Punkt Festival 2009: Day 2, Kristiansand, Norway, September 3, 2009
Turning to the more obliquely experimental, the first of a number of Punkt double-bills featured fearless improvising duo Lab Field, as well as the ongoing partnership of Norwegian guitarist/sound sculptor Kim Myhr and French electronics soundscapist Sébastien Roux.
Punkt's set designs and lighting are always carefully considered with the artists in mind, and the visuals for the two duos was almost diametrically opposed; for Lab Field's 30-minute improvisation, it was a complex mix of mathematical forms that interlaced and interacted, much as the music of percussionist Ingar Zach, also a member of Huntsville, and guitarist David Stacknäs did. Zach's main instrument is a large bass drum standing horizontally rather than vertically, a serendipitous synchronicity with the music Lab Field makes, which is also horizontal, rather than vertical, in nature; broad washes of harmonics and overtones that develop linearly over time rather than in a stacked fashion where harmony creates more defined movement.
Stacknäs' prepared acoustic guitar was also uncharacteristically horizontal, laid out on a table with a variety of processing effects. Resorting to a variety of unorthodox techniques that included bowing the strings, it was rare to hear a sound anywhere resembling guitar; of course, the same could be said for Zach, who would trigger small mechanical devices on the large skin of the bass drum, and allow the vibrations they created to evoke random but still determined sounds from the instrument that largely eschewed any kind of pulse. Instead, both Zach and Stacknäs dispensed, for the most part, with the conventional uses of their instruments and, instead, used them as nothing more than sonic controllers.
Zach could also be seen using a bow to create sharp but musical tones from small bells, but also from a piece of stone; for this intrepid duo, music could be sourced from almost anything. Largely driven by a simple looped beat that was dominant initially but, as the duo's aural landscape became denser, melded into the background, Lab Field's music may have been free, and may have eschewed conventional constructs of rhythm, harmony and melody, but the overall music was still surprisingly beautiful. It was a set as much to be experienced in context of the complex, shifting visuals as heard on its own.
The transition, onstage, between Lab Field and the duo of Myhr and Roux, was quite something to see, as the two risers with Zach and Stacknäs' gear were quickly pushed to the back of the stage, behind projection screens, and replaced with two tables facing each other, with Myhr and Roux's mad scientist rigs of guitars, effects, computers, toys and more. Starkly designed, in comparison to Lab Field's more complex arrangement, this duo didn't build into its music gradually, as Lab Field did. Instead, it hit the ground running, with a flurry of rhythmic activity creating an unsettled feeling from the get-go.
With lighting that was more direct and less detailed, the duo's improvised set managed to move from scuttling chaos to more spacious beauty, especially when Myhr picked up a classical guitar and began to create abstrusely beautiful voicings that warmly filled the entire theatre. Still, while there was a certain introspective nature to the duo's work, there were a number of seeming non sequiturs, where harsh sonics would be briefly introduced, almost as punctuation marks. Bowed wood juxtaposed with more electronic wizardry to create a freely created soundscape concept that was vastly different to that of Lab Field, and proof positive that free improvisationelectronic or otherwisehas potential as broad as the imagination.
Just when it appeared the set was over, with Myhr gradually fading on his guitar, Roux introduced more dominant electronics that clearly drove the final part of the improv in other directions. It was a sign of the give-and-take that may make this kind of music not for the faint-at-heart but, still, an evocative blend that possessed its own appeal that, like Lab Field, was more to be felt than heard.
Sidsel Endresen / Maja Ratkje
For its second double-bill of the evening, Punkt combined two vocalists, both tremendous innovators who work in the world of experimental electronic improvisation, but with a very key difference. Sidsel Endresen, truly one of the most imaginative singers around, relied on nothing more than her voice; Maja Ratkje, on the other hand, possesses a no less distinctive approach, but also utilizes a large array of computers, effects and sampling gear to create a much broader landscape.
Musical evolution is often about honing an idea and plateauing out, then finding a new concept and making another leap forward. There's been significant change between Endresen from only a few months back, during her brief duet appearance with Håkon Kornstad, and where she is today. Her unique ability to create sounds the human voice shouldn't rightfully be able to make has evolved considerably. In the first of a number of shorter improvisations, she defied reality by creating both the sound of wind and melody simultaneously. Endersen may have been developing vocal techniques that stray far from the lyrical in recent years, but she still possesses a vividly evocative voice capable of rich melodism, and she now seems to be finding a more equitable balance between the two.
That a single voice and a single microphone can create sounds like reverse speech, gutturalism and frighteningly rapid, articulated percussive sounds and more is also balanced with a self-effacing sense of humor as, after a particularly mouth-twisting passage in her first piece, Endresen simply stopped and said "Fuck-a-doodle-do," instantly establishing a warm bond with her audience. Adding mbira (African thumb piano) to the mix later in the set, Endresen reiterated her "Inside...inside...inside living room...sit down..easy" piece, as she better balanced an array of techniques that continues to grow each year. One (Sofa, 2006) began her documentation of unparalleled vocal invention, but it sounds almost germinal now, her concept evolving so dramatically that her long awaited Jazzland album can't come too soon.
Ratkjea member of the free improvising unit Spunk and a respected composer of new musicis another vocal pathfinder, but in her case it's a combination of extended vocal techniques and the kind of seamless use of electronics that allowed her to create a 30-minute continuous set with a remarkable arc. Contrasted with two small, square projection screens behind her, projecting images of Endresen singing, the set design for Ratkje was more expansive, with a full back-screen of shifting colors and images almost dwarfing Ratkje and her two tables of gear.
At one point a piano motif took shape behind her, with a huge hand striking keys as Ratkje took her own voicewhich moved from melodic invention to unprecedented sonics, first, acoustically but then processed and used to shape a three-dimensional sound fieldand gradually intensified the improv to the point where, near its end, she was screaming with near-reckless abandon. Still, as extreme as her music became, there was always a distinct sense of purpose as she moved around her effects and samplers to find, in real time, new ways to fashion her sound. The complexity of the technology appeared overwhelming, yet in Ratkje's handsmuch as is the case with Jan Bang, though she works with a much larger arrayit was almost as if it was directly connected to heranother part of a larger instrument.
Because it's all about seamless integration. Ratkje possesses no shortage of natural vocal ability, but it was her organic invention, as she turned her voice inside out electronically and, augmented with sampled sounds and even small bells used to create unexpected sounds for the imagination, that made her performanceand this inspired double-bill with Endresenan early highlight of Punkt 2009.