The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's on-again, off-again effort to build bridges between experimental pop music and serious composition is back on at the 2013 New Music Festival.
Since the 1992 launch of this annual exhibition of works by living or 20th-century composers, a strong populist streak has run through the week-long event. Rush seating for some concerts, bleachers on the stage and composers who directly engage the audience may not sound like radical innovations, but they helped create a more informal and accessible atmosphere at the New Music Festival.
The festival has also made some attempts at approximating actual pop music. In 1998, Joe Jackson performed Heaven & Hell, his concept album about the seven deadly sins, while in 2012, the festival presented Credo, by Kjartan Sveinsson of Icelandic sound-art outfit Sigur Rós.
But there has never been a consistent commitment toward bridging the worlds of pop composition and so-called serious music. So after the WSO performed a Canada Day gig with Winnipeg rock band the Liptonians, musician Matt Schellenberg approached the arts institution with a plan to broaden its scope without watering down its mission.
The result is Pop Nuit, a two-concert series featuring musicians who hail from a non-classical background. On Wednesday, Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld will preview works from a forthcoming solo album, while Schellenberg's current band, Royal Canoe, will perform portions of Beck's Song Reader on Feb. 2.
"There's so much amazing pop music that's pushing at the boundaries of conventional composition that maybe they don't even know about," says Schellenberg, explaining his motivation for pitching the WSO.
He originally proposed an ambitious plan that involved more than two concerts. But once the budget was hashed out, he landed Neufeld for the first show and chose his own band for the closing night.
"As a curator, it's probably a direct conflict of interest," he jokes, assuring Royal Canoe fits the definition of an experimental pop band.
"When you do add pop to a festival, you have to do it with a lot of care. You have the Ottawa blues festival with very little blues, or jazz festivals with very little with what used to be considered jazz. That's why we were very careful about doing this."
There's no question about the compositional basis for Neufeld's solo violin work, which will be released later this year in the form of an as-yet-untitled album. The Arcade Fire member, who also plays and records with Montreal's Belle Orchestre and the Luyas, says she's pleased with the way rock audiences accepted the spare material during live performances in Berlin, where she recorded her solo album.
"My melodic sensibilities are rooted in pop music. But the format they're coming to life (in) is more (rooted in the) neoclassical world," she says, speaking from Montreal.
As recently as a decade ago, solo violin music in Canada meant either Celtic fiddle tunes or classical music. Musicians like Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy and Arcade Fire came along and ended the ghettoization of the violin.
"I get a lot of really sweet comments from young string players who say it's really inspiring to see the violin come to life in a different way, in a rock context," she says.
Neufeld is also working on Arcade Fire's fourth studio album, which should be completed in 2013. She divides her time between Montreal and New York City, where she co-owns a Moksha Yoga studio. Her Pop Nuit performance is slated for the West End Cultural Centre on Wednesday, with Winnipeg's Jesse Krause opening.
Royal Canoe's Feb. 2 show will close out the New Music Festival, with Montreal's Tasman Richardson, who uses computers to trigger film-audio clips. Royal Canoe will perform 10 to 12 songs from Song Reader, the Beck album released only in the form of sheet music.