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Top Songs

Top Songs Is a radio program that considers the musical form of the pop song as a point of departure. This diverse group of works investigates sound art and musicality through many lenses. Some works remix existing pop-culture or borrow structures from popular musical conventions, while others use music as their “raw” material; rearranging appropriated lyrics or sonic phrases, or morphing existing songs into new forms. The artists, musicians, and scholars in the program carry forward lineages of contemporary musical forms: from rock to rap, lullabies to show-tunes, blast beats to noise, EDM to meditative ambience. Top Songs do not fit tightly into any categorization. These artists cross-breed artistic forms to create new spaces for listening.


The Bad P.I. (Aaron Weldon and Mitchell Wiebe)
Andy Dowden
Dave Dyment
Stephen Kelly
Craig Leonard
Lisa Lipton (a.k.a. FRANKIE)
Divya Mehra
jake moore and Steve Bates
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay
William Robinson
Leah Singer
Henry Adam Svec
D'Arcy Wilson


When choosing the works in this program, I began with the idea of the popular musical form of the “song” and wondered how artists use music as a starting point or inspiration in their sound works. I'm particularly interested in the historical intersections where art and music converge in both “high” and “low” contexts; for example, looking at Minimalism as a crossover strategy in both visual art and in composition, or The Talking Heads as the quintessential art school band. I'm interested in how artists use varying strategies to build conceptual frames for their works; and I wanted to tease out my own relationship to how music influences my art making and vice versa. Top Songs proposes the song as a loose structure (or set of limitations) that the artist can work with (or against).

A song is first understood as “a metrical composition adapted for singing, esp. one in rhyme and having a regular verse-form; occas., a poem.” I am interested in how artists might use voices, lyrics, rhythms, verses or choruses. I wanted to hear their ditties, their melodies, their poetry. I asked for anything: ballad, aria, lullaby, chantey. What about in their electronic tracks or their mashups? I expected some forms of splicing, overlaying, transposing, slowing down or speeding up. Would they mine their own narratives or appropriate the songs of others? Would they present facts or fictions?

If we accept McLuhan's famous notion that 'the medium is the message', how then do these artists translate their voices through mediation, and can they be heard through the noise of corporate totality? I'm interested in how technology impacts temporality (instant or delayed) and how sound inhabits physical space through broadcast. These studio recordings, found sounds, and layered tracks are composed in digital (or analogue) studio “spaces”, then exported to the internet. The sounds are now playing in my headphones as I write this essay; now playing in your location through a radio transmission.

I approached the project by looking to existing works by artists I admire, but also giving myself the added focus to chose artists with some relation to the place where I'm from (Nova Scotia, but more widely “The Maritimes” which also includes the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island).

After attending the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax NS, I cut my artistic teeth in Halifax. A young artist swiftly ejected recently graduated from the support systems and studio space of the institution, I had to figure out a way to continue my work in a bedroom. So, I developed a radio persona, Darla Kitty. I hosted the weekly program called “Art Smarts”, interviewing artists and playing new music at the campus station. I collaborated with Stephen Kelly (who is featured in this program) to create Radio Ballroom, a curatorial pirate-FM station broadcasting intermittently from our kitchen. I was a DJ, I joined a bunch of bands, and taught myself to play the drums. A virtually untrained musician (save for my childhood piano lessons), I wrote many terribly embarrassing songs and kept writing until they eventually became relatively good songs.

This interdisciplinary, home-grown spirit is not unique to me, but perhaps bred from that particular place. Multi-tiered artistic practices are a completely normal attributes to those of us living and working in Halifax and throughout the Maritimes. Many of us are heavily influenced not only by the conceptual rigour of NSCAD, but by the communities that somehow manage to thrive without much funding or support. Most of us, especially when first starting out, get little to no institutional recognition within (or outside of) the Maritimes. You need to have five jobs to get by. My Halifax still holds a deeply entrenched DIY ethos: we're in bands to entertain ourselves because bands just don't bother to tour there; where the 90s low-fi fuzzy SUB POP influence of Sloan, Eric's Trip, Thrush Hermit, and Jale continues; where the art scene and music scene aren't siloed from one another, but rather have quite porous borders. This activity, the invisibility of remoteness, and the pure absence of a market gives us, in some ways, a real freedom. The freedom to make noise because we are the only ones watching each other.

