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Winnipeg New Music Festival 2017 January 28 – February 3 reviewed by Jane Enkin

by Jane Enkin January 30, 2017

I strongly encourage readers to take advantage of these amazing musical opportunities!


The Winnipeg New Music Festival continues this week with programs ranging from orchestral works to multidisciplinary events incorporating film, visual art and electronic sounds in unconventional performance spaces. For details, visit


The festival opened with an energetic flurry of sound in L'infini de l'instant by Tajik-Canadian Farangis Nurulia-Khoja. I was reminded of urban soundscapes by George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Distinctive work from the percussion section and the brass section, often with mutes like a 1930s jazz band, transported me to an overstimulating, tense and exciting public square with light, colour, movement and street sounds from every direction.


The Saturday night concert introduced the festival's featured guest composer Meredith Monk with Weave, the only Monk composition in the festival to feature orchestra along with vocalists. The gentle sounds and simple repetitive phrases drew on sacred choral music. But Monk worked, as she usually does, without text in a specific language. Instead, she gives the vocalists syllables to sing that create an emotional language specific to the piece. We were fortunate to hear soloist Katie Geissinger, a longtime collaborator of Monk, who has been involved in the evolution of the sounds and vocal techniques in her pieces. It was startling to hear the contrast between the percussive sounds she made at the beginning of the piece, joined by fellow soloist Jeffrey Gavett and Winnipeg community choir Horizon, and her crystalline, lyrical tone near the closing.


The work built up a yearning intensity through simple, repeated motifs. Percussionist Victoria Sparks, on marimba and vibraphone, played rippling lines that rose over the ensemble. With a work this complex, the term “minimalist” doesn't seem accurate, but the music was transparent, like a painting in which you can perceive every brushstroke as well as the image as a whole.


I am grateful to have heard the emotionally, spiritually and intellectually challenging Syn-Phonia: Migration Patterns by Greek-Canadian Christos Hatzis. Syn-Phonia featured the thrilling vocals of two singers from areas dramatically affected by climate change, Inuit throat-singer Tiffany Ayalik and Middle-Estern singer Maryem Hassan-Tollar from Toronto. Even their gowns made an intense statement, Hassan-Tollar's a flowing embroidered dress from Qatar, Ayalik's a fur-trimmed, satin, updated echo of a traditional woman's parka she created with her mother, Cathy Allooloo. Adding to the visual experience in this work were improvised projections on a screen by Robert Pasternak,who we watched at the side of the stage as he danced his images into being, some of them linear structures and others slowly growing flower and plant-like forms. Surround sound speakers added sounds drawn from nature, urban environments, sampled spoken word and music.


Within this dazzling context, clear emotions came through along with intricate musical and intellectual ideas. Ayulik's throat-singing technique, used by Hatzis to suggest the precision of Bach, was gloriously happy. Hassan-Tollar is a magnificent singer, bringing transcendent richness to simple melodic lines. Together, they created a heart-rending experience singing the text of Thank You, constantly interrupted by the sounds of war. 


Thank you for the light.
Thank you for my life,
my loves and my sorrows
and my pain.

Thank you for the night:
darkness incubates the light.
Starlight sows wonder
in my heart.


Syn-Phonia makes use of a conventional symphonic palette, incorporating big band jazz, classical and romantic sounds. Throughout the piece, the two women stood in contrast to the lush sound, their brilliant, skilled vocal technique informed by folk tradition. Firm, determined and strong, they stood as witnesses to the joy and to the harsh realities explored in this work.


The second two evenings of the festival focused on the work of American innovator Meredith Monk. Her compositions are always rooted in her own voice, and she sings and improvises as she composes. Two Winnipeg choirs, Camerata Nova and Polycoro Chamber Choir, performed her pieces with precision and verve. But it was the opportunity to hear Monk as a soloist and with long-time collaborators, singers Katie Geissinger and Allison Snifflin, joined by Bodhan Hilash in winds, that was truly extraordinary.


As Monk explained, she creates for each work a new language, phonemes carefully chosen for emotional resonance in the particular landscape of a new sound-world. In this context, the occasional phrase in English stands out with powerful impact. 

Monk sang solo unaccompanied pieces, works with piano, and in the pieces I found had the strongest impact, duets and trios with the other singers. In the choral program and in the smaller ensemble pieces, some works were free-standing but most were segments of longer, elaborate narrative works. Of American Jewish heritage, Monk touched on some Jewish themes. Book of Days looks at the scapegoating of the Jewish community during a medieval plague. The work mercy provides a visceral exploration of the experience of French righteous gentiles who saved Jewish children.


I look forward to writing more about the extraordinary musical experience of hearing Monk and her ensemble in my next article about the festival.

Artistic Director Andrew Mickelthwate and curator Matthew Patton focused on Canadian composers and musicians of many backgrounds, as well as compositions and visiting artists from other countries, to put together the eclectic program. I'll list only a few of the highlights here; there is much more to learn in the interview-filled program booklet and on the website


Israeli composer Avner Dorman explored tremolo technique and the dynamic of sound and silence in his Mandolin Concerto. Andrew Balfour, of Cree descent, composed Bawajigaywin, a work sung by Camerata Nova, the Winnipeg choir he founded. His meditative, energizing piece delicately evoked a cleansing smudge leading into the beginnings of a vision quest – I felt ready to follow the choir further into this experience. Winnipeg's Polycoro Chamber Choir rose to the acting and singing challenges of Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic's Dring Dring, a wonderfully funny romp through our involvement with the telephone, with some lovely, gentle moments of lullaby included.


Much appreciation is due to the skilled artists, the generous sponsors and volunteers and the adventurous audiences that make this festival possible.

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