Tuning the Town

Andy Dixon explains his Montreal city sampling commission, Montreal in E Flat Major. He'll perform and improvise his bits of the city, during PLAY 1, May 29th.

Andy Dixon - 24 de mayo de 2013
Tuning the Town

In September of last year, I visited the city of Montreal for just over a week. I had been there countless times before, mostly for performances, but this time it was to do something unusual - I was there to discover the unique sonic qualities of Montreal and then record them. For those Montreal residents who happened to see a weirdo wandering around various neighbourhoods of the city holding a pocket recorder (which is particularly conspicuous due to its wind guard resembling a treasure troll) up to staircases, Metro speakers, buskers, vats of poutine, and complete strangers, now you know what he was up to.


Andy Dixon / Montreal in E flat Major from Andy Dixon on Vimeo.

When I returned home to Vancouver, I began composing a 45 minute piece, Montreal in E Flat Major, using only the material I had recorded there – a sound portrait of the city.

The first step was to determine a tempo and key that seemed to make sense with all of the material. I chose 110bpm because it seems like the musical equivalent of a brisk stroll – something I was doing almost entirely for my stay there. It also coincidentally synced up perfectly with the pulse of Montreal's sonar-like crosswalk signals for the visually impaired - one of many sonic coincidences I discovered along the way.

The key I decided to use was determined by the jingle that plays before a Metro announcement. 

The next step was to digitally stretch and tune all of the audio to that tempo and key. It was incredible to observe how many coincidences there were throughout the city as I began piecing things together. Sounds that are geographically impossible to hear simultaneously, seem to harmonize and play off each other, giving the impression that Montreal is constantly performing the most extravagant - yet secret piece of music for her own enjoyment.

Unlike a lot of the other music I make, I decided to exercise restraint with digital processing while composing. Adding too much digital manipulation seemed counter to the spirit of the project. I wanted the material to be easily recognizable for those acquainted with the sources.

I did what I could to be thorough in the choices of sounds I captured. I am, of course, not an expert on the intricacies and details of Montreal since I do not live there. Perhaps the word 'portraiture' is misleading since it implies an erudite and informed perspective. This piece is more equivalent to the caricatures that the cartoonists who are buzzing around high-tourism areas are drawing for those willing to sit for them. It documents my immediate impression of the city; highlighting those assets and flaws that I notice through my naïve observations

Or perhaps this project is neither portraiture nor caricature. Maybe it is a sonic journal of my trip to Montreal. After all, my presence is strongly imprinted in the piece through the choices I've made. I have included conversations between myself and cab drivers, sounds of myself eating, and other sounds requiring my presence to occur. I am not a fly on the wall.

Whatever it is you'd like to call it - is okay with me. I simply hope that you, fine citizens of Montreal, enjoy the piece and feel that I have done your beautiful and culturally rich city, justice.


Last year, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts music commissions program, Andy Dixon (also Secret Mommy) came to Montreal to find the sonic essence of the city. Here it is as a free release on MUTEK_Rec:

  • andy dixon
  • secret mommy

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