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Live Reviews

Punkt 2011: Kristiansand, Norway, September 1-3, 2011

By Published: September 19, 2011

September 2 Concert: Koboku Senjû

Punkt's growing constellation has created numerous contexts for collaboration by musicians from around the globe, but it's by no means the only place where such interactions take place. Still, it's part of a curious series of intersecting degrees of separation, an undercurrent of creative expansionism where it's possible to find a way in from many different angles. David Sylvian's relationship with Toshimaru Nakamura has included direct collaboration on Died in the Wool, but he's also given the no-input mixing-board experimenter his own forum on Egrets (Samadhisound, 2010). On that album, Nakamura collaborated with guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama and Arve Henriksen, but that was far from the first Japan/Norway collaboration to occur in these circles.

From left: Eivind Lønning, Espen Reinertsen,Toshimaru Nakamura, Martin Taxt, Tetuzi Akiyama

Akiyama had also worked, very successfully, with a Norwegian trio of musicians—tubaist Martin Taxt, saxophonist/flautist Espen Reinertsen and trumpeter Eivind Lønning—on Varianter av døde trær (Sofa, 2008), and so the idea of bringing Nakamura into the picture made perfect sense, making this new group, Koboku Senjû—whose eponymous debut was released in 2010 on Sofa—a perfect addition to Sylvian's Punkt curation.

The set began deceptively with the three horns creating a lush backdrop of consonant drone, though this seeming orchestration wouldn't last long. With Akiyama eking odd angular textures out of his acoustic guitar, and Nakamura positioned centrally onstage—as if to represent a conceptual focal point for the four acoustic instruments—the set soon entered more outside territory, as everyone began to explore the kind of instrumental unorthodoxy that was, if there was one, the orthodoxy of the evening. Akiyama spent much of his time quietly working with a slide, but rather than using it to create snaking melodic lines, the guitarist evoked sustaining sonics while, head down, he continued to vibrate it over the strings with his right hand as his left moved along the neck to create slower harmonic movement. Lønning expanded his timbre by combining breathy embouchure and a right hand over the trumpet's bell, while Reinertsen approached his instrument with a similarly color-focused approach.

As seems de rigueur in the relentlessly intrepid Norwegian scene, Taxt appears committed to changing preconceptions about the place of his instrument. If Line Horntveth has made the tuba a more than credible rock instrument in Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist

, then Taxt has made this unwieldy instrument a worthy member of the free improv circle, one of his more intriguing projects being the recently-released microtub (Sofa, 2011), a tuba trio set that explores contemporary composition and free improvisation, with emphasis on microtonality and color. Here, he integrated with the dark ambiance of the rest of the group, creating low-register sonics as often felt as heard.

Together with Nakamura's no-input mixing board—the input connected to the output, creating feedback that is subsequently manipulated— Koboku Senjû's music was, much like the Parker/Tilbury/Russell/Lee set that came before it, largely inward-looking in nature, and capable of surprising beauty at times. If there was a thread running through Sylvian's curation, it was that free improvisation may be oblique, filled with unusual sounds and a general avoidance of conventional melody, rhythm and/or harmony, but it needn't be unapproachable. Those capable of accepting this music for what it was rather than concerning themselves with what it wasn't were sure to find plenty of appeal in a set that, again, worked in concert with Tord\ Knudsen's intimate and intuitive visuals to create an often hypnotic blend of sound and sight.

September 2 Concert: David Sylvian, Plight and Premonition

Punkt's ability to draw artists who might seem too large for this relatively small festival is just one of the reasons for its growing international reputation as something far more than just an annual event in a town that, were it located in North America, would be fortunate to have a movie theater, let alone the kind of commitment to the arts that Kristiansand made a number of years back, when it instituted Cultiva—an initiative where the town's excess electricity is sold off each year, and interest earned on the resultant income is invested in the arts. All too often, when discussing Norway's remarkable commitment to the arts, the first comment made by those not in the know is, "well, they've got money," which is, of course, true. But it's equally true that if a city of similar size in North America were to come into the kind of money Kristiansand has (in the case of Cultiva, in 2006 it was worth over six million dollars), it's unlikely that it would choose to invest it in culture to the same—or even similar—extent.

