Saxophonist Karen Ng has performed with Andy Shauf, L CON, The Holy Gasp, The Happiness Project, Fresh Snow, Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene, touring Canada, US, Europe and Asia over the last 7 years. Also a staple in Toronto’s experimental and improvising scene as a performer and organizer, she presently curates local and international acts in various Toronto venues.
Photo of Karen Ng by Sean Howard
You tour a lot! What do you enjoy about touring?
I actually dropped out of school to tour. Touring was my first kind of professional experience. Playing music every day to an audience is really lovely. I also just enjoy the company of the band. Sometimes it’s hard because you’re willingly stuffing yourself in a van - basically everyone drops their lives to be there - but I really like the closeness that happens. It’s really nice being able to travel the world.
You’re also involved in many improvising ensembles in the city. For someone who is not musical, explain how you feel when you’re improvising?
You’re with a group of people – or just two – and you’re trying to tap into something collectively. A great drummer named Gerry Hemingway said something like: it’s the collective agreement. We’re creating this thing together and trying to agree on what it is without knowing what it is. You’re sitting in a space and creating something sonically together and you don’t know what the end result is. There are a lot of instant decisions that are being made. There’s a lot of creative problem solving, with sound.
In terms of how it feels, there’s a balance of being hyper aware, and also not thinking too much. A lot of people compare it to the feeling of Zen; you’re totally aware and in tune with everything, and at the same time you’re trying to let it all go. It’s a really interesting mind state.
You collaborate with many different artists and groups working in different genres. Is it much of a shift for you when playing with a rock group to playing jazz?
The more I think about it, especially with a lot of the projects that I choose to do, you’re basically there to create. That’s common between all genres. I’m currently touring with Andy Shauf. He has a bunch of songs that I love, and I’m there to do whatever it takes to help his songs get realized in the way he wants. I think that’s a general philosophy for every project that I’m working on – that I’m there to support the music that’s happening. I’m there for creative moral support.
What excites you about the music scene in Toronto today?
The more I travel away from home, the more I love home. I really love the community that I have in Toronto. In the Toronto music scene, everyone melds in and out of different genres and maybe we don’t like each other’s music, but we all hang out together. A lot of that has to do with the venues that we have. They are like cultural hubs. At any point, I can walk in to the Tranzac Club, and see my friends play. These are really safe spaces that are like my second home. I’m sure it happens in other cities as well, but I think that there’s such a strong community here, and a lot of that has to do with the venues, and being open to other peoples’ music. The cultural climate of any city is dependent on great artistic communities; it’s really important to keep that going.
From 2013-2017 you helped curate shows for the annual Somewhere There festival. What is the festival all about?
Somewhere There was started by our friend Scott Thomson. The festival is basically a party for all of our local friends who put on really challenging music throughout the year. The event is to celebrate all of the awesome musicians that we have, to pay them well, and to let them do whatever they want. Last year we asked Kyle Brenders to play. We were thinking he would play with the Massey Hall Big Band, or with his own large ensemble, and he asked us if he could do something new. We were like, yeah! So he created a new piece which had never been performed, and it was a success! There are a lot of intersecting communities with what we do, and the festival is a chance to book diverse musicians in the same space. The hope is that the festival will happen annually for as long as we can justify doing so.
What is your favourite music venue in Toronto?
It’s the Tranzac hands down. The Tranzac is a really special place. It’s an anomaly. It’s crazy that we have this place where no matter what, you can play in the front room which feels like a living room, and present whatever you want – they’ve got bluegrass, singer songwriter stuff, there’s improvising orchestras, there’s jazz sets on Tuesdays. In the main hall, people put on festivals, throw CD release parties, perform theatre projects. In the tiny other room there could be a knitting circle, or people reading lines for a theatre performance. There are so many possibilities in that building. It’s the city’s best kept secret. Everyone’s welcome to come in. The Holy Oak would have come in second – the space itself was small, and in the summer it was so hot, but some of the best times I’ve had in Toronto were in The Holy Oak. Logistically maybe it wasn’t the best, but sometimes that’s not what makes a good venue. It’s all about the vibe and the hub.
You’re also a music teacher. What do you enjoy about teaching?
It’s the most honest time I have in my day. It’s really flattering that the families will pay me to have their child sit in a room with me and just hear me talk. A lot of what we talk about and work on - even though the context is musical - is figuring out what you like, and what you don’t like about music, or life. Sometimes if the student is having a hard time that day, we talk about that too. We talk a lot about how you make choices, why you make those choices, and why that may change. Sometimes the students have to do a RCM exam, or they have an audition, and it’s not something they like doing, but I help them figure out how to get it done or to make it useful for themselves. In this creative venture that I’m in there’s all sorts of things that you could be creating or supporting, and this is the one thing I do where I feel like I’m making some sort of difference. It’s a really grounded place to be able to help people.
Learn more: missngmusic.tumblr.com