Punkt 2011: Kristiansand, Norway, September 1-3, 2011
Beginning in the early part of the new millennium, Sylvian began working in greater earnest with a growing collection of European free improvers. His career has been defined by increasing experimentation, even from his early days in the pop group Japan, but it was with the release of Blemish (2003), on his fledgling Samadhisound labela stunning collaboration with guitarist Derek Bailey, positing a whole new way of songwritingthat Sylvian's career took a decided left turn into uncharted territory. For those who only knew his major label recordings, like Secrets of the Beehive (Virgin, 1987) and The First Day (Virgin, 1992), subsequent recordings like the groundbreaking Manafon (Samadhisound, 2010) were a challenge to fathom, as Sylvian took free improvisations from the likes of saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist John Tilbury, and composed song forms around them.
From left: Okkyung Lee, John Russell, Evan Parker,
Not that they don't already have a strong audience from the free improvisation world, but there's no doubt that Sylvian has brought a different audience to the music of these intrepidly spontaneous musicians (as, equally, they brought a new set of listeners to Sylvian), and it was expected that, when his curation at Punkt was announced, he'd be bringing some of these artists to the festival. For the second main stage show, Sylvian put together a group that included Parker and Tilbury, alongside British avant-garde guitarist John Russell and experimental Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, for a continuous performance that demonstrated how, at its best, free improvisation is about intimate connections and ears aiming to find new ways to make something out of nothing.
Seated in a semi-circle from left to right, with Tilbury, Lee, Russell and Parker, the improv began largely in darkness and, as Tord Knudsen's empathic visuals worked in concert with the musicians, the set began to combine passages of consonant beauty amidst more outré excursions. Russell, playing a large hollowbody electric guitar, still relied heavily on its natural acoustic sounds, even as he created softly jagged harmonies and skewed linearity. Tilbury spent as much time exploring the inside of the piano box as he did the keys, a generally gentle player whose more extreme tendencies were couched in a light touch, and an emphatic incorporation of space and decay as equal participants. Parker's by-now-legendary circular breathing was so natural that his making single droning notes or rapidly trilling flurries without pause didn't seem impressive until it suddenly dawned that he'd been doing so for minutes without pause.
While Parker, Russell and Tilbury were no strangers to each other, having intersected on various past projects, this was the first time they'd all worked together. Lee has straddled classical and jazz/improv worlds in collaboration with everyone from John Zorn and Nels Cline to Phil Minton, and has a trio recording with Parker and Peter Evans due out later this year. Her approach to cello is suitably unorthodox, but while capable of eking no shortage of surprising sounds with extended bowing techniques and just flat-out aggression, she also proved capable of a rich, appealing tone that, at times, grounded a performance which occasionally drifted into the ethereal.
For those less than familiar with the free improv scene, it was a rare window into music that's often considered unapproachable, but which clearlyin the hands of masterful artists such as theseproved to be anything but senseless, meandering or purposeless. Instead, there was no shortage of intent, and with it equal measures of collective listening that gave the 50-minute set plenty of focus and gradually unfolding direction.
At the time of its Punkt 2007 performance, the free-improvising quartet of pianist Christian Wallumrød, clarinetist Xavier Charles, guitarist/banjoist Ivar Grydeland and percussionist Ingar Zach had yet to assume the name of its subsequent ECM debut, the largely introspective Dans les arbres (2008). If the group's 2007 appearance was indicative of a group still finding its way, its return to Punkt this yearostensibly to remix the Tilbury/Parker/Russell/Lee set from the main stagerepresented an ensemble ready to turn any potential limitations into advantages.
The term "ostensibly" comes to mind in describing its relatively long "live remix" set, because there was, in fact, no remixing taking place. Instead, Dans les Arbres' performance was as freely improvised as any of its sets to dateat best, inspired by what came before, if not directly informed by it. This is not the first time such a live remix slot has been handed over to a group which did not actually remix the previous show, but it did set a curious precedent for a Punkt festival where, more often than not, the live remix had little direct connection to what came before.
From left: Ingar Zach, Ivar Grydeland
The set represented another first for the group; given the impossibility of providing a grand piano in the down-the-stairs Alfa Room, for this show the characteristically acoustic Dans les Arbres turned electric, with Wallumrød using a synthesizer and Grydelandcertainly no stranger to electric experimentation with Huntsville, most recently heard on For Flowers, Cars and Merry Wars (Hubro, 2011)turning to a heavily processed electric guitar. The two had, in fact, recently performed in Bergen with a new improvising trio called Electric Pansori, using nearly the same gear; but whereas that show, with drummer Per Oddvar Johansen, often turned to near-ear-shattering extremes, Dans les Arbres' Punkt performance remained largely a softer, inward-looking affair, though the quartet did occasionally hit more aggressive and higher-volume stances.
Xavier Charles, a player whose command of extended techniques at times overwhelmed the lyrical potential of his instrument, was also feeding his clarinet through electronics, and while it was often difficult to delineate his contributions with eyes closed, it became much easier by watching him in action. Evoking odd chirping noises, pops and clicks, upper-register drones and soaring screams, Charles' instrument may have been the one most intrinsically disposed to being a melodic anchor but, as was the case with the rest of his band mates, his approach rendered any expectations of convention moot. Zach's equally unconventional percussion setup ensured contributions more textural than rhythmicrevolving around a massive bass drum, set flat like a timpani but often used as a base surface for other devices, including small windup or electric toys that would be set off running around the surface of the drum to create buzzing and sizzling sounds, or bells that Zach would bow as often as he would shake.
There was, in fact, very little pulse to be found amongst Dans les Arbres' work; instead, it was often about creating a weave of sonics that, in the case of Wallumrød, sometimes approached the serialism of Olivier Messiaen or microtonal densities of György Ligetithere was even one point where, with Charles' soaring clarinet and Wallumrød dense voicings, the music recalled "Atmospheres," Ligeti's groundbreaking piece best-known as the soundtrack to the psychedelic time gate sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 1967 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like many of the improvising units to be heard at Punkt this year, there were as many (if not more) touchstones in contemporary classical music as there were jazz, but Grydeland's sometimes bowed, oftentimes heavily processed guitar created dense washes of sound, however, that took the music far beyond either (or, for that matter, any) purview.
One of the challenges of free improv is knowing when to stop, and if there were any single criticism of Dans les Arbres' performance, it was that it went on a little too long, despite a couple of earlier points that seemed like ideal times to conclude. Still, given the experimental, without-a-safety-net environment of the Alfa Room, it's a small quibble in a set that may well drive this normally acoustic ensemble into a new direction well worth further exploration.