Reel-To-Reel Encount3rs: Nicole Lizée finds art inside a glitch

Nicole Lizée. Photo: Murray Lightburn

Nicole Lizée is the queen of trashed tech. Got an ancient reel-to-reel tape deck? She’ll love it. Turntables? Bring ’em on. Old radios? Just the ticket.

Lizée makes music out of the snaps, crackles and pops; out of what most people would consider noise, comes the sound of music. It’s a crazy way to make a living, but she’s done pretty well for herself. In fact the National Arts Centre has given her two major commissions in the past few years. One was for the piece Bondarsphere, which was part of the NAC Orchestra’s Life Reflected series last season. The other will be part of the Encount3rs series of new dance works that are premiering on April 20 in Southam Hall.

The 32-minute piece Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming has been done in collaboration with Emily Molnar and her dance company Ballet BC. Lizée was Molnar’s choice to write the music for the dance.

At the start of the project, Lizée said, the two met to talk generally about the piece. Then Lizée headed home to Montreal and her studio to begin work.

“There are two options for approaching a dance work. Either I’m writing with the choreography in mind or they are creating the choreography for the piece.

“That is what happened in this case.”

It turned out that Molnar was also really interested in Lizée’s work with vintage devices. The composer has been always toying with and then rejuvenating machines from the past that have been dismissed or thrown away and are not working anymore.

“We kind of decided that the piece would be built around that.

“I use turntables, reel-to-reel, machines that are tangible and have a real physical quality to them. especially when malfunctioning. I love that. I’m disappointed when they behave properly.

Having a dance work expand what Lizée has been doing was a jumping off point for the collaborators. Injecting the dance element was Molnar’s job, Lizée said.

“My job was to lay down tracks and create a work that reflected these machines.”

That has led to a pretty intense piece, she says.

“There is no pause. It’s a 32-minute piece. It’s episodic. It’s kind of like a mix-tape in many ways. It’s also like an FM station drifting in and out of contact and full of static.”

Lizée is from Saskatchewan originally, as is Molnar. She grew up in a home full of broken technology. her father repaired radios and televisions for a living and there was always one or two lying around.

“He would have them on and every now and then one of them would pick up a frequency from far away and then another one would pick up another frequency from somewhere else. That sound was mixed with constant static. It is very appealing,” Lizée said.

You might think that this is chaos, and it is chaotic sounding indeed but in Lizée’s vision, this chaos is notated. It’s controlled.

“I like glitch. I like error but I like it happening at a certain time.

“The challenge for me is to capture that vibe of something breaking, or misbehaving, and that is going into a more interesting world that can’t really be predicted, and to harness that world.

“For me everything is very notated. It is a challenge to capture that chaos. For that to happen you need a kick-ass orchestra which is exactly what I have.”

Lizée often works with video as well, but not this time. Instead there are lighting effects. She see this as another instrument.

She has involved turntables and a DJ, but in the Ottawa premiere this is recorded. But in the future, Ballet BC could use a live turntables with a recording of NACO.

Lizée does love her devices.

“There is a visual aspect that I personally am really drawn to. There is a lot of dance involved moving between the turntables.”

Also there is also the sound of the DJ moving back and forth between devices. Liz has even “written pieces that have heightened that aspect, miking the turntablist as he moves around or amplifying the click of the cross-fader.”

In so doing she is expanding the range of what percussion is.

The sound of the tape spinning through the reel-to-reel, chanting speeds and creating delays, it’s all music in Lizée’s ears. Even the sound of a tape breaking serves a musical purpose.

So how does one capture this kind of sound with an orchestra?

Lizée has split the orchestra in two with different groups playing different frequencies, if you will. Imagine one part of NACO as one turntable and the other half as another. The two parts will play at different speeds or “wind through each other.”

“The orchestra also changes moods very quickly as though they were different radio stations coming into focus.”

Dance to that, Ballet BC.

“She knew what she was getting into,” Lizée said with a laugh. “She knew my stuff. She chose me.”

For tickets and more information on Encount3rs, please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.