Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 4 - May 18, 2008
Nick Didkovsky / Gunda Gottschalk and Xu Fengxia / Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory
Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada
May 18, 2008
Introducing Day Four of Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, FIMAV Artistic Director Michel Levasseur recalled when, in 2005 he recruited Thurston Moore to curate a full day of noise improv, the Sonic Youth guitarist/noise improviser told him, "After today, you'll never be the same again." Those were his words for a day programmed with intrepid improvisers and equally fearless composers, including guitarist Nick Didkovsky, violinist Gunda Gottschalk, guzheng player Xu Fengxia and one of the earliest members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder, Roscoe Mitchell and his group, The Note Factory.
The music from these three groups may have been familiar territory for regular FIMAV attendees, but for those less familiar with the festival's boundary busting aesthetic, it was indeed a day when traditional concepts of form and freedom were relentlessly challenged. Based on the powerful audience response to all three acts, whether or not its members were inexorably changed, though unprovable, seemed all to likely; certainly they walked away with altered ideas of how rigorous composition and unfettered improvisation can interact.
Guitarist, composer and computer music programmer Nick Didkovsky has acquired a significant reputation through his work with groups including Fred Frith, John Zorn and Bang on a Can (for whom he has provided new composition), not to mention his own Avant Rock group, the twenty year-old Doctor Nerve. His latest work, Ice Cream Time (New World, 2007), steps away from the conventional rock format of Doctor Nerve, even as that group's last release, Ereia (Cuneiform, 2000), augmented the core line-up of keyboards/bass/drums with strings, reeds and horns. Instead, with live sampler Thomas Dimuzio and the Swiss saxophone group, Arte Quartette, Didkovsky has created a long-form work that covers a lot of sonic territory, including one of the most beautiful, drawn-out codas in recent memory.
After asking an audience member what his favorite flavor was, Didkovsky commenced the piece in aggressive abstraction, with a sampled child's voice declaring, "It's Ice Cream Time!" Didkovsky supplemented his metal-edged, screaming guitar with saxophones that managed to provide both a pulse and no shortage of collective improvisation. As complex as the opening movements were, the line between form and freedom was blurred. And while there was no traditional rhythm section, the pulse provided, especially by baritone saxophonist Beat Kappler, was undeniable, and while it was easy to imagine the music interpreted with a more prog rock approach, there was plenty of sound filling the entire spectrum. Dimuzio's electronics and live sampling expanded the soundscape, processing snippets of the saxophone quartet's collective maelstrom to create, at times, a sound that verged on ear-shattering.
While there were periods of free improvisation, this was directed improv, and watching Didkovsky behind his computer, even when he wasn't playing, it was possible to get a feel for how the hour-long suite evolved compositionally. Didkovsky has undoubtedly been influenced by the shifting meters and elliptical phrasings of King Crimson's Robert Fripp; long, repeated guitar patterns emerging little-by-little into the mix, only to peak and fade away equally gradually.
The lighting was an equal part of the performance, and one of the most effective moments in the early part of the show, was when the lights, shining out onto the audience, began to draw back towards the stage, finally onto the musicians, creating a visual shift that pulled the audience back into the music, which went from somewhat chaotic to more clearly structured. Didkovsky's detailed writing provided plenty of room to move, both for his saxophone partners and his soundscapist.
Nick Didkovsky, Beat Hofstetter, Andrea Formenti, Beat Kappeler, Sascha Armbruster, Thomas Dimuzio
The most moving part of Ice Cream Time was, however, the lengthy fade-out that began forty minutes in, with guitar and horns creating a Brian Eno-like ambient landscape. Combined with Dimuzio's live sampling, which fed back processed versions of the real-time performance and created a sound that was at one huge and ethereal, the shape altering so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible. Over the course of twenty minutes the music, which initially evoked images of dawn breaking, gradually began to fade, along with the lights, for an ending that was all the more potent for its use of space and hypnotic, trance-inducing tranquility.
That the audience, as the piece became increasingly quiet, were so enraptured as to be completely silent, was a testimony to the enthralling nature of Didkovsky's writing and the integrated performance of the group and lighting. Another highlight of FIMAV 2008, Ice Cream Time proved that silence and economy can be equally powerful partners to sonic extremes and complexity.
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Guzheng player/vocalist Xu Fengxia's performance at FIMAV 2005 was one of that year's sleeper hits. Blending Chinese and Mongolian traditional music with free improvisation that extended the capability of her traditional, zither-like instrument, it was a show of rare beauty. While Fengxia is still capable of music that moves the heart in evocative ways, much has changed since 2005. Fengxia has dived deep into the waters of free improv, working with artists including bassist Joe Fonda, percussionist Lucas Niggli and saxophonist Matthias Schubert. For her return to FIMAV, she partnered with German violinist Gunda Gottschalk, whom Fengxia met working with bassist Peter Kowald in the late 1990s, before his death, at the age of 58 in 2002.
