NUMUS: its beginnings

 

by Peter Hatch (2020)

Published in Kitchener's "The Music Times"

Kitchener-Waterloo's NUMUS is one of Canada’s longest standing new music series: it has presented a continuous series of concerts, annually, for 35 years. For this reason, it is an important resource not just locally, but also nationally and internationally. Not based on either a set ensemble or set venue, it has been shaped by its seven artistic directors over its history (Peter Hatch, Michael J. Baker, Anne-Marie Donovan, Jeremy Bell, Jesse Stewart, Glenn Buhr, and Kathryn Ladano), with each artistic director expressing her/his vision of what is new and at the cutting edge of music.  Battling its natural pull to be a cultural suburb of Toronto, NUMUS has been instrumental in helping Kitchener-Waterloo forge a unique cultural identity. 

 

NUMUS features work from a field which has gone by various names: contemporary music, new music, experimental music, “actual music” (“musique actuelle”): it is music for ears that want to hear something that perhaps is unlike what they, or perhaps anyone else, has heard before. It is not as much for those interested in new interpretations of, or variations on, music they know (although they can include this.) Like stepping into a contemporary art gallery, NUMUS’ events can surprise and challenge in ways that open up new avenues of thought, connecting to the cutting edge of present day thinking in ways that even words can’t express.  It is the ‘research lab’ of contemporary musical ideas.

 

Breaking ranks with both the prevailing classical and rock/pop cultures prevalent in the 1980s, and embracing the recently evolved post-modern musical aesthetic, the music NUMUS presents is neither high-brow nor low-brow, but has the potential to appeal to just about anyone with curious ears, representing the cutting edge of what is going on musically: a place where electric guitars and drum-kits are found comfortably on stage next to violins, celli and accordions.  The size of the audience doesn’t matter as much as it is openness, engagement and commitment to new sounds (although “the more the merrier,” for sure). 

 

Since “world premieres” (new and unknown work) are at the heart of its activity, new music concerts are not “guaranteed” to all. New pieces can be disappointing, even fail, but they can also offer the life-changing experience of hearing something radically unlike anything one has heard before. It is an adventure worth pursuing.

 

NUMUS audiences tend not to be classical music concert-goers, except for the most adventurous; instead, they, like most new music audiences are people already equipped with a open, exploratory mind-set, including visual artists, philosophers, those at the cutting edge of new technology, of theoretical physics and other disciplines (one research project on new music audience noted the high prevalence of post-graduate degrees amongst its audiences) as well as, of course, its own practitioners. 

 

 

As NUMUS’ “Dad” (or maybe great-great-great-grand-dad?), it has been hugely rewarding for me to watch the other artistic directors bring their personal touches to NUMUS. I highly recommend starting something and then completely handing over the reigns – I’ve been able to enjoy years of great music concerts since by just buying a ticket! 

 

When I moved to Kitchener-Waterloo in 1984, I felt the need for a public connection to the more experimental music/sound world I so loved. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony had an “Eight Decades” concert series that played chamber music from the 20th century at a high level. The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society (which continues its miracles to this day) had occasional new chamber music and, of course, Wilfrid Laurier University had its new music offerings. There was a jazz scene and a vibrant underground band scene but in general, everything tended less towards the experimental music of the past century, music that was central to my interests.

 

In the winter of 1984-5 I convened a group of fellow composers and new-music performers to discuss creating some new kind of series, and in order to ensure our discussions came to fruition, I decided to take the bull by the horns and do something myself. I had heard about some small fixed amount grants ($500) available from Canada Council to present music events in “alternative” venues (ie not traditional concert venues). To start things off in order to apply, I charged into putting on a concert, sourcing out Kitchener’s “stArt gallery” as a potential location.

 

Kitchener at that time was a slightly depressed post-industrial city - the furniture, textiles and auto parts factories that made up its core slowly were shutting down one by one, as were retail outlets downtown; this was in contrast to “uptown” Waterloo, whose insurance companies and universities were thriving. The stART gallery was a small, artist-run parallel gallery (located in downtown Kitchener behind Zappers video arcade.) An artist-run space, it was dedicated to new and emerging work for some of Kitchener’s more experimental artists – a great fit for the music I wanted to present.  stArt Gallery’s president, Mary Catherine Newcomb, greeted the idea with enthusiasm, and we proceeded.

