For a festival that surveys the constantly mutating outer limits of music, it’s reassuring to see how much has stayed the same for Suoni Per Il Popolo as it reaches the halfway mark of its second decade.
The focus remains on the exploratory and improvisational, with artists stretching the elastic properties of rock, jazz and classical.
The activity remains centred at a select few Mile End venues within easy walking distance, fuelling a community spirit. (The distance between Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa is little more than a hop and skip; add a jump and you’re at La Vitrola, which opened last year and, like the Casa and Sala, is owned by festival co-founders Mauro Pezzente and Kiva Stimac.)
The admission fees remain resistant to inflation, with few shows priced above $15.
And to hear Suoni executive director Peter Burton tell it, the programming remains the product of collaboration — not just between the organizers, but with musicians who embody the festival’s democratic spirit of sounds for the people, by the people.
“Sometimes a local artist will come to us and say, ‘I really want to play with Person X or Y,” Burton said last week. “A number of years ago we had Halim El-Dabh come to town, who’s this amazing Egyptian-American composer. He worked with Stravinsky and had wonderful stories about hanging out with the Beatles in the ’60s and all this kind of stuff. And (perennial Suoni guest) Sam Shalabi had suggested he’d be a fantastic artist to bring, Sam also being Egyptian. So that was a natural collaboration.”
Burton singled out several concerts on this year’s program that came about through similar mind-melds. Stretch Wood (Monday, June 8, La Sala Rossa) is a Suoni exclusive: a string ensemble led by Josh Zubot — “an amazing virtuoso violinist who’s been in a million different projects” — playing a piece the festival commissioned from composer/percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli. “We put together all these top-notch string players, including Malcolm Goldstein, who’s this local legend. He used to work with John Cage and Merce Cunningham in New York and has this amazing lineage that he brings to the group.”
The string players in Quatuor Bozzini helped arrange a collaboration with U.S. composer Alvin Lucier. “He’s going to be coming for two concerts with them (Friday, June 5 at the Gesù and Sunday, June 7 at La Sala Rossa). He made some seminal media art pieces, had a massive influence on the development of sound art and helped rethink 20th-century composition. Just this fascinating figure.”
Other concerts are more conventional in structure, but when a festival’s most mainstream acts are Dinosaur Jr. guitar warlock J Mascis (Friday, June 5 at La Sala Rossa) and art-house electronica priestess Zola Jesus (Tuesday, June 16 at La Sala Rossa), conventional sounds are in short supply. Suoni’s reputation has been built not on marquee names, but on the thrill of discovery.
“A lot of people tell us we have plenty of artists they haven’t heard of, and every year that’s the case for me, too,” said Burton, adding that the organizers’ respective tastes complement one another. “People seem to trust the festival.”
The expert curation has chiselled away at walls between genres. It isn’t hard to imagine that someone drawn to La Sala Rossa on Monday, June 22 for untameable Dutch punks the Ex may take a chance on the unknown and venture to La Vitrola the previous night for Niger’s Mdou Moctar.
“He plays interpretations of traditional Tuareg music, but in a guitar/bass/drums format,” Burton said. “He became very popular in West Africa through cellphones, with people exchanging the music on their memory cards.”
Much like Suoni’s audience trusts the festival, the festival seems to trust the loyalty of its audience. Patrons who block off their calendar for much of June are at least as common as those who drop in for a single show.
“It’s a bit of a marathon. A lot of festivals would go for a weekend format for this kind of thing, but ours goes for three weekends and the weeks in between,” Burton said. “We’d probably get more people from out of town if it was just a Thursday-to-Sunday event … but it’s great in the sense that you’re not trying to stuff things in and listen to six artists in one day. You get to pace it over time.”