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What is Winnipeg’s New Music Festival and why is it a big deal?

OK, forget what people have told you about the Winnipeg New Music Festival being about “contemporary classical music.” I don’t even really know what that means, and I’m so excited to go I have been counting down the days like its Christmas and I know I’m getting a pony.

A real-life breakdown of what to expect at a contemporary classical music fest (and why you should go!)

The Gritty is bringing their elecro-acoustic sound and video stuff to the Westminster United Church on Feb. 2. (Courtesy The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

OK, forget what people have told you about the Winnipeg New Music Festival being about “contemporary classical music.”

I don’t even really know what that means, and I’m so excited to go I have been counting down the days like its Christmas and I know I’m getting a pony.

If you’ve never been, this is what you need to know about the festival: It's seven days of music, food, art and incredibly creative people all getting together to talk and drink and have fun.
This is Caroline Shaw. When she was 30, she won a Pulitzer for music because she is super, super rad. You can check out what exactly she won that Pulitzer for on Feb. 2 at the New Music Festival. (Courtesy the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

Yes, this IS technically about classical music. And if you love the orchestra, you’re going to love this. But it’s also about mixing in stuff from Arcade Fire, DJs, New York music producers and a bunch of other things you’re probably already into.

If you’re worried about being out of your depth — pretty much everyone is. They have panel talks before the shows to completely walk you through it if you want to learn it and understand it.

Brass tacks: there are going to be parties, almost seven days straight, in the piano noble (fancy name for the upper lobby of the concert hall) with artists from all over the world, three different art installations (one of which you are invited to help build) and food from guys who are opening a new food truck in the city.

Oh, and the bars will be open the whole time.

If you’re still a little intimidated, check out what Neil Middleton from the WSO told me about it:

“You don’t come knowing stuff, you come to learn … The idea is you take in this music and then hang out.”

One more thing: I rated them from most to least accessible. Three stars means it's the most accessible, one star means it's a bit less, which means it's OK to be lost.

Jan. 31 – Arditti Meets the WSO

When: Saturday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m.

Where: Centennial Concert Hall at 555 Main St.

Cost: $32

Accessibility: *

Arditti is short for the Arditti String Quartet. They’re the “most precise string quartet in the world,” and the WSO will be backing them up while they play four pieces. Alexander Mickelthwate will be conducting (yay!) and one of the pieces they’re playing was written by Sarah Neufeld of Arcade Fire – you know her.

Even though this is one of the more challenging nights, Mickelthwate says it's the one you should go to. I trust him.

Feb. 1 – Dissonant Fictions

When: Sunday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Centennial Concert Hall at 555 Main St.

Cost: $26.50 or student $11.50

Accessibility: *

The Arditti String Quartet doesn’t normally play in North America, so it’s a big deal that they came here. This night, they’re playing on their own. There will be some stuff from a New York music producer.

From what I can tell, people who know about classical music are VERY excited about this.

Feb. 2 – Luminous Cry

When: Monday, Feb. 2. at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Westminster United Church at Westminster Avenue and Maryland Street

Cost: $26.50 or student $11.50

Accessibility: ***

This night is mostly about singing and hearing people sing. People who are really good at it.

Camerata Nova and Prairie Voices (full disclosure: my little bro is in Prairie Voices) are singing a bunch of tracks with a few instruments from the WSO but not the whole giant orchestra.

One of the ones Camerata Nova is singing is by Caroline Shaw. She won a Pullitzer for it. It should be good, and it will be VERY chill.

Feb. 3 – Crossing Ground

When: Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Centennial Concert Hall at 555 Main St.

Cost: $26.50 or student $11.50

Accessibility: **

The orchestra and Alexander Mickelthwate are back! They’re going to play a few pieces by female Canadian composers.

Some of it will sound a bit like movie scores, some of it will sound like very traditional orchestral music and there’ll be an atmospheric/ambient piece also.

Feb. 4 – Tuning the Void

When: Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Centennial Concert Hall at 555 Main St.

Cost: $26.50 or student $11.50

Accessibility: ***

It’s James Tenney night! Tenney was an American composer known as “the most famous unknown composer in the world.” If nothing else, that sounds really cool right?
This is James Tenney. Tenney was an American composer known as "the most famous unknown composer in the world," and there's a whole night dedicated to his influence in this year's New Music Festival. (Courtesy Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

All the pieces are connected to him in some way, and the music is going to be a lot slower than on other nights, so try to be patient if that’s not your thing.  

Neil Middleton from the WSO says, “You’ll be able to figure it out. It’s not hard music to appreciate.”

Before this, Alex Roth, a super smart music guy who writes for The New Yorker, is going to be on a panel talking about it in the Piano Noble (basically the upstairs lobby of the concert hall).

Feb. 5. – A Frenzy of Sound

When: Thursday Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Centennial Concert Hall at 555 Main St.

Cost: $26.50 or student $11.50

Accessibility: **

This is all piano stuff “written by people with strong personalities.”

One of the tracks has an electronic kind of sound and another has a film component.

Basically, these guys called the Quay Brothers make these crazy stop-motion films, and they made one called In Abenstia based on a Karlheinz Stockhausen composition Zwei Paare (that means “two couples”).

You can watch the movie and hear the composition played at the same time.

All you need to know is that it’s about longing and desire. There are visuals. This will be good.

Oh and did I mention there's another composition with Hitchcock film component? I'm quite excited for this.

Feb. 5 – 20 Guitar Wall of Angelic Sound (Pop Nuit 1)

When: Thursday Feb. 5 at 8 p.m.

Where: West End Cultural Centre at 586 Ellice Ave.

Cost: $18.50

Accessibility: ***

A bunch of artists are going to sit in a circle and play guitar and the audience is going to sit out around them, so it should be a kind of interesting experiment in sound.

It’s also cheaper than the other stuff if you don’t have a festival pass. You should get one of those, though.

Feb. 6 - Back to the Beginning

When: Friday Feb. 6 at 8 p.m.

Where: Centennial Concert Hall at 555 Main St.

Cost: $32

Accessibility: ***
This lady is Ann Southam and she's one of Canada's most influential Canadian composers. Her stuff is not boring. The WSO is playing her composition "Webster’s Spin" on Feb. 3. (Courtesy the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

The WSO is going to play something by John Luther Adams. He’s a big deal. He won the Pullitzer last year for the stuff they’re going to play. Apparently it sounds nature-y and ancient and like “one big wave.”

They are also going to do a piece by Mason Bates who is a DJ and a composer. The piece they’re doing is inspired by his DJ stuff.

Alex Roth will be back for a panel on this before the show, so go check it.

Feb. 7 – Adventures of Prince Achmed (Pop Nuit 2)

When: Saturday, Feb. 7 at 8 p.m.

Where: West End Cultural Centre at 586 Ellice Ave.

Cost: $18.50

Accessibility: ***

The Electric String Quartet is going to be doing Bach on electric guitars and keyboards. Then they’re going to show a German animated fairy tale from the 1920s with a “chamber punk” score. So like punk but still opera, basically.