After taking a year off for financial regrouping, Quebec's Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville returned May 20- 23 for its 26th edition, presenting not just a tighter festival but one with tighter bands. The various elements known to FIMAV goers were presentthe improv and proggish variations that are always therebut the highlights tended to be fully conceived performances with less then the norm by way of improvisation. As a result, the four days (down from the usual five) featured not just a tighter budget but tighter bands.
Working under a tighter budget, Levasseur made the interesting curatorial decision to split the focus between Montreal and Europe, largely forgoing the New York jazz that is usually represented on the bill. Eight of the 20 acts on the bill were at least in part Quebecois, with two extraordinary talentsVancouver clarinetist François Houle and Iniut vocalist Tanya Tagaq, from the Nunavut territoryrepresenting other regions of Canada. And while four acts included U.S. born musicians, that count includes ex-pats Charlemagne Palestine and Barre Phillips, both longtime residents of France.
Point being, Levasseur made the smart move of filling half the program with Europeans, and even then not pulling in the sort of star-power that fills seats. If the festival ended with a no-worse-than-usual deficit (one that is generally closed over the coming year), attendance was down to 1984 levels. director Michel Levasseur referred to it as "a new beginning with 25 years experience."
Setting aside regionalist bean-counting, however, the pared down schedule, even without avant stars like Anthony Braxton, Fred Frith or John Zorn, held true to the high artistic standard FIMAV has always set. In no small part due to the Quebecois contingent. Sam Shalabi, Éric Normand and the interdisciplinary octet Les Filles Électriques all brought smart, thought through, conceived pieces to Victoriaville.
Shalabi's Land of Kush used acoustic instruments at times to sound like an old warped record bought on the street in the medina, used a tap dancer to mirror the sharply percussive darbuka rhythms and used electronics to underscore that this music was not of any one century or geography. Even with the occasional jazz leanings and distorted electric guitar, there was for the most part an overwhelming feeling of an easygoing Middle Eastern big band, a 22-piece North African folk ensemble with five vocalists, with room for improvisation, with songs and unusual compositional angles, but still built from steady, loping rhythms and modulating riffs. They were, in a sense, an ensemble about the process of becoming. Shalabi's presence at Victo (at least for the cultural tourist) has shown him developing from Arabic-tinged psychedelia to being a composer willing to take risks, to this, a beautiful and deeply personal music birthed of his explorations of his own cultural heritage.
Éric Normand, from the small town of Rimouski, Quebec, presented an exquisitely composed piece for two violins, cello, electric bass guitar, drums and electronics. The work, Musique de batailles, was filled with blurry "movements" of string appregios, sustained, distorted electric bass, flighty drum patters and stasis and sine waves, while on bass the leader filled the roles of lead guitar, squelchbox, ambient laptop and low end timekeeper. Les Filles Electriques did a remarkable job at creating common ground for dance, music, poetry and video, even stand-up comedy, all in equal footingand cross stepping. Poet Fortner Anderson was gracefully agile on his feet and clarinetist Khyro poetic in his playing, as well as in his Quebecois rap. The core of the group is the duo of D. Kimm and Alexis O'Hara, who bring a remarkable range of approaches to their performative work, with costumes and storytelling adding dimensions of theatricality not often seen amongst avant shoegazers.
Crowning the Montreal component (and closing the fest) was guitarist René Lussier's 7 Têtes, a loose septet riffing on riffs (thus the seven heads) with a weird start and stop energy, drums kicking in but never kicking off, guitar and piano strangely disjointed, clarinet and bass guitar wandering, searching their way through electro-static and Martin Tétrault's manhandled opera records and whetstone stylus patterns. The band eventually found a tempo, but the riffs didn't quite fit. They worked on becoming an ensemble through bits of funk art and a set of truncations starring Tétrault in short scrimmages, but the strongest moments occurred in a succession of solo sections, and then in the encore. It didn't reach the standard of Lussier's usual festival set, but it was good fun.