Punkt 07 - Kristiansand, Norway - Day Four, September 1, 2007
British guitarist Robin Guthrie, the primary motivator for the ambient pop band Cocteau Twins, has developed a sound that can only be called celestial. With programs, loops and processing, he's transformed his instrument into something that, while still loosely related to a guitar sound, is much more. It's a huge, theatre-filling sound that's as much ambient wash as it is chord movement and melody.
And while some artists' exploration of ambient territory is static and more about texture, Guthrie is, beneath the expansive and cinematic soundscape, still a songwriter at heart. He writes ambient compositions that reveal form and, in some cases, programmed rhythms. It's no surprise, then, that he's collaborated regularly over the years with ambient composer/pianist Harold Budd, their most recent work being two simultaneous and conceptually parallel releasesAfter the Night Falls and Before the Day Breaks (Darla Records, 2007).
Guthrie's Punkt performance was a multi-media affair, with images projecting on a screen behind him on stage as well as the two side walls of the theatre. Unlike many of the performances at Punkt, Guthrie dealt in discrete compositions, many of them relatively brief. But, as has been the case with many of Punkt's shows, the overall effect was one of a longer story, where Guthrie's ethereal washes, occasional beats and shifting images were evocative of a sometimes melancholy, but always arrestingly beautiful soundtrack to the mind's eye.
It was easy to think of Guthrie's sonic approach as somewhat similar and consistent throughout the performance, but closer listening revealed a multiplicity of more nuanced timbres. And while it is true that Guthrie has a deeply personal sound that occupies a very specific space, it's also true that nobody suggests that the sound of a piano is "samey," so why should Guthrie's carefully honed sonic landscape be considered any different? Guthrie has, in fact, taken the guitar and transformed it into an entirely new, largely different instrument. If an instantly recognizable sound is one earmark of a successful musician, then Guthrie's performance and career have been an unequivocal achievement.
German keyboardist/electronic manipulator Burnt Friedman first emerged as a creative ambient/electronica artist in the late 1990s but is perhaps best known for his work with David Sylvian in the Nine Horses band, first heard on Snowbound Sorrow (Samadhi Sound, 2005). For his first appearance at Punktand the final theatre performance of the 2007 festivalhe enlisted the legendary drummer Jaki Liebezeit, of the proto-Kraut rock group Can, and saxophonist/clarinetist Hayden Chisholm, who works in the same sphere of artists and has appeared on Friedman's Can't Cool (Nonplace, 2003) as well as the Friedman/Liebezeit collaboration Secret Rhythms, Vol. 2, in addition to the Nine Horses project.
With one of the most stunning backdrops of the festival, the trio played music that, in its programmatic and repetitive nature, bore some conceptual resemblance to pianist Nik Bärtsch's Stoa (ECM, 2006). But whereas Bärtsch's self-described "ritual groove music" or "Zen funk" is largely acoustic, Friedman is all about electronic tones and processed sound. Still, with Friedman creating visceral grooves on an unconventional drum kit and Chisholm adding his own form of expanded minimalism, the trio made music that was both engaging and trance-inducing.
l:r Jaki Liebezeit / Burnt Friedman / Hayden Chisholm
There wasn't a weak link in the group, but it was difficult, despite the seductive images and vivid lighting, to take one's eyes away from Liebezeit. Creating complex rhythms, often in irregular meters, the tone of his kit was unique (no bass drum, but a very deep and resonant floor tom), and his approach to evolving ideas, not to mention the place he ended up at by a song's completion, was different from where he began yet somehow seeming inevitable.
Friedman's control of sound, melody and pulse made him a perfect act to close the theatre program. From delicate electronic blips to near-metal guitar tones, like Liebezeit he found ways to develop what was often a simple premise for as long as ten minutes in ways that were both hypnotic and demanding close attention. Chisholm, rather than being any kind of soloist, meshed both sonically and thematically with Friedman, the two often piggy-backing on each other's tone to create a richer whole. There were no changes to speak of, yet there was always a gradual sense of unfolding that kept things interesting throughout.
In many ways the final live remix of Punkt 07 had the feeling of a torch being passed. While there's still plenty of music left in Jon Hassell, his influence on the cadre of Norwegian musicians (amongst others) who have been mainstays at Punkt since its inception has always been undeniable; but to see him playing with guitarist Eivind Aarset, samplers/processors/Punkt co-founders Jan Bang and Erik Honoré and, in particular, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, was a deeply moving and profound experience.
Hassell, who opened up the Punkt pre-show with a rare performance of his 1969 minimalist piece "Solid State," had a lip problem that made it extremely difficult to play his trumpet. Still, from the first notes Hassell's tone remained intact. He may not have been able to go for the high notes, but it was an opportunity to hear, in the flesh, an artist who, with his concept of Fourth World Music and the man responsible for Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics (EG, 1979), Fourth World Vol. 2: Dream Theory in Malaya (EG, 1980) and City: Works of Fiction (Opal, 1990), literally reshaped the musical landscape of the past 35 years.
Like many of the remixes of the evening, the group used very little of the actual source material from the Friedman/Liebezeit/Chisolm show. Instead, a deep, dark and slow jungle groove powered most of the set, with Aarset creating spare harmonic accompaniment through a mix of guitaristic and more abstract sounds. Sensuous at a nearly subconscious level, Hassell adjusted for his situation with spare, low register melodies before calling Henriksen to the stage. And that was where the real magic began.
Hassell's influence on Henriksen is inescapable, but the Norwegian trumpeter has long since found his own voice and become one of the most imaginative and forward-thinking musicians, not just of the Norwegian scene, but of his generation. When Henriksen played, there was clearly evident a reverence toward Hassell, but when the two played togethersounding as if they were truly a single mind, speaking with a single voiceit was a rare and deeply moving experience.
The remix was over all too soon, but it was not just the perfect closer to Punkt 07, it was one of those performances that will be remembered no matter how long Punkt continues to exist (which, hopefully, will be a very long time).