Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 5 - May 21, 2007
After Anthony Braxton's two stellar performances on the fourth day of the 24th Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV), the fifth and final day could be considered somewhat anti-climactic. Still, there was room for a smaller program of diverse shows demonstrating the constant challenge of defining exactly what Musique Actuelle is.
And yet, however useful they sometimes are, definitions can be as limiting as they are beside the point. Instead, Musique Actuelle needs to be viewed on a broader level, where risk is always a part of the picture. The perception of risk, of course, requires recognition of the rules or boundaries being challenged, which need not be limited to any particular stylistic sphere. The first two shows of the day (with the final show in the evening not attended) might serve as a yardstick by which to measure just how expansive any definition of Musique Actuelle needs (or is able) to be for a reasonably faithful representation of what occurs here.
Risk comes in many forms, and Montreal-based saxophonist/singer/composer Joane Hétu has been exploring the inherent challenge in the juncture of music (improvised and scored), text, image, lighting and stage presentation for a quarter century. Her latest project, Filature, is described as "sound theater, and it's as good a catchphrase portrayal as any for what she and her Ensemble SuperMusique do. Consisting of violin, cello, trumpet, saxophones, flutes, bass, drums, percussion and sampler along with Pierre Hébert, who provides the video images, and production director Colin Gagné, it's an ambitious undertaking that has been reworked from an earlier, visually-spectacular Montreal performance to place more emphasis on the music.
The piece, consisting of three acts"The Warp, "The Weft, and "The Pattern attempted to reconcile Hétu's pre-musical career as a weaver with her current occupation. Images of weaving patterns accompanied the music and spoken word/singingall in French. A shame for Anglophones, since it meant that all one could go by in assessing the presentation was the music and imagery, and sometimes that simply wasn't enough.
Joane Hétu /Ensemble SuperMusique
The first two acts broke the ten musicians into two groups: an all-male quintet (trumpet, saxophone/flute, bass, drums and violin) for "The Warp, and an all female quintet (sampler, saxophone, percussion, flute and cello) for "The Weft, with the entire group coming together for "The Pattern. Again, without being able to understand the words, it was hard to know the significance (or lack thereof) of splitting the ensemble down gender lines.
Multimedia presentations run the risk of appearing too considered, and it was a problem that surfaced throughout the performance. While there was improvisation, the seriousness of music that, in the first two acts, appeared highly structured was in direct contrast to Anthony Braxton's show the night before, where even the most rigorously plotted music was played with spontaneous energy. That said, Hétu made good use of the textures available to her, creating a musical approach that combined the organization of contemporary classicism (in particular some elements of minimalism) with some degree of improvisational freedom.
Still, it was only in the third act that the performance truly coalesced. More propulsive rhythms began to emerge, along with an energy amongst the players that felt more natural and less indulgingly deliberate. While there was still unequivocal organization, the self-consciously artistic aspect of the presentation ceased being the obvious raison d'être, and a more holistic quality, inclusive of the listener, emanated from the performers, making it the most successful act of the 90-minute performance.
There's a reason why music, at least instrumental music, is the international language par excellence, capable of resonating with and being understood by listeners of every stripe. Filature may well have been a greater success to those who understood the text, but taken strictly as an audio-visual performance it proved to be an inconsistent effort to someone not privy to its extra- musical meanings.
Of course the same could be said for Eugene Chadbourne and Kevin Blechdom's performance, where the songs performed were all in English. Chadbourne, who first emerged as part of New York's Downtown Music scene, has not attained the degree of success that early collaborator John Zorn has. Still, he's shaped a career that's perhaps even more stylistically unbound than Zorn's, with a personal discography that's well in excess of one hundred recordings, ranging from the warped rockabilly of the group Shockabilly to the more jazz-centric (but no less eccentric) The Hills Have Jazz (Boxholder, 2005).
Kevin Blechdom is the onstage persona of Kristin Erickson, who was one-half of Blectum from Blechdom and became known for wild electronic experimentation and imaginative interpretation.
Eugene Chadbourne, Kevin Blechdom
All the more reason that the pairing of Chadbourne and Blechdomresulting from a one-week residence in France where it was dubbed The Chaddom-Blechbourne Experience, and a couple of performances thereafter (this being their North American debut)should be so odd; or, perhaps, not odd at all. Chadbourne has developed a reputation as outspoken political songsmith and virtuoso instrumentalist; here he restricted himself to banjo, while the equally trenchant Blechdom split her time between piano and an electric banjo. The set had a exhilarating feeling of spontaneity, as Chadbourne largely called the tunes, but the two managed to find weird and wonderful ways to morph from one song to the next and, in one case, combine a number of them together in ways nobody could have imagined.
Few could even conceive reinventing Pink Floyd's psychedelic Syd Barret-era "Astronomy Domine for two banjos, but in Chadbourne and Blechdom's hands it worked. As did a number of archival roots tunes and the biting satire of ther original materialpolitical and otherwise. Equally there was a slapstick element of absurdity when Chadbourne began taking down the balloons floating above the lush plant life onstage and inhaling the helium to lend his vocal range a significant boost in the high end. Of course it would have been even better had the balloons not kept breaking on him before he could inhale the gas...
Beneath the comedy, however, were some simple facts. First, Chadbourne proved a remarkably talented banjoist who adopted new tunings on the fly throughout the set (not to mention handling broken strings with ease), and played with a loose inventiveness that, despite first appearances, made the set fit perfectly within the concept of Musique Actuelle. Blechdom took a more supportive role on banjo, but turned out to be a surprisingly good pianist. And both had strong voices capable of clean power and gritty raunch. All of which made for a rollicking good time well-received by the capacity crowd.
With the 24th FIMAV winding down, a number of significant markers sprang into focus. Most notably, the overall festival attendance has been consistent over the past three years at about 5,000 people. That may seem like a small number, but for a festival this eclectic, located in a rural Quebec town of approximately 40,000 half-way between Montreal and Quebec City, it's a remarkable featespecially when one looks at how far some people have traveled to this festivaland some have been doing it every year for nearly as long as the event has been in existence. That a festival in such an out-of-the-way location can present North American and, in some cases, world, premieres speaks to the vision of Artistic Director Michel Levasseur.
Add to those milestones the twenty-year anniversary of the Victo record label, which not only releases some of the finer performances from the festival's history, but studio recordings as well. With a discography of over one hundred records it's a document of the ever-evolving definition of Musique Actuelle.
A significant challenge facing many festivals is how to attract a younger demographic. FIMAV is clearly doing something right because it's seeing an increasing number of attendees under 35 coming to the festival every year. And it's not just to see obvious youth draws like the Melvins. There was a significant cross-section of age groups at all the shows, with bands like Acid Mothers Gong attracting everyone from twenty-somethings to gray- and no-hairs.
2008 will be the FIMAV's 25th anniversary. Levasseur isn't prepared to disclose anything already in the works, but there's little doubt that there will be some special performances in store for anyone who makes the trek to the Silver Edition of Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville.