Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 5 - May 19, 2008
Elliott Sharp, Art Bears Songbook
Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada
May 19, 2008
Programming milestone years for any festival is a challenge, but even more so than most for Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, since many of the artists brought to the festival are not actively touring. This is, after all, not only too early to be a part of the summer festival season in North America but, with its unconventional and uncompromising programming, a festival that has little in common with most (if any) other North American festivals, with the possible exception of the Guelph Jazz Festival, held at the end of the summer. But even so, the name says it allGuelph's is still, despite its on-the-edge roster, a jazz festival at heart, while for FIMAV, jazz is only a very small part of a much larger aesthetic that brings together free improvisation, contemporary composition, electroacoustic music, multidisciplinary performances, and much, much more.
With Day Five now over, the buzz amongst festival goers is that FIMAV 2008 was, indeed, a 25th anniversary that successfully managed to be a bigger event than usual, with the inclusion of a consistently strong program that included two John Zorn performances, Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory, Spunk, and Fred Frith's new rock group, Cosa Brava." But the single act that generated the biggest pre-festival buzz was undoubtedly Art Bears Songbook, a contemporary look at the music of Frith and Chris Cutler's late-1970s group Art Bears. While by no means a top attraction for more conventional music festivals, Art Bears Songboook represented the kind of creative programming that brings FIMAV fans from around the globe back year-after-yearin some cases, for as long as the festival has been in existence.
Guitarist Elliott Sharp has, over the course of the past thirty years, become an increasingly important composer and performer, with a lengthy discography that traverses the entire spectrum of detailed composition and spontaneous creation. He's worked with John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, Guy Klucevsek and Wayne Horvitz (and on more than just guitarhe's a capable woodwind player violinist, bassist and keyboardist as well); written contemporary classical music for string quartet; and led a number of groups including the experimental Carbon Orchestra and the avant-blues collective Terraplane.
But it's in the context of solo performance that Sharp is at his most intimateand most vulnerable. Without the safety net of other musicians to fall back on, and by combining oddly structured writing with the kind of improvisational freedom that can only be realized alone on a stage with little more than an acoustic guitar and a few added devices to broaden the palette, Sharp has elevated the art of solo guitar, and his performance on the final day of FIMAV 2008 was a stunning combination of invention, in-the-moment development and remarkable technique.
Not that Sharp's undeniably virtuoso guitar skill is an end in and of itself. Performing a new composition, "Momentum Anomaly," Sharp took an unorthodoxly tuned acoustic guitar and the rallying point of a series of chiming harmonic chords, evolving a 45-minute piece that would have been impossible to imagine, had the audience at the CEGEP hall not experienced it for themselves.
Sharp brought a number of unusual techniques to bear, including what was, at times, relentlessly rapid two- handed tapping, an EBow (essentially a device with a tape recorder head that, when held in close proximity to a guitar string, caused the string to vibrate endlessly, allowing for smooth, sustaining legato lines), a slide and other devices to rub along the strings, and a remarkable ability to combine any and all of these to build what sounded, at times, as though there were multiple guitarists on stage when eyes confirmed there was, indeed, only one.
Where form ended and improvisation began was not always clear. Sharp sometimes extended repetitive patterns for interminable lengths that could have become dull were it not for the tension they created, often the result of gradual, near-imperceptible changes. He seemed, at times, to revel in the purity of an idea; discovering it and liking it: he would exploit it to its fullest potential before moving on or, as occurred throughout the piece, returning briefly to its opening harmonic motif.
That single motif aside, there was little in the way of clear melodic development, yet because of the curious nature of his tuning, "Momentum Anomaly" occupied a distinctly unique harmonic space that was thoroughly captivating. There were distinct movements, each with their own resonant space, and the dynamic nature of Sharp's playing carried the audience through sometimes minimalist-informed repetition. It was an exciting performance that, while occupying its own territory, bore some resemblance to the work of guitarist Dominic Frasca and Deviations (Cantaloupe, 2005) though, given Sharp's seniority by a decade over Frasca, it's more likely that the point of reference is the other way around.