Ted Dawson and avant-garde musical notation

Experimental Cover | Ted Dawson

I met award-winning avant-garde composer/Professor Ted Dawson just over year ago in February 2009 at the opening of the Permeate Exhibit at the Music Gallery in Toronto, an art show exploring intersections between music and visual art. Before then, I knew nothing of avant-garde visual notation (I still can’t say I’ve performed any, though I heard a great sampling of an avant-garde vocal/breathing piece at the art opening), so Ted Dawson’s revolutionary multidisciplinary work in the 70’s really opened my eyes. I have a few years of classical vocal training from childhood and early adolescence (a strict Catholic upbringing = Catholic children’s choir for me) and I’ve always been intrigued with multidisciplinary vocal experimentation, so I think I’m going to offer my volunteer services at The True North Foundation once I return from Paris this summer to see if I can pick Dawson’s brain. I figure I could run errands in exchange for the learning experience that close proximity to a Canadian avant-garde genius would undoubtedly provide. We’ll see how it goes!

The Clouds of Magellan | Ted Dawson

Ted Dawson | Readings

A sampling of Dawson’s extensive work:

The Clouds of Magellan (1976-77) for Computer-Controlled Slides and Quadraphonic Tape

“Clouds” was the first step in a new direction for Dawson, where he moved beyond absolute music and created a series of experimental multidisciplinary pieces in collaboration with artists in the Montreal arts scene. The title itself is symbolic of exploration, with its double reference to Magellan and extraterrestrial nebulae that are named in his honour.

The specific genesis of this work was a spinoff of a graphic sound notations exhibition that Dawson had in Montreal at Vehicule Art gallery in 1976. After seeing and hearing Dawson’s work, photographic artist Suzy Lake proposed working together on a collective project.

The final artwork consists of a sequence of computer-controlled slide images of Dawson’s face and mouth projected on three screens simultaneously, with the imagery subjected to further physical distortion or transformation through movement or the actual melting and burning of the slides. Dawson compliments this material with a real time improvised recorded performance of breathing sounds in quadraphonic sound.

“Clouds” was first performed at Pollack Hall in Montreal in 1978, then toured across Canada including performances in Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, and Ottawa in 1979. The same year, it was also presented at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Failsafe (1980-83)

Failsafe was the last of the experimental multidisciplinary projects that Dawson undertook during his Montreal years. Like the other projects in the series, it involved collaborations with artists in other media, including structural engineer Paul Sorrentino and electronics designer Keith Daniel. However, unlike the other earlier works, it was the first to focus exclusively on technology and visual presentation without a human performance element. There is also no sound component present in this piece.

The “theme” of Failsafe is science/ technology and our society’s blind trust in its positive “benefits”. The installation, designed for an art gallery space, consists of a custom-designed heated pressure vessel with a viewing port, lava rock (for the interior of the cylinder), a carbon dioxide gas cylinder and input valves, thermocouples for monitoring temperature changes, 3 video monitors with Telidon colour graphic displays, and a slide show. The interior of the cylinder recreates general surface conditions found on the planet Venus, based on data provided by NASA from contemporary planetary expeditions. The work juxtaposes this hostile alien environment with our everyday reality as an enclosed chamber within the gallery’s viewing space.

Failsafe was installed in the A.R.C. Gallery in Toronto in 1982.

More information and a full list of projects and awards on Ted Dawson’s homepage.


  1. Cass wrote:

    OOOOOH Kare, that would be awesome if you could volunteer with Ted Dawson! Uh, and never made a piece of experimental visual-art-music? What about the sparkle cows last year on acid? LOL. Still not sure if we can call that music. You have a beautiful voice and I never knew an armchair could be an instrument! LOVE. YOU. <3

  2. Mark wrote:

    I think my Dad went to school with this guy.

  3. Phil wrote:


  4. Adèle wrote:


  5. only briefly. his lecture on the intersection between visual art and music was amazing!

  6. Nick wrote:

    This Is My Father :)