No risk, no reward

Hey, move over Mozart. A pair of University of Manitoba music students is looking to transform the Winnipeg art scene by launching a multi-disciplinary art and sound festival. Heidi Ugrin and Luke Nickel have worked independently, through private donations and even out-of-pocket, in order to bring audiences the three-evening sensory experience of “Cluster: New Music and Integrated Arts,” an event which promotes community, experimentation and risk-taking.

The name “Cluster” reflects the collaborative aspect of the performances, which the organizers feel strengthens the sensory experience of music and art. “For one, ‘Cluster’ is exactly what you think. It’s a ball of different things coming together,” Nickel explained. “This festival is representing all the different arts communities, audiences and diverse people that are involved, these different things that come together to form our super community, our ‘cluster.’”

The festival encompasses three concerts, at three different venues, spanning three evenings from March 18-20. The majority of the 36 artists and performers involved are from Winnipeg, and include composer Gordon Fritzell, musician Ingrid Gatin, dancer/artist Freya Olafson and video artist Bryan Besant. As Ugrin explained, “It was really important for us to make something for Winnipeg featuring Winnipeggers.” But in order to broaden the range of material, and expand the knowledge within the community, “Cluster” also includes talent such as rising Montreal composer Gina Ryan. As such, attendees can expect to experience a considerable diversity of material.

“We are encouraging people to remember that music is just like art, a reflection of life. And life isn’t always Mozart. I mean let’s face it: you don’t feel like springing through a field of flowers every day,” Nickel remarked.

Each night of “Cluster” will be distinct in terms of the music and art featured. Ungrin describes the debut night at the University of Winnipeg’s Eckhardt-Grammatté Hall as “all-acoustic, mainly saxophone and piano music. There is a light instillation [by local architect Herb Enns] that really transforms it; it’s interactive.” The second night takes place at an Exchange district warehouse and features sound installations and varied instrumentation. These include mini-cellos and turntables, and music will be brought to life by dancers performing alongside musicians. The final performance takes place on Saturday at the Park Theatre and Nickel anticipates that it will be “more of a spectacle.”

Both Ugrin and Nickel are up-and-coming composers themselves, and each is contributing a new piece to the festival. Ugrin’s atmospheric “Night Flare” is composed for solo vibraphone and “inspired by the different lights you experience at night, like fireflies, headlights and cityscapes [ . . . ] That evening we have a light instillation, so I wanted to reflect that in a musical way.” Nickel describes his piece as “my pet project for marimba, which is basically a big xylophone but it doesn’t make any noise on its own. It is hooked up to a computer programmed to take all of those signals in and turn them into sound.” But that’s only one aspect of the performance. “I worked with a dancer to choreograph a piece. It’s taking the most high-tech thing, and dancing, which is the most low-tech thing — it’s your body and that’s all you have — and bringing these two worlds together,” Nickel explains.

Nickel says that his and Ugrin’s experience as composers actually helped in organizing the festival.

“As a composer you stand at the top of the chain,” he said. “You have to work with everybody, you are not playing in the orchestra, and you are the one thinking about what the flutes are doing, what the violins are doing. From the top you see what is really strong in the community, and what sort of needs to be brought together.”

Both Nickel and Ugrin believe there is a need for events created by young people for young people and that Winnipeggers are hungry for this kind of material. As students, the two are taking a considerable risk with this endeavor, yet remain optimistic. They do not dwell on whether the festival will be a success; in fact, they believe that the element of risk is incredibly important for artistic development.

“I think it’s really important to look to periods where we have moved the most forward. Those are the periods where we have taken the most risk,” Nickel said. “Without really going for something, you are not really going to get anywhere. For the listener it’s the same thing, the most growth with your own life as a person and as a listener is when you step out of your boundaries.”

“Cluster: New Music and Integrated Arts” takes place March 18–20. Line-up and information can be found at