New Creations Festival 2017: Celebrating The Alive and Weird (Part 1)

For the past week, I have been taking myself on dates to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Sounds bougie as heck, doesn’t it–I don’t know many people my age who are a) interested in concert hall music (one reason why I’m taking myself) and b) able to afford that sort of leisure. Usually anything that you’re gonna see in Roy Thompson Hall is pricey.

But with the New Creations Festival, that’s not the case! Every year for thirteen years now, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has put together a week-long concert featuring contemporary compositions that might not otherwise get the recognition and celebration they merit. The program is packed with “bold, experimental” pieces that have the delightful tendency of taking your expectations and tossing them out the nearest window. It’s really unique and interesting stuff, and this year the festival pass cost $30–which covers three concerts plus pre-concert and post-concert musical numbers. If you go to everything, that’s $30 for nine shows, which divides down to $3.33 per show. Even broke students like myself can afford that.

As a budding violinist, I’ve been trying to take myself to as many live performances as possible, and with such phenomenal performers on the bill as James Ehnes and the Kronos Quartet, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And this year’s New Creations Festival co-curator is none other than Owen Pallett, who is one of my favourite songwriters, violinists, and all-around music people. I’d already bought the tickets when I found out that also, due to the year-long celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial (a fancy word for 150th) anniversary, there was going to be a focus on Indigenous music and art. I’ve already seen Inuktitut throat singer Tanya Tagaq perform, and I’m going to have the privilege of seeing Anishinaabe hoop dancer Nimkii Osawamick as well.

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Tanya Tagaq (photo from tso.ca)

So many of my favourite things, all in one!

A List of Observations Made So Far:

  1. “Reflections on ‘O Canada’ After Truth And Reconciliation” is a two-minute piece of music that I want to show every Canadian ever, because I think it perfectly encapsulates the way we need to view our country. It’s haunting. It makes you reflect. It’s upsetting in the most productive way. As composer Andrew Staniland says, “part of celebrating Canada at 150 is being aware of our past–the good and the bad.”
  2. Tanya Tagaq made me cry. She performed a piece called Qiksaaktuq, which is the Inuktitut word for ‘grief’. There were five movements, each one dedicated to one of the five stages of grief–and there were five red dresses hung up before the performance began. Did I mention this amazing woman improvised her whole part? The whole thing was meant as a lament for missing and murdered Indigenous women, and it hit hard. Beautiful.
  3. James Ehnes is probably the most technically-accomplished violinist I’ve seen live. I want to shake that man’s hand so I can absorb some of its awesome talent.

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    James Ehnes (photo from tso.ca)
  4. Christine Duncan and the Element Choir are one of the coolest projects I’ve ever heard of–again, going on the improvisational theme, they are a choir that improvises real-time based on a vocabulary of ‘conduction cues’ developed by Duncan. Each performance is unique! (You can actually see them in the background of the Tanya Tagaq link!) They “explore textural and timbral sound qualities, soundscapes, rhythmic patterns, sound poetry,  musical genre interplay and extended voice techniques”–which means that what they create is more of a soundscape than music. I am seriously considering joining this once I graduate.
  5. Owen Pallett’s song cycle also made me cry (as Owen Pallett often does). Both of the people beside me were also sniffling and dabbing their eyes, so I’m happy knowing I’m not alone in this. Of everything I’ve heard, this sound is the sound that’s moved me the most.
  6. Having said that, I relate to Nico Muhly’s “Mixed Messages” in a way that I’d describe as “startlingly intimate”. The whole point of the piece is to represent, compositionally, the feeling of miscommunication; its different sections are meant to evoke the sensation of trying to get something across and never quite getting there. It may surprise some of you to know that I feel this way really often in interpersonal communication, and the piece spoke to that struggle in a way I wasn’t expecting.

But out of everything, here’s the most important observation: if I had to pick one word to describe the music I’m hearing at the New Creations Festival–and I’m being completely honest here–it would be ‘weird’.

We Do The Weird Stuff: Exploring The Frontiers of Art (and Life)

Perhaps this is because my ear isn’t well-trained enough to understand the complexities of what’s at work in the composition, but really, some of it is just weird. There have been some pieces that I’ve been bemused by or unsure of, and even some by which I’m decidedly put off, but as the TSO Composer Advisor Gary Kulesha pointed out in the opening remarks, “you people are the adventurers–you’ve come to hear the new music.”

This, I think, is at the heart of what Toronto, the TSO, and the New Creations Festival are trying to do: to expose listeners to the new and unpredictable, to broaden people’s expectations and assumptions of what is possible, and, critically, to celebrate experimentation and creativity in an art form that many consider to be rigid and fixed. TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian jokingly said something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about:

You know the old saying–the most important quality that any composer must have is that they are dead.

In other words, we’re not interested by the innovative things that people in our day and age are doing with the art form.

I think we have this problem not just when we think about music, or even when we think about art–I think we have this problem when we think about our entire society, and even life itself. We have somehow been convinced (or convinced ourselves) that everything there is to figure out has already been figured out by someone, that there is nothing left to explore or to create or to play with. There is a form and a structure to our lives–as there is in most concert hall music–that has been so deeply ingrained that we never deviate from it. Sometimes it’s so deeply ingrained that we never notice it’s there at all.

That’s one of the reasons why I think things like the New Creations Festival are so vital to our culture–they expand the form and structure. They stretch it until it cracks. And then they push through the cracks and grow new ideas, new forms and structures that are still new and unstable and able to be played with.

I’m still solidifying my own ideas on this topic, and the final set of concerts is tomorrow (and I believe there are actually still tickets left for the event!), so I’m going to revisit this next week once I’ve had some time to mull it over. For now, check out the amazing composers and performers I’ve mentioned if you want to expand your own concept of what’s musically possible, and let me know in which areas of life you think we could use some new creation!

Love,

~Sisi

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