 

For the September 27, 1985 first concert, I set up a simple sound system (borrowed from WLU) and advertised a concert of  'Electro-acoustic Tape Music' at the stARt gallery, with works by Francis Dhomont, Gilles Gobeil, John Oswald, Chan Ka Nin and Denis Smalley. The sound system was half decent and the sounds of ‘musique concrete’ and its extensions probably new to the thirty or so people who came - a mix of adventurous souls from the universities “up north", local visual artists and the just-plain-curious. Following this concert, and armed with the $500 grants, I then presented both soloists (including Kitchener-born enfant terrible John Oswald) and small ensembles to slowly growing audiences.  The following two concerts featured local composers and performers, including future AD Glenn Buhr, Boyd McDonald (a NUMUS mainstay and legend!), Carol Weaver, Michael Purves-Smith and David Huron. As part of one concert, a group of these local composers presented a performance of Steve Reich’s “Four Organs” (see press pic).

 

From the beginning, certain aspects common to NUMUS were set in place: ad hoc groups of local performers as well as visiting artists; a variety of presenting venues; the encouragement of emerging artists as well as some of the most established; experimental music both composed and improvised, with ventures into the world of sound art and electroacoustic music. My models were primarily public concert series found in the cities I had lived in earlier: Toronto had organizations like “New Music Concerts” and “Arraymusic;” Vancouver had “Vancouver New Music.”

 

It was not elegant - with no budget and a crew of one (me), things were very informal and I began decades of stacking and unstacking chairs for whatever audience could be lured out.  I have a memory of composer/recorder virtuoso Peter Hannan carrying a case of beer up to his own dress rehearsal and I carried the sound system.

 

Five concerts were held in the 1985-86 season, four in the 1986-7 season and five in the 1987-8 season, featuring a huge range of offerings from the music of John Cage (led by Terry Kroetsch) and a concert of new music for old instruments (which included a work by Linda Smith), to a concert of multi-media held for the first time at the Princess Cinema with the gracious support of John Tutt. In this period a NUMUS board was formed, and the NUMUS Concerts Ensemble (an ad hoc collective of local new music performers) gave its first concert.

A breakthrough event occurred at the Princess Cinema in March of 1988 in a concert called ‘Percussion!’. We sold out this show with 175 people that crossed the gamut – I have vivid memories of people wearing leather and chains next to those in three-piece suits – in a concert which featured, among other things, a performance of Frank Zappa’s “Black Page.”

 

By the 1988-89 season, we were truly grown up – an increase in funding allowed for larger productions – and included reappearances at the Princess Cinema, including the debut (and final concert as it turns out) of the rag-tag NUMUS Marching Band, whose wonky marches by Mauricio Kagel were accompanied by a lurching band members stepping forwards, backwards and sideways in semi-formation. 

 

This season was capped off with the adventurous “5th Stream Festival of Canadian New Music. With its mandate of 

“celebratingcanada’smodernpostafterindustrialneoromaticpreavantegardeuptownmidtowndowntowncrossover pluralism”  this four-day event was a joint venture between NUMUS, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, WLU’s Faculty of Music and the Canadian League of Composers. It featured five concerts and two days of panel sessions with presentations by composers from throughout Canada, all recorded by CBC Radio and later immortalized in a publication by University of Toronto press, with myself and John Beckwith as editors. Included in the festival was a performance by “Les Granules” - Jean Derome and Rene Lussier – in a rare appearance outside of Quebec. 

