It started on a Friday night, with horn and percussion instruments quite literally fashioned from ice. There was an epic arctic chill that evening, and it felt only a little short of apocalyptic, with brilliant crystals dancing on the soundwaves, and temperatures flirting with minus-fifty celsius. Despite the weather, it was a sold-out show; a surreal scene, with thick ice fog hanging over the crowd’s heads, and the hollow, slightly eerie sound of applause muffled by thick mittens. There we were, all of us standing there in an atmosphere not unlike what you might expect to find on Mars, revelling in an evening of challenging, gorgeous, unsettling, and haunting contemporary music. Such is the one-week, midwinter wonder that is the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival.
In retrospect, the hip flask filled with Cuervo Gold that evening might have been a miscalculation, because I spent the next morning drinking green tea with the heavy green curtains closed tight. What got me through, though (as always), was another heaping helping of music; lounging on the couch in gentle, underwater light, listening to a mixtape of 60s jazz, 70s soul, Chicago blues, dark country, and avant garde cabaret. Note-by-note, the music recharged me.
Every evening for the rest of the week was filled with a wealth of diverse and surprising music, from sweeping, emotional symphonies to ridiculously complex, synapse-melting progressive metal. The experience got me thinking about how important music is in my life, how deeply entangled it is with all the threads and wires of my heart, my brain, and my soul. I have met many people in this world who claim that the music they listened to while growing up enriched, changed, and maybe even saved their lives. I know it’s true for me. The clearest, most vivid memories of my life are those moments accompanied by a specific soundtrack: from backbeats under strobing lights to campfire songs with background vocals supplied by prairie winds and coyotes.
I don’t know how some people can limit themselves to a strict musical diet of only classic rock, country, easy listening, or rap. Our world and our lives are so complex, fragmented, multi-faceted, after all. Don’t varying circumstances and altering situations require very different music? Some days are disco, some days are opera, some nights are sweet Philly soul. What aspect of ourselves do we need to access? Our string quartet mind, free jazz soul, torch song intuition, or big, fat punk rock middle finger?
How about this: mixtapes as metaphor for life itself? After all, if we can’t embrace a complex diversity in musical tastes, how can we hope to achieve open-mindedness in other, far more emotionally fraught areas of our lives. If we can’t break down barriers in music, can we hope to do it anywhere? The Handsome Family, Shovels and Rope, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, Koko Taylor, Isaac Hayes, Sigur Ros, and A Wolf Amongst Ravens: a banquet of beauty I can’t live without. I can’t get through a single day, barely an hour, without my personal soundtrack. Don’t understand how anyone can. Horn sections get me high, violins get me drunk. There’s a saxophone blowing somewhere out there, maybe from right next door, maybe from the far side of the moon. Why not open up your windows, your ears, your heart, even your soul, and let those wavelengths come flooding in. To paraphrase a certain Englishman, music is truth, and truth is music. That’s all we need to know.