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Live Reviews

Numusic Festival 2009

By Published: October 22, 2009
Numusic 2009
Stavanger, Norway
September 9-13, 2009
This was the tenth anniversary edition of Stavanger's Numusic festival, a five-day banquet that centers around the notion of electronic music in all of its varied guises. This can oscillate from glittery dancefloor cheese-ploughing to mood-lit cranium-scooping experimentronix, with actual musicians often allowed to roam outside of laptop innards or mixing desk vermicelli. Sometimes acts rock hard, at others they noodle wetly. Ofttimes, jiggling about is advised as a good audience response, but it's also frequently possible to waft softly on a light cloud of ambient gloop. So-called art pollutes so-called entertainment, and vice versa.

Over the years, Numusic has expanded its program and its venue choice. This has positive and negative aspects. The increased number of acts has not resulted in any lowering of quality. The only disadvantage is that some of the venues are at opposite ends of the town, meaning that terminal choices have to be made, to avoid spending too much time in transit. Once ensconced, though, the spectator can marvel at the strength of an evening's roster, offering the chance to catch relatively high profile acts in intimate quarters.

Alongside an already variegated mainline sequence, Numusic has developed a tradition of connecting modern electronic music with its elder statesmen. Previous pioneers-in-attendance have been Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Henry, both given the chance to oversee major retrospectives of their work. This year, that position is taken by Arvo Prt, who happens to be a decidedly acoustic composer. Nevertheless, the reclusively monkish Estonian's output is strangely sympathetic to the general Numusic habitat.

Most of the Prt gigs took place in the red-painted Saint Petri Kirke church. His devotional music always sounds most suited to places of worship, particularly when the choral voices come into play. On the first two evenings, The Hilliard Ensemble led a selection that was not surprisingly dominated by vocal works. On the first night, the instrumental "Fratres" appeared in two of its many guises: to open, and as an encore featuring three carefully gesturing dancers. It's one of Prt's best-known pieces, possessed of a mystical development that progresses with a suspended slowness that has to be savored with complete attention.

"Fratres" also opened the Saturday program in Stavanger's Konserthus, in its fully-enlarged orchestral version given by the Stavanger Symfoniorkester. Of equal stature was the second half's ambitiously structured "Lamentate," dedicated to sculptor Anish Kapoor and spotlighting the piano of Alexei Lubimov. As expected, the most profound atmosphere surrounded the performance of "Tabula Rasa" on the Sunday night, back in the church. This is Prt's best (and most famous) piece, and it happens to be startlingly different from the majority of his output. A pair of violinists led with a barely perceptible sway, their bittersweet sustains answered by the ensemble strings. A recurrent piano figure appears at crucial junctures, its interior prepared in a manner which can't help but recall the soundworld of John Cage. Absolute silence blanketed the audience, who were held in a meditative stasis for the duration. This was an apt descent from the mountain of electro-basalt scaled on the festival's Saturday night. A way for the eardrums to re-acclimatise to a sensitized acoustic existence.

Back to Numusic's opening evening. A double bill at the Folken club broke the crowds in gently, before the density rose considerably for the Thursday-to-Saturday onslaught. It's interesting to compare drummers. The opening Wildbirds & Peacedrums are a duo from Sweden, who have been rapidly gaining in popularity across both sides of the Atlantic. The drum is an integral part of their vocabulary, along with the voice, but sticksman Andreas Werliin is inflated by the kind of pomp that fills up stadium rock spaces. Just because he's beating faster and harder doesn't make him more impressive. Also, singer Mariam Wallentin is aiming for proud soulfulness, but doesn't seem to quite reach what's in her head.

Deerhoof's drummer is another creature totally. It's almost advisable not to stand in front of Greg Saunier, so compulsive are his actions and rhythms. He sprongs from the lineage of Captain Beefheart's asymmetrical stylists, all clump-footed and snicky cymbals, ricketingly precise. He also grabs an award for the most rambling song-introducer ever, convolutedly wandering towards what might just be his eventual point. Yes, bassist Satomi Matsuzaki is well-advised to strut, wobble and turn in circles when she's not yelping out her curt little toy-punk ditties. By the end of the gig, she was climbing on the speaker stacks, sowing disobedience amongst the masses. Glasses that once held ultra-expensive Norwegian beer were being pulverized underfoot.

By Thursday, the emphasis had turned to Numusic's core venue, the converted factory space of the multi-roomed Tou Scene. It's straight into the most out-there night of the festival, dominated by dark rock, free jazz, disjointed electronics and disorienting balladry. The sparkly party-goers might be set for the weekend, but Thursday belonged to the disease-mottled underbelly.

Englishman Philip Jeck might look like he's hunched over a pair of laptops, but he's actually using vintage record players, lovingly recalling the textures of vinyl surface-scuzz. Jeck amasses layers of held tones, thickening the atmosphere under a sickly bluelight haze. He aims for cumulative effect, steadily seeking a climax that eventually floods the room.

Pl Asle Pettersen and Anders Gjerde operate knobs, faders and mice, but they're also out front screaming into their microphones, in the greatest macho black metal tradition. Their piledriver effect was complementary to Jeck's mass, but arrived from a different zone entirely.

