Integral arts

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“Collaborative” and “multimedia” are two words that get thrown around a lot in today’s art world. As art becomes more of an intellectual exercise and less of a craft, more artists find it possible to express their ideas in a variety of media and the boundaries between them fade away.

Another prominent characteristic of the contemporary art world is collaboration. In the last century it has become more fashionable to “democratize” artistic works, attributing their authorship to a collective or workshop rather than a single artist with assistants.

Cluster is a new music and “integrated arts” festival built around these pillars of contemporary art. The name itself is a reflection of this: it’s meant to represent the idea of “strength found in numbers” on which the festival was founded last year.

New music generally refers to recently composed art music — what most of us might call “classical” music. Some good examples of composers of new music are Philip Glass and Steve Reich, although their best-known works are not very new anymore. There isn’t a consistent sound to new music: the only criterion for identification is newness. It needn’t even be art music. As art and pop music expand, they start to overlap, notably in songs like “The Sun’s Gone Dim,” composed by Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson and popularized by the trailer for Battle: Los Angeles.

While Winnipeg is already home to a number of new music festivals, including the WSO New Music Festival and send + receive, Cluster co-founder Heidi Ugrin believes there’s always room for more new music. Ugrin and her fellow University of Manitoba composition student Luke Nickel founded Cluster in 2010, inspired more by an idea than anything more practical, she said; an idea of optimism and risk.

But what does all this mean for the festival-goer? What we care about — at least what we ought to care about — is the experience of the art consumer, and in this respect Cluster is promising.

The festival takes place over three consecutive days, with the performances becoming less orthodox each day. Thursday’s performance on March 24 is held at the Crescent Fort Rouge United Church and features a variety of compositions bracketed by complementary choral works from founders Nickel and Ugrin. “Luke and I decided this year to link our pieces,” explained Ugrin, “so he wrote a work for a local chamber choir called Antiphony, and that’s called ‘Baiting an Owl.’ I decided to do almost a remix composition of it.”

This first night maintains the traditional performer-audience boundary for the most part, but as the festival goes on, the “integrated arts” become more integral to the performances. The second two performances will be held at a warehouse in the Exchange District and will be significantly more experimental in their setup. The second night incorporates an “intermedia dance work” by Winnipeg artist Freya Olafson.

The third and final night of the festival will see the warehouse’s three floors open up to the performance, spread throughout the space. The performance itself takes many forms, according to Ugrin, who said it includes “musical performances, video, dance; we have some cabaret [and] some interactive components.”

But what’s really appealing about the final night is the exploratory element. “[On the last night] people will be able to wander throughout the space,” said Ugrin. “We do have chairs for people to sit in, but it’s much more of an exploration throughout this whole space.”

Ugrin explained that festival-goers should “expect the unexpected,” and when it comes to the actual music at Cluster, there’s little else we can do. Some of the compositions that will be performed are Ugrin’s, but it’s difficult to find a consistent style in her work, and her inspirations don’t lead us anywhere specific. “I’m inspired by all kinds of music,” she said. “Everything from Bjork and electronic music to noise artists to country music.”

Perhaps it’s better that way, though. If the music of Cluster is really so integrated with the other art, then we would only get false impressions from listening to the music alone.

Cluster takes place March 24-26 at a variety of locations. Tickets are available at McNally Robinson.