Arts & Life, Music

Report from the Winnipeg New Music Festival – Evening 5: It’s about time for the theremin to show up

By the fifth day of the WNMF, new music fatigue is in evidence. Is this what it feels like to be an entrant in a goldfish-eating competition? Or a Fringophile, sunburnt from standing in Exchange District summertime queues, with no time for pooping because I am determined to see every play? On January 27, it was clear to me how much the human mind longs to default to the familiar. Listening hard to so many new compositions, my brain insisted on making possibly spurious connections to music I know well. I claimed yesterday I heard bits of Richard Strauss and Dvorak, but stopped short of admitting that I imagined some Leonard Bernstein. Heading down to the concert hall Wednesday night, I looked with some longing at the Black Sabbath fans going to the MTS Centre and muttered to myself, Hey, Sue, how about some metal?

So I was probably not the only one who perked up when a theremin was added to the orchestra for Lera Auerbach’s Icarus. Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate said he’d fallen in love with this piece. On the verge of telling us that we would too, he hesitated: “Well, you will see.” But the audience did like Icarus, which had enough of a 1940s serial adventure feeling (and who can hear the theremin and not think of Hitchcock’s Spellbound?) to be instantly likeable. The theremin blended nicely with the orchestra, indeed too nicely, merging into the orchestra with humility.

Hesitation about whether we could really like the WNMF 5 compositions recurred. Vincent Ho’s O Glorious Arcticus does not need accompanying Arctic photographs. Their firmly representative qualities (helicopter, muskox) were at odds with the nature of the piece. The atmosphere around Phill Niblock’s #9 (Number 9) was also uncertain; we were told it was “important” (always a worrying sign) and assured it would not last longer than 12-15 minutes. The people around me reacted nervously when told that Niblock’s drone piece is without rhythm, harmony, or melody. I, however, could have listened to it longer. Yes, I did spend some time studying the variations in baton and bowing technique, fiddling with my jewelry, and considering whether I should foam at the mouth. As one point this seemed the sonic equivalent of watching that morning my 13-year-old son falling asleep while at the same time eating his Mini-Wheats. I wondered what the score could possibly look like and how Mickelthwate would decide when it was over. But I also encountered fascinating questions about what deterioration of tone might mean to me, noted that my imagination was apparently conjuring up melodic development anyway, and generally was settling into a fairly intriguing space when it was, too soon, done.

T. Patrick Carrabré’s Winter Wind would, perhaps, grow on me if I heard it again. It was a dramatic piece but I’m not certain that the composer was in sufficient sympathy with the French horn he was writing for. But my feel of being worn out was completed by the second half of the evening; first there was a film featuring the spontaneous piano composition of venerable artist Michael Snow, known primarily in the worlds of experimental film, painting, and sculpture. That was fine. But Robert Enright then settled into an interview with the 86-year-old Snow the purpose and length of which were increasingly uncertain. It was time to go home and check on the Mini-Wheats situation.


Sue Sorensen is the author of a novel, A Large Harmonium, which would seem to be about a musical instrument not unlike the theremin. But a theremin is not really like a harmonium at all, and her novel ultimately sidesteps dealing with the harmonium anyway.