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Live Reviews

Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 1-3

By Published: April 27, 2011

April 20: Punkt at Jazzkaar, Day One

While Punkt Festival—the live remix festival that's heading into its seventh year in its hometown of Kristiansand, Norway—established a name for innovation early on, its reputation continues to grow, and in ever expanding circles. Co-Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Eric Honoré have been collaborating with better-known artists like England's David Sylvian
David Sylvian
David Sylvian
since earlier in the 2000s, but the last few years have seen the expansion of the "Punkt Family" beyond all expectations. In 2010, in addition to having Björk/Madonna producer Guy Sigsworth participating in live remixes, saw Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones deliver a brief solo set—unexpected, as he'd come to the festival as an attendee, but became so enthralled with what he saw that he simply had to participate—and an even more unexpected sit-in with Norwegian improvising group Supersilent

. Punkt 2011 will see Jones return for a full solo set, and Sylvian is attending for the first time, as Artist in Residence, contributing an installation at the town's art gallery, but also curating an entire evening of the festival, bringing in a number of artists who participated on his last album, the remarkable Manafon (Samadhisound, 2009).

Segakoor Noorus

But Punkt has also driven its concept of "no borders" into the realm of classical music, more than once, with past performers including British composer Gavin Bryars and the 2011 edition promising a performance of Being Dufay (ECM, 2009), by singer John Potter and electronic composer Ambrose Field. The 2010 edition in Kristiansand brought Estonian composer Veljo Tormis to the festival, along with the Segakoor Noorus, the large Estonian choir, adding yet another new dimension to the festival—and grist for a stunning remix from Norwegian experimental singer Maja S.K. Ratkje.

And so it seemed fitting, when Punkt was invited to Tallinn as part of its 2011 European Capital of Culture celebrations, that it should revisit the collaboration once again. With a number of Norwegians on hand for the remixes, and a live performance of Bang's beautiful debut, ...and poppies from Kandahar (SamadhiSound, 2010)—along with Bang and Honoré, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, singer Sidsel Endresen and guitarist Eivind Aarset, visual artist Tord Knutsen, and sound engineer Johnny Skalleberg—Punkt made a first trip to Tallinn, as it has London and Mannheim in previous years. It's a movable feast, but not one that just brings its Norwegian culture to distant destinations. Instead, Punkt looks to expand its network of artists, and so, other than Bang's Poppies show, the other three performances that were to be used as fodder for live remixing were all Estonian.

From left: Jan Bang, Fiona Talkington

The first evening, in addition to Segakoor Noorus, also featured Ensemble U:, a six-piece chamber ensemble performing new music compositions by Estonian composers. Because of the delicate nature of some of U:'s music, it was not possible for Knutsen to use his video projector to create the visual imagery that's as much a part of Punkt as the music; but the opening performance, by Segakoor Noorus, made clear just how integral Knutsen's visual arts are, and how they define Punkt as much as any of its other markers. It also made Punkt in Tallinn a little more "Punkt" than its trip to Mannheim, in the fall of 2009; a fine festival, to be sure, but without the visuals, somehow a little less than the entire package.

The host of BBC Radio's Late Night Junction, Fiona Talkington, introduced the evening, with a brief explanation of Punkt and the concept of live remix. It's hard to appreciate just what it means without actually experiencing it; a live musical laboratory where the music of one performance inspires musicians of another to take fragments of the same music to other places, often impossible to imagine by the performers of the source material. Segakoor Noorus' set was similar to its September 3, 2011 set in Kristiansand, even ending with the same piece, the dark and angular "We Are Given," though the choir was dressed in slightly more contemporary fare, and not the traditional dresses, worn by the women, and Amish-like black suits, worn by the men, in Kristiansand. The performance in Tallinn's Mustpeade Maja—an old venue with a concert space seating approximately 350, and another space, used as the Alpha Room for the live remixes, seating a smaller number—was, unlike Kristiansand's Agder Theatre, entirely acoustic, with only a couple of microphones, high above the audience, used to capture the choir for the remix.

The choral tradition in Estonia runs deep—centuries old, in fact. But while Tormis' writing is unequivocally reflective of that tradition, it's equally modern, one reason why the composer, having just celebrated his 80th birthday in 2010, is one of the country's most famous, aside from, perhaps, Arvo Pärt. With a mixed choir, his music could be whisper-quiet or maelstrom-like in its intensity. Singers created pulses with repeated phrases like "Too-wa, too-wa, too-wah," and there were times where the music felt more like a contrapuntal conversation than melody-driven song.

Erik Honoré

But there were moments of sheer lyricism, in particular early in the set, when a single soprano was featured. But for the most part, it was ensemble work that drove the choir, as it made its way through a 40-minute set drawn from albums including Forgotten Peoples (ECM, 1992) and Litany to Thunder (ECM, 1999). Conductor Raul Talmar was as animated as he was in Kristiansand, coaxing the best out of the choir. And, while it was, perhaps, a less momentous event for Tormis to stand and be recognized at the end of the set, compared to his appearance in Kristiansand, it was still a moving opportunity to watch him receive his due, from both an appreciative audience and the choir who so clearly loves and understands his music.

