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THE SOUND GALLERY

The Official History of the Sound Gallery, Motion Studio, the Trips Festival and the founding of Intermedia.

Motion Studio and the Trips Festival, 1966
Intermedia 1967--1973

In the fall of 1965, I was an aspiring 18 yr. old jazz drummer, who was also a fledgling painter and art student. Having come from a family where my mother, Ferne Cairns, was a concert soprano and my father, Douglas Simpson, a pioneering west coast Modernist architect, my fate was sealed to either choose between the two mediums of music and painting, or somehow juggle both of them at the same time. To me this was something akin to choosing between  breathing and eating so I decided to try to progress in both mediums. To that end I rented a small (30’ x 60’) storefront at West 4th Avenue and Bayswater in Vancouver's Kitsilano area.


Sound Gallery, the store front at 4th and Bayswater.


   Earlier in the year I had made the acquaintance of jazz pianist Al Neil who I had seen play live twice in Vancouver jazz venues and once on CBC television from the Cellar, a legendary club which among other claims to fame had been the place that gave the ground breaking Ornette Coleman Quartet their first concert  outside of the U.S. in 1958. It had also featured through the 50's and 60's the groups of Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, Harold Land and many more west coast hard bop bands of that caliber. Al Neil was usually the house pianist for these visiting greats.

Al Neil at the Cellar in the late 1950's

        Significantly the Cellar was also where future Intermedia Director, Barry Cramer, produced plays such as Krapp's Last Tape and other works by the writers of the Theatre of the Absurd. Vancouver, it seems, has always had a tendency to investigate a mixed media approach to the arts and this has been evident through several decades since Al Neil recorded with the beat poet, Kenneth Patchen, on the Folkways label producing a very well received album.


Kenneth Patchen Reads Poetry In Canada
(With the Alan Neil Quartet).

        In 1965, after an initial introduction to Neil  and his wife at the time, Marguerite, in their small cottage wedged behind some highrise apartments in the West End, a life long relationship began. I was brought to meet Al Neil by one of Vancouver's other legendary figures of the beat era, Curt Lang, a poet and painter who had once been taken by fellow poet the late Al Purdy to meet Malcolm Lowry at his Dollarton Beach house on the North Shore, not far from the spot where Neil himself landed a decade or more later. (This has been well documented in the recent book,  At the World's Edge, Curt Lang's Vancouver, 1937-1998 by Claudia Cornwall).


Marguerite Neil in concert with the Al Neil Trio
at the Intermedia Dome Show, 1970
(photo by Michael de Courcy)

        There was an immediate current of excitement as I realized that after abandoning any regular career choices I  might indeed be on the threshold of a unique musical enterprise with Al and  bassist Richard Anstey, who I had been playing with in groups such as the New Dimension Jazz Trio and with Bob Buckley was also playing with Al's group at the Flat Five Jazz Club on West Broadway.

        Our first musical strategy  session was an eye opener.  Al was pretty loaded the night he hauled out his little electric Wurlizter piano with its fragile reeds,  half of  which he managed to break while slipping from the piano stool to the floor at least three times. The 'score'  for the music he was about to played me consisted of chopped up music paper collaged together with fragments from popular magazines, including some 'girlie' pictures. Al was playing a kind of tortured, mystical and lyrical music I could only describe as a cross between Bud Powell, Charles Ives and Debussy. I know, however, that Al hadn’t yet heard the work of a musician he superficially resembles, the tumultuous New York pianist, Cecil Taylor, whose music was just beginning to be known in Vancouver in 1965. But at that time, Al had already came up with his own lyrical, yet cataclysmic, style completely on his own.

        Although an authentic hard bop musician,  Neil worked in so many other influences from pioneer Dadaists like Kurt Schwitters, painters like Bradley Tomlin and Mark Tobey to the cut-up writings of William S. Burroughs, works on alchemy and mysticism, and the fevered visions of the French surrealist, Antonin Artaud, that a multi-media kind of jazz was bound to occur from the collaboration we were embarking on. on.

        For the first two rehersals the Al Neil Trio was actually a quartet with the presence of altoist Bob Buckley who later  went on to fame and fortune with the rock band Spring and later as a producer.  For some reason or other the trio of Al on piano, Richard Anstey on bass and myself on drums was what emerged and by late fall we were rehearsing regularly at the little store front which eventually opened as the Sound Gallery.

