Open Waters music festival swims against the mainstream

Performances feature both local artists and those from abroad

Gina Burgess, Jeff Reilly and Taylor MacGillivray and See Through 4 are on offer at Open Waters. - CHANTALE RENÉE
Chantale Renée
Gina Burgess, Jeff Reilly and Taylor MacGillivray and See Through 4 are on offer at Open Waters.

Open Waters Festival 2017
January 6-10
Sir James Dunn Theatre, The Company House
$10-$25 at Dal Box Office
Festival passes $55-$60

The Open Waters Festival is about to flood two local venues with events featuring "exploratory music." Lukas Pearse is the artistic director of the Upstream Music Association, which presents these events every year. He says the fest is about "putting together some really adventurous music."

Pearse took the reins of Upstream in 2015, after longtime director Paul Cram stepped down. Before that, Pearse was an audience member and fan of the festival. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Open Waters began, he explains, because it's taken multiple forms over the years. What started as a collaboration between Upstream and Symphony Nova Scotia in the late '90s has now grown.

This year, Upstream is partnering with suddenlyLISTEN and Vocalypse Productions as well as the Symphony.

"It really is about the breadth and depth of our community. Our music community reaches many places," says Pearse. "We really do have world-class, creative musicians in Halifax."

Symphony Nova Scotia, for example, is focusing on the compositions of Canadians in particular by bringing an all-Canadian program to the stage.

"That kind of—again—comes back to this idea that we're trying to do something that celebrates what it is that our community offers, from a lot of different angles," says Pearse.

There are more than 75 musicians on schedule for this year's performances, including artists such as Janice Jackson, Nick Halley and Dinuk Wijeratne. While homegrown talent is important to the festival, there are out-of-towners on schedule, too. The goal is to promote musicians who are "culturally upstream from the mainstream," but this isn't a swipe against popular tunes—far from it.

"As a musician, I'm also involved in playing in pop music, and rock and folk...that's a lot of my own history," Pearse says.

At the same time, what's popular isn't the only story that goes on in music, and Open Waters wants to tell those other stories.

The improvisation of music is one aspect that's particularly exciting to Pearse, and something his feels is key to Upstream as a whole.

"The performer is an active participant in the creative process and not merely reciting the music," he says. "There's this dynamic between where the music comes from, who is creating it in the moment, and then also the fact that it's live."

Sebastian Lexer, who is coming to Halifax from Scotland, draws on the dynamic between music and technology is a unique way. He uses computers to change the way instruments sound in real time.

"Really, treating the computer and the programming as an instrument itself," says Pearse.

While the musicians involved are all very different, Pearse notes that they share at least one thing: They aren't easily commodified.

"It's not just because the symphony doesn't worry about selling records," he says. "It's also true of other traditions as well, that are just not part of that way of framing the art of music."

JOYFULTALK for instance, Pearse says, gives audiences fun, pop-related electronic music. He calls it a "very personal and very inquisitive" take on pop.

"It's actually about the music. It's not about the CV of the people doing it."

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