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.
When Rock-in-Opposition (RIO) progenitor Henry Cow began to fragment in terms of direction towards the end of its five-year run in 1978, multi-instrumentalist/composer Fred Frith, percussionist/lyricist Chris Cutler and singer Dagmar Krause splintered off into a new, more song-based project called Art Bears. With only three recordings1978's Hopes and Fears, 1979's Winter Songs and 1981's The World As It Is Today, all reissued by ReR Megacorpthe Art Bears repertoire represented less than two hours of music and, conceived as a studio project, only toured briefly in 1979.
Zeena Parkins, Julia Eisenberg, Kristin Slipp, Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Carla Kihlstedt
Thirty years later, Art Bears' diminutive discography is considered a seminal and highly influential part of the avant-prog/RIO movement. A series of small, independent occurrences including the 30th anniversary of the group's formation and the 25th anniversary of FIMAV created a most happy happenstanceArt Bears Songbook. Rather than a reunion (Krause was not available), which all-too-often implies by-rote replication of music for nostalgic baby boomers, Frith and Cutler decided to re-examine the trio's repertoire and refashion it for a thoroughly modernistic and expanded group that included three of Frith's four Cosa Brava band mateskeyboardist/accordionist Zeena Parkins, violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt and sonic manipulator The Norman Conquestalong with singers Jewlia Eisenberg and Kristin Slipp. The result was a performance that rang true to the spirit of Art Bears, but avoided excess reverence. The powerful emotional depth of the material (and its once again all-too-relevant lyrics) was not only enthusiastically received by FIMV festival goes, but was so compelling that some were quite literally moved to tears.
Book-ending a performance of the Winter Songs cycle with choice material from Hopes and Fears and The World As It Is Today, the show was an all-too-brief 75-minutes. But, opening with a high-energy version of Hopes and Fears' "Joan," with Kihlstedt's overdriven electric violin setting a high bar for the whole performance, it was immediately clear that the group was going to deliver on the audience's expectations, a remarkable feat considering the build-up of anticipation that took place over the months since FIMAV first announced the show.
None of the singers were capable of Dagmar Krause's eccentric and idiomatic delivery, but neither did they try. Instead, there was an opportunity for more extensive harmonies and three-voice interaction between Eisenberg, Slipp and Kihlstedt (four-part on the powerful reworking of Hopes and Fears' "The Dance," which closed the set with Frith adding his voice to the mix) rarely heard on Art Bears records, even with Krause multi-tracking her voice. Eisenberg was, however, somewhat idiosyncratic, bringing great energy to the more outre material from The World As It Is Today. Still, it was most often the combination of voices augmented by The Norman Conquest's astute sonic enhancements that gave these renditions new meaning and their own distinct validity.
Chris Cutler, Fred Frith
Moving from guitar and bass to violin and piano, Frith was clearly directing the proceedings, though Cutler's considerably more groove-centric approach to the musicoften also fleshed out by The Norman Conquest's treatmentswas equally important in providing the material a contemporary update. A flexible player, Cutler was equal parts propulsive rhythm engine and textural colorist.
Parkins provided a wealth of sonic backdrops that were especially key on some of the darker and densely-textured songs from Winter Songs. Kihlstedt's playing was a captivating blend of raw roots and sophisticated harmonic phrasing, at its best on songs like "Freedom," where her countrified lines at the intro and outro may have seemed like musical non sequiturs to the song's almost immediate detour into deeper catharsis (both musically and lyrically) but, on further reflection, made perfect sense. But it was the collective energy and, for material that in many instances was extraordinarily bleak, unmistakable enjoyment had by all that made this closing performance of FIMAV 2008 not just a highlight, but the highlight of the festival.
Frith's guitar playing was razor sharp with Cosa Brava, but he could have cut glass with Art Bears Songbook . As rare as it is to hear Frith in a rockier context these days, FIMAV audiences were treated to two very different slants over the course of a few days, although Frith's playing with Cosa Brava never reached the same degree of reckless abandon as heard with the Art Bears Songbook. And with songs like the vaudevillian "Law," from The World As It Is Today not only retaining its absurdity but its brevity as well (clocking in at less than a minute), the show resonated on so many levels, and with such depth, that the audience, clearly moved, wasn't prepared to let the group leave without an encore.
Fortunately Frith and Cutler had one more song up their sleeves, but even that wasn't enough. After a second lengthy standing ovation and with no more material to play, the group returned, with Frith commenting, "We're going to start again from the beginning and keep going until you've had enough." Had the audience had its way, the show might never have ended.
With the most consistently strong program in recent memory, the 25th anniversary of FIMAV was a perfect mix of the various elements that, over the past quarter century, have defined Musique Actuelle. Still, there were some especially memorable shows, standing out amongst a remarkable wealth of riches at FIMAV 2008 (in no particular order):
- John Zorn - The Dreamers;
- Fred Frith - Cosa Brava;
- Gunda Gottschalk/Xu Fengxia;
- Art Bears Songbook.