Whether you’re a fan or musician with an affinity for the innovative and avant-garde, looking for
like-minded souls, there’s only been one Edmonton constant over the last three decades — the Boreal Electroacoustic Music Society, aka BEAMS.
Since its founding in 1989 by a group of CJSR DJs, BEAMS has been dedicated to the production and promotion of experimental sound-oriented art. The non-profit society puts on several concerts around town a year, holds workshops and occasionally releases recordings by its members, which include not only professional musicians and composers interested in pushing the boundaries of music, but performance artists, dancers and poets.
This sort of inclusiveness is one of the core tenets of the society.
“No matter the kind of experimentation you’re into, there’s room for you in BEAMS,” says Shawn Pinchbeck, the current president of the organization. “Some people are into analog synthesizers, others are into noise music, and then there are people like me, who are into sound compositions, where we take sounds found in the world at large and turn them into musical pieces.”
Pinchbeck, who currently manages a recording studio and teaches courses in music technology at Grand Prairie Regional College, is a pioneer in Edmonton’s experimental music scene. He’s been a member of BEAMS since its inception, even acting as the organization’s president for a period in the ’90s before starting his second stint in the role in 2017.
Having explored the fringes of sound art since the ’80s, Pinchbeck has helped spread the word about Alberta’s electroacoustic community through his travels, which have taken him across the world — he’s played shows in Europe and has lectured in Estonia, Finland and Latvia.
BEAMS is almost as old as Edmonton’s electronic music scene itself.
“There was quite a big electronic music scene in Edmonton in the early ’80s,” Pinchbeck recalls. “A few bands were playing electronic music live, and Marcel Dion had a radio show on CJSR called Departures that played experimental music. We were all influenced by the music he was spinning on his show, so we started making our own versions of it.”
For Pinchbeck, his interest in technology drives him to experiment musically.
“There’s so much being developed in terms of the technology used to make music these days, the possibilities as to what you can learn and do with it are infinite,” he says. “I have a Ph.D in electroacoustic music, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what there is to learn about it.”
Other artists have developed a deeper appreciation for experimental music after discovering BEAMS, like Chris Samsonow, who also acts as the society’s treasurer.
“I was a fan of a few artists that made experimental music growing up, but it wasn’t until I learned about BEAMS that I became passionate about it,” he says. “The people involved with the society really inspire you to be as creative as possible.”
“I think it’s important to be your unique self and not just follow what everyone else does,” he continues, explaining how BEAMS has helped him push his own musical boundaries.
This is the niche that BEAMS fills in Edmonton — it acts as a central hub for artists with an unshakeable urge to explore the unexplored. “We pride ourselves in doing something different,” says Samsonow. “I’m not aware of a similar organization in Edmonton that combines experimental art and sound in the way that we do.”
This past July, Samsonow helped organize a free outdoor concert to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary. It’s an achievement that still hasn’t quite sunk in yet for the group, whose membership has ranged from 30 or so members at its smallest to almost 100 today.
With the proliferation of social media over the last decade, as well as the fact experimental music continues to grow both as a musical genre and a subculture — EDM (electronic dance music), one of the genre’s more mainstream incarnations, experienced a massive resurgence over the last decade — BEAMS has been able to spread its message further than ever before, and its membership continues to grow. But even at its leanest, there’s always been a tight-knit and passionate bedrock of members that has kept BEAMS going.
“It’s totally crazy,” says Pinchbeck, reflecting on the three decades that BEAMS has existed. “There are no other groups like it in Canada, and it says something about both Edmonton and Alberta that we’ve managed to keep it rolling for all these years. There’s a bigger scene now than there’s ever been. We hope it keeps growing, and we hope to continue to be a part of it.”