The artists in this show exemplify this interdisciplinary approach and do-it-yourself attitude. As is the nature of working in a small place, many of the artists in this program are people I have collaborated or played with, while others I met at NSCAD either as a student or during my tenure as Director of the Anna Leonowens Gallery. A few CFA artists (“Come-From-Aways”) I encountered first via their exhibited works in Halifax galleries or at residencies, but in every case my relation to each of the artists in this program exists “somewheres” in relation the Maritimes. And regardless of where they are from or currently reside, their practices each boldly embody the tenacious “Maritimer”-kind of dedication.


Andy Dowden's The Love Song was produced on tape in 1984 by splicing the lyric “love” out of radio songs. Andy taught the Basic Sound class at NSCAD for decades. The fact that NSCAD even had a sound class and studios were based on initiatives that Dowden originally proposed and designed. I wouldn't say we were encouraged to make songs in his class – we had to think of SOUND as SOUND, not as musical form. Considering this program however, The Love Song was a natural starting point. It represents not only my own beginnings as an artist interested in sound, but it is a perfect example of pre-digital sample-based art works using popular music as source material.

Works by Halifax artists William Robinson and Stephen Kelly use existing songs as their primary source as well. Both offerings appropriate popular rock tunes from the early 1970's to nearly opposite results. Will's Stairway to Heaven layers 100 different versions of the Led Zepplin anthem compiled from YouTube. After a relatively coherent start, the piece quickly deteriorates to an utter cacophony. It speaks to the ubiquity of the song (to the point of it being the brunt of jokes), and encapsulates Robinson's pendulum swing of interests from beautiful musicality to harsh noise.

Stephen Kelly's Lost Songs: Tonight's the Night reduces Neil Young's track until it is nearly unrecognizable. This is the latest in a series of Lost Songs, that are all treated to expose the sonic information compressed out of the popular MP3 digital audio format. Kelly compares the higher-quality .wav or .ogg file information against the lossy MP3 for this surprising result. It's incredible that you can still hear the ghost of the original quite clearly, and perfect that Stephen chooses to use a song by Neil Young who is arguably the most vocal opponent to lossy compression in the industry. Young's refusal to conform to music business demands has always made him a bit of a punk-rocker.


Not only is punk music where Montreal artists jake moore and Steve Bates (also known as collaborative duo USSA) find their inspiration, it is also within that music scene where they met. For them, punk continues to be a language to express resistance and resilience, and this ethos infuses their singular and collaborative practices. For 100 Lines, moore and Bates speak a kind of overlapping poetry. They challenged each other to choose 50 lines of lyrics that had been important to them from their music collections without knowing what the other had picked. Reciting the lines simultaneously (and over the phone between Sweden and Canada) sometimes their voices sing in unison, demonstrating parallels between them in both music and in life.

Collaboration also is the root of the next work by NYC-based artist Leah Singer, who recites a poem written by her collaborator and husband Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth fame. Taking text from spam-emails Navel Milk Prison seems to have a logic that then defies itself. Her perfect “recorded female voice” reads to us a strange list of words, things we might imagine as Leah performs this verse. Though possibly the furthest formally from a “popular” song, these “verses” still give us a kind of narrative, as fractured and abstracted as it may be.

Halifax-based artists Craig Leonard and Lisa Lipton both combine techniques of electronic dance music with spoken texts for this program. Leonard's guitar and drum sketch fades from erratic to completely rhythmic, which then fades to a voice speaking German. If only I could speak German... but Craig tells me, “It's about a time when conversation about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about injustice and when one who walks calmly across the street Is probably no longer in touch with his friends who are in need”.

Drummer, filmmaker, and recent Sobey Art Award short-lister Lisa Lipton (a.k.a. FRANKIE) starts with the voice, at a normal pitch, roboticized, reversed, slowed down, and cut up to make a melody over electronic beats. Her static gives way to a quieter rendition of a female voice covering “Everyday” by Buddy Holly. Her work, which has tendrils in virtually every artistic medium known, tackles the emotion that countless songs have been written about: love.