For true metal extremity, Norway's own Shining dominated the night. Formerly more of a post-John Zorn
John Zorn
John Zorn
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sax, alto
avant jazz combo, they've become increasingly rocky, but are still betraying an instinct for complexity and savage time-signature shifts. Jrgen Munkeby is the central figure, singing and playing guitar. He also picks up a saxophone at strategic points, spewing abstract solos amidst the spasm-riffing carnage. Clad in a vest to expose God Of Thunder thews, Munkeby might have some irony buried deep inside his music's rampant contortions. The keyboard squiggles would push the nature of the songs in an unsuspecting direction, but unfortunately their sonic battle with the guitars is lost. Aside from that, the mix was gloriously vivid. Big testosterone bulbs were burst to send their contents arcing over the crowd, which didn't distract from the cerebral joys of headbanging to avant-twitchery. Booted feet were riveted to stage-monitor speakers in a variety of meaningful poses. This was going to be a hard act to follow.

It seemed as though Austria's Fennesz was attempting to move in Shining's sonic jetstream. Normally, he's prone to near-ambient layerings of guitar and laptopiary, but for this set he was intent on achieving a rock jangle, but failing to reach inside ears already pulped by Shining.

A more successful transition was found in the slow motion mood music of Oslo's Navyelectre. They incorporate non-corporeal folksiness without losing an essential individuality. On disc, this is a one-man band, but Jonas Howden Sjvaag elects to sing and play drums, inducting a band for his live existence. Martin Smrdal provides a helpful degree of personality, sharing the vocals, as well as playing harmonium and guitar. Andreas Ulvo contributes worming vintage synthesizer parts. This was a timely atmospheric changeover following the Shining set. It was the only advisable direction following such an earlier ejaculation.

Norway's DJ Strangefruit was surprisingly disappointing, spinning a set of mainstream pop-disco-soul platters. So too did countrymen Noxagt fail to rend, the guitar-bass-drums trio turning out a set of sludge-riffing that hiked up volume levels to the highest level of the night. By this time, everything was turning into leaden mush.

The Friday night had a presumably deliberate preponderance of kitschy 1970s disco and 1980s electro influences, so its delights had to picked out with precision. Actually, the Mungolian Jet Set, fronted by DJ Strangelove, set out to revel in both of the above genres, and their new album had tantalized with its vibrant collision of elements. Sadly, the live experience was somewhat disappointing, although still with an enjoyably romping nature. The band were all clad in gear which hinted at Mongolian horse-o-centric steppe-riders on their way to a mirror-balled club, employing an initially hidden technique of using a large stack of cardboard boxes in lieu of a back-projection screen. The opening salvo involved a heavy degree of funk humping, but then the emphasis transformed into disco monotony.

There were similar problems with a couple more acts until salvation was found within the realms of Biosphere's set. The Norwegian Geir Jenssen usually creates grand vistas of ambient washerama, but has lately been tinkering with beats, hoping to coax folks onto the dance floor. This he does, but only with preconditions. The new Biosphere technique is to flirt with a sequence of bomping, just long enough to prompt twitched, contained moves on the floor, but then he tears away the tarpaulin, floating up again until the next slinky wobble encroaches. He's influenced by dubstep, but this gets manifested in the peculiar Jenssen manner, slightly disorientating in its progression. Anyway, the result is compulsively magnetic.

The evening's true surprise is Captain Credible, apparently a Norwegian native, but armed with an accent that sounds authentically English. He's also influenced by the UK-based sound that was pioneered by breakcore DJs such as Shitmat and Scotch Egg. He's lost in cables and small devices, triggering percussion via his toy drummer, spurting with extreme velocity and stupidity. He alters his voice pitch into high womanly and gutter manly tones. Credible climaxed his set by smashing up his laptop with a hammer and chisel, although it's suspected that this might not exactly be the Captain's prime vehicle of file-storage.

On Saturday, another problem arose with Faust's early set at the Folken club. These eagerly anticipated (honorary) German pioneers spent too much time attempting to be woefully arty, their approach coming across as being badly slung into the past. This was in a dated way, rather than in a vitally nostalgic manner. The principal offender was Geraldine Swain, lounging on an armchair intoning portentous poetry. Along with guitarist and keyboardist James Johnston, she's part of a recent British augmentation of the band. Johnston's presence is more beneficial, with his contribution of fragmented guitar strikes. Speaking of nostalgia, Faust fared much better with a clutch of songs from their best album, IV from 1974, including "Jennifer" and "The Sad Skinhead." For a band that had been responsible for such a wealth of innovative music, parts of their set were extremely disappointing.

For the final Saturday stretch at Tou Scene, dubstep was the conqueror, although not before the healthy re-awakening of New York's Liquid Liquid, bringing back the early 1980s sound of sinister art-funk. It's a stripped, percussion-dominated 'scape, fronted by conga-man Salvatore Principato, delivering deadpan eerie-echo vocals. They funked long and hard, bare and urban. This was just the beginning of a curve towards full dance-floor hypnosis.

Across in Tou Scene 2, the smaller room, Neil Landstrum was setting in motion a Scottish dubstep boom, aided by additional bass cabinets, brought in specially for the occasion. This set the stage for the massive escalation provided by Kode9, opening with a live set then merging into a DJ role. The whole factory was juddering, and a brief step outdoors revealed a virtually tangible quaking sensation from a car park vantage point. Womenfolk were inconceivably pressing their entire bodies against the whooming extra-bass bins, while male trousers were flapping, even from a greater distance. As if this weren't sufficient, the Spaceape was bounding up steps to the higher level, radio microphone in hand, exhorting the crush towards even more abandoned dancing. It was extremely gratifying that the Tou Scene part of Numusic came to such a head, providing suitable release of all mass that had built up over four days. It was to be another night in church on the closing Sunday, with Arvo Prt and his "Tabula Rasa." Such are the extreme contrasts that inform daily life during Numusic.


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