My favourite Winnipeg New Music Festival moment, by far, occurred in 2004. Somehow the organizers convinced the esteemed Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, to attend. In my opinion, getting Arvo Pärt to come to Winnipeg is the equivalent of getting the Pope to visit Niverville or the Foo Fighters to do a gig in Virden. And it wasn’t only that Arvo Pärt was in town. There was an eerie late-night concert in Portage Place Mall featuring his work. In my recollection, it was close to midnight and I was listening to this delicate atmospheric minimalism, oddly juxtaposed with the sound of the escalator in the darkened mall. I thought: how bizarre this is. It’s January, and it’s Winnipeg, and I’m listening to midnight music in this mall. Then I looked over, and there was Arvo Pärt, looking like a medieval saint, sitting not far from me. This was wonderful and strange.
The second concert of this year’s New Music Festival on Sunday January 24 offered one moment that was not quite as splendid, but had hints of such otherworldliness. It occurred during So Percussion’s performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming Part I. Once the four members of So Percussion set up the complex but simple rhythms of Reich’s piece, they settled into a prolonged feat of drumming during which I became nearly hypnotized by the movements of their sticks. I have been struggling to find a better description of the visual impact of this than a comparison to brown butterflies. But however it is described, others saw it too: I have rarely experienced such a still auditorium. Watching four people drum, the audience was completely rapt.
Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings was also fascinating both to watch and hear, since it involves an invented instrument called the chord stick. David Lang’s piece the so-called laws of nature, however, was quite hard to see, since the final movement of the piece, involving drumming on an assembly of what appeared to be flower pots and cups, was located near the back of the stage. This was probably my least favourite piece of the evening, since there were a lot of higher-pitched crockery-type sounds with a slight tendency to irritate. (The question of pitch, of course, is a matter of taste. I would rather listen to a tenor than a soprano, but that’s just me.) Lang’s work seemed, ultimately, to exist within an overly constrained system of repetition, unity, and precision, making me restless for more individual deviation or spontaneity.
The members of So Percussion — who look like philosophy students rather than professional musicians, and I mean that in the best possible way — have been involved in a New York City phenomenon co-founded by David Lang called Bang on a Can, which has grown beyond concerts to involve record labels, festivals, and more. It’s been a treat to experience a bit of this fabled New York innovation and ingenuity.
Sue Sorensen teaches English at Canadian Mennonite University and is working, with difficulty, on the cowbell riff in “Honky Tonky Woman” by The Rolling Stones.