Winnipeg New Music Festival: “Music, Politics, and the Personal”

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” -Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Inscribed on the wall of the opening exhibit room, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets an aura that carries throughout the rest of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. The facility displays an intricate architecture while containing numerous exhibits featuring concepts on human rights, both locally and around the world. The CMHR, in its brilliant design, has undeniably succeeded in its purpose to encourage reflection and dialogue and “to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights.” Such an important and necessary structure should be no surprise, as it perfectly sets the mise-en-scène for composers of the Winnipeg New Music Festival to approach topics of social responsibility and diversity through dialogue and art.

“An artist’s job is to be vital to its surrounding.  My duty as an artist is to express.”

On Monday, January 29, 2018, composer and singer Andrew Balfour was speaking in a pre-concert talk titled “Music, Politics, and the Personal” at Westminster United Church along-side composer T. Patrick Carrabré. The pair discussed their compositions as well as challenges to working with socially or politically charged material. Balfour touched on the risks of working with divisive cultural materials, stating “The repercussions of using politics… it can be hard to get more commissions, it can be hard to get others to work with you…” Composers, as minor public figures, have to watch what they say, and dealing in politics must balance with continued satisfaction amongst patrons, commissioners, arts councils, etc. Despite the risks, the pair seemed undeterred from using material they are passionate about.

T. Patrick Carrabré

T. Patrick Carrabré

Carrabré’s work, Just Society, draws inspiration from the Syrian Refugee Crisis. With text set from talks by Cicero’s De Officiis and Louis Riel, as well as audio samples from speeches by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Carrabré blends the altruistic and realistic views on social justice into an intense and prideful narrative. The contrast between vocals of the Polycoro Chamber Choir and electronic timbres served an essential structural facet; the exchange between melodious and spoken text created an imperative discord. Only the text itself matched the gravity of the harmonic and melodic material, the prideful aura gripping listeners. A melody reminiscent of a national hymn ended the work, calling on the audience to join in and sing in solidarity with their neighbor. Just Society, with its selfless themes, emanated the ideals of inclusiveness and openness not only for an audience to hear, but also to participate in.

Similarly remarkable, Balfour takes aim at life in the North End, an area known for its high crime, poverty, and indigenous population. Balfour, of Cree descent, set the text from Selkirk Avenue by Katherina Vermette, a Métis poet. The text highlights life on the street for young indigenous women, embodying vulnerability. Balfour’s work for choir, by the same name as the poem, matches the power of the text, fiercely knitting together an aura of pain and aching. With some of the best choral writing of the evening, Balfour’s impressive counterpoint featured turning colors and densities which exposed a raw passion. It was easy to feel a blast of chilled air when Camerata Nova’s Jane Fingler rose from the texture giving life to the most haunting melodic line of the festival, reinforcing the imagery Balfour had given of displaced individuals struggling with the freezing weather in winter. With his unique and heartfelt voice, Balfour succeeded in bringing the audience to empathize with this indigenous woman walking the streets of the North End.

Karen Sunabacka

Karen Sunabacka

On January 31, 2018, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Karen Sunabacka’s #DryColdConversations, shining a light on Syrian refugees in Winnipeg. Sunabacka interviewed and recorded refugees and native Winnipeggers alike, using the recordings as a narrative over the musical material. Sunabacka creates a brilliant sense of space, placing musical events next to recorded speech, amplifying the concept of conversation. Sunabacka displays an incredibly in-depth knowledge of instrumental technique, finding string effects with a near perfect imitation of crunching snow.  Quotes from refugees, “The cold is not good for my leg, not for my bones,” show the struggle of adaptation and preparation many are suffering in the Winnipeg winter. While many are empathetic to the causes for Syrian refugees to flee, Sunabacka’s work caringly continues to humanize the situation by keeping the refugees’ struggles in the forefront.

On the opening night of the Winnipeg New Music Festival on January 27, 2018, Harry Stafylakis’ work A Parable for End Times was premiered by the WSO and the Horizon choir. While I was not in attendance, Stafylakis presented the work in a private session after the premiere, speaking about the compositional process and allowing a listen to the recording. Using text from Steven Erikson’s novella “The Devil Delivered,” Stafylakis displays an immense knowledge and technique of orchestration to create a weight and gravity only paralleled by the dystopian future from the text. While the weight is necessary for the topic of humanity’s complicity in the destruction of its own planet, the narrative of the work is intricately constructed to consider the character and naivety of a child who sparks the diatribe, asking “What did I do wrong?” Most impressively, the work’s sense of pacing through harmonic progression relentlessly pulls the audience further into dystopia, utilizing masterful counterpoint and a necessary upheaval of expected structures to maneuver a hesitant audience through a necessary conceptual landscape. Stafylakis’s constructed narrative stood as a pillar for the festival for the role political and social commentary can play on the orchestral stage.

As Balfour pointed out, the repercussions of using politically charged material comes with an inherent risk. Despite any potential impact to their careers moving further, the works performed succeeded in bringing to light various social and political topics. Each work shared a common passion and authenticity, allowing listeners at the Winnipeg New Music Festival a new perspective to identify their own relationship with the issues or problems at hand.