International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Day 2-5
The two improvisers come from different worlds, yet managed to find many points of intersection. Frith, originally a part of British Rock in Opposition bands like Henry Cow and Art Bears, has long demonstrated a musical invention that has incorporated a number of pioneering extended techniques. (It's no surprise that guitarist Nels Cline dedicated his performance on the first night of the festival to Frith.) With an array of electronic devices, bows, metal cups, chains, alligator clips and more, Frith's unconventional approach to the guitar runs from the delicate to the deconstructive, from the obliquely melodic to the totally dissonant, and from the delicately spacious to the densely orchestral. Seemingly avoiding all rules of convention, Frith would, through the course of the fifty-minute performance, constantly detune his guitar, creating a constantly-shifting harmonic centre and the potential for new and unusual voicings.
Playing to such a continually moving target would be a challenge for most players, but for Braxton it was clearly a source of inspiration. While Braxton has a more traditional jazz improvisation background than Frith, he's no less intrepid a player. Alternating between alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones, his ability to interact with Frith in a constant push-and-pull created an evolving landscape that ranged from almost unbearable tension to moments where silence and the decay of notes became paramount. And Braxton's ability to create dense clusters of notes one moment, more linear constructions the next provided its own demand for response, to which Frith was clearly attuned.
The performance had a natural ebb and flow, sometimes developing gradual dynamic shifts and other times more instantaneous and jarring changes in direction. But Braxton and Frith were obviously in sync, and while there were moments where each player was looking for the other to articulate where things would go next, the real magical moments occurred when the two seemed to synchronously head off in a new direction.
While most of the artists performing in Victoriaville operate without a safety net, Frith and Braxton's interaction had an incredible sense of immediacy. In the realm of free improvisation, it's all too easy to fall into expected patternsbut when faced with an empty slate, these two artists viewed each situation as a new opportunity, allowing their enraptured audience to fully participate in the thrill of discovery.
Electronic sound sculptress Ikue Mori and harpist Zeena Parkins have been mainstays of the Downtown New York Scene for some time. Originally a drummer, but having long-since migrated to a distinctive electronic drum/sampling setup, Mori has contributed to a number of projects, including various film scores by John Zorn and Dave Douglas' albums Sanctuary and Witness. Parkins is a fearless musical innovator who has expanded her avant-leaning harp work to include sampling and a unique electric harp that allows her, like Nels Cline and Fred Frith, to treat her instrument and explore a broader sonic palette. Like Mori, she has shared a longstanding musical collaboration with a number of "out of the box" thinkers, including Zorn and experimentalist Elliot Sharp. Her work on Cline's Cryptogramophone release The Inkling demonstrates just how far one can take an instrument by dispensing with preconception and traditionalthough it is clear that Parkins has a significant background in contemporary new music.
The hour-long midnight performance combined composed form with inspired free play in the context of pieces that were often the briefest of miniatures. Parkins and Mori could not be more opposite in their appearanceParkins the more conspicuously engaged performer, Mori seated still in front of her computer, demonstrating little emotion. But the commitment from both was evident as they developed pieces that combined moments of sheer chaos with others of inexplicable beauty.
At times Mori's oddly textured percussion samples, when combined with Parkins' more aggressive electric attacks, could be uncomfortable, and even disturbing. Yet there were also periods of strange grace, with an attention to space and dynamics. Parkins seemed to revel in the quality of each note, the nuanced possibilities of each phrase and the raw emotional impact of extreme sonic clusters. What overt rhythms there were remained implicit, with Mori's oddly placed and seemingly random pulses creating more an ambient soundscape than any kind of forward motion.
Like others at the festival, Mori and Parkins created a complex and challenging premise for the juncture between form and freedom; a blending of the purely textural and a less than obvious, but nevertheless effective thematic sensibility. Their telepathic connection, regardless of the direction their music would lead, made for a compelling and moving experience.