Imagine yourself as a viewer at an orchestral performance. Now, imagine that the orchestra you are watching is composed entirely of electronically processed 1940s era sewing machines. This is the kind of provocative, and often mind-bending, experience you can expect from Elektra, a festival dedicated to multi-disciplinary digital art. Featuring both local and international artists, Elektra’s mission is to foster the most cutting-edge creatives, in the most cutting-edge fields, ranging from audio-video installation to robotics. The emphasis here is on technology, in all of its artistic potential.
Another example of a piece from last year’s festival was an audiovisual installation by Jean-Pierre Aubé based on a radio message sent by a space probe destined for one of Saturn’s rings. Such pieces may seem unapproachable at first glance. But, given the extreme ubiquity of technology in our day-to-day lives, this may be the most relatable art festival around.
Elektra will take place from May 2 to 6. Visit www.elektrafestival.ca from more information.
Fantasia Film Festival
Fantasia is Montreal’s genre film festival. Founded in 1996, it has grown to be one of North America’s largest. Fantasia presents gore and terror-filled cuts from across the world, with a slight emphasis on Japan and Korea. Previously, Fantasia has presented the North American premieres of Ringu (the inspiration for The Ring) and Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Last year’s iteration screened over one 100 feature films and dozens of shorts.
For information about the Fantasia Film Festival visit www.fantasiafest.com.
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal
As the end of June approaches, and you stroll down the sun-soaked streets during a Montreal summer, your ears may perk up to the raucous sounds of trumpets, saxophones, and other soulful instruments. You take a side street, following the noise, and stumble upon a massive crowd of spectators as they gleefully watch an outdoor stage filled with jazz musicians of the highest caliber. You’re looking at Montreal’s Jazz Festival.
Every year, our city eagerly awaits this world-renowned festival and summertime staple. Musicians and concertgoers alike take to the streets and enjoy invigorating performances spanning a multiplicity of jazz styles – from the familiar wares to Latin Jazz, funk, R&B, soul, tango, to countless other genres on the spectrum. The festival’s epicenter is situated in the Place Des Arts complex, but concerts take place in a range of venues from the hopping Club Soda to the traditional church Le Gésu. There are also many free outdoor concerts, with stages set up on the street so that listeners can come and go at their leisure.
The Montreal Jazz Fest has a history of being able to attract the giants of the jazz world, including such greats as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as their modern counterparts – the likes of Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brad Meldhau, and Joshua Redman. This summer, Jazz Fest 2012 promises to bring a mix of older masters and the up-and-coming to the stage, with a line-up including blues legend B.B. King and Grammy-winning artist Esperanza Spalding (who beat a pouting Justin Bieber for Best New Artist last year at the Grammys).
One notable feature of the Montreal Jazz Fest is the diversity of its program. Although it is officially known as a “jazz” festival, it embraces a wide selection of artists whose music cannot really be called “jazz” at all. In the past, these have included musicians such as Alexi Murdoch, TV on the Radio, and Montreal demigod Leonard Cohen. By allowing such an array of artists to perform, Jazz Fest ensures that it will be able to draw a substantial audience – especially given the more peripheral role jazz tends to play in today’s musical climate.
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal takes place from June 28 to July 7. Visit www.montrealjazzfest.com for more information.
Montreal’s Festival Transameriques, the self-proclaimed “only theatre and dance festival” in the city, appears once again this June at Place des Arts, as well as at other venues scattered throughout the city. Every year, the festival offers free outdoor performances by leading artists, both international and Canadian. One of the festival’s main objectives, according to its website, is to “bring art into the daily lives of ordinary citizens and assert the importance of artistic interventions in the public space.”
Not only does the festival offer theatre in the traditional sense, but it features performance art and choreography as well. Transameriques began in 1985, and until 2006 was called the Festival de théâtre des Amériques. It similarly celebrated contemporary theatre, and was held every two years in Montreal. After two successful decades, the festival gave way to its current form: Transameriques, which incorporated a more diverse range of genres in an attempt to “break down boundaries in a cornucopia of theatre, dance, performance pieces, and often unclassifiable art forms.”
