Vancouver New Music retrospective digs into 40 years of innovation
The big news is that Vancouver New Music, the city’s most venerable and in many ways most significant presenter of contemporary music, celebrates its 40th anniversary this week with four concerts that span everything from intimate solos and duos to excerpts from large-scale operatic productions.
A round of applause would be in order. But it’s also noteworthy that artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi has now been at the helm for 13 years, and he deserves credit for his own longevity. Without him, Vancouver New Music would be a far different organization—or it might not exist at all.
Today, the society retains its original mandate: to bring the best in contemporary composition to a locale that often seems far removed from such musical hotbeds as London, New York City, and Reykjavik. But it also embodies a kind of messy artistic anarchy, a kind of ends-of-the-earth openness, that the Italian-born Magnanensi identifies as being specific to the West Coast.
Vancouver New Music’s house style, he says in a telephone interview from his Sunshine Coast home, stems from “a very omnivorous kind of approach”.
“A high level of curiosity has allowed the organization to reach out and bring in stuff from all over the place,” he continues. “That’s something that I think is really valuable, and I treasure that. It’s something that I relate really strongly to. In a way, being on the west of the West pushes you to reconsider the centre—or the multiple centres of whatever world we’re living in.”
It might be easy to equate this openness to Magnanensi’s own persona: he’s an academically trained composer who also likes rewiring thrift-store electronics to produce manic blips and beeps. According to electroacoustic composer and early VNM board member Hildegard Westerkamp, however, eclectic taste has characterized the organization since the beginning. One memory involves VNM’s premiere of her Muzak pastiche Cool Drool in 1987.
“I was really interested to see how that would work at a new-music concert, because all that people would hear was Muzak, with a performative narrative,” she recalls. “The response was that people just found it hilarious—and because it was in that context it was twice as hilarious.”
Muzak won’t be featured during the 40th-anniversary events, although Westerkamp will reprise her Rainer Maria Rilke–inspired Für Dich—For You as part of an electronic-music and new-media evening at the Orpheum Annex next Thursday (October 17). The previous night, the Annex will host a program of solos and small-
ensemble works; then the action shifts to the Vancouver Playhouse for the opera excerpts on Friday (October 18) and large-ensemble pieces on Saturday (October 19).
“I knew that I couldn’t program everything,” says Magnanensi, who admits that he had to make some tough choices. “But we have good archival documentation, so
I thought I’d just look and use as the first criteria work that has been commissioned through Vancouver New Music, and premieres. “So we selected through that filter, knowing that it was only going to be a snapshot of all the other productions.”
Daunted or not, what Magnanensi has programmed for the four nights encompasses both a brilliant introductory survey of Canadian contemporary music and a glittering cast of our city’s finest musicians. Even as an archivist, and after 13 years in his job, Vancouver New Music’s leader remains, as Westerkamp puts it, “a breath of fresh air”.
“He’s been an incredibly valuable addition to the contemporary-music scene here in the city,” she says—and the same is true of the organization he heads.