Numusic Festival 2009

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Numusic 2009
Stavanger, Norway
September 9-13, 2009
This was the tenth anniversary edition of Stavanger's Numusic festival, a five-day banquet that centers around the notion of electronic music in all of its varied guises. This can oscillate from glittery dancefloor cheese-ploughing to mood-lit cranium-scooping experimentronix, with actual musicians often allowed to roam outside of laptop innards or mixing desk vermicelli. Sometimes acts rock hard, at others they noodle wetly. Ofttimes, jiggling about is advised as a good audience response, but it's also frequently possible to waft softly on a light cloud of ambient gloop. So-called art pollutes so-called entertainment, and vice versa.

Over the years, Numusic has expanded its program and its venue choice. This has positive and negative aspects. The increased number of acts has not resulted in any lowering of quality. The only disadvantage is that some of the venues are at opposite ends of the town, meaning that terminal choices have to be made, to avoid spending too much time in transit. Once ensconced, though, the spectator can marvel at the strength of an evening's roster, offering the chance to catch relatively high profile acts in intimate quarters.

Alongside an already variegated mainline sequence, Numusic has developed a tradition of connecting modern electronic music with its elder statesmen. Previous pioneers-in-attendance have been Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Henry, both given the chance to oversee major retrospectives of their work. This year, that position is taken by Arvo Prt, who happens to be a decidedly acoustic composer. Nevertheless, the reclusively monkish Estonian's output is strangely sympathetic to the general Numusic habitat.

Most of the Prt gigs took place in the red-painted Saint Petri Kirke church. His devotional music always sounds most suited to places of worship, particularly when the choral voices come into play. On the first two evenings, The Hilliard Ensemble led a selection that was not surprisingly dominated by vocal works. On the first night, the instrumental "Fratres" appeared in two of its many guises: to open, and as an encore featuring three carefully gesturing dancers. It's one of Prt's best-known pieces, possessed of a mystical development that progresses with a suspended slowness that has to be savored with complete attention.

"Fratres" also opened the Saturday program in Stavanger's Konserthus, in its fully-enlarged orchestral version given by the Stavanger Symfoniorkester. Of equal stature was the second half's ambitiously structured "Lamentate," dedicated to sculptor Anish Kapoor and spotlighting the piano of Alexei Lubimov. As expected, the most profound atmosphere surrounded the performance of "Tabula Rasa" on the Sunday night, back in the church. This is Prt's best (and most famous) piece, and it happens to be startlingly different from the majority of his output. A pair of violinists led with a barely perceptible sway, their bittersweet sustains answered by the ensemble strings. A recurrent piano figure appears at crucial junctures, its interior prepared in a manner which can't help but recall the soundworld of John Cage. Absolute silence blanketed the audience, who were held in a meditative stasis for the duration. This was an apt descent from the mountain of electro-basalt scaled on the festival's Saturday night. A way for the eardrums to re-acclimatise to a sensitized acoustic existence.

Back to Numusic's opening evening. A double bill at the Folken club broke the crowds in gently, before the density rose considerably for the Thursday-to-Saturday onslaught. It's interesting to compare drummers. The opening Wildbirds & Peacedrums are a duo from Sweden, who have been rapidly gaining in popularity across both sides of the Atlantic. The drum is an integral part of their vocabulary, along with the voice, but sticksman Andreas Werliin is inflated by the kind of pomp that fills up stadium rock spaces. Just because he's beating faster and harder doesn't make him more impressive. Also, singer Mariam Wallentin is aiming for proud soulfulness, but doesn't seem to quite reach what's in her head.

Deerhoof's drummer is another creature totally. It's almost advisable not to stand in front of Greg Saunier, so compulsive are his actions and rhythms. He sprongs from the lineage of Captain Beefheart's asymmetrical stylists, all clump-footed and snicky cymbals, ricketingly precise. He also grabs an award for the most rambling song-introducer ever, convolutedly wandering towards what might just be his eventual point. Yes, bassist Satomi Matsuzaki is well-advised to strut, wobble and turn in circles when she's not yelping out her curt little toy-punk ditties. By the end of the gig, she was climbing on the speaker stacks, sowing disobedience amongst the masses. Glasses that once held ultra-expensive Norwegian beer were being pulverized underfoot.

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