For students staying in Montreal, the festival should be an easy, breezy way to spend an afternoon. However, if you wish to attend a show or two, be prepared to empty your wallet: Tickets for the top artists, even for people under 30, range from 35 to 55 dollars, dependent upon the specific artists. And it seems like a price one shouldn’t bother paying. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? Outdoors at Place des Arts is where you need to be.
Montreal Fringe Festival
The Montreal Fringe Festival, founded in 1991 by Kieran and Nick Morra – both McGill students at the time – began on St. Laurent and has since grown to take an important place at the center of the vibrant cultural community of the Plateau-Mile End borough.
The festival is part of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals, an umbrella organization under which more than thirty different festivals have sprung up since the first festival in Edmonton, Alberta in 1983. The Fringe is a not-for-profit organization, and 100 per cent of the ticket price goes to the artists putting on the performance. It brings together the most varied, eclectic, and vivified artistic elements Montreal has to offer. Fringe performances are selected by lottery and subject to zero censorship in an effort to allow complete freedom of expression to artists. This process makes attending a Fringe show a hit or miss experience, which adds to the exploratory zest that makes Montreal festivals what they are.
Word of mouth is the primary means of publicity used by shows at the festival, encouraging festival-goers to go with their gut in choosing which performances to attend. Shows range from perplexing oddities to undiscovered gems, and the unexpectedness of the experience is what gives the Fringe all its charm. I have always found that the best way to attend the Fringe is with an open mind and all prior knowledge of specific performances limited to what I could glean from the (often cryptic) titles. This probing approach is made affordable by the festival’s low ticket prices, with student tickets costing only ten dollars.
The Fringe started out as a theatre movement, but now also includes comedy, dance, music, circus, cabaret, and visual arts. Last year, the festival presented over 700 performances by over 500 artists. Most of the Fringe shows are presented to small audiences of often less than twenty spectators – small crowds that enhance the spectator’s feeling of intimacy with the artists and the performance. Yet, the small audiences do not mean the festival is unpopular. Far from it – word of mouth and buzz on blogs helped last year’s festival reach 50,000 attendees. The Fringe’s enthusiasm for accessibility gives the festival an unpredictable quality, delivering the good along with the not so good, but always providing a dose of the refreshingly quirky.
The Montreal Fringe Festival will take place from May 30 to June 19. Visit www.montrealfringe.ca/en for more information.
Born in Montreal in 2000, Mutek is precisely what I imagine a millennial music festival to be. It was originally founded by Alain Mongeau as a companion to Montreal’s International Festival of New Cinema and New Media (currently called the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma). Now, with its thirteenth installation imminent, Mutek has become an exciting and innovative festival in its own right. It has featured artists from every part of the techno spectrum, and has included a wide range of collaborations with organizations like the Musée d’arts contemporain, and Picnik Electronik.
This year, organizers are emphasizing the collaborative nature of the festival’s programming, citing a hefty contingent of cooperative efforts. Among these will be the sonic rechristening of the St. James United Church, featuring local sound artist Tim Hecker and “drone doom” guitarist Stephen O’Malley. The most notable of Mutek’s 2012 lineup is Nicholas Jaar, who founded the music label Clown & Sunset in 2009, works with fellow musicians Soul Keita and Nikita Quasim to create minimal electronic soundscapes he refers to as “blue-wave.” It’s this convergence of local and international creativity that makes Mutek an exciting event in the evolution of electronic music.
Mutek takes place from May 30 to June 3. Visit www.mutek.org for more information.
The British Invasion is coming on strong at Osheaga this year, with Florence and the Machine, Bombay Bicycle Club, and Franz Ferdinand. Florence’s rise to popularity in Canada is not a new event, and booking her is another move on Osheaga’s part towards big crowd-pleasers rather than emerging indie risks. But cynicism aside, comparisons to Kate Bush are merited, and Florence’s technique of spooky soft beginnings and a choral-backed bass drop is always rousing.
Bombay Bicycle Club’s enthusiastic use of cymbals and Jack Steadman’s wavering vocals, combined with their aspirations to epic anthem status, mark them as thoroughly representative of the UK’s current indie scene. I admit, I have not listened to their latest album Flaws, released last August, because they wore thin on me rather quickly. But again, Bombay Bicycle Club is a solid summer choice and a veteran of the festival circuit.
