Open Waters


This Friday and Saturday (January 9 and 10) two venues in Halifax will be hosting a series of concerts and collaborations representing various forms of new and improvised music. It is the Open Waters Festival, presented by the Upstream Music Association. Paul Cram, Upstream’s artistic director, talks about the festival’s recent and “roaring nineties" past, as well as his own roaring musical roots; he also shares some highlights for this festival weekend.


What are your own roots?
PC: When I was  7 years old I saw the Benny Goodman Movie, took up the clarinet and joined the Kiwanis Community Band in Vancouver led by the man who played the trumpet  at Isy’s Nightclub. Live music was ingrained early on  because the laws allowed my Dad to take me to Isy’s where I heard Cannonball Adderley 10 feet away from us.

This was repeated with more close up shows of The  Buddy Rich and Duke Ellington Big Bands, improvising artists like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Elvin Jones before discovering  John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album much later in 1965 which led me to join an R and B band, learning Blood Sweat and Tears  and Chicago before hitting the road after high school and hit the road [I did].

From there I played wall to wall  burlesque before the onset of disco in the late seventies. It was a good time to get a historical education of classical and world music at UBC while discovering the free jazz of the late seventies through studying and  improvising with my peers and travelling players…

In 1982 I studied at Banff with Karl Berger, and played with Dave Holland and Sam Rivers who  gave me permission to combine themes and not look down.

How long have you been involved in the Upstream Music Association, and in what capacity?
PC: I have been involved in Upstream for 25 years. I came to Halifax with my young family in 1990 from Toronto where I was immersed in building  large  improvising orchestras like the NOW New Orchestra  Workshop in 1977.

It was fortuitous upon arrival that there were several excellent literate composer/improvising performers  especially  in several different genres like classical, folk, jazz… As luck would have it the impetus at the time came from the curator of the [St. Mary’s University Art] Gallery, Layton Davis whose visionary concept harboured a house band in an Art Gallery. They found the funding initially and we started a concert season featuring brand new compositions  by the players  for audiences that were keen to be there.

Upstream was incorporated thanks to Layton and his staff and a triumvirate of  Bob Bauer, Jeff Reilly and myself kept the ball rolling. The aforementioned configuration lasted for the first 10 years and as several members retired  and I  became  Artistic Director of what was Upstream Music Association.. During that time we hosted guest musicians from Denmark, Germany and France and from across Canada.

What are the rewards?
PC: The thrill of improvisation in the hands of  veteran  practitioners of improvised  music  create the momentum that is critical to keeping new artists  and audiences of all ages on a move that spells a bright future for “hitless" music. Rewards slow you down. It’s  corny but the joy of doing it is its own reward.  

What originally inspired the Open Waters Festival?
PC: The concept of the original Open Waters Festival of new and improvised music
was born following an amazing concert in 1996 with the first collaboration of The Upstream Ensemble and Symphony Nova Scotia. (OPEN WATERS is the name of the Upstream's first CD Recording.)

The concert was conducted by  American /Buddhist conductor  Peter  Liebersen (now deceased) and featured the compositions of the Upstream Ensemble composers who also played. This collaboration  was recorded and became the inspiration for the festival for the next three years where the SNS/UPSTREAM collaboration were joined by musicians David Mott (USA), Barry Guy (UK) ) and  Array Music from Toronto under the baton of Peter Wiegold (UK). The Festival ended in 1999.  

Upstream soldiered on creating an Upstream Orchestra of its own while collaborating with outstanding musician/composers  from abroad like  Fred Frith, Lori Freedman, Barry Guy and Graham Collier.

How did the festival return?
PC: The Open Waters Festival came back in 2011 with the need to show off Halifax to the Canadian New Music Network. There were quite a number of musicians from Atlantic Canada and new music fans coming to that year. 
It was an exciting reminder of  the roaring nineties and we decided to open up the festival annually since then. In essence we had found a broader community from Atlantic Canada with Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Quebec players and professional writers and artistic directors looking for new sound  for their events.

The challenge  is getting the right balance and timing between sets so that they have an overall momentum that keeps the excitement ball in the air.  

What can audiences expect this year?
PC: Things you might not have seen very often at music festivals. Some examples are Mack Furlong and Chris Tonelli, Newfoundland musicians  taking their cues and material from  a filmed  score that leads their live music. Or Les Mécaniques De Nuit, a unique mash up of stringed instruments , poetry and spoken word. Or Joe McPhee, a  truly great jazz improviser from south of the border, and guest performing with my group Free Delivery.

What’s next on your creative agenda?
PC: I have to write a grant to the Canada Council to commission a new piece by
two well known Canadian composers for 2015/16. We are also putting together our stable of ensembles, The Upstream Orchestra and the Upstream Ensemble, and a newly reviving  new project: Guerrilla Vacation.

What are  some future plans for the festival?
PC: Reciprocity in programming is a big motivator  that encourages concerts abroad and new collaborations  with new music  and musicians. The geography  of  our festival means we bring artists from Atlantic Canada. We will however  make it a Canadian Festival in 2016 with trios from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Then we plan to do a huge orchestra with them and the Atlantic musicians. We will keep bringing  new energy to the festival to inspire the next year’s crop of live new  music .

Open Waters Festival Of New and Improvised Music
January 9 & 10, 2015
Sir James Dunn Theatre & Atlantica Hotel