Montreal-based saxophonist, composer and improviser Ida Toninato has an ear for the unknown. Her playing is electric – an expression of her need to orient the sound she is making to the environment she is in, and to the people she is with. After years of playing contemporary music with various collaborators, she is diving head-first in pursuit of a music after her own daring intuitions. Her debut full length record, Strangeness is Gratitude, released on Kohlenstoff Records in April 2016, planted her firmly in the underground experimental scene with an enthusiastic reception from critics, artists and a growing fan base. In addition to her solo compositions, she writes music for dance, film and theatre. She performs actively with laptop musician Ana Dall’Ara-Majek as Jane/KIN, creating performances that mix spatialisation and improvisation.

At Sound Symposium, Toninato will be performing with Jennifer Thiessen as the Thiessen/Toninato Duo. From experimenting in abandoned buildings to performing in concert halls around the world, the duo cultivate an ongoing conversation in sound. The unexpected union of baritone saxophone and viola d’amore, with opposing idiomatic timbres and tendencies, provides fascinating material for creative debate and surprising agreement. Their album, The Space Between Us, was released on the Ambiances Magnétiques label in 2018.

This interview has been edited for length and concision.

Annie Corrigan: I’m sure one of the first questions people new to your music ask you is how did a baritone saxophone and a viola d’amore start making music together?

Ida Toninato: I think the meeting between the viola d’amore and the baritone saxophone started with the meeting between Jen and I. It happened during a tour, in which we were playing music for viola, saxophone, cello and piano. We played together for almost two years in this configuration. Then, I don’t remember how long after, I got a creation residency in church with seven seconds of reverb and I invited Jen to play with me in the space. The reverb melted our sounds together and was part of a beautiful, peaceful atmosphere. Then I was asked to do an album for Ambiances Magnétiques label and I asked Jen if she wanted to do this together. So we did! I am fascinated by the sound of the viola d’amore, I love Jen’s playing and she is one of the most beautiful human beings I know.

AC: On first glance, these instruments couldn’t be more different, but perhaps they have more in common than we think. What makes this pairing so musically rich for you?

IT: The pairing between our instruments is easier than what it looks like. Both have a beautiful low range, deep and rich. Scratchy sounds match sounds with saliva quite easily. I am a big fan of overtones, highly pitched notes so that joins the upper register of the viola d’amore. Both have a great capacity to be quiet, or loud, both are used to do 1st or 2nd voices so we exchange roles without really wondering about it. It feels like a conversation between people who were meant to meet, honestly.

AC: I wonder about your move from performing with contemporary music groups to making experimental music on your own and with Jennifer. What were you searching for musically when you made this change?

IT: It is true that a major musical shift happened to me a few years ago. I was very much into contemporary music making, both with bands and as a solo musician. I commissioned many pieces for baritone saxophone and electronics. but at one point, I couldn’t find the link between all the music I was playing. I felt like I had no music inside me, that I could only play what others were inventing, but that I was empty. Plus, I guess I had a few bad lucks with commissioning: in my last year of this practice, every single piece of music I premiered didn’t resonate with me at all. So, when I started this residency in the church with the beautiful reverb (let’s call it L’Église du Gesù :), I cried, played, cried, listened, and this reverberated sound felt like a blessing, like a gentle veil that was lifting off my sadness and exhaustion. I started to create melodies, to feel more and more confident, and then I started to explore other reverberant spaces, did my first solo album, started to collaborate more and more with other musicians, took risks, failed sometimes, etc. Nowadays, I play with contemporary bands when they ask me to, and mainly on my own creativity. I would like to find a way to collaborate with composers again, there are people I would really love to work with, but I don’t know in which format yet. As long as we do music, I guess the labels and titles don’t really matter.

AC: The baritone saxophone is a beautiful instrument to look at. Can your describe the physicality of playing it? As compared to the other members of the saxophone family, what unique qualities does the bari sax bring to your music?

IT: Haha, baritone saxophone. It is simple — it has ALL the qualities! It’s my favorite because it is low, rich, deep, very agile, has an enormous sonic potential, massive, loud and quiet. I think it is much more flexible than the other saxophones, but that might be just my opinion. I especially love the way the low A (the lowest note) sounds when it is amplified. I love the feeling of playing this instrument: it is massive in my arms, it’s my best buddy, I turn mad and depressed when I don’t play it for too long. It vibrates. In fact, I rarely play the other saxophones now, a bit of soprano from time to time.

Thiessen / Toninato Duo At Sound Symposium XIX*

  • Concert — Tuesday, July 10 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
  • Sound Exploration, Acoustics and Architecture — Wednesday, July 11 at 10:00am (meet at LSPU Hall)

See the complete list of SSXIX artists, as well as the full schedule and ticket information.

*Times and locations subject to change.