 

Through 1992-3, programming continued to become more connected to the other performing arts, with contemporary dance and film increasingly integrated with live music.  The New Art Quartet (Terry Kroetsch, Beth-Ann DeSousa, Carol Bauman, Lori West) appeared in what would become a set of regular appearances, as did the new-in-town Penderecki Quartet, which started what became an almost-annual appearance at NUMUS. I spent 1991-92 overseas as part of a sabbatical – during this season, the late Michael Baker took over as acting artistic director for a year – a wonderful presence who fit in seamlessly with the local scene.  The connection to the other arts reached a kind of fruition with the first “Art Thing”, held in June of 1993 at Victoria Park Pavilion and featuring local dancers, theatre performers, poets, jazz musicians and NUMUS’ core performers in a celebration of all performing arts in Kitchener.  At this time, Kitchener was still a small to mid-sized city, and events such as this were revelatory to see what your next-door neighbours were up to in the arts. For me, it was a fitting closing event to my tenure at NUMUS – I felt it was time for both me and the organization to move on to new things.  Attendance was good, finances solid, quality high – what better time to leave?  

 

The handoff to Anne-Marie Donovan was seamless – we had been working very intensively together on my full evening instrumental theatre piece “Mounting Picasso” -- she was a member of Blue Rider Ensemble who were performing it-- which was presented by NUMUS both in Kitchener and Toronto in the fall of 1993. The final NUMUS concert of that season and my tenure was a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ‘Stimmung”, performed by Mirror Image (led by Anne-Marie) in London, Ontario.

 

I did return once more for the 1996-97 season (my ninth season as NUMUS AD) while Anne-Marie was on maternity leave and with the assistance again of Michael J. Baker. A highlight of that final season to me was a visit from composer John Luther Adams, not quite yet the superstar he has become. We used yet another new venue – the Seagram Museum, now the home of Shopify – to present the thundering percussive sounds of his “Earth and the Great Weather”.  With NUMUS back in the very capable hands of Anne-Marie Donovan I was to move on to other things, most notably the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound, which I founded (in conjunction with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony) in 1998. I could look forward to another decade of attending NUMUS concerts before I finally moved out west. 

 

Marketing

In today’s social-media world it is hard to describe the kind of social cohesion that was created by having far fewer media resources available – the local paper frequently included reviews of our concerts; local radio station (UW’s CKWR) frequently previewed and reviewed music from our concerts; and CBC radio, Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star provided national coverage.  CBC Radio, and in particular the show “Two New Hours”, with producer David Jaeger, was what kept new music practitioners in Canada (and the world) connected pre-internet.

 

It’s hard for me to think of the early days of NUMUS without thinking of the involvement of Mark Connolly – our brilliant graphic artist.  Mark and I had many meetings honing the public image of NUMUS.  Mark is now a highly respected senior member of Waterloo’s tech sector and still an active advocate for contemporary music  - he serves on the board of the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound and is co-director of his own festival/conference - Fluxible  - in which he places adventurous musical sets amongst other presentations more directly connected to the “user-interface” theme of the conference.

 

One of my favourite campaigns with Mark was 1992-3:  the Year of the Moose (as in “New-Moose” / NUMUS). Its logo “Escape from the Middle of the Road” was found on a poster which depicted a moose crossing sign with the moose breaking out from its borders. We loved this image and many moose crossing signs were found scattered throughout the city that year.

 

Board, GMs, Volunteers 

A great amount of work by many individuals goes on to create these magical events – from intensive research into new and unknown music, to the many grant applications to find money to produce concerts, to the organization of performers, composers, venues, board members, volunteers, etc  - all of which need to be put into alignment to make things go. The core of NUMUS has always been two people (‘employees’ is a bit of an exaggeration given the extremely modest stipends involved) who make things happen – an artistic director and a general manager. NUMUS has been blessed not just with visionary, hard working artistic directors, but also fantastically talented general managers – in my tenure these included Tilly Kooyman, Todd Harrop, Kevin Bradshaw and Anne-Marie Donovan, who was to become NUMUS’ next artistic director. Volunteer duties could extend into performance: one of the greatest early volunteer efforts was shown with a presentation we did in 1989 of Erik Satie’s Vexations, an 18 hour long piece for piano performed by a tag team of 45 pianists, with a custom made counter counting off iterations of a small, quixotic piece that was played 800 times.