Punktfest 06 - Kristiansand, Norway - Day One, August 24, 2006
The opening day at Punktfest 06 featured seven separate performances, one live remix and a late-night club date with Pal "DJ Strangefruit" Nyhus; it's easy to see why this festival defies categorization. It kicked off, as it did last year, with a brief combination of improvised music and spoken word. Last year it was Norwegian poetry; this year, Fiona Talkington from the BBC was asked to open the festival, and she brought together Molvaer and an imaginative grouping of four percussionistsThomas Stronen, Audun Kleive, Jon Christensen and Bill Bruford.
Bruford and Christensen played on more or less traditional kits, but Stronen and Kleive combined acoustic percussion with electronics, and Molvaer realized his remarkable ability to stretch the definition of what a trumpet can sound like. This brief but inspired performance also demonstrated Punktfest's attention to presentation, providing the first inkling of the outstanding lighting used throughout the evening in the main theater. More than simply casting illumination on the stage, the lighting flowed with the music, creating patterns on three white backdrops that divided the rear of the stage.
Talkington selected Shakespeare for her performance, bringing the concept of nature and its strength and beauty to life. The four percussionists worked more within texture than discrete rhythm; Molvaer was out front building layers of sound that were at times soft and appealing, other times jagged.
After a short pause to reset the stage, Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson came out with a quartet that included Jan Bang, Jon Christensen and, on piano and accordion, Bugge Wesseltoft. Those familiar with Wesseltoft's groove-centric "New Conception of Jazz" series on his own Jazzland label would be surprised at how easily he can adapt to a situation like this, which emphasized free improv. While pulses would emerge periodically, there were just as many periods of rhythmic stasis, where the group sound was more about texture and the evolution of melody within an elastic time sense.
Opening with solo bass, Danielsson's lyrical lines were almost immediately transformed by Bang's real-time sampling into more ambient territory. The idea of live sampling is to feed the signal back to the original performer(s) in order to provoke a new kind of interaction. It requires imagination and a completely open mind, where the samples are treated as equal instrumental partners, and it was clear that Danielsson's ears were wide open to Bang's choices.
Wesseltoft entered, playing sparsely at first, but gradually building towards a more defined, albeit spontaneously conceived series of gentle chord changes, again sampled and fed back to the overall audioscape by Bang. Over the years Christensen has moved farther away from overt time, and his performance here was no exception, with an emphasis on texture and punctuation. But when Bang put forward a deep, defined heartbeat-like pulse, Christensen's reaction, rather than moving clearly with it, was to fill in the cracks as the piece morphed from spacious ambience to a more solid groove.
While each member of Danielsson's quartet emerged into the spotlight at times, this performance was not about individual soloing. Instead, it was a truly collaborative effort where egos were kept in check; the entire performance became something akin to a conversation, albeit an often strange but beautiful one. However, as the piece built from peaceful tranquility to greater turbulence, it became clear that Christensen and Wesseltoft were the two players who provided the greatest sense of drama. Danielsson alternated from an anchoring role to a more thematic one, while Bang continued to feed assorted snippets, often processed, to the rest of the group. At the same time, he contributed new sonic ideas from his large base of source material.
The second piece began again with Danielsson solo, but this time he created his own loops, which formed a basic pulse over which he layered a warm arco theme. Bang fed back samples that sounded as if they came from the first piece. Some critics attack the use of samplers and other technology as too mechanistic, but one need only see Bang in performance to realize that these tools can be completely organic, comprising an instrument in its own right. Even using prerecorded samples, but the imagination required to know the technology so intimately that it becomes second naturejust like any instrumentis what separates those who merely dabble from those who use the technology to take the music in a new direction.
But Bang wasn't the only one who was stretching the limits. At one point, Danielsson alternated between playing a strong melody and tapping the bridge of his bass, and here a clearer form began to evolve. Some players in more conventional jazz settings prefer the term spontaneous composition to free improvisation. What made Danielsson's set so remarkable was that, as open-ended as it was, there was always a sense of purpose, a palpable feeling of four focused musicians who were trying to take the music to a place that, while not clearly defined at the outset, gradually became so.