Cluster New Music & Integrated Arts Festival


by Daniel Emberg

Cluster New Music & Integrated Arts Festival is known for the quality and innovation of its programming in music and interdisciplinary arts, with its annual call for submissions being answered by artists all over the world. Cluster also maintains an unwavering commitment to highlighting the work of Winnipeg artists alongside that of their cutting-edge contemporaries from farther afield. Stylus recently got in touch with several of those involved to find out more about Cluster’s 2014 program, the theme of which is AMPLIFICATION.

Marking its fifth edition, March 1-9, 2014, the Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival began as a classic case of necessity spawning invention. As explained by co-director Heidi Ouellette, “It was initially conceived because both [co-director Luke Nickel and I] are composers and we wanted a greater outlet to hear new music, like what we and our peers were doing.” While the festival remains heavily slanted toward new music, there is also an emphasis on innovative, risk-taking interdisciplinary collaborations with a particular focus on emerging and local artists. “We always want to have a focus on [Winnipeg artists] because it’s important to foster the community that Cluster lives in.”

This year is no exception with regard to the local focus. A partial list of featured Winnipeg artists includes Ken Gregory, Garth Hardy, Ghost Twin, Rayannah & Violent Screech (with a performance featuring the sounds of Winnipeg), Palm Trees, as well as an instrumental duo unlike any you’ve seen before.

Kelly Ruth is a local visual artist with a focus on textiles who has found a way to uniquely unite that passion with music. “I am working with the sounds created by the weaving loom,” Ruth explains, “running them through loop pedals to create a rhythm track.” Her collaborator, Natanielle Felicitas, will play cello to the beat of the loom, and their approach to the theme enfolds multiple layers.

“We are amplifying our instruments,” says Ruth, “but of particular interest to me is that the loom and cello were designed…before electronic amplification. I love the tension which exists within this pre-Industrial Revolution technology and contemporary electronic technology,” a tension which will be amplified by their performance.

Indeed, one of the best things about Cluster’s theme is that amplification is a word that can be approached from such a panoply of angles. Ouellette lists a few of those to be investigated: the physical process of making a quiet sound louder; bringing something from the background to foreground; transforming something from small to large; moving the outside world inside; amplification by inversion.

Cluster has only been outwardly identifying an annual theme for the past two years, but Ouellette believes honing the focus in that way has been beneficial for the quality of the festival. “It’s really refined and opened up what we do. Also, since last year we’ve had an open call for artists, and [having a theme] helps them too.” The number of submissions exploded this year, she says, and the degree of obvious attention to the amplification theme forced her and Nickel to “up their game” in terms of programming this year.

“The artistic merit of the submissions was so high,” says Ouellette, they wound up accepting more than expected.

She identifies Gil Delindro as a particularly intriguing figure found via the call. The Portuguese artist may be more fascinated with snow than anyone who grew up through prairie winters. He will be presenting several works from his ongoing “Ylem” project, which delves into the urge to touch and experience nature in isolation. One of the works will feature big slabs of ice containing contact microphones hanging from the ceiling. As these slabs melt they will land on a hot, amplified metal plate and evaporate, to suitably scintillating aural effect. Delindro will also premiere his debut film at Cluster and do a sound/performance piece with a huge pile of snow.

Emerging Canadian violinist Mira Benjamin will play an intimate show featuring four solo pieces, most of which written specifically for this concert. Ouellette does not hesitate to note these pieces were written by, “some of the most interesting composers, I would say, writing today.”

Care to see a bass saxophone played like you’ve never seen before? Jason Sharp is “sort of like Colin Stetson…if Colin Stetson played with his amplified heartbeat.” Ouellette pauses, but spots the arched brow across the table and elaborates. “That’s literally what [Sharp] is doing: amplifying his heartbeat, doing a lot of circular breathing, it becomes quite an aerobic activity. He’s almost manipulating the rhythm of his heartbeat with his playing.”

One returning performer at Cluster is composer/sound artist James O’Callaghan, who recalls his first Winnipeg experience fondly. “I was really impressed at the level of enthusiasm and engagement from the audience. The city seems to have a really lively arts scene for its size. The works I’m presenting this year are very much a continuation of the pieces I contributed to last year’s festival.”

To wit: “Spinefold: Opinions is written for four amplified books….Another piece is an installation for four guitars and transducers attached to them. The audience will walk into an empty room with guitars hung on the wall, and out of the instruments, different kinds of sound environments will emerge. This idea of ‘disembodied instruments’ is important to another piece I’ll be premiering—a duet between an unperformed guitar and toy piano.”

Currently based in Montreal, composer/media artist Adam Basanta will be bringing several of his works to Cluster this year and offered some thoughts on what we can expect. One piece, Invisible Lines, is a collaboration with his good friend Julian Stein and utilizes software to harness the feedback of six SM58 vocal mics and six extracted speaker cones into a flowing musical composition. In a “counterpart” piece, Basanta will premiere gently contained but spilling outwards, long and flat. This one, he explains, is “a concert piece for five performers, where each uses a single microphone and containers of various sizes to create a delicate and evolving feedback composition.” Basanta describes the pieces collectively as, “a meditation on microphone feedback as a delicately unstable but very musical and very moving phenomenon.” He will also perform Room Dynamics, “an audiovisual installation using 12 incandescent light bulbs. By arranging light bulbs and speakers throughout the room, I create a sound/light architecture through which audiences can walk, investigate, or just contemplate.”

There is more going on at Cluster than can be listed here, including some more straightforward musical performances, but we must mention the pop-up dinners. What’s a pop-up dinner? Well, some details are not yet available but here’s what you should know for now: there will be two of them; they will engage all five senses which is just bloody wonderful; they will feature Table Manners and XIE; and they are not included in the prices of other event tickets or festival passes.

The fifth annual Cluster New Music & Integrated Arts Festival will take place in Winnipeg between March 1-9, 2014. Individual shows are $15 ($10 for students), while a festival pass is $50 ($30 for students). You can pay at the door for all shows, but advance tickets are available at McNally Robinson or online at – Cluster is still seeking some volunteers.  If you’re interested, you can reach ‘em at [email protected] or (204) 223-9939.

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