 radio collage of the same name. But how does the “idea of north” trope relate to Canadian experimental music today? This talk explores the changing ecology of experimental music in the first decades of the 21st century and especially the symbiotic relationship between public funding and artistic programming and content. I track the effects on experimental music of shifting priorities at the Canada Council for the Arts towards a post-genre, post-reconciliation, diversity-driven agenda that positions music in terms of philosopher John Ralston-Saul’s ambiguous definition of Canada as a “perpetually unfinished experiment” in post-nationalism.


Ellen Waterman is Professor in the School of Music at Memorial University of Newfoundland where she directs the graduate program in Ethnomusicology. She is both a music scholar and a flutist specializing in creative improvisation. Her interdisciplinary research interests range across improvisation, contemporary performance, gender, sound and ecology. With Gillian Siddall, she is co-editor of Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound and Subjectivity (Duke 2016). Her books on acoustic ecology and sound art include The Art of Immersive Soundscapes (with Pauline Minevich, 2013) and Sonic Geography Imagined and Remembered (2002).  She is a member of ~spin~ duo (with James Harley) exploring the intersections between acoustic/electro-acoustic performance and real time multi-channel sound diffusion. Their multi-channel recording Like a ragged flock…was released in 2015 (Canadian Music Centre and iTunes). Ellen is a core member, and Memorial Site Coordinator, of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, a partnered research institute funded by a prestigious SSHRC Partnership Grant (2013-2020). She also participates in a multi-site research project to develop the AUMI – adaptive use musical instrument – software interface, a musical instrument that enables people with disabilities to independently engage in music making. ( Ellen’s current book project is a comparative ethnography of twelve Canadian music festivals, Sounds Provocative: The Ecology of Experimental Music Performance in Canada,