        Because I also need somewhere better to paint than the family home,  the studio at 4th and Bayswater  became a multi-media operation from the beginning. First I drew from the model there and continued working on a series of abstract oil paintings which reflected the influence of late Modernist geometric painting.  The place was unheated and several little electric space heaters were employed to keep things bearable as winter approached.


Manifestations of Calm
Gregg Simpson: oil on canvas, 1965
 (a work installed in the Sound Gallery)

         As the little circle of friends who came to the studio expanded there was a movement started to have sessions and everyone chipped in on the rent to keep the place going. Fledgling poet Michael Coutts was a regular, although, he like many others who participated in the period, didn't survive the 60's . Richard Anstey, who lived in the area of  the studio also brought in other neighborhood buddies like drummer Harley McConnell, who helped me put  together a drum kit for the great drummer, Philly Joe Jones  then blowing the roof off with Harold Land over at the Blue Horn, formerly the Flat Five.  To this day I credit my contact with Philly Joe as the major influence which formed my playing style although with the Al Neil Trio waiting in the wings this was one of the last times I played bebop jazz until a decade or so later.

        The first recording session at the studio as it was still referred to was on December 15th, 1965 and the Al Neil Trio  played several improvised pieces for a small audience. The music was nothing short of extraordinary, combing snippits of melodies like Summertime, or a blues, which appeared through waves of arpeggios, polychromatic chord clusters, whirling dervish modal lines and atonal passages.  We were still playing jazz we all thought, especially in Anstey and my case as we were both very recently influenced by the work of the John Coltrane Quartet and of Charles Mingus. who we had seen live together at the Blue Horn.  Al liked to perplex other musicians when they asked what all this stuff was and he would say, “ I like to think I'm still playing jazz”!    
      
Al Neil playing zither and piano
(photo by Michael deCourcy)


          Our last gig there was with Don Thompson and P.J. Perry both ex-associates of Neil from the Cellar days. Al came down to hear us but didn't sit in. I think the other musicians knew we were up to something different though. In fact a year or two later when Al played some of the trio tapes for bassist/ pianist Don Thompson, now a Canadian jazz icon, asked him, "Al, how do you get those guys to play that way "

        This was no easy  thing to explain.  The Trio had a unique empathy for  improvisation not unlike a group like the Bill Evans Trio.  Although much more frenzied,  it did have some of the interwoven, independent melodic lines of the Evans group . But that was when something like a tune or song form was involved. What was unique to this group was the way it could move into non-verbal chanting, collaged textures utilizing toy instruments, tapes, records or radios and still keep the feel of a jazz trio. Noise music mixed with political protest  was employed on one of a kind pieces like State of the Union where a radio speech by then President Johnson on Viet Nam was smothered in clattering textures and insane shrieking, all recorded in a totallydarkened Sound Gallery. It was a long way from bebop.

        By March, 1966 after a month long hiatus from Al, Richard Anstey and myself returned from playing an engagement at a Banff hotel and we were back at the old studio and ready to take things up a notch. During the winter I had thought of the name Sound Gallery for the space and as it seemed to be a hit with everyone, we designated it as such for a series of weekend concerts which began in March. Advertising was a large piece of construction paper hung in the window with stenciled letters advertising:  Al Neil and his Royal Rascals represented by some campy collage elements. Admission was by donation as we had been told we could avoid hassles with the authorities that way. For a later concert at the Kit's Theatre the group became the Royal Canadians. Also around that time we started to invite others into the evening concerts.

       The first new participant to arrive at the Sound Gallery was composer Gerry Walker , a new music composer who worked with tape and prepared piano in the era before synthesizers. He shared a studio four blocks down 4th Ave.with film maker Sam Perry who was to become the guru for multi-media presentation in the next year, the last of his life. The atmosphere in their studio was a little like a laboratory  in a 50's sci-fi movie. It was a perfect complement to our operation down the street and a collaboration seemed inevitable and natural.

        Almost immediately the Saturday night concerts at the Sound Gallery became a place for poets, artists and dancers to collaborate. Among those who appeared were painter Gary Lee Nova who had just shown a remarkable set of hexagon shaped paintings at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery and would go on to collaborate with Perry on the making of imagery for the light shows, a name that wasn't being used yet in Vancouver.


