Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville 2011
May 19-22, 2011
The 27th annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) was a remarkably consistent four days of concerts. It held high points, to be sure (the Ex, Zeena Parkins, Jaap Blonk), and inevitable low points as well. But there was also a singular peak of pure fascination, that being something called Echo Echo Mirror House, presented by the ever-challenging Anthony Braxton. There was little by way of quiet, instead a still satisfying mix of richness and clarity, often mid-volume and mid-tempo. And where the 2010 was dominated by the Montrealaise contingent, this year the Quebecois were largely grouped into a sprawling, 30-piece orchestra with the rest of the fest represented by New York and L.A., Holland and Japan, Australia and Siberia.
The FIMAV leadership has never been overly concerned with crowd- pleasing tactics, but this year's first night was still fairly red letter. Japanese avant vocalist Koichi Makagami opened the proceedings and Vancouver turntablist Kid Koala closed it, representing two varieties of cuddly grown men. In between them, longstanding Dutch punk band the Ex outfitted itself with a horn section for one of the most purely enjoyable sets of the fest.
Makagami is a vocal improviser of remarkable talent and inventiveness, which was displayed during an all-too-brief solo piece before his trio set. After a quick and fast-changing cartoon monologue, he was joined by drummer Sato Masaharu who, if not Makagami's match, could keep pace with the vocal exercises. In short orde,r Siberian string player Bolot Bayryshev joined them, rounding out a trio whose performance was built largely around vocal drones and throat singing, but with Makagami's trumpet and theremin added to it, along with Masaharu's percussion (his kit comprised of a hand-carved drum sideways, small cymbals, a cowbell and other handheld percussion) and Bayryshev's strings, put through heavy flange and other effects. Repetition was their mission if at times, their downfall. Together they struck a music of heavy trance-inducing chant.
Lest it be thought that there's something speciest about calling them "cuddly," it should be noted that Makagami, in vocal and facial gesture, could be a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, and that Kid Koala did, in fact, wear a Koala suit on stage, and that the word "adorable" had already been taken. Koala played an anything-goes set built from spontaneous ideas and works-in-progress using hip-hop pastiche as the mortar. The piece of avant hip-hop comedy theater also included a pillow fight between a pair of audience members and a screening of a short animated break-dance battle during which the audience was asked to provide crowd sounds to be recorded and dubbed onto the final edit. Koala's work, when conceived and realized, can be pretty great. This wasn't, but it was purely fun.
In its latest incarnation, Dutch punk group the Ex has become a bass-less band, sometimes bottomed out by one of the two guitars (or three, when new singer and front man Arnold de Boer was playing) detuned or pitch-shifted down. With the Brass Unbound horns, the bass was also supplanted by the mighty baritone saxophone of Mats Gustafsson, who probably could have stood up against the electric guitars without benefit of microphone. The band has worked with horns before, both in improv settings and in their collaboration with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, but it's never quite been punk-band- with-horns before. At FIMAV, the section (which also included trumpeter Roy Paci, saxophonist Ken Vandermark and trombonist Wolter Wierbos) were dynamic, sometimes adding a feedback squall, sometimes performing tight punctuation, sometimes taking over the abandon for the core of the band. And of course, just playing. Vandermark, in particular, took a wonderfully Afrobeat-psychedelic solo, while Paci took a wonderful turn mimicking de Boer's voice.
The band's international concerns are more in line with their political leanings than punk tradition. In addition to the Ethiopian songs, they played a Hungarian folk tune they had recorded with the late Tom Cora some 20 years earlier to a cheer. (There are only so many rooms in the world where the cellist's name still draws applause.) The horns pushed the band further at times, but were best when they amalgamated a sort of punk Stax revue, as on "24 Problems," which should rightly be their new hit single.