International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, Day 5-5
Following day four's triple threat of Anthony Braxton Sextet, Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet and William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, one might expect the final day to be anticlimactic. And to some extent they'd be right, but, for the end of the 22nd International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV), programme director Michel Levasseur still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
Opening the day was a French duo with harpist Hélène Breschand and electric guitarist Jean-François Pauvros. Breschand has a solid background in classical music but, like Zeena Parkins, who appeared on the second day of the festival with Ikue Mori, she has chosen to explore broader possibilities by using a variety of extended techniques and the application of electronic processing. As often as she was found playing her harp in a more traditional fashion, she was equally likely to be seen bowing the strings, creating a loop from sighing into the harp's pickup, or running wooden mallets along the body of the instrument in a way that, with the application of heavy doses of reverb, created a thunderous effect.
Pauvros demonstrated a more rudimentary technique but, like Breschand, applied an unorthodox approach that included bowing the strings, placing a small cymbal on the neck of his instrument and lightly tapping it as it was run along the strings, radically detuning strings, and all manner of rubbing, slapping and tapping.
Their hour-long improvised set began in an ambient musical space, with Pauvros delivering long bowed tones and Breschand gently plucking dark chords. Slowly, the piece evolved into a stronger landscape marked by a sound of thunder from Breschand and either jagged punctuations or a cacophony of non-musical sounds, resulting from Pauvros talking into his guitar's pickup while simultaneously rubbing his hands vigorously on the neck.
Spontaneity shouldn't mean operating in a vacuum, and while it offered moments of engagement, the performance suffered from an apparent lack of focus. Of the two, Breschand seemed to be the most intuitive, finding ways to augment Pauvros who, on the other hand, seemed altogether too random in his choices. Falling too easily into simple clichés, Pauvros' contributions would have worked better had he approached the performance with a stronger sense of purpose rather than moving from idea to idea with no real eye to developing a broader arc.
Despite its shortcomings, the rarely heard combination of guitar and harp was often alluring, even in more extreme moments where the textures were harsher. It's a challenge to create spontaneously, and perhaps Breschand and Pauvros would have been more successful had they worked within a more directed context, and played shorter pieces rather than attempting such long-form improvisation, where it's essential to view things on a larger scale.
Accordionist/keyboardist/vocalist/composer Lars Hollmer has been a fixture on the Swedish scene since the late '60s. He has been involved in projects that span a variety of potentially interrelated genres, including avant-garde, progressive/art rock and neoclassical; he was a member of the idiosyncratic fusion/progressive group Samla Mammas Manna, which regrouped in '99 after nearly two decades in limbo. Hollmer's playing, despite the bombastic trappings so often inherent in the genre, has always transcended such potential shortcomings with a refreshing degree of self-effacement and whimsical absurdity.
And so, Hollmer's collaboration with the Québécois nineteen-piece Fanfare Pourpourwhich has been together for a decade and, with a lineup of amateur, semiprofessional and established musicians playing accordions, violins, horns, guitar/banjo and assorted percussion, have pursued its own brand of world music combining Québec and Cajun folk, Dixieland and other stylesseemed like the perfect pairing.
The hour-long set consisted mainly of Hollmer compositions, but it drew heavily on Scandinavian folk tradition. There was a certain "oompah factor pervading most of the performance, but Hollmer often introduced a degree of unpredictability by placing polka rhythms into the context of irregular meter, as well as some unexpected dynamic shifts. Arguably the most accessible show of the festival, Hollmer entertained with his dry introductions, and it was clear that he and Fanfare Pourpour were having a great time.