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.
More healthy Canadian fun was offered up by Tagaq's trio with violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin. Taqac is a considerable talent and enormous energy that is always in part sexualized and, on this occasion, was very much so. Her take on her native Inuit throat singing is animalistic and ecstatic: there's a reason both Björk and Mike Patton have hired her. As dynamic as she is, there were times when the violin and electronics, not to mention all the reverb she generally uses on her voice, served to mask the range of her gift. Still, she delivered a radiantly unbridled hour of exploration.
Montréalaise Phillippe Lauzier and Pierre-Yves Martel bridged the border in a quartet with Norwegian guitarist Kim Myrh and Australian saxophonist Jim Denley, making not just an international ensemble but an intriguing double duo of strings and horns, with Martel's reeds and Lauzier's viol de gamba pairing with the travelers in a constantly shifting quest toward quartethood.
The trio of Catherine Jauniaux, Malcolm Goldstein and Barre Phillips represented an even greater degree of border-hopping.Goldstein and Phillips are both US-born, although the former lives in Montreal and the latter in France, where the Belgium-born Jauniaux also makes her home. Phillips was the common denominator here. He's worked with Jauniaux (see While You Were Out, their recent CD with Ned Rothenberg on Kadima), and it was at a gig he played with Goldstein that Jauniaux suggested the trio. So it was, in a sense, a familiar premiere, a trio of two duos, or a conversation among friends (and occasionally birds). They played sometimes abstract yet quite coherent spontaneous songs with a deep cohesion. When Barre tickled his bass, Jauniaux laughed. If Jauniaux emphasized, Goldstein underscored. If Goldstein swayed, Phillips slid. And if Jauniaux growls, both men paid attention.
The European ensembles were a like blend of improv and high structure. Former New Yorker Charlemagne Palestine played with German minimalist improvisors Perlonex. (Palestine would object to the term: during a festival press conference he announced, "I make enough of a racket with one finger that it's not minimalism.") Those familiar with the usual antics of "Charlemagne the Charlatan" may have been disappointed in his tame behavior, but that perhaps allowed more room for the music to happen. They started as a trio plus one, an initial drone from Perlonex so it was up to Palestine to respond, or not to respond, and in either event certainly not hurriedly. He opened on the rim of his cognac snifter (imbibing for pitch adjustment) then adding faintly repeating piano notes. After 10 minutes, the piano grew louder, then was replaced by his nasal, falsetto chanting. While one could debate about who did the most heavy lifting, Palestine was soon clearly anchoring the proceedings. Another 10 minutes in and the trio had risen to subsume him, only to be met by his hollering. With the primal scream, they found peace, and found their quartet; by the half hour mark, all became churchlike.
Two other Euro impro groups proved to be positively sublime, most notably a group called "Six" led by Jacques Demmierre and Urs Leimgruber. They were, at first, a very quiet sextet, even with the often boisterous Thomas Lehn on analogue synth. The reeds of Leimgruber and Houle (the only North American in the group) produced a backing of prolonged tones and breaths, while Demmierre's piano and Charlotte Hug's violin supplied more melodic moments then might be expected. The talented, under-recognized and under-recorded Dorothea Schürch appeared with a singing saw, although the sounds produced by her on that saw weren't any closer to singing than her own vocal techniques. The ensemble could have been seen as a triple duo (two women with vocals and bowed things, two men with reeds, and two men playing percussive non drum things), although they didn't meet in such a way. Rather they arrived fully as sextet, pushing the volume during the second half of their set.
The French / Norwegian quartet of Xavier Charles, Ivar Grydeland, Christian Wallumrød and Ingar Zach played with plenty of drama, somewhat alternately between pulse and drone and never quite sparse; always rich with sound, but never quite busy or propulsive. Grydeland's guitar was heavy at times, while his banjo was used to great tonal-percussive effect. They played with an extraordinary delicacy, often feeling like the precise inner workings of some strange, complex clock, things always falling together somehow.
The small group appearances of Myhr, Denley, Wallumrød and Zach led toward one of the absolute highlights of the week, a concert by the Trondheim Jazz Orkester They were the height of ensemble playing, a commissioned ensemble handpicked and led by Myrh playing with tonality and atonality artfully balanced carefully, singing and vocalese used thoughtfully. Even the pounding of drums was done lightly; this was perhaps the music of the seldom seen Norwegian sun, as opposed to the eternal night of their blackened metal. Myrh's compositions used the language of minimalist improvthere was the dischord, the contrasts of musicality and amusicality, the sustain and release but where such extended improv meetings often also rely on the creation of tension, this was placid.
Some of this year's best moments, in fact, came from a sort of composed stillness: not just with the Trondheim, but Shalabi's Eastern hallucinations andin what turned out to be his final concertBill Dixon's excellent Tapestries for Small Orchestra. Dixon's group followed the mold of his recent recordings and appearances at the Vision Festival, but presented a new, long-form composition for FIMAV. Regardless of what tradition he might be seen as being a part of, his large ensembles are far from free-for-alls. They are an extension of the stillness in his own playingin this instance with four trumpets (plus the leader on tape) and a lower register comprised of two bass viols, bass and contrabass clarinets and typani. There was a remarkable control at play ensemble-wide, something of the tension of Morton Feldman with Billy Strayhorn vowels and, as ever with Dixon's work, it was deeply about the trumpet. There was barely a breeze over Dixon's pond. A passage of him playing, recorded some decades ago and used here as a brief interlude, provided a blueprint for what the band was about. Placid and heavily reveberated, the orchestra opened the waters, showing the motion, the currents and the life within a seemingly still pond. At other times, it swelled and constricted like a bagpipe the size of a swimming pool, left to deflate in the sun.
There's always an undercurrent of rock at Victo, this year perhaps less so than usual, but still there were some interesting bookings. Quebec guitarist AUN (aka Martin Dumais) played with the drummer Michel Langevin (who goes by the name "Away" in the metal band Voivod) against sound and video provided by Julie Leblanc for a session of distorted drone, which made for an expansive solo field for Langevin to play in without quite playing a drum solo. His mid-tempo patterns may have made it a bit like a Stars on 45 mix of Metal Machine Music, but it did pack a punch, at a volume few other than FIMAV often push. The young guitar/drum duo Vialka played authentic, anthemic, super-precise punk prog drawing lines between Tatsuya Yoshida's Ruins and the European Rock in Opposition movement. And Lydia Lunch, who performed with French sound sculptor Phillipe Petit, certainly has her place in rock history, even if what she delivered was more rant than anything else.
But one rock act brought together much of what the Victo fest is all about. Causing a Tiger is a new trio uniting violinist Carla Kihlstedt and drummer Matthias Bossi (both of the proggish goth metal band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) with Shahzad Ismaily (who plays with Kihlstedt in her Two Foot Yard) on electric guitar and bass. They played a powerful set of songs, improvising a rock band with lyrics borrowed from the 15th century Japanese poet Ikkyu. Spontaneous, cogent and powerful, they summed up everything musique actuelle is about.
All Photos: Martin Morissette