Cluster: The best fest you haven’t heard of yet

Cluster New Music + Integrated Arts Festival showcases innovative artists from around the globe

A scene from Matthew Ricketts’ opera “No Masque for Good Measure” at last year’s Cluster Festival. Supplied

Cluster New Music + Integrated Arts Festival has been a fairly underground initiative since it began in 2010. Yet the little festival that could has been offering new and exciting programming, and drawing big name acts from around the world since it’s inauguration.

So why haven’t you heard of Cluster yet?

Claire Morrison, a two-time festival performer and intern for the organization, thinks it’s lack of exposure that’s been an issue for Cluster and not a lack of interest from the public.

“With Cluster right now, it’s in its fourth year and I’m still talking to people who have never heard of it before, and that’s a problem,” says the folk-pop solo artist, who also moonlights as one half of local grassroots duo Fire & Smoke.

“I’d never heard of the festival (before 2012), and wasn’t really familiar with new music and classical music. There’s a lot of stuff going on (at Cluster) that’s considered new music or ‘noise’ music - all these sort of terms that get bounced around and laughed at, but are actually a real thing.”

Co-directors Heidi Ouellette and Luke Nikkel, both local composers and figures on the arts scene, created Cluster because they wanted to enhance the festival community by offering some decidedly more daring programming.

“We just wanted to see and hear more music and art in the city that was truly new and exciting and risk-taking. So we thought instead of wishing for it, why don’t we go ahead and make it happen ourselves?” Ouellette says.

Cluster’s reach extends beyond the conventional music festival format, offering experimental live videos, art installations, and spoken word performances, alongside performances by musicians.

This year’s lineup includes Lori Freedman, a former Winnipegger and highly respected bass clarinetist, and Montreal quintet Ensemble Paramirabo, whom Morrison is excited to see perform her first original composition live.

“Cluster is really exciting because it’s fearless; you’re guaranteed to see and hear things that you’ll have strong reactions to,” Morrison says.

“I think a fear with something like this is that it’s not accessible. As it gets bigger and the reach gets farther, people will say, ‘Oh this crazy festival in Winnipeg in March is bringing people from around the world - I should maybe go and see what’s going on!’”

For the first time this year, Cluster will take place exclusively at one venue, the Urban Shaman Gallery (203-290 McDermot Ave.)

Ouellette discloses that this was a practical choice so as to better display the work of Berlin-based installation artist TSAWORKS, who is creating a massive physical installation for the festival.

After-parties featuring two local buzz bands, Mise en Scene and This Hisses, will also take place at the gallery, book-ending the festival on March 9 and 16.

“We really like breaking down boundaries of genres and labels, especially in the music community. So I think it’s really great to have a pop band jetted right up against someone who’d be considered much more classical- that’s exciting to me,” Ouellette says.

“‘Cluster’ was a good word and good imagery because it represents a lot of things coming together, and we always thought that the festival was a coming together of disparate, diverse, and interesting things.”

Published in Volume 67, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 6, 2013)

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