Young composers explore politics, musical texture in works to be played by Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

The orchestral offerings in Steven Webb's Monuments and Kristen Wachniak's Disjunction don't have much in common on paper.

New Music Festival is on in Winnipeg until Feb. 2

The New Music Festival started on Jan. 27 and is on until Feb. 2. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

The orchestral offerings in Steven Webb's Monuments and Kristen Wachniak's Disjunction don't have much in common, to hear their composers describe them.

Webb's composition is a political piece, written as part of his thesis at the University of Toronto. Webb says it takes up a traditional, militaristic genre — fanfare — and toys with it, taking it apart and rearranging it as a commentary on the erosion of political values like freedom of the press and democracy.

Wachniak's Disjunction, written in 2017, is orchestral playtime: she described an "episodic flow" of textural build-ups, "quirky little flips" and lines cascading across the orchestra. She says it's not tied to a particular story, but was her way of exploring new musical textures.

What the two pieces share is the origin of their younger-than-average composers — Webb has lived in Winnipeg and Wachniak still does — and their coveted status as winners of the 2018 Winnipeg New Music Festival Composers Institute.

Both works are among the seven pieces chosen for the honour this year. All seven will be performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra as part of the festival. Wachniak's and Webb's were scheduled for Tuesday night.

Steven Webb and Kristen Wachniak will both hear their works performed by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra as part of this year's Winnipeg New Music Festival Composers Institute. (Karen Sunabacka/Submitted by Steven Webb)

"It's terribly nerve-wracking because you spend so much time just, you know, staring at a piece of paper and hearing all these lines in your head. And you hope that it comes out a certain way but you can never really be sure till you get there," Webb, 29, said in an interview on CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed. 

"And there's 70 people in the room and they're all looking at you, and they start playing and you're like, 'Wow, this sounds like it sounds' and you just have to go with it."

'You've just got to step back'

When Wachniak, who is completing her undergraduate degree, was told over the phone her piece had been picked, she said she thought she heard wrong.

"It's easy to get in your head about [the performance], because then you start thinking about, 'Oh, what about this part? Did I do this properly? Is this mezzo-forte in the right place?'" she said.

"It's so easy to get so caught up, and then you've just got to step back and just trust the process. That's what I've been telling myself this whole time."

Webb, who moved to Winnipeg from South Africa in 2002 and now lives in Toronto, said it's rare for young composers to hear their work performed by an orchestra. It's all the more special because it's the orchestra he grew up listening to.

"Someone who's come from Winnipeg and is now living in Toronto, just the opportunity to come back to Winnipeg and hear an orchestra that I've always admired and grown up listening to," he said.

He encouraged the public to get involved in the festival, headlined by celebrated American composer Philip Glass.

The New Music Festival started on Jan. 27 and is on until Feb. 2.