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Ottawa New Music Creators: Treat your ears to something totally different

By Chrissy Steinbock on October 24, 2015

“We want to find a space where artists can conduct an experiment where if we lived in some utopian society where people can go a show if they want to and numbers and capitalism is as irrelevant as we can make it, then what do we get? What musical experiences do we get? What kind of musical community do we get?”

– Ottawa New Music Creators executive director Curtis Perry

Are your ears hungry for a totally different listening experience? Then it’s time to get acquainted with your local new music society, the Ottawa New Music Creators. The group is a hub for the city’s composers, improvisers, electro-acoustic artists and others working in the new music field. The best part is that ONMC has put together an enticing series of concerts that are open to members and the public alike: and they’re affordable, too!

ONMC launched their 2015-2016 season on September 18 with a chamber-rock triple bill at the Mercury Lounge featuring The Visit, Musk Ox and the Juno award-winning Esmerine (formed by musicians from God Speed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion). Describing The Visit’s sound Perry says “you’ve probably heard nothing like it, unless you’ve heard them before.” The same can be said for all the shows ONMC is putting on this season. Kudos to artistic director Raphael Weinroth-Browne (The Visit, Flying Horses) for curating the rich and eclectic series.

Suzanne Binet-Audet playing the Ondes Martenot. Image from the ONMC website.

Suzanne Binet-Audet playing the Ondes Martenot. Image from the ONMC website.

The five shows ONMC has coming up offer an innovative view of new music with surprising collaborations (hurdy gurdy and viola da gamba anyone?) and some pretty rare listening opportunities. In early November you can come out and experience the Ondes-Martenot as played by Suzanne Binet-Audet, a true master Ondiste who studied with the instrument’s creator. Though little-known, the early electronic instrument has made many appearances from the music of Messaien to Radiohead to the There Will Be Blood soundtrack.

Later that month you can listen in on the boundary-pushing musical dialogue of Huei Lin’s saxophone and Shahriyar Jamshidi’s kamanche (an Iranian bowed instrument). Then there’s January’s improvisational show featuring viola da gamba (a mashup of guitar and cello from the Baroque period) and hurdy gurdy, a drone instrument (see Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running”) playing everything from medieval music to Swedish folk. Even if you’ve heard one of these instruments in the flesh before, chances are you haven’t heard them together.

The first show in April showcases Daniel Mehdizadeh, Casey Granofsky, and Andrew Nowry, three up-and-coming musicians performing on piano, flute and tuba. “We’re excited by the combination of instruments because most people think flute and tuba, ‘yeah, the butterfly and the elephant ha, ha’ but here they’re looking at what Canadian pieces have been written that take this combination seriously,” Perry says. Closing out the season is a celebration of Ottawa film composer Eldon Rathburn featuring a film screening, performance of Rathburn’s music and a panel discussion on Rathburn and the future of composing for film.

I met up with Curtis Perry, executive director of the Ottawa New Music Creators to learn more about the Ottawa New Music Creators and what curious listeners can expect at a “new music” show. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation edited for length and clarity.

Apt613: Tell me a little bit about the Ottawa New Music Creators and what it does.

It’s Ottawa Chamberfest’s and Arboretum’s secret love child that neither of them would admit to.

Perry: First of all, what is new music, right? For me, the broadest definition I can give it without it losing meaning is that it’s uncommercial. New music societies exist to give artists and performers of all stripes a venue and a forum for expressing themselves without having to worry about any kind of commercial interests. So the hypothetical question being if you could make any kind of music and surviving or selling or even appealing doesn’t matter, if it’s just a matter of expression, what does that sound like? That was the impetus behind the formation of Ottawa New Music Creators in 2008.

Last year one of the taglines I created was something like ‘it’s Ottawa Chamberfest’s and Arboretum’s secret love child that neither of them would admit to’ and that got some laughs, but I think there’s a grain of truth there. It’s a tightrope that we walk. We obviously come from various traditions but there’s also some tension in that we want to confront traditions and do entirely new things.

Daniel Mehdizadeh, photo from Mehdizadeh's website

Daniel Mehdizadeh, photo from Mehdizadeh’s website

When I came in, especially for something our size, it’s obvious to me that the best way to serve the interests of members – who are improvisers, composers electro-acoustic artists and so on – and to create sense of community is to hold a concert series. We had a great year last year with some really interesting events. For example, at the Mayfair theatre we had about 250 people come in and listen to Dr. Alexis Luko give a talk about the sound world of Ingmar Bergman and the choices he made as a director and his sonic thumbprint on film. As she spoke we had Adam Saikaley and Matt Morel on all kinds of instruments – electronic, acoustic and otherwise recreate various examples from his film repertoire.

We’ve been reaching out to more institutions. We’ve worked with the Canadian Museum of Nature a couple of times, doing some stuff with their Nature Nocturne. We’ve co-presented with Pop Drone which is Gregory Clark’s thing. They do Future Beat Jazz and that kind of thing. We’re expanding, making bridges and we’re going to make even more bridges. We’re always trying to get deeper into the broader music community but at the same time we`re offering what I dare say is a unique perspective, emphasizing the experimental, the non-commercial, the esoteric but nonetheless things that deserves to be experienced.

For example, in November we’ve got a concert with Suzanna Binet-Audet on the Ondes-Martenot. That’s an instrument that some people may know about. In the classical world it’s Olivier Messaien who wrote things for the Ondes-Martenot. In the pop world definitely it would be Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) who popularized that instrument. It’s a keyboard with a ring and you go up and down and there’s lots of glissandi and so on. He’s used that instrument quite a lot and crossed into the classical world with pieces like “Popcorn Superhet Receiver.” Anyway, Suzanne actually studied with Martenot and this is her last tour. She’s in her seventies. It’s happening at the Gallery studio, Dean Watson’s place.

