Inter-cultural understanding through composition, education, and music

Photo by Alex Waterhouse-Haywood.

Centred on the vocals of Willy Miles-Grenzberg, the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra (VICO) will present Sounds Global in Concert on Feb. 11 at the Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver.

The show will bring together a variety of Western and non-Western musical influences and instruments in this multicultural sextet performance.

Non-Western music in a Western context

Mark Armanini, Co-Artistic director of VICO, has been involved with the orchestra from its inception in 2002. Since then, VICO has grown into an active, multi-faceted organization.

In addition to commissioning many different composers and soloists from Canada and abroad for their festivals and concerts, Armanini and the VICO are also involved with the educational aspect of introducing non-Western instrumentation and music to Vancouver. This process often means subverting people’s expectations of what music on “traditional” instruments sounds like:

“One of the things we do to present music in a different, non-traditional context is by having a bit of traditional music that is both familiar to the performer and to the culture, and then to ‘mix it’ around during the concert,” says Armanini. “When it’s brought into a Western context, it sounds fresh to people’s ears because it hasn’t been tried before.”

Armanini says that Canada is the perfect location for this kind of inter-cultural music blending and simultaneous subversion of people’s expectations of what can be done with instruments that are often considered “traditional.”

“That’s really what Canada’s role is. Canada is a place where [this kind of intermixing] can happen, and this is what we’re doing,” says Armanini.

Composition with foundational understanding

Farshid Samandari, a composer-in-residence at VICO, is just one of the many composers who writes arrangements for the orchestra’s unique repertoire. He notes that the process of this kind of composing must be aware of and attentive to the musical language of an instrument’s origin, for example, with stringed instruments from different cultures:

“There are so many instruments like a guitar in different cultures, but you can’t play chords on most of them in the way that you can play them on guitar. So if you write strumming for most of these instruments, players say it is impossible, or at least that it would sound bad. So you have to be listening and sensitive to these things,” he says.

Samandari doesn’t just abstain from taking a classical Western approach to composition out of respect. He also feels that it is necessary in order to make the inter-cultural music blend more foundational than superficial:

“I’ll often start from a completely undecided point, as opposed to a classical Western style where one knows the structure already, because the form and harmonies in different cultures are different,” says Samandari. “I try to find some material that would be interesting from each culture or instrument, and then connect them to each other.”

Education outreach

A growing part of VICO is the educational aspect that goes beyond their concerts and festivals. Samandari explains that their approach to music learning aims to be more than just an educational class or program, but to take more of an accessible outreach approach in its philosophy.

“The main reason for doing the education program is that people don’t know anything about these kinds of music. So we want to introduce this kind of music to people,” says Samandari. “If we were doing it purely as educational, we’d make a school, start a program, and anyone who wants to come would study with us, but we’re also trying to introduce it to people.”

Armanini and Samandari both agree with the approach to keep the educational outreach aspect separate from performances. Although the performances themselves can certainly be thought-provoking and inspiring, Samandari says that too much talk simply takes away from the experience.

“Often people are not as excited, they want to go to see a concert, maybe learn a bit about the pieces themselves, but if people are interested in learning they’d usually go to a pre-concert talk. So we try to do those things separately,” says Samandari.

Whether in its approach to multicultural composition, outreaching musical education, or even its concert presentation, for Armanini and Samandari VICO is a growing musical institution that is constantly, yet purposefully, pushing boundaries and transcending borders, much like the music in the performances themselves.


For more information on the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, visit