Modulus Festival revives theatrical and dreamlike individualized concerts in Vancouver

Some talented B.C. musicians will entertain guests who join them for immersive and intimate shows

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      The artistic director of Music on Main, David Pay, has an amusing story to tell from his childhood. It concerned his propensity for wanting to stage shows—from a very young age.

      “My kindergarten teacher used to call me Cecil B. DeMille,” Pay recalls in a recent phone interview with the Straight. “She called my parents and told them I had to stop auditioning kids for my productions.”

      Fortunately for Vancouver music lovers, the unnamed kindergarten teacher didn’t get her way. And Pay’s love of producing will be on display this month with the 10th edition of Music On Main’s Modulus Festival. It’s his imaginative response to a serious question: how do artists respond to chaotic times?

      At the heart of this year’s festival is a revival of a pandemic-inspired series of concerts, As dreams are made, which premiered last year in Vancouver.

      It’s inspired by a speech by Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

      This year’s concerts feature a mostly new lineup of musicians who will offer individualized performances to one person at a time on the stage at the Annex. The audience member shows up at the lobby at an appointed time.

      “You’re greeted in the lobby,” Pay explains. “You’re told a little bit about what’s going to happen.”

      Then the guest is brought into a dark room and a light comes up on the musician. The guest then sits in an empty chair nearby.

      “There’s a moment where the musician looks at you and you look at the musician,” Pay says. “It’s all silent.”

      Then, the performer plays a piece that is decided in that moment to suit the sole audience member.

      Video: Watch the trailer for As dreams are made.

      According to Pay, musicians who are part of the series have a repertoire that they will choose from.

      “You’ll see the show and nobody is watching you see the show,” Pay says. “Then, the next person will come in and have a different experience.”

      After each performance, the theatre darkens and the person leaves the theatre, where they’re greeted again. He says that once people re-enter the world outside, it’s akin to emerging from a dream.

      “It’s sort of like, ‘Whoa, did that just happen? Did I just sit in a space with beautiful lighting and hear an unbelievable musician all by myself?’ ” Pay says.

      Last year, he adds, the response from audiences was overwhelmingly positive. At this year’s Modulus Festival, there will be five musicians featured at As dreams are made: Chloe Kim (violin), Dailin Hsieh (zheng), Jonathan Lo (cello), Saina Khaledi (santour), and Mark Takeshi McGregor (flute).

      On any given day, attendees will not know which musician will be performing in what Pay describes as “an immersive performance for one person”.

      The series relies on some methodologies developed in Europe for what are called 1:1 Concerts.

      “But we’ve theatricalized it so that it has this relationship to a famous Shakespeare speech,” Pay says.

      These brief live performances will be part of The Tempest Project, which is a full-length immersive show that Music on Main plans on premiering in 2024.