Maja Ratkje's single-woman remix in Kristiansand, took the choir's performance to places Tormis would likely never have conceived (but clearly appreciated); in Tallinn, Bang, Honoré, Aarset and Henriksen delivered a remix that demonstrated just how differently a near-identical set of music could be interpreted. In the true spirit of Punkt, while a choral loop formed the starting point for the remix, it wasn't long before the performers began to extrapolate beyond its boundaries, and as the loop was gradually removed from the mix, it became a mesh of Aarset's subtle soundscapes, Henriksen's melancholy lyricism, and a less-than-obvious pulse that, as ever, Bang seemed to be moving to long before it began to become clear to the audience. Dark dissonance and otherworldly sounds blended with melodic concerns and soft cushions of texture. Then, out of the ether, a solo voice suddenly emerged—the soprano from the choir—a tone so pure as to push the remix into another direction, as it suddenly blended with choral support in an atmosphere of seeming stasis. The solo voice was then harmonized and looped seamlessly, as Henriksen's soft, shakuhachi-toned horn began to push the dynamic again, his dense lines sampled and fed back by Bang in real time, gaining density and volume, while Aarset created deep, low-end rumbles, pushing towards an evolving but cross-rhythmic series of pulses.

Ensemble U:'s Taavi Kerikmäe

For the Punkt initiates, both the choral performance—in particular, because much of the audience would have been familiar with it—and the ensuing remix were the perfect examples of what Punkt is about. While remixes are experiments and, as such, don't always succeed, this one was a tremendous opener, and set a high bar for the rest of the two evenings' remixes.

Since forming in 2002, Ensemble U: has focused its attention on contemporary classical composition, bringing the music of composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis and Cage to Estonian audiences. Founded by pianist Taavi Kerikmäe—also a busy performer on the free improvisation scene—and flautist Tarmo Johannes, Ensemble U: has released two CDs to date, with a focus on bringing attention to fellow Estonians including Helena Tulve, Märt-Matis Lill and Tauno Aints.

Its forty-minute set presented no shortage of challenges; while aspects of the performance, especially the second piece, Tulve's "Stream 2," felt, at times, like there was a strong improvisational component, and that time was a hard commodity to come by, it was clear, by Johannes' body language throughout the piece, that time was, indeed, an element, as cellist Levi-Danel Mägila, violinist Merje Rooomere, clarinetist Helena Tuuling and percussionist Vambala Krigul focused intently on the flautist. Flittiing string lines, percussively hit by bows, were mirrored by the flautist and clarinetist, who used small rocks to tap out their own rhythms, while Kerikmäe's prepared piano combined with Krigul's combination of tuned and unturned percussion, to create an oblique aural landscape.

Ensemble U:, from left: Helena Tuuling, Tarmo Johannes

When Bang was interviewed for All About Jazz in 2010, he talked about the various criteria that he and Honoré searched for, as possible grist for live remix, and it was clear, from the start of Ensemble U:'s closing piece, Valdimir Tarnopolski's "O, Pärt—Op Art," that this would be the piece drawn on most for the remix to follow. An homage to Pärt's tintinabulism, the piece revolved around a simple minor chord, its notes played by individual instruments, and with relative brevity, initially with almost interminable space between them, but gradually coalescing over time, into a cascading series of notes, played as longer tones. That it was the performance's most consonant piece was one potential reason to choose it, but more importantly, the very space that defined it, and which left plenty of room for a remix to look at stretching time, and filling in some of the spaces.

The Ensemble U: performance was defined by a remarkable patience, as different instruments cued partners in alternating pairs—clarinet and violin, followed by clarinet and cello, and finally by clarinet and flute—as the entire ensemble gradually moved, with a singular purpose, to a gentle peak, only to reverse the trip, and move towards greater use of silence between notes.

And so, as the crowd made its way to the Alpha Room, where the remixes took place, Bang, Honoré and Endresen began their remix, built around the simple chord of " O, Pärt—Op Art." Ensemble U:'s performance was filled with long pauses, the remix began to build more quickly into an ethereal but more note-dense space, Endresen beginning with a simple, four-note motif, Bang sampling her voice and sending it back looped and staggered to create something of a vocal tour de force. Endresen's evolution from a more conventional singer to truly one of the great contemporary vocal innovators—creating miniature cells of sound, articulation or texture, and gradually bringing them together into an expanding arsenal of modular sounds, driven by a voice that may be capable of odd, guttural utterance and sibilance, but is equally capable of sonorous beauty—has been especially important over the past half decade or so, with her distinctive language first documented on albums like Merriwinkel (Jazzland, 2005) and One (Sofa, 2007).

Sidsel Endresen

But it seems that even in the space of relatively short periods of time—like the distance between her Punkt 2010 duo performance with guitarist Stian Westerhus and now—new ground continues to be broken, both in her finding new cells and her ability to continue creating new permutations and combinations. Her remarkable timbral breadth, control and a seemingly endless wellspring of ideas provided their own grist for Honoré and Bang, who created polyrhythms, panned across the stereo field. And just when it seemed as though there was nowhere left to go, the trio took a soft left turn, as one series of ideas faded and a new series began.

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