Punkt 2011: Kristiansand, Norway, September 1-3, 2011
Since releasing Cartography in late 2008, trumpeter Arve Henriksen has performed the music in a variety of combinations, always including Jan Bang, often featuring Eivind Aarset and, on occasion, recruiting the skills of percussionist Helge Norbakken to flesh the group out to a quartet, as he did at the 2009 Molde Jazz Festival. But while Henriksen has used music from an album heavily reliant on sound-sculpting, post-production wizardry and an almost reverse approach to writing as the grist for improv-heavy performance, he's never had the luxury of recreating it live in its more sonic glory, with its impressive cast of 13 largely Norwegian participants.
While unable to recruit everyone from the recording, for Cartography, Special Edition, Henriksen was able to put together a group thatwith Bang, Aarset, Honoré. Friman and Ingar Zachhad more than enough musical firepower to accurately reproduce the album's lush, cinematic tableaus. But it was the presence of David Sylvian at Punkt that made real the possibility of truly recreating Cartography, as his spoken word on two of the album's twelve tracks gave the album book-ended narratives that were crucial to the music that surrounded them. And so, for the second-last Main Stage performance at Punkt 2011, Henriksen delivered a live version of Cartography that remained faithful to its improvisational core, but also remained true, for the most part, to the album's overall structure and narrative arc.
In a set lasting roughly 50 minutes, it was impossible to perform the album in its entirety, so Henriksen astutely chose the important touchstones of the album, its key melodies and, at times, near-symphonic movements making this one-time performance both reverent and distinct and separate. Bang's treatments of Sylvian's readings on the oblique "Before and Afterlife" and "Thermal" were as astute as ever, layering Sylvian's words in stuttering counterpoint, while Friman's evocative soprano was used more extensively than on the record, and provided a strong foil for Henriksen's shakuhachi-like tone on trumpet, and his own choirboy-pure falsetto. Freedom was a given for all, but for Zach, perhaps, more than the rest, given that the album featured so little percussion. With his array of implements large and small, he acted, at times, as an orchestrator, at other times a soft pulse. In smaller contexts, Aarset's contributions are more obvious, but for those who've had the luxury of numerous live encounters it was easy to discern the guitarist's distinctly un-guitar-like sound washes and serpentine melodies.
Cartography, Special Edition, from left: Jan Bang, Ingar Zach, Anna Maria Friman
Arve Henriksen, David Sylvian, Eivind Aarset, Erik Honoré
A gracious leader in every context, here Henriksen appeared particularly grateful for the group around him. Swaying with eyes closed during the spiritual ending, "Sorrow and Its Opposite," a faint smile gracing his face, it was impossible not to be moved by a one-time performance that, more than any of his smaller-group performances, captured the sheer emotive power and resonant essence of Cartography, while elevating it to a new level of in-the-moment interaction.
Sometimes a performance is so perfect, so complete, that hearing a remix would tarnish its memory. And so, after a much-needed break, it was time to return to the main stage for the final performance of Punkt 2011, the debut of a new electronic improvising duo featuring one classic rock legend, and one man whose sonic manipulations have become a cornerstone of the Norwegian improvising scene. Those who only think of John Paul Jones as Led Zeppelin's bassist/keyboardist will be surprised at an experimental nature that has become even more left-of-center in recent times, culminating in his 2010 Punkt appearance as an impromptu opener for Supersilent, but then even more surprising when he sat in with the Norwegian noise improvisers.
John Paul Jones
It was a given, then, that he'd return to Punkt the following year, though in exactly what shape was anybody's guess. It turns out, after the Supersilent set, that Jones had much in common with guitarist and overall electronic manipulator Helge Sten, especially an interest in the emerging musical possibilities of iPads. And so, Minibus Pimps was born, an improvising collaboration that used iPads as a starting point, but expanded to Jones playing largely unrecognizable bass guitar and violin, fed through the ubiquitous MacBook (if Punkt isn't an official Apple endorser, it ought to be), while Sten turned to electric guitar that, like Jones and his instruments, seemed more like a trigger than an overt musical instrument.
The set began in total darkness, as the curtain rose on a spare stage, with two tables facing each other in the center, with Sten's guitar and various devices on the left, and Jones' gear on the right. High-pitched electronic sounds began to fill the room, as Sten and Jones slowly entered from opposite sides of the stage, iPads in hand, gradually building the sound in breadth and volume as they made their way to their individual stations. What was, perhaps, intended as a bit of theatrical drama, unfortunately fell a little flat when it became clear that there was little more to come in the 45-minute set. Jones alternated between bass and violin, and while it's true that the heavily processed sonics coming from one were in a much lower register than the other, that was effectively the extent of it. Sten, toodespite far greater depth in the context of Supersilentseemed to be mining a very specific sonic space, both with his guitar and the rest of his gear, but none of it succeeded in giving the set real shape. It's one thing to be improvising with noise, but without some kind of development, it ultimately loses its purpose and becomes hypnotic at best.
If it weren't for Tord Knudsen's as-ever intriguing and spontaneous visuals, the set would likely have failed, but with a series of small boxes around the stage, on which he projected various patterns and moving images, the performance did become something worth experiencing, even if the actual music was less than engaging. Building to an inevitable peak, the set then began to slowly diminish, as Jones and Sten once again picked up their iPads and began moving off the stage. It might not have been such a disappointment, were this not the final show of Punkt 2011, but when past years' closers have been so perfectly climactic, it only made Minibus Pimps even more of a let-down; in retrospect, Henriksen's show would have been a far better way to end events on the Main Stage.