Like Fengxia, Gottschalk incorporates music at the root of her culture into her virtuosic style. She also vocalizes, in ways melodic and otherwise, the result being a duo that truly finds the nexus point between the east and the west. The performance began in relative calm, Gottschalk's effortless harmonics contrasting with Fengxia's predilection for the lower register of the ghezang, letting robust, rich notes fade with a broad vibrato. But as the performance progressed, both Gottschalk and Fengxia began to intensify, Fengxia's playing more energetic and abstruse than that of her 2005 FIMAV solo performance. The connection between the two was palpable, and as the music became more rigorous it also became more profound, with Fengxia smiling at Gottschalk as moments of particularly deep simpatico occurred.
Fengxia's singing has also evolved and become much more experimental, emotionally unfettered and akin to other singers at FIMAV 2008 like Viviane Houle, Franziska Baumann and Maja Ratkje. But, as much as all these singers are expanding the sonic potential of the human voice, they're all doing so in distinctly personal ways, and so, too, was Fengxiacombining elements of traditional Chinese singing with considerably more modern extended approaches. Gottschalk appeared the more introverted of the two, but she demonstrated equal vocal experimentation, ranging from cathartic howls to child-like, raspy blowing through rounded cheeks.
Gunda Gottschalk, Xu Fengxia
As the brief, 45-minute set evolved, with a series of delineated improvisations on which Gottschalk and Fengxia seemed to intuitively know when it was time to stop, the music became increasingly fiery, Fengixia slapping the strings of her ghezang with the palms of her hands and Gottschalk flipping her left hand to the other side of the neck, bowing hard and creating cascades of sound. It appeared as if the two were, themselves, equally surprised at the direction the performance, and it's that very sound of surprise, when the artists are as uncertain of where the music will go as the audience, that defines the best of FIMAV.
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There's little question that Roscoe Mitchell's return to FIMAV, with his double quartet The Note Factory, was one of the year's most anticipated performances, and the woodwind multi-instrumentalist didn't disappoint. While a largely different line-up from the Transatlantic Art Ensemble that Mitchell co-created with British saxophonist Evan Parker, releasing the outstanding Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (ECM, 2007), there were many similarities in the writing, which was a stunning combination of contemporary classical constructs, directed and completely free improvisation. The music ranged from dark and spacious to chaotic and intense; but no matter where it went, there was always an underlying sense of purpose.
While the line-up of The Note Factory bore some resemblance to that of its last release, Song for My Sister (Pi, 2002)pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Jaribu Shahid and trumpet phenom Corey Wilkesthe rest of the group consisted of more recent collaborators including bassist Harrison Bankhead and guest pianist Steve Rush, alongside drummers Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis, who have traveled in the same sphere as Mitchell over the years.
Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory
Mitchell's writing was complex, and when faced with the potential density of a double quartet with two pianos, two basses and two drummers, the music was often remarkably ethereal. There were individual moments of spotlight for some of the players, most notably Rush, whose largely unaccompanied solo performance during the early part of the performance was so taxing that Iyer went across the stage to assist by turning the pages of Mitchell's lengthy score. Iyer, of course, received his own, albeit briefer, opportunity to demonstrate why he's one of the new wave of avant-tinged pianists riding the cutting edge.
Wilkes, however, was the not-so-secret weapon of The Note Factory. With a serious demeanor, throughout the early part of the performance he was seen walking the stage, periodically returning to the microphone to deliver a brief passage or sharp staccato note. As the arc of the performance evolved, however, he not only became more active, but it was clear that he was having a lot of fun. His trademark techniques were all thereblowing into trumpet and flugelhorn simultaneously, rapidly swaying left and right moving his horn up and down to create a phased effectbut during some of the performance's densest collective improvisation, he also added electronics to the mix, with a series of wah wah, delayed and pitch shifted effects referencing the electric work of Miles Davis. At one point, Wilkes even paid homage with a direct quote from the late trumpeter's Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969). A busy player on the AACM scene, the only thing that's missing at this point is a recording from this young trumpeter, who is already delivering on his clear potential with the Exploding Star Orchestra, the Transatlantic Art Ensemble and, of course, the current incarnation of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
As for the 68-year-old Mitchell, compositional acumen asidewhile it wasn't until later in the performance that he began to demonstrate his still strong improvisational skills, but as a democratic leaderthe overall emphasis of the show was more about Mitchell the composer, bandleader and musical visionary. And while conventional jazz concepts were hard to discern during most of the show, the final numberwhich Mitchell used to introduce the group in his typical deadpan fashionwas all about swing and ties to the jazz tradition. Like many exploratory musicians today, the choice to eschew orthodoxy in jazz and improvisation is just that: a choice and, as Mitchell and The Note Factory proved at FIMAV 2008, it may be hard to find most of the time, but the tradition is an undeniable part of who they are.
Tomorrow: Elliott Sharp, Art Bears Songbook, Festival Wrap-Up.