Montréal is a cultural capital of North America with a rich musical past, vibrant performing arts scene and an impressive list of annual summer festivals. The musical avant-garde in the city has its own history and, like all histories, this one is difficult to trace completely despite being marked by many significant milestones. Iannis Xenakis premiered his multimedia installation Polytope de Montréal in the French Pavilion of Expo ‘67, an oft-remembered highpoint of Montréal’s cultural timeline. McGill University established its electroacoustic music studio in 1964, the first in Québec. Not long after, Concordia University opened its own electronic music studio in 1971.

More recently, Montréal-born composer Jean Piché hosted Montréal Musiques Actuelles, the final in a series of New Music America festivals, a roving Olympics of contemporary music that started at The Kitchen in New York in 1979 and ended its run in Montréal in 1990. In addition to these highlights of contemporary music, free jazz and experimental rock have their own individual legacies in the city.

Trying to grasp all of this rich musical heritage is a lot like trying to get a handle on another one of Montréal’s many new-music institutions, Suoni Per Il Popolo, a festival dedicated to avant-garde and experimental music. Founded in 2001 by partners Kiva Stimac and Mauro Pezzente, it is now in its 17th year. Stimac is an artist and printmaker who uses traditional equipment and her own two hands to create posters and other printed material, while Pezzente is a founding member of Montréal’s legendary post-rock outfit Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Together the couple head up a veritable cottage industry that includes Suoni Per Il Popolo, Kiva’s Popolo Press and a trio of live music venues: Casa del Popolo, Sala Rosa and La Vitrola.

When they first opened their Casa Del Popolo it was the only venue in Montréal not employing a pay-to-play system. Now the three venues host somewhere between 600 and 700 shows annually. Over the years Stimac and Pezzente have maintained their dedication to championing artists and artistry over commerce, and the Popolo empire truly operates for the people. The Suoni Per Il Popolo festival is itself guided by an impressively ambitious “eight-point mandate” that clearly outlines a commitment to, “presenting avant-garde and experimental music and sound within a community context.”

Peter Burton, Executive Director for Suoni Per Il Popolo, says that in essence the festival’s purpose is to, “present experimental music in all its forms,” characterizing a key aspect of its ethos with the question, “Why don’t we take on as much as we can?” From June 1st through the 24th, Suoni Per Il Popolo will present roughly 70 concerts, workshops and other events featuring over 150 ensembles and solo performers at the three Popolo venues and other locations in and around Montréal’s famously artistic Mile End neighborhood.

The dizzyingly long list of names on this year’s line-up includes examples of experimental rock (Horse Lords), noise (Pharmakon, Limbs Bin), punk and hardcore (Red Mass, Total Bliss), techno and electronic music (Nailbiter, Group A), experimental pop (Black Marble, Xarah Dion), experimental hip-hop and R&B (Princess Nokia), experimental ambient (Alan Licht, Steve Hauschildt, Kara-Lis Coverdale), contemporary chamber music (Novarumori), and free jazz (Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee, Paul Flaherty).

World music is also included in Suoni Per Il Popolo’s vision. “We want to present experimental and creative music in all its genre diversity,” says Burton. “But we also want to highlight the diversity of people who are making that music.” While some may insist that traditional music from non-Western cultures doesn’t qualify as part of the avant-garde, Burton argues that, “the so-called non-developed world has been affected by modernism, and by capitalism, as much as anyone” and that world music, “can be seen as avant-garde or experimental because it’s a product of the interaction of new technologies with traditional cultures.”

To that end, Burton and his fellow organizers have gone to great lengths to include performers from not just far-flung places, but also from non-white, non-Western cultures. Among them is Hailu Mergia, an accordionist, keyboard player and a former member of Walias Band who was represented on Buda Musique’s popular Ethiopiques series. He will make his Canadian debut at the festival, which will also see the North American premiere of Les Filles de Illighadad, three women from Niger who play Tuareg music for guitar and voice. Closer to home, the festival will represent Canada’s First Nations people with a performance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a poet/storyteller, and musician Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg.

“Our part of Montréal is an incredibly dynamic and creative neighborhood,” Burton explains, “and there’s a lot of really interesting people who know a lot about music and are doing all kinds of interesting things. So our festival benefits from that because we partner up with these people on projects that take advantage of their expertise and interests.” The festival has an impressively international participation, but that of local acts is equally noteworthy. A number of artists on local label Constellation Records, including Eric Chenaux, Jessica Moss, Sam Shalabi and Saltland, are slated to perform.

The string quartet Quatuor Bozzini, which boasts a “radically contemporary” repertoire and international renown, is also based just blocks away from the Popolo venues. They’ve been a part of the festival on and off for years, having previously worked with Alvin Lucier, James Tenney and others, becoming a more regular feature over the last half-decade. As part of this years’ events they will premiere a new piece by composer Phill Niblock whose works typically involve recordings of acoustic instruments playing long tones and distinct pitches that he overlays on one other to create dense, droning soundscapes. The members of Quatuor Bozzini have been working with Niblock to create this year’s premiere, recording the basic tracks at Constellation Records’ 24-track analog studio, Hotel2Tango.

In addition to this long list of concerts, Suoni Per Il Popolo also boasts a full catalog of other events, including workshops in Sacred Harp singing and dub poetry, the screening of a documentary about West African music, a vogue ball, and an exhibition of poster art, photos and ephemera connected to Expo ‘67 and its continued impact on Montréal. There’s even a multi-day academic conference that’s something of a mini-festival of its own.

Eric Lewis is a professor of philosophy at nearby McGill University and the local coordinator for federally-funded ICASP (Improvisation, Community and Social Practice), an international research project that studies “musical improvisation as a model for social change.” Lewis had an ongoing professional collaboration with Pauline Oliveros, a giant in experimental music, who sadly passed away last November.

Up to that time, Lewis had been planning for the conference – now dubbed “Still Listening” in reference to Oliveros’ “deep listening” aesthetic – to be a celebration for his friend’s 85th birthday, which would have been on May 30th. Lewis requested that friends of Oliveros contribute musical works for the celebration, resulting in 85 85-second pieces, including contributions from Terry Riley, Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Lucier, Alvin Curran and Ramón Sender Barayón, a founder the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

The scores for these pieces will be on display at the Marvin Duchow Music Library at McGill and are presented in a variety of formats, including video, sculpture, text, graphic and traditional notation. Though details are still being confirmed, some of the contributors will be present to perform their works, including Christian Wolff and Ellen Fullman.

A pdf with a full listing of Suoni Per Il Popolo events is available here. Information about Casa Del Popolo and other Popolo venues and projects is available here.

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