Gary Lee Nova: Dreadnaught
acrylic on canvas, 1966

        Soon after we were joined by dancer/choreographer Helen Goodwin who had recently worked with New York-based Jean Erdman, a pioneer performance/ dance artist. The Sound Gallery cast was assembling and it included the Al Neil Trio's music, Sam Perry's films and projections, the Helen Goodwin dancers, composer, Gerry Walker and often a poet.

        Poetry was an important medium in the 1960's and readings were given regularly at the Sound Gallery.  One notable one was by Milton Acorn which was a raucous affair as always with the crusty writer.  Also in attendance were bill bissett, Gerry Gilbert and  Judith Copithorne, the latter also one of Goodwin's dancers. One memorable solo piece, involved Copithorne improvising a dance which evoked flying to one of the Trio's melancholic ballads, with Perry's projected film of an actual flying bird playing over her. It was one of the best pieces in thecollective repetoire. Copithorne stayed with Goodwin for a number of years through the Intermedia period, but later preferred to work solely as a poet, producing several books of verse and visual poetry done in a beautifuly fluid calligraphy. her credit.  Two others in Goodwin's company also became noted perfomers later, Karen Jameison and Evelyn Roth. In addition she employed other modern dancers, such as Heather MacCallum, Judith Shwartz, Rita Watson and Joan Payne.

         The spawning ground for  both Helen Goodwin, and most of the poets, was the University of British Columbia where the remarkable English professor, Warren Tallman, a friend of both  Allen Ginsberg and Charles Mingus among others, taught during the 1960's and 1970's. The group of poets who published the periodical TISH  including Jamie Reid, Peter Auxier, Maxine Gadd, Dan MacLeod and later, Jim Brown, all participated in the earliest days of multi-media in Vancouver. The poetry scene was the most advanced and communicative of any of the groups in Vancouver then.

        The University of British Columbia during the 1960s was a revolutionary cauldron of poetry, left wing politics and ground-breaking art exhibitions and festivals. The Fine Arts Gallery, under the direction of  Alvin Balkind who formerly ran the New Design Gallery downtown, the first to show Claude Breeze, Audrey Capel Doray, Joy Long, Toni Onley and  Jack Wise to a wider audience. The dynamic survey exhibition, Joy and Celebration at The Fine Arts Gallery in 1967 brought together several artists who would later work at Intermedia.

        The 1965 Armory Show and the1967 Festival of Contemporary Arts were two other important events which brought together artists, poets and musicians from B.C. and across  Canada including such luminaries as Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood. The experimental media experimenter and puppeteer Dave Orcutt was one of the  figures who emerged  from this milieu and was to be an early instigator of the Intermedia Society.

        The events at the Sound Gallery were getting increasingly popular and by June we realized that a larger space was going to be necessary. The crowds in the 30' by 60' store front were making it increasingly difficult to fit in  an audience with the band, dancers and projectionists Perry, Lee Nova and another artist of the period, Dallas Selman, who, along with audio/electronic innovator, Ken Ryan, worked at Sam Perry's 4th Avenue studio. The problem was solved when Helen Goodwin's husband, a local realtor, came up with a reasonably cheap old building at 1236 Seymour Street on the edge of Vancouver's downtown.


 

MOTION STUDIO


TheCo Dancers at Motion Studio, 1966
 
(Photos by Jack Dale)

         The  ramshackle office/warehouse which was the new home of the Sound Gallery operation was now called  Motion Studio, the name reflecting an increased effort on Goodwin's part to create a more effective dance environment in collaboration with Sam Perry's light show.  The name chosen for this collaboration, WECO, was a tribute to the multi-media collective in New York, USCO, whose founder, Steve Dirkey, was a very influential on Perry.  The dance troupe eventually became known as TheCo.
        
        Sam Perry
was a figure who was both inspiring and perplexing,  His pioneering film and projection work was
ahead of its time with its multiple layered imagery drawn largely from from Tibetan Buddhist sources. Perry, like the painter Jack Wise, had been to Nepal and met the Dalai Lama. Originally working in 16mm film, Perry progressed to creating montages of film loops  which were augmented for performances with magic lantern, slide carousel, and overhead liquid projectors, anticipating the subsequent development of rock era light shows.

         During this period the underground rock scene had been developing rapidly giving the WECO projectionists several gigs accompanying the rock bands at the Afterthought, a club located in the old Pender Auditorium where groups like the United Empire Loyalists held forth to swaying crowds of hippies.

