International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Day 4-5
The fourth day of the International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV) was clearly the most anticipated, if attendance was anything to go by. With packed houses for shows including Anthony Braxton Sextet, Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet and William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, expectations were high.
Nobody was disappointed. Reed multi-instrumentalist and composer Braxton, who had already appeared at the festival this year in duet with guitarist Fred Frith, and as guest with noise improv band Wolf Eyes, was back to Victoriaville after a twelve-year absence, and it was clear that he was having a great timeboth onstage and off. His earlier appearances this week were of the purely improvisational variety, and his duet with Frith represented the kind of innovation for which the festival is renownedbeing the first time the two had played together. His sextet show was another significant marker, the North American premiere of a new extended composition, "345.
A radical thinker in a class by himself, Braxton writes compositions that represent a complex view of the world. One look at his chartswhich combine standard notation, passages of notes in specific colours and unique graphical representationsand it's clear that there's an advanced process in play. And watching the sextet perform, witnessing the kind of concentration and attention required by everyone with everyone, provided definite insight into how Braxton's revolutionary compositions make the transition from written page to performance. In addition to Braxton, the sextet included Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet, Jay Rozen on tuba, Jessica Pavone on violin and viola, Chris Dahlgren on contrabass, and Aaron Siegel on drums and percussion.
Braxton's compositions aren't so much atonal as they are polychromatic, with different combinations of instruments playing abstruse lines at times in unison, other times contrapuntally, creating a seemingly infinite variety of colours and shaded gradations. Time can be rigidly defined or completely fluid, and improvisational passages can be open-ended, with direction coming from virtually everyone in the ensemblein fact, smaller subsets within the ensemble are sometimes directed by more than one player simultaneously.
Bringing together a heady intellectualism and, at times, a kind of ordered chaos where collective improvisation was under a watchful eye that kept the forward momentum going, the seventy-minute performance blurred the line between richly structured, long-form contemporary classical composition and freer forms. Transitions between sections could be staggeringly rapid-fire, or they could be graceful, featuring drawn-out long tones with rich close harmonies. Solos built on layers developed by combinations in the ensembleviolin and arco bass here, trumpet, violin and tuned percussion therewere at times furiously abstract, elsewhere oddly melodic.
With a variety of extended techniques used by all to broaden the sonic palette, "345 was a stunning new piece of music that continues to assert Braxton as one of the great musical thinkers of the past forty years. His compositions demand nothing less than complete commitment by the audience, and it was clear that those in attendance were totally engaged. A remarkable piece performed by an outstanding ensemble and a clear festival high point.
Chinese guzheng player and singer Xu Fengxia demonstrated during her one-hour performance that it's possible to take an ethnic folk tradition and expand it into a looser, more exploratory context.
The guzheng is a zither-like instrument with a broad tonal range, and Fengxia combined more traditional techniques with imaginative devices that included bowing the strings and hitting them with the palm of her hand. Tunable by repositioning a series of movable bridges, the instrument's evocative sound is the result of plucking the strings with one hand, while bending them behind the bridges with the other, giving the essentially pentatonically-tuned device a capacity for greater harmonic variation.
While some of Fengxia's pieces were based on traditional Chinese and Mongolian songs, she also played an extended free improvisation that introduced all manner of microtonality and dissonance into a performance of deep beauty. Fengxia's voice, like the music, could be tender and whisper-like or sharp and piercing.