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Working Things out with Music

Kati Agócs and Winnipeg’s New Music Festival


February 7, 2011


Kevin Burns


Kati Agócs found herself sandwiched between Kelly-Marie Murphy’s evocation of hundreds of starlings in flight and Krzysztof Penderecki’s thunderous choral celebration of Jerusalem. The event was the closing night concert of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival. For twenty years this festival has showcased the work of living Canadian and international composers during what is typically the coldest week of a Winnipeg winter.

Kati AgocsFor seven nights, composers come on stage and explain to audiences about what they will hear. Kati Agócs told her audience that during treasure hidden in a field, her piece for orchestra, “You’re going to hear some bells.” And the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s percussionist certainly delivered.

When not attending concerts of her work in Canada, Agócs teaches composition at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, even though Canada is her home. She was born in Windsor, Ontario, her parents of mixed Hungarian and American background. “I certainly have that Hungarian DNA,” explains Agócs. “I am half-Hungarian and it’s also in my DNA as a musician. It’s an amazing, deep musical traditional that I am honoured to be part of and to have in my blood.”

As a Hungarian-Canadian, Agócs explains that, musically speaking, this DNA can be traced to the chromatic, often dissonant textures, and the complex harmonic richness of Béla Bartok, who along with György Ligeti, she cites as significant influences. “It’s not about sounding like them. Those things are in me,” she says. “There are certain things that composers do innately. They don’t think about it, and they are not trying to do a certain thing. These things are just natural to me and they also connect me to other music. They are the strengths within a composer and they are the things I also try to encourage in my students.”

Last summer, Agócs worked with even younger students as the composer in residence for Canada’s National Youth Orchestra. She wrote Perpetual Summer for them, a piece dealing with tough environmental themes. “Their energy was amazing. They ‘got’ what I was doing with the piece right away. Where older musicians might hesitate, they jumped right in because they understood. This was very encouraging,” she said. Those young musicians did not shy away from the apocalyptic nature of her composition, either, she added.

Speaking from the stage of the concert hall in Winnipeg Agócs told the audience how important it is for her to have a permanent base in Canada. She has a studio near Saint John’s where she spends as much time as she can fit into her busy international schedule. “My commissions are split roughly in half between the United States and Canada,” she explains. “Home in Newfoundland is something I will never let go, even though I have this other ‘home’ at the conservatory in Boston. Canada is so important to me as a composer.”

Like many artists in her generation, Agócs is sensitive to what she calls “the pluralities of labels” – in her case: Canadian, Hungarian, female, composer. In the festival programme she wrote: “With my generation, we are finally at a point where we don’t think of ourselves as female or male composers, but simply as composers. We can finally put issues of creativity, the development of our distinct musical voices, and the regeneration of the field at the forefront of the discourse.”

That said, Agócs is deeply aware of how difficult it is to straddle such labels and cultures. In 2005-6 she travelled to Budapest on a Fulbright post-doctoral award. She lived in an apartment in Budapest and had studio space at the Liszt Academy, where she researched and wrote an article on the infrastructure of the new music scene in Hungary. “There’s an identity crisis that one experiences when young artists travel abroad. There’s an aesthetic thing with this European superiority complex and how that feels to people raised in the States or in Canada. For me, I didn’t write for three or four months. I remember sitting in that practice room at the Liszt Academy and crying because I was just paralyzed. But once I got past that I was much stronger as a composer. I worked it out musically.”

As for the experience of being sandwiched between starlings and the Gates of Jerusalem Agócs, says she always enjoys being in the company of established artists. “It allows you to weigh your own work and see how it holds up next to that.” Equally important is feedback from audience members. “I keep my ears open and value what they say. I take it all in. I listen carefully because I care about the listeners. It all feeds into the next work.”

And that next work? In the months ahead, audiences in Hamilton and Vancouver will get to hear some of it, as will audience elsewhere with the release of recordings of her works later this year.

For more details and to hear some excerpts from Kati Agócs’s music, click HERE

For Canada’s National Youth Orchestra – click HERE


For the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra – click HERE and the programme HERE




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