THE TRIPS FESTIVAL

        The largest and best attended of these early psychedellic era events was the Trips Festival, held in the Garden Auditorium of  the Pacific National Exhibition grounds near the eastern boundary of the city.


Poster for the Trips Festival with drawing by Jack Wise


Listen to
Psychedelic, a piece played by the Al Neil Trio at the Trips Festival
                                      

        The Trips Festival was organized by Linda Crane, Ken Ryan, the late Doug Hawthorn, and Sam Perry and  a co-founder of WECO. Inside this huge auditorium were 100 rear projection screens for everthing from old Chaplin films to abstract 16mm film loops and everything else from liquid overhead projectors to magic lantern slides from the turn of the century.

        The Al Neil Trio opened for Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company and other acts including the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Sevice, The Daily Flash, poet Michael McClure and other Seattle and Bay area acts. This was before these groups achieved any national prominence and were  basically still underground  Bay area groups. Topping everything off the Motion Studio played host to the already legendary Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters with their soon-to-be legendary bus.
        Vancouver was into
the 60's full tilt.

        In the fall of 1966 after the long hot summer of the Trips Festival, we had the space at 1236 Seymour almost rennovated and ready to open. The weekend before the official opening  there was a jam session with the Al Neil Trio plus tenor sax player, Glenn MacDonald, a talented musician who had worked with Neil at the Cellar in the early 60's. In the middle of one  tune, probably a bebop standard which is what Glenn favoured,  I looked up from the drums at one point to see to my amazement a ring of overcoated, fedora-wearing figures all about 6' 4"  and very mean looking surrounding the bandstand. They looked like the cops in a 1940's detective B-movie. <>        This was none other than the Vancouver Police Drug Squad led by the inimitable Abe Snedenko, who had harassed both Neil and MacDonald throughout the years. I just lowered my  head and kept playing. It turned out that a certain well known rock promoter was stopped earlier in the evening and when asked where he was going with all the LSD, he said: "Motion Studio" and there we were playing our private opening party for a handful of friends. No one actually was arrested, but some people, anyone faintly odd looking, were taken upstairs and searched. The next weekend, the official opening, went smoothly and our old audiences from 4th Ave. made the trek to the new home of multi-media in Vancouver.

        The Motion Studio itself was a rabbit warren of rooms, somewhat dimly lit, but generally spacious compared to the 4th Ave. Sound Gallery. The entrance room I made into a small gallery where I displayed the work I was doing at the Vancouver School of Art. These were boxes hung on the wall with back lit mandala patterns, modest hommages to the more sophisticated electric sculptures made by Vancouver artist, Audrey Doray. The most popular LP we played around the studio at the time was the Beatles Revolver.

        The next series of rooms were offices and shops largely devoted to sound and light equipment with experiments
going on continually under the resident electronic experts, Ken Ryan and Al  Hewitt. Following through to the back the visitor came upon the main performance area which was a large hall, about 30' x 60'  with a high ceiling. Suspended from the ceiling was the famous cage built for composer Gerry Walker made of L-shaped grey industrial metal. It became both the control for the sound system which was an early version of quadrophonic surround sound, a perfect vehicle for Walker's tape compositions. The sound was manipulated around the speakers and the room via a joy stick similar to an airplane control stick. It was reported by Ken Ryan that this system knocked him over when he walked through  the convergent point where the sound from the four speakers crossed during a light show at the Kits Theatre in 1967. The cage looked like something from an old sci-fi movie but was in effect a floating command module for the tapes and the sound system.

        Another innovative development from WECO was the 3 storied projection tower that was built to house the array of projectors which were utilized in the weekend performances by the Al Neil Trio, Gerry Walker and the WECO Dancers.  Contolling the battery of projectors  on the tower was a keyboard made from photo cells stuck in a strip of foam.  When the fingers of the 'player' lifted up, a rheostat brought on the projector. A resulting kaleidoscope of projections shot forth hitting the turning mirror strips interspersed with strobe flashes. The effect was totally kaleidoscopic.

        The incredibly dense montage of imagery emanating from this battery included Sam Perry's 16mm films, many with imagery suggesting Tantric or Hindu deities, old campy magic lantern slides, Himalayan  mountain footage, all tied together by the liquid projections and film loops. Sam Perry's films have mostly been lost or are otherwise untraceable, although there is some  footage shown at the Trips Festival which has been preserved by film maker Stan Fox.