There are two works in the program that use songwriting as a starting point for lectures. Dave Dyment's works generally mine popular culture. He deeply researches (sometimes) obscure references in music, movies and television. For his lecture, he discusses the lineage of a very particular song from 1978, both as a hit “mash-up” and a precursor to how capital cashes in on things that go “viral” in our saturated media landscape today.

Looking to new possibilities in digital songwriting, Dr. Henry Adam Svec introduces us to LIVINGSTON, an artificially intelligent computer devised by Svec and programmer Mirek Plíhal. A decidedly lower-fi version of a kind of WATSON from Jeopardy! Fame, LIVINGSTON nevertheless operates under similar algorithmic terms. S/he uses natural language processing and machine learning to scan a comprehensive canadian folk-song data repository and output new and unique scores for the genre to be interpreted by human performers.


In contrast, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay's The Burden begins with a solo human voice and a single lyric - the pronoun “I”. At first uttered self-consciously as if breaking the ice on a difficult topic, Ramsay's utterances become gradually synthesized and abstracted, taking us musically in many directions. Though the typical pop song might often be directed toward the proverbial “you”, it might also reveal just as much to us about the singer/songwriter's “me” (or “I” as the case may be). Benny's multi-disciplinary works often tackle identity, attachment, and vulnerability by using the most intimate access we have to a stranger, their voice.

Winnipeg / New York / Dehli based Divya Mehra's artworks investigate ideas of diaspora and constructs of diversity through a multitude of visual, sonic, and textual strategies. Though her work is heavily research-based, her projects tend to also have a wry sense of humour, often using hop-hop music and employing tropes of the genre. For Bapu (posthumous overture) takes Tupac Shakur's 1996 track I ain't mad at 'cha and arranges it for solo cello. To give an important contextual translation for this piece “Bapu” is a Hindi word for “Father” and the work is made in reference to Gandhi, as Bapu was a pet name people of India had for him.


The Bad P.I. is a weirdo-pop duo of artists Aaron Weldon and Mitchell Wiebe. If you were walking down Barrington Street in Halifax on any given night between 2011 – 2013, you might have seen these two performing in the the storefront windows of the old Roy Building (where their studio spaces have now been demolished for condo gentrification). You'd see them performing in mannequin-like affect, their voices and poetry in unison, and their bodies embedded in and amongst their strange installations: paintings in black light, cassette tape webs, found objects, and sometimes other collaborators. I've included three songs here: in “The Voice”, Aaron and Mitchell do a call and response; “Maholy Nagy” features Winnipeg artist and Pastoraila collaborator Ray Fenwick, and “Take Your Time” meanders along slowly to get us ready for the final track in the program.

Last, but of course not least, we round out the Top Songs by slowing things down further... to the slowest kind of song – the lullaby. D'Arcy Wilson's recent work investigates the gap between humans and animals, with her enacting all kinds of performances in futile attempts to close it. In her piece Tuck (which also exists as a video work) you'll hear alternating sounds of her walking and singing. Tiptoeing from from one vitrine to another in the Banff Park Museum, Wilson sings lullabies written specifically for the taxidermied animals who have held their positions there for the last century. Absurd and quiet, this is where I will leave you, dear listener.


Works cited:

  1. Oxford English Dictionary http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/184578?redirectedFrom=song#eid

  2. Further reading: Marshall MacLuhan's “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”

  3. “Hard Times in the Maritimes” is a typical phrase, and I have yet to find its origins. It refers to the economic depression that plagues the region, one of the few areas in Canada where populations are shrinking. It also refers to the title track of an album by Marilyn Lewis recorded in Weymouth NS in 1981

  4. Canadian Maritime English: words like somewhere or anywhere are spoken with an added “s”: somewheres and anywheres https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Maritime_English

  5. https://consequenceofsound.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/stairwaygif.gif

  6. Nina Power discusses the ubiquity of the recorded female voice and the surveillance state

  7. From email correspondence with Craig Leonard.

  8. Dave Dyment's Addendum to the Tommy Westphal universe is one great example of the extent of Dave's research into a very particular concept. See http://www.dave-dyment.com

  9. “I ain't mad at cha” original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-ELnDPmI8w