MNM 2011 Music in Motions
February 18-26, Montreal
Marc Hyland
Being assigned to cover a new music festival, such as Montreal Nouvelles Musiques, is somewhat like being thrown into a different space-time (and sound) continuum : one suddenly has the impression that new music is all there is to be heard all over the city, with ensembles, performances and venues filled with enthusiastic audiences experiencing nothing but new works, in other words, a living composer’s dream. And yet, for all that energy and talent, the media remain mostly deaf and blind to it, apart from a few concert reviews in daily papers, with nary a word about it on TV «cultural» shows and hardly a mention in the «young and hip» free weeklies…

Now in its fifth edition, the festival is curated and brought to life by the Societe de musique contemporaine du Quebec, under its artistic director Walter Boudreau and general manager Aida Aoun. Overall attendance was 20,000 this year, for a total of 32 concerts, free exhibits and performances at Place des Arts’ Grand foyer culturel, as well as two conventions. The 9-day event was also meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Semaine internationale de musique actuelle («Montreal International New Music Week»), organized by Pierre Mercure in 1961 and undoubtedly the founding event for Quebec’s contemporary music scene. In keeping with that legacy, John Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis, (commissioned by Pierre Mercure for 1961’s Festival and premiered then) was quite beautifully performed at Christ Church Cathedral, simultaneously with his Winter Music, by 30 Montreal musicians involved in the contemporary music scene.

This year, motion was the operative word, a theme to be heard but to also be experienced visually, as there was dance, video and performances in addition to concerts, all in all a multidisciplinary fest that fittingly echoed the aspirations of Pierre Mercure, who already championed that multimedia spirit in 1961, in tune with the 60s to come…

Launching the festival was a vibrant and deservedly lauded repeat presentation (after performances in 1999) of La vie qui bat, featuring Steve Reich’s Drumming, performed live by 13 musicians, including the magnificent virtuosos from Sixtrum percussion ensemble conducted by Walter Boudreau, and the 10 superb dancers of O Vertigo, choreographed by Ginette Laurin.

Urnos, is one of my favorites: this 60-minute work, a musical drama of sort, fuses music, angular melodies, dance and video to «recreate a ritual from the mysterious Urnossian civilization», with piercingly beautiful music by composer Andre Hamel, sung and played (on instruments reconstituted by Guy Laramee) by musicians from La Nef, with a memorable last scene evoking a funeral rite.

Still involving the human voice and body, the Eclats company from Bordeaux (France) presented the Montreal premiere of Songs, a music and dance journey between East and West, reuniting a voice (Nadine Gabard, mezzo), a koto (Mieko Miyazaki), a dancer (Patricia Borges Henriques) with melodies by John Cage and folklore tunes, as well as electronic sounscapes (Eddie Ladoire), directed by Stephane Guignard.
At Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, the happy few were in for an evening of great vocal refinement under the auspices of Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. Composers Pierre Kresimir Klanac, Fuhong Shi and John Rea were commissioned for the occasion and singers Krisztina Szabo and Xin Wang, along with accordionist John Lettieri, subtly conducted by Dairine Ni Mheadhra, gave precise and heartfelt renditions of their works, respectively evoking Medieval France, Tang-Dynasty China and Renaissance Italy in a surprisingly radiant consonant register.
Salle Pierre-Mercure resonated with a new addition to the already-plentiful roster of Montreal ensembles dedicated to modern and new music : Orchestre 21, conducted by Paolo Bellomia, in a program that comprised Serge Garant’s intensely lyrical Plages and Philippe Leroux’s wild L’unique trait de pinceau. In a resounding technological spirit, White_Box, a video/music immersion by Alain Thibault and Yan Breuleux, featured three HD screens where the duo broadcast pictures and sounds generated in real time.
Bring your cellphone was a Sunday afternoon hit, conceived in a 21st-century interactive manner, at St-Jean-Baptiste Church, where several hundred people, most of them cell-clad, were asked to ring their individual tones at precise moments during the unfolding of the score by Walter Boudreau, a series of translucent variations for small ensemble and organ (Jean-Willy Kunz) on Bach’s First Prelude in C Major, initially played on harpsichord by Genevieve Soly, and Yves Daoust’s electroacoustic component.
One should mention the clever initiative MNM had in presenting its After Hours events at cozy and fun Casa del Popolo at 10 in the evenings, with three programmes of experimental, improvised and avant-garde music, performed by musicians from Montreal, Norway and Vancouver. Great way to introduce new music to the young crowds who might not go to traditional halls. Lack of space prevents us from saying much more but in a flash : NEM and Sixtrum ensembles performed together, notably Denis Gougeon’s swirling Un train pour l’enfer, conducted by Lorraine Vaillancourt ; Quasar Saxophone Quartet presented 3 premieres, one of which (Ball Jam by Zack Settel) incorporated live electronics that provided amusing on-screen visual representations of sounds as they traveled after being emitted by the live players. (Yes, you had to be there). The Bozzini String Quartet presented two different programmes, one with percussion quartet Bye-Bye Butterfly, performing Sandeep Bhagwati’s eery concert-length Alien Lands, where musicians were kept on the edge, having to read individual scores that were fed to them on computer screens in real-time, while surrounded by large video projections. The other Bozzini offering was a theatrical work composed by Jean Derome and Joane Hetu, where players move, play and talk in four languages, on the theme of cohabitation and difference. Jean-Francois Laporte’s Khronos, an audio-visual installation on an «automaton instrument», was presented at the New Music Lounge. Composer Louis Andriessen was in town for a lecture on his work and the performance of his massive De Staat, by the SMCQ Ensemble conducted by Walter Boudreau, who also gave an energetic performance of a piece by Nicole Lizee, This Will Not Be Televised, for 7 instruments and DJ P-Love, all of whom expertly traded acoustic and vinyl sonorities in this crowd pleaser.
Last but not least, 4 days of lectures and conferences were held on various themes such as : Pierre Mercure’s artistic legacy, which included a formidable rendition of H20 per Severino, for two flutes, brilliantly performed and presented by Jean Derome and Guy Pelletier; a panel discussion on the theme of composition and cultural identity ; extensive lectures on the evolution and future perspectives of new musics in Quebec in the last 50 years ; the relationships of music and dance, as well as prospective views on the creation of a new public space dedicated to new musics in Montreal’s ex-Bibliotheque Nationale, fittingly called Le Vivier, Alleluia !