        Two other special effects were debuted that fall, one being the first strobe light in Vancouver. One of the first experiments involved WECO associate
Gordon Bell with red, flowing beard and shoulder length hair performing with a skipping
rope under a fast  strobe. It was definitely hallucinatory but in an innocent and experimental way sense. Then there were the lengths of  mirror hung by wires from the ceiling which turned and caught the light from the projectors spinning fragmented shards of images around the room  The psychedelic trance for one couple was momentarily broken one evening when a length of mirror crashed down beside them, luckily with no ill effects.

        Weekend evening performances continued through  the fall of 1966, until the tragic suicide of Sam Perry which ended the existence of WECO and Helen Goodwin eventually renamed her dance troupe TheCo. Aside from the regular appearances of the Al Neil Trio the only other event involving music was the evening given by poet Gerry Gilbert, reading from Phone Book, with the late Martin Bartlett's music for Seven Distances. This collaboration in many ways pre-figured the type of work which Bartlett and others would carry on at the Western Front seven years later.


Poster for Seven Distances and Phone Book  at Motion Studio,
a concert with Martin Bartlett and Gerry Gilbert


The Formation of the Intermedia Society

        On one particularly great evening that fall saw a distinguished member in the audience from the Canada Council. This was David Silcox who was in Vancouver to have a look at funding a multi-media collective. The obvious success of the Motion Studio and Sound Gallery which consistenly brought out large audiences offered unqualified proof of the interest in multi- media performance. Subsequently, several  meetings were held which determined the eventual creation of Intermedia.

        Over the next few months , after we abandoned the Motion Studio, the Al Neil Trio, which had launched the original Sound Gallery evenings and steadily drew in the crowds, continued  to rehearse and perform locally, notably at  Simon Fraser University and the University of B.C. Likewise Helen Goodwin’s THECO dancers kept together and perfected their particular approach. Visual artists like Gary Lee Nova  and Dallas Selman who had worked with Sam Perry forged ahead with new paintings and sculptural projects which would come to full fruition in 1968 and 1969 with the Intermedia Nights at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

       There was a feeling of expectancy in the air as if we hadn't quite seen the total fulfillment of the promise of  multi-media. When many of the artists from the Sound Gallery and Motion Studio attended a meeting in early 1967 at the building at 575 Beatty Street we were now looking at a co-operative venture with more secure underwriting than we had previously. Personally I have always felt that perhaps the original, experimental energy was going to suffer under an institutional format, yet there wasn't much choice except to participate in the new venture rather than lose a connection to something we had helped to start.

        Two groups had been meeting to help create the entity which became the Intermedia Society. One was centred around Victor and Audrey Doray 's circle which contained one of  Sam Perry's colleagues, David Orcutt, a pioneer in holistic theatre and puppetry.  A second set of meetings at Jack and Doris Shadbolt's were held which also involved UBC's Archie MacKinnon. Board members at various times also included architects Arthur Erickson, Archie MacKinnon and Bruno Freschi.

        The name Intermedia was arrived most likely at the suggestion of its first director, the late Joseph Kyle. Kyle, also an accomplished hard-edge abstract painter, was then a devoted  follower of Canadian media guru, Marshall McLuhan. The promise of an new erawhere artists would combine art with technology was being made and the multi-media performers of the Motion Studio working with the most advanced visual artists in Vancouver at the time were the logical ones to carry out the program.

        With painter Jack Shadbolt as the head of the Board, the Intermedia Society was formally constituted and dedicated to forging new links between art and technology. Canada Council support became available and the four story building on Beatty Street,  Intermedia's first home was leased.  It was another rambling, but more solid old building than past venues, with plenty of room for studios and rehearsal spaces including large open performance areas.

        Film editing was located on the ground floor with open spaces for performance on the second. The third floor included the Al Neil Trio's studio and blewointment press run by poet and visual artist bill bissett.The top floor contained more technical and fabrication spaces including tape recording and editing rooms. The truly interesting thing about this interface between art and technology is that, by today's standards, there was hardly any technology available. Beyond a few cheap tape recorders, a 16mm film editor and some other very rudimentary equipment there was not a lot to build a technological art experiment on.  What Intermedia really represented was collaboration between like minded artists and performers, just as it had been at the Sound Gallery and Motion Studio.

        The year 1967 was a watershed for the future of Vancouver art. Intermedia was about to begin.

        -Gregg Simpson, 2018

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