What does ONMC do differently?

What we’re doing is a lot of diversity because we’ve got acts in concerts like the one with The Visit and we’ve got concerts where you’re going to see sheet music on stands and what I want to emphasize is that that’s ok too and in fact it’s kind of neat. I think there a lot of modes of music making that can all be equally considered.

Let’s also remember that all new music, all art should be given a chance: it doesn’t come out fully formed.

If you look at something like sheet music or the idea of the composer in media people have been conditioned to think a certain way about it. They’ve been conditioned to think Beethoven, or whatever you hear at the NAC. Now all due respect to the NAC, they’ve got some real interesting new music programming there with the Wolfgang Sessions and Alexander Shelley`s curatorial influence and I really like what they do. Now the thing is, Shelley said he doesn’t want to do new music for the sake of new music. I agree with that, but to an extent. Let’s also remember that all new music, all art should be given a chance: it doesn’t come out fully formed. It might look that way in some cases but that`s because it’s been presented that way. In our case, we are really excited about the idea of presenting new music as a presentable concept, as a fully formed idea but also not entirely. I think we’re kind of exploring with the audience what it is they’re hearing and why, in some cases like with Pierre Yves-Martel and Ben Grossman, where they’re improvising on their instruments and exploring the viola da gamba and the hurdy gurdy in entirely new ways.

So with all the respect in the world let me say new music for the sake of new music is not always a bad idea, and old music for the sake of old could also have its benefits and disadvantages, and let’s remember that.

I’d like to take a step back and ask about your background and why you decided to get involved in the group?

I’m a musician, I play guitar, I’m a composer. I’ve done the writing music for orchestra and string quartet thing and that kind of stuff. When ONMC formed in 2008 I was looking at it from a distance.  I think I was a second year undergrad at the at that point. I was also critical of the programming and I self-criticized as well, like what does a composer look like in society? Either they’re invisible or if they are visible you have to append adjectives like living or young or emerging to composer like as opposed to what – submerging composers? I’m critical of that whole scene, I am. I have no preconceptions that I’m going to change everything, but at the same time I don’t feel the need to be complicit with something that seems like an institutional lingo that’s been built up over the past 100 years. I just need to ask why? It’s an inherited discourse that’s better off left behind. I saw what ONMC was doing and also what they were not doing. There were a lot of things happening where I felt things could have been done better so I joined as a board member two years ago, and last year it looked like the outgoing administration was just about done, it was a natural end point, so I picked things up.

What’s your vision for the concert series?

[An ONMC show] is like an escape room because you go in the room and there’s no way you can get out for forty minutes to an hour. It could be scary ‘cause you don’t know what’s in there. After an hour you get out and when you do you can’t help but think wow, I’m glad I did that.

We typically do five six concerts so we have the improvisation, the film, we have at least one concert that incorporates the call for scores, the art-rock one, and something that incorporates electro-acoustics which is what we’re doing with the Ondes-Martenot.

This would be a better question for Raphael Weinroth-Browne, the artistic director but I can tell you how I work with him. I want to emphasize that this is really his season. It’s collaborative, but it’s his. We thought we want a concert that really focuses on improvisation, that’s Ben Grossman and Pierre Yves-Martel, we want a concert that if they were to open for an art-rock act you wouldn’t go ‘what the hell?’ I think of the Visit, and Esmerine. Then the film music at the Mayfair Theatre, that’s a pretty cool thing. And part of the event this year will be a little bit of discussion and thinking about what’s the future for people who want to write for film in Ottawa. It’s a celebration of Eldon Rathburn with a panel discussion with James Wright and Louis Hone who is an NFB director who directed They Shoot, He Scores, which is a mini documentary about Eldon Rathburn. There’s also going to be a little concert by Petr Cancura and others. It’s almost a variety hour.

Eldon Rathburn, image from nfb.ca

Eldon Rathburn, image from nfb.ca

The tickets to your shows are pretty affordable. How do you make that work?

It’s something that we talked about in a board meeting. We’re in a position where we’re hungry, we’re set to prove ourselves and we know that it’s competitive. We understand that there are a lot of great shows to see, we understand that people are taking a risk seeing something totally new and we exist as a non-profit to give people a chance to hear some really interesting things.

What would you say to someone who feels like an outsider to this world of music?

That’s one of the great paradoxes of new music that I’m always trying to tear down – that it’s presented as outsider music but the outsiders are kind of a community of insiders so everybody else becomes the outsiders and I don’t want either perception to be predominant. I want it to be hey, look what we’re doing, here it is if you’re interested, please come. If you’re not, obviously we’re not for everyone. For the 50, 100 of you who are curious about it, here we are.

What can people expect at an ONMC show?

It’s like an escape room because you go in the room and there’s no way you can get out for forty minutes to an hour. It could be scary ‘cause you don’t know what’s in there. After an hour you get out and when you do you can’t help but think wow, I’m glad I did that. Not to scare people, but I think that’s a fair analogy.

ONMC’s 2015-2016 shows:

Renowned master of the Ondes-Martenot Suzanne Binet-Audet plays the works of Gilles Gobeil on her last tour.

Huei Lin and Shahriyar Jamshidi – saxophone and kamanche (Iranian bowed instrument).

Pierre-Yves Martel and Ben Grossman. Improvisations on the viola da gamba and hurdy gurdy.

Daniel Mehdizadeh, Casey Granofsky, and Andrew Nowry – piano, flute and tuba taken seriously.

A celebration of NFB composer Eldon Rahtburn with a screening of They Shoot, He Scores, a performance of Rathburn’s music lead by Petr Cancura and a panel discussion on Rathburn and the future of film music in Ottawa with Dr. James Wright and Louis Hone.

For tickets and more information visit ONMC.ca