Open Waters Festival celebrates new and improvised music from Halifax’s unique position in the world

The 2020 festival takes place at venues around the city January 3-9, 2020

Halifax drummer and composer Andrew Miller brings his new quartet to the Open Waters Festival for the first time where he will be debuting a new set of original music.
Halifax drummer and composer Andrew Miller brings his new quartet to the Open Waters Festival for the first time where he will be debuting a new set of original music.

Halifax’s Open Waters Festival returns in January with its ongoing celebration of new and improvised music. Set to take place at venues across the city, the 2020 line-up continues to be a combination of Halifax’s unique position in the world and the festival’s musical focus.

“The festival name initially came from the idea that Halifax has an ice-free harbour,” explains Lukas Pearse, the artistic director of Upstream Music Association, which organizes the festival each year. “It also reflects Halifax as a port city, where its culturally rich population has spawned an equally diverse music scene.”

Pearse goes onto to explain that it was the festival’s original artistic director and founder Paul Cram who also saw it as a metaphor for the music that continues to be the mainstay of the festival. “It was this idea of the music being open-ended where parts would be thoroughly notated, and parts would be for improvisation.”

Whether from jazz, western music, experimental, pop, folk or even classical music, Pearse says that while the thread may be improvisation, it is in the diversity of the music that continues to be the festival’s biggest strength. “It’s this idea that there are elements of improvisation that can be integrated into many different compositional approaches from many different traditions,” he says. “They might call it different things, or they might not call it anything, but improvisation is that through-line.”

Improvision aside, Pearse says Open Waters is also just as much about the sometimes difficult-to-define category of new music. “I don’t put hard boundaries on what new music means,” he says. “I think about artists who are trying to do their own thing, trying something that is not bound by the traditions of their genre, pushing themselves and trying something new.”

chik white and Xuan Ye are among the many artists performing at this year's Open Waters Festival.
chik white and Xuan Ye are among the many artists performing at this year’s Open Waters Festival.

This year’s Open Water Festival continues to reflect both sides of its musical equation, growing each year under Pearse’s leadership. As a curated festival, it is a responsibility he takes seriously. “I try to have something that reflects a breadth of the music that I see in my community, of people trying to make unusual music or music that hasn’t been done,” he says.

But while local artists may make up the most significant number of acts at the festival, Pearse also reaches well beyond the city’s borders. “I try to reflect upon what I see is happening in the Halifax and the Maritimes,” he says. “But I also keep my ear out across the country and internationally as much as possible too.”

Reflected in the geographical diversity are the twenty-five concerts and events scheduled for this year’s festival. “I could go through the whole program and tell you why I’m excited about each concert, but I will say I try not to present things that I’m not already excited about.”

But pressed, Pearse does give a couple of examples from this year’s festival roster, beginning with the return of British and Swiss duo Barry Guy and Maya Homburger who have been part of the Open Waters Festival since its inception. “And I’m super excited about Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio, which is a cross border collaboration between Gord Grdina from Vancouver and Jim Black and Matt Mitchell from New York,” he continues.

A little closer to home, Pearse is looking forward to the collaboration between Eastern Shore’s experimental jaw harp musician chik white and improviser Xuan Ye. “You may think you know the jaw harp, but chik takes it to a whole other level, and what Zuan adds to it electronically is astonishing.”

With diversity being key to Open Waters, Pearse uses another January tradition as an analogy to get potential audiences excited about the coming festival. “In some ways, it’s like having a polar bear dip into something unfamiliar,” he says. “This is the future of music and what better time than the beginning of the year to try out something new.”

The 2020 Open Waters Festival takes place at various venues around Halifax from January 3 through January 9. Visit upstreammusic.org for tickets and information.