5 Questions to Matthew Patton (composer, curator)

Matthew Patton is a Canadian composer and the curator of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival. The festival, celebrating its 25th year in 2016, is one of the largest and longest existing orchestral-based new music festivals in North America. This year’s line-up features works and performances by David Lang, Joan Tower, Stephen O’Malley, So Percussion, Barbara Monk Feldman, Phil Niblock, Lera Auerbach, and Gavin Bryars, among many others. The festival will take place from January 23 to 29, 2016 in various venues across Winnipeg.

This year marks the 25th anniversary edition of the WSO New Music Festival. What can we expect from it?

For me probably the most interesting element this year is drone, an important element of music for hundreds of years beginning with organum in the 1200s and even before. We have commissioned a major new 40 minute world premiere, his first for large orchestra by drone icon Stephen O’Malley (Sunn(O)). Stephen’s new work is paired with the first performance ever in North America of a major new orchestral work by another drone icon Phill Niblock, someone who is living history, a composer far more influential and important than most people realize.

In addition we will be performing Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic in an Olympic-sized pool with the musicians spread out on the diving towers and around the water, Morton Feldman’s masterpiece The Rothko Chapel, along with two world premieres by Feldman’s widow Barbara Monk Feldman, several works by David Lang, So Percussion, Joan Tower, Mikolaj Gorecki (Henryk Gorecki’s son who orchestrated, arranged, and completed his father’s Symphony  No. 4) will be here for the Canadian premiere of Symphony No. 4, plus an evening with artist/filmmaker/musician Michael Snow. Lubomyr Melnyk performed at a pre-Festival event and there will also be films by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson including his directorial debut, a North American theatrical premiere by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and a David Lynch 70th birthday evening. Virtually all of the composers will be flying in and be present at the Festival.

Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman

As the festival curator, how did you decide on the program? What does your work involve leading up to the week-long event?

The festival is seven days of concerts, panels, talks, films, art exhibitions, and installations, and this year is extended with additional events to nine days. I first start by deciding on a few main works to be performed and composers that I think would be exciting or meaningful to bring in. I work closely with Alexander Mickelthwate, the conductor of the orchestra and artistic director, to put a few of these main music pillars in place– for example this year I felt it was important to commission a major new work from Stephen O’Malley, previously it was to perform the new opera that composer Phil Kline and film director Jim Jarmusch is working on on Nikola Tesla. Then we start to expand outward, in this case alongside Stephen O’Malley to also premiere a major new work by Phill Niblock. David Lang was interested in coming this year hoping to do a collaboration with Guy Maddin, so we are doing Canadian premieres of a number of David’s works. The programming keeps expanding outwards.

The work in putting the festival together, at least for me, is endless because my own curiosity and passion for music, art, and literature is endless. I work all day every day; last year I took three days off, I don’t do anything else than work on the festival and work on my own music, and I will do absolutely anything to get interesting music and new collaborations performed. I travel a lot for my own music, and I always try to stay aware of what projects are in the works long before they actually happen and try and have them premiered or performed here. Plus, I dream up a lot of new collaborations myself, meet with the artists, and then try and make them happen.

What are the advantages of hosting a new music festival in Winnipeg?

Winnipeg is a strange, surreal, and mythical place. It is the perfect place for a strange and surreal new music festival to be held in the middle of winter when it is usually 40 degrees below zero. It has to be extreme for the Festival and I like that. Winnipeg has a history of surreal, sometimes mystical, and certainly outside art from people like film director Guy Maddin, composers Eyvind Kang, Lubomyr Melnyk, and Venetian Snares who are all working on an international level, or the artists in the Royal Art Lodge. Neil Farber, Michael Dumontier, and Marcel Dzama, Academy Award winning composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi) is from Winnipeg and so is Neil Young. So is Douglas Rain who is the voice of the HAL 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I love the history and all the connections. When I talk to artists around the world all the interesting ones know about Winnipeg and the artists from here, and the ones I ask to come are usually curious to come and experience the place. I know many artists in New York and London that view Winnipeg as a very strange and exotic place. It is.

Gaving Bryars and his ensemble performing "The Sinking of the Titanic" at Barbican Centre - Photo

Gaving Bryars and his ensemble performing “The Sinking of the Titanic” at Barbican Centre – Photo

You’re also premiering a composition of your own during the festival. Can you tell us more about it?

My new piece is part of an evening where the main work is Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic. The evening is about music and trauma. The Sinking of the Titanic is a beautiful, tragic, and melancholy work. My piece is as well. I have been recording in Iceland with all the string players with Sigur Ros. I wrote and recorded a lot of music and then began erasing it into ruins. The music works as a kind of an epilogue to the The Sinking of the Titanic, but it will be heard before it with speakers surrounding the water. The piece is about plane crashes, and I use actual audio from cockpit voice recorders from real plane crashes. The work is disturbingly personal for me as my brother was killed in a plane crash.

What other projects are your working on at the moment?

I am recording a lot of music in Iceland as I am obsessed with the place, the nature, and the music, everything. The first CD that we have been recording will be released this year and then I go back to Iceland for more recording of the next CD. There are some really interesting artists involved in the project as it is planned to involve text, film, narration, and light as well. The new project is the great obsession of my life, the David Reimer story, a story that took place in Winnipeg. It is the most incredible story and the most tragic story that I have ever come across in my life and it all happened here in Winnipeg.  No matter where I go in the world, virtually everyone I ever talk to knows about this story but as a kind of fading memory. It’s a story that, in true Winnipeg fashion, has been ignored or erased because it is so uncomfortable and so dark. It’s the quintessential Winnipeg story– extremely dark, extremely disturbing, and extremely surreal if it wasn’t in fact so real, it actually happened. And its effects are still being felt today. I will leave it to anyone that may read this to discover the story of David Reimer for themselves.

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