Franz Ferdinand has been off my radar since “Take Me Out,” and seems a sort of random choice. But if anything is clear in Osheaga’s lineup this year, it’s that bigger is better. There doesn’t seem to be any underlying theme to the festival, francophone content is diminishing (although the few that will be performing are very solid: Les Breastfeeders and Justice? Yes please!), and even the broader Canadian content is limited to blockbusters like Dan Mangan, Feist, and Metric.
But what we should remember is that Montreal is a big city, its festivals are huge and draw international crowds. If Osheaga is aspiring to Coachella or Glasto heights, who are we to complain when it means we get to see Snoop Dogg next to Sigur Rós? Of course, ticket prices are indicative of Osheaga’s more mainstream shift, considering a basic weekend pass costs $217.50. Luckily for us locals, Montreal’s year-round music scene remains accessible and rich.
This rather compromises any recommendation I make to you to actually go to Osheaga, as my real highlights lie lower down the bill with the lesser-known gems. Zola Jesus, a self-taught opera singer who grew up in the Russian wilderness surrounded by dead animals that her hunter father had killed, is bound to thrill with her heady mix of synthesized strings and echoing back vocals. However, she also played at Il Motore last year, for a mere 10 to 15 dollars. Maybe once she’s played Osheaga that won’t happen again, but it goes to show that immersing oneself in the local performance scene pays off.
Osheaga is growing up, and growing up fast. In the summer music scene, it has been the baby – the festival that was high on ambition and quality, low on notoriety. From its start in 2006, the annual three-day music festival held on Île Ste-Hélène has attracted some fairly big names like Metric, Sonic Youth, and Tokyo Police Club. Since then, every year has brought in more names, and bigger names. 2009 saw Coldplay, and this summer’s edition will feature performances by Snoop Dogg, Sigur Rós, City and Colour, MGMT… The list is star-studded, to say the least – but we expect that the highlights of this year will come from both the popular as well as the unknown.
First, the popular. The Shins are coming to Osheaga, riding the wave generated by the release of Port of Morrow, their fourth album. The Black Keys have had a similarly great year, with El Camino ranked by Rolling Stone and Time to be one of the best albums of 2011, and their first-ever headlining tour – during which tickets were sold out within minutes of going on sale for Madison Square Garden. It bears noting that Snoop has a new album coming soon, too.
The stunner, the wow factor, the shock to the system – for me, is Sigur Rós. Ethereal, Icelandic, unintelligible – this is not what I have come to expect from a Montreal music festival, but it is a welcome addition.
However, the international presence is not unique to Sigur Rós this year. Another highlight is Karim Ouellet, born in Senegal and living in Quebec City. He combines pop with reggae, rap, folk, and electronic influences to create a sound that is entirely unique. He stands out as one of few Francophone acts at this year’s festival, and certainly is one to look out for.
Though it is the big names that stop us in our tracks – as was likely the intention – it may well be the lesser known acts that help to keep this festival distinct. The big names will allow Osheaga to level up on the music festival scale – that much is certain. But at what cost? Osheaga may be making a name for itself in the music festival scene, but one might wonder what good an internationally acclaimed music festival in Montreal is if it holds no semblance to Montreal or its music.
Suoni per il Popolo
Suoni per il Popolo – “Sounds for the People” – turns seminal music venues Casa del Popolo, La Sala Rossa, and Il Motore, into the sites of their very own music festival. As usual, their lineup spans innumerable genres, but tends toward 2the eccentric. Their Free Jazz program is extensive, but the festival also covers folk, metal, and electronic styles. Highlights will include dreamy songstress Rebecca Foon, as well as a tribute to Canadian torture victim Abousfian Abdelrazik, courtesy of local psychedelic heavyweight Sam Shalabi and others. Perhaps the single most worthy entry in the 2012 lineup will be Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, whose beat-heavy folk-techno has provoked ecstatic reactions from crowds around the world.
Suoni per il Popolo wii take place from June 6 to 23. Visit www.casadelpopolo.com/suoniperilpopolo for more information.