Carleton prof creates music with books

JUNO award-winning artist and Carleton University professor Jesse Stewart put on a live interactive musical performance called Hooked on Bibliophonics at Carleton’s MacOdrum Library on Jan. 23.

The performance took place inside Stewart’s portable geodesic dome and featured what he calls a “bibliophone”—a xylophone-like set-up of books on tables that created sounds similar to drumming when hit with mallets. The event was interactive, with Stewart in the middle of the dome, and participants gathering around to join in the making of music.

The event, organized by Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG), is the first of a series of events that will be put on by Stewart on campus to celebrate Carleton’s 75th anniversary, and CUAG’s 25th anniversary.

“The event is interactive, innovative, and inclusive,” said Sandra Dyck, director of CUAG.

“Jesse’s known for performances embodying those qualities,” Dyck said.

“It was a successful performance by virtue of people ranging from university-age through to late 80s. I like the fact that people who had never met before were collaborating with one another across various forms of difference—age, background, and musical ability,” Stewart said.

There was no set list or score to accompany the music—everything was improvised. People continuously wandered in and out of the dome during the hour-long event.

One of these people, who participated for almost the entire duration of the event, was Stewart’s high school music teacher, Bruce Court, who called the event “pretty awesome”.

“Anything [Stewart] does is pretty awesome,” he added. Court taught Stewart at O’Neill Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Oshawa, Ont., and the two have kept in touch ever since.

“I’ve got an abstract painting hanging in our house that Stewart did in Grade 10 or 11 using drumsticks and brushes. He’s a very creative guy, musically and visually,” Court said.

The inspiration behind using books to make music comes from Dyck’s suggestion to use the library as a venue, according to Stewart.

“I’ve never done that before. So I set up the dome in the library and I went through a few hundred books and picked ones that sounded good,” Stewart said. He said he chose books that had different tones to them, and ones with no images on the cover because it would be visually distracting.

The event is largely a result of Stewart’s interdisciplinary background. He is a professor in the music program at Carleton, as well as an adjunct faculty member in the visual arts program at the University of Ottawa. He is a composer, performer, and percussionist, and often works with unconventional found objects to make music.

Stewart said he started an organization a few years ago called We Are All Musicians, which is rooted in his belief that “everybody should have opportunities to make music.”

He said his goal for the event on Monday was to make it as inclusive as possible, and give everyone an opportunity to try out making music.

Stewart added there are barriers that prevent people from trying to play music, such as disability, poverty, or someone authoritative saying something critical when they are young.

“I want to create inclusive spaces for musical and social interactions. Part of the reason I do this kind of thing is to combat the reluctance people have when it comes to playing music,” Stewart said.

“If you want to get creative, go find professor Stewart,” Court said.

Stewart’s remaining four performances will be scattered throughout 2017, and the dates are available on the library’s website.

– Photo by Zaynab Al-Hemed