A couple of years ago, Royal Canoe keyboardist/vocalist Matt Schellenberg pitched an idea to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra: a series that would celebrate innovation in pop music, to run as part of the New Music Festival. The folks at the WSO loved the concept, and Pop Nuit was born.
Billed as the grittier, late-night sub-sect of the NMF, Pop Nuit, curated by Schellenberg, puts the spotlight on forward-thinking artists who are exploring the possibilities of pop music that exist outside the palatable, 3 1/2-minute framework.
This year's Pop Nuit lineup is headlined by Polaris Music Prize shortlisted circular-breathing saxophonist Colin Stetson, who performs at the Millennium Centre on Friday night with Vancouver violinist Hannah Epperson. (Pop Nuit also hosted local breakcore pioneer Venetian Snares earlier in the week.)
Last year's inaugural run featured Arcade Fire's Sarah Neufeld and Royal Canoe's avant-garde interpretation of Beck's Song Reader.
"It's interesting that a genre that has sort of been known for respecting convention has become a real arena to experiment in," Schellenberg says. "Maybe it's a reaction to what's on the radio, which is moving in an even more conventional direction -- there's technology that can determine verse-to-chorus ratios. Pop is what's popular, and I'm happy that innovation has become popular."
Stetson, in particular, is a poster boy for innovation. The Michigan-born, Montreal-based saxophonist has found great success in pop music as both a touring member of Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre and Bon Iver and as a solo artist, making challenging music that appeals to both jazz purists and indie rock fans alike.
In Stetson's hands, a saxophone isn't just a saxophone. It's a full band, with a dizzying palette of sounds.
"The first time I heard (his music), it blew me away how he was able to make an instrument I thought I knew sound completely different," Schellenberg says.
Epperson, meanwhile, is an innovator in her own right. The Utah-born solo artist crafts ethereal soundscapes using her violin, loop pedal and voice.
"Hannah has been an up-and-coming artist for a long time and I think 2014 is going to be her year," Schellenberg says. "She loops violin, which a lot of people compare to Andrew Bird or Owen Pallett, but she does her own thing. I thought it would complement what Colin does."
As this year's NMF winds down, Schellenberg is already looking ahead. He has big plans for Pop Nuit. For one, he'd like to mount a show every night of the NMF so he can bring in more acts.
"The whole idea is to integrate New Music Festival and Pop Nuit as much as we can, so we might get a string section to play with a Pop Nuit artist," he adds. He also loves the idea of commissioning original symphonies from such art-pop experimentalists as Tune-Yards and Dirty Projectors.
And so far, NMF-goers have been responding well to Pop Nuit.
"It keeps selling out, so I'm hoping it continues to grow every year," Schellenberg says.