David Sylvian

Norway's commitment to the arts as an important part of the overall cultural fabric began in the 1960s, and at a time when other countries are seeing arts finding chopped so heavily that few, if any, schools in even larger cities still have a music program, it remains a country with a firm belief in balancing hard skills with the enriching power of the arts—even now, when there are political shifts taking place, and some concern about cuts to cultural funding, Norway remains head and shoulders above most countries.

Norway's cultural commitment has directly resulted in international cross-pollination at many levels, but the success story of Punkt is particularly relevant. Artists like John Paul Jones had heard of the festival, and while he'd initially planned to attend the 2010 edition as nothing more than a spectator, he was so excited by what he heard that he asked if he could do, perhaps, a short opening set for one of the acts. Hooked up as opener for Supersilent, during sound check he was so excited by what he heard from the Norwegian group that he asked if he could sit in, and a performance that will go down as one of the most memorable in Punkt history was the result.

Not all the guests and unexpected guest performers at Punkt are as well-known, but when an artist like David Sylvian commits not only to an installation, as Brian Eno did a couple years prior, but to an evening's curation, it's affirmation of the festival's ongoing creative success, which goes from strength to strength, year after year. Sylvian has been an absent member of the Punkt family since first recruiting Jan Bang and Erik Honoré to do a remix on his Camphor (Virgin, 2002) compilation—Sylvian's last major label release, even as his own Samadisound imprint was ramping up. With a program that was already memorable, Sylvian elevated Punkt 2011 to the same legendary status as 2010, with its Jones/Supersilent collaboration, and Punkt 2008, with Eno's participation, by collecting an international group of musicians to deliver the first-ever performance of Plight and Premonition.

Originally a duo studio project with Can bassist Holger Czukay, it was never really intended for live performance, but with the participation of John Tilbury, Eivnd Aarset, Arve Henriksen, Jan Bang, Erik Honoré, and Philip Jeck, it became a living, breathing thing, where the overall ambiance of the original was retained while becoming music for the new millennium—the basis for free but contextually focused improvisation from a group of players who clearly respected the source material, but took it to new and unexpected places. Based on the smile on the introverted Sylvian's face at the end of the performance, it was an unequivocal success.

Aarset's sonic washes, serpentine lines and subtle textures dovetailed perfectly with Sylvian's long, hypnotic drones. In another case where the easiest way to hear what everyone was doing was to see them doing it, the voices that were the most obvious were Henriksen on trumpet, and Tilbury—who, like his earlier set with Parker, spent equal time inside the piano, but in this case with contributions suitably spare and melodic. An expansion, perhaps, of Brian Eno's Ambient Music, it was easy to get carried away by the performance's attractive tonalities and periodic emergent lyricism, but different from albums like Eno's Music for Airports (Virgin, 1978), this was a performance that could go beyond aural hypnotism, containing active components that commanded attention.

With Sylvian barely visible seated, as he was, behind a table and beneath a white baseball cap, he nevertheless contributed guitar lines that, processed, twisted and turned, remained distinguishable from Aarset's own brand of anti-guitar techniques. With Henriksen occasionally playing the celesta that hid him from much of the audience, the combination of its chiming colors with Tilbury's inside-the-box explorations created spare melodic fragments that emerged from the wash of electronic sounds that Honoré, Bang and Jeck were layering, only to dissipate into the ether. It was a truly memorable performance which, having been recorded, will hopefully see the light of day so that those beyond the fortunate few in Kristiansand can hear how, nearly 25 years later, an album initially designed as a studio construction could breathe anew in the 21st century.

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