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Live Reviews

Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville 2011

By Published: June 3, 2011
On a level of pure enjoyment, the Ex and Zeena and the Adorables were clear high points, actuelle-styled party music. Zeena Parkins' new band features a pair of percussionists (acoustic Shayna Dunkelman and electronic Preshish Moments), together playing complex instrumental compositions boasting a pop sensibility. With Parkins on electric and concert harps, as well as keyboard and effects, it could have come off as a transmogrified piano trio with a melody instrument out front. But Parkins is too smart for that and the pieces were construed as organic wholes and played with wonderful precision, especially when Dunkelman turned to the vibraphone. They encored with "Something for Sophia," written by Henry Mancini
Henry Mancini
Henry Mancini
for the 1966 Sophia Loren/Gregory Peck movie, Arabesque—an adorable bit of exotica

Zeena and the Adorables

But if FIMAV 2011 is to go down in history, it will be for the performance of Anthony Braxton's conceptual framework, Echo Echo Mirror House. The festival has shown a strong dedication to Braxton in recent years; he now has more releases on the affiliated record label Victo than any other artist, and this promises to be another release. It was arguably a logical (if befuddling) extension of his Ghost Trance Music, wherein subgroups of the ensemble are allowed to play other Braxton pieces within the larger performance. For this effort, the members of the septet were equipped with iPods so that they could play past recordings of his pieces in the midst of a composition built from maps and colored transparencies.

Braxton and trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum
Taylor Ho Bynum
Taylor Ho Bynum
began the set on their iPods, introducing an immediate confluence of musics. Then Braxton and Jessica Pavone moved, respectively, to saxophone and viola, and in short order other acoustic instruments followed. It was similar to the Ghost Trance, but even more ghostly. The concert was performed by at least three orchestras, two of which could be neither seen nor apprised. For the audience, it was an immediate dive into internal logics which must simply be agreed upon and accepted as a matter of faith if one is to listen at all. Braxton music, of late, has always included concurrent streams of information, but usually to a lesser degree and built in more gradual increments.

While Echo Echo Mirror House certainly didn't violate the logic systems of Braxton's music (and in a sense, how could it?), it was a definite change in aesthetic. Braxton has spoken in terms of a "post-Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
, post-John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
1912 - 1992
continuum" and this was very much nearer the Cagean end of the spectrum than he's often been before—not in a happenstance way but in line with Cage's "circus" pieces or, for example, his multi-media work HPSCHD, where there is simply too much information—not noise, not interference, but real information—to process. Braxton's music isn't often chaotic, but this certainly came off as such, even if in fact it was a chorus of conflicting streams—rather like how planets, meteors and asteroids all follow mathematically determined paths but still collide. The systems here were independent and so inevitably ran into each other.

Anthony Braxton's Echo Echo Mirror House

The process also introduced a strange variable: whereas players might have at times tried to avoid reacting to each other within the Ghost Trance Music, here it was made impossible. Some of the musicians playing the piece had recorded their parts years prior, playing another piece before Echo Echo Mirror House was even conceived. By the constraints of time and technology, they could not interact. They were active, yet frozen within the piece, while the living musicians played. The piece oddly robbed audience members of the opportunity to hear soloists, at least as they would usually be heard in a jazz setting. The iPods played at a slightly louder volume than the ensemble, guaranteeing that the prerecorded tracks couldn't be tuned out as background noise. The musical ideas within the piece were clear, but subsumed in a multitasked whole. Like shooting stars, their solos were hard to catch but beautiful to behold.

The disparity in loudness was slight, but crucial, creating a tension between volume and clarity. And, in a sense, that was a current throughout the festival: none of the music was quite quiet, but never was there a loss of clarity, a sort of tandem tribute to the inventiveness of the composers presented and the always excellent sound production at Victoriaville.

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