Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 2 - May 18, 2007
While the majority of the sounds created by Snow, Licht and Onda derived from analogue sources, Theresa Transistor's hour-long set was a combination of cutting-edge technology and acoustically generated timbres. An electro-acoustic (or acousmatic) group of four Quebec musiciansMonique Jean, Christian Bouchard, Christian Calon and Mario GauthierTheresa Transistor transformed the intimate surroundings of the CEGEP room into an almost participatory environment for the audience.
Rather than being on a stage facing the audience and serving as its focal point, with the audio system projecting sound from the stage towards the back of the room, Theresa Transistor set up its notebook computers, processing gear and assorted odds and ends on tables in the center of the room, surrounded by the audience. Speakers were situated around the perimeter of the room, encompassing rather than unidirectional. The result was a sonic "theater in the round," something to be felt and experienced as much as heard, a kind of improvisational performance that worked live but would likely be less successful on CD.
The set was best experienced with eyes closed, letting the washes of sound, electronic beeps, rhythmic white noise and more become the soundtrack to an imagined movie. While the majority of the work seemed to be computer-generated, watching the four musicians made it possible to see a number of natural sounds sampled as in a working laboratory, then processed and fed back into the mix, driving an ongoing and complex four-way sonic conversation. Whistles, spoken word and whispers spoken into a microphone, a small bell tree, a tape head passed near a power bar were all sound sources for the quartet. Musical samples emerged at one point, providing a temporary respite from the more angular abstractions of most of the performance.
Like the Snow/Licht/Onda performance, Theresa Transistor was very much music of the moment, though not necessarily music in the terms with which it is usually described. As much as the sound and interaction amongst the artists was improvised, so too was the aural field itself. Location, or the point from which the sound emerged amongst the speakers surrounding the audience, was just as important as the sound itself. Another uncompromising set on what would turn out to be a challenging day all around.
Altoist/composer John Zorn has become something of an icon to followers of the festival, performing at FIMAV more frequently, perhaps, than anyone else over the past quarter century. Distinguishing his performance at the 24th edition of FIMAV was a solo saxophone set of stunning virtuosity and invention, proving that the sounds one can get out a single wind instrument can be as seemingly infinite as those generated electronically.
Zorn's set was acoustic in the most literal sense. No microphones, no sound system. Just Zorn, his alto, a stool and a bowl of water. That he filled a room the size of Cinéma Laurier with sound was remarkable in itself. That he maintained the listener's interest throughout a first piece lasting over forty minutes, followed by a shorter piece and an encore that the audience insisted upon before any thought of leaving, was even more extraordinary.
While the performance was freely improvised, it was not without structure. Zorn began with a series of moving harmonics and multiphonics, gradually introducing into the mix more urgent notes that eventually evolved into a discernable pattern. The altoist seamlessly shifted gears between each widely divergent texture, developing long, uninterrupted phrases through seemingly endless circular breathing. Solo performance is nothing new to Zorn, and over the years he's developed a style that can be as much performance art as it is actual music, as much a feat of physical conditioning as of unabated woodshedding.
Still, while there was no shortage of the abstruse wailing, guttural noises and high-pitched squeaks that were satirized so memorably in a brief segment on television's The Colbert Report (the episode covering Zorn's being awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Grant), hearing these sounds in the context of a complete performance revealed far more substance. Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture work was there, sometimes subtly, elsewhere more overtly, when he'd briefly find his way to a more mellifluous tone. Equally there was no shortage of humor, with Zorn moving from loud dissonances to quiet harmonic squeals as he placed the bell of his horn against his leg.
The soloist-sole performer was also a master of dynamics, filling the room with piercing or earth-moving blasts one moment, making the audience lean forward to hear a whisper-like phrase the next. It was a captivating set that engaged the audience so thoroughly that even the quietest moments were heard clearly throughout the hall.
Just when you were convinced you'd seen/heard it all, Zorn continued to demonstrate how much more can be done with a single acoustic instrument. For his second piece he removed the mouthpiece, brought a bowl of water onto his stool and began an improvisation sounding much like a duck call. Wrapping his hands around the mouthpiece, he opened and closed them in various way, thus broadening the palette, then literally blowing into the water. Again, a breathtaking virtuoso performance yet by no means short on humor.
A powerful and insistent standing ovation brought Zorn back for an encore, though the crowd favorite couldn't resist a preliminary comment of feigned incredulity: "That was really hardcoreand you want some more? Probably, much more. There are likely few audiences outside FIMAV who would get this excited by an hour of solo saxophone that ranged from thematic to anarchic. But what was made clear by this performanceand the entire dayis that music comes in many guises. It may not always be pretty, but it can most assuredly be compelling if not captivating, and Zorn's set was the clear highlight so far.