Published since 2004
With the realization that there will always be more music coming at him than he can keep up with, John wonders why anyone would think that jazz is dead or dying.
As 5:00 PM approached, anticipation of the first official day for Punkt 07 continued to grow. The Agder Theater is a beautiful venue, with a large bar area for meeting up with artists and other media folks from as far away as Japan and China. Like the increasingly cosmopolitan makeup of the musicians who have come to perform at Punkt, there's a large contingent of writers to ensure that the word about Punkt continues to spread.
Yet another unique aspect of Punkt is how, while the audience is in the Alpha Room for the live remixes, it not only manages to set up the equipment for the next artist in the 500-seat theatre but to create new set designs as well. With all the technology used by most of Punkt's artist roster, the instrument setup alone can be a complex logistical challenge. But adding complete set redesigns in the space of less than an hourranging from the spare, almost spartan, to the remarkably detailed, and with completely different lightingwould be an impossible feat for most festivals. Not for Punkt.
Huntsville's debut, For the Middle Class (Rune Grammfon, 2006), was another example of how Norwegian artists continue to find new ways to redefine the nexus of improvisation, technology and tradition. A trio featuring bassist Tony Kluften (who also works with a sampler), percussionist Ingar Zach (who, likewise, does samplingsome of it in real time), and Ivar Grydeland, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, pedal steel guitar and banjo (with a wide array of processing effects and looping), Huntsville manages to combine organic sounds with sometimes densely harsh electronics, to create a kind of futuristic "roots" music.
The trio's 45-minute set was a logical extension of For the Middle Class, with many of the same elements and, at times, direct reference to pieces including "Add a Key of Humanity" and the propulsive and tabla sample-driven "The Appearance of a Wise Child." But while some of the textures were familiar, Huntsville's almost recombinant integration of sampled and looped motifs with more abstract textures was fresh and excitinglikely, in many cases, as much of a surprise for the group as it was for the audience.
Grydeland was particularly impressive alternating between his various string instruments, setting up a simple and lyrical loop on pedal steel before moving to electric guitar to create additional melodic fragments as well as more jagged and distorted attacks to provide an intense backwash of sound. Zach was equally potent, creating rapid percussion samples before moving to brushes on his eclectic drum set. While largely a textural player, he did create forward motion at times, playing push-and-pull with both Grydeland and Kluften, who created his own sound world by using his bow in unconventional ways.
That acoustic instruments can be combined with forward-thinking technology, where folkloric elements can live together with more densely-layered electronics, is what gives Huntsville's approach to improvisation its distinction. As strong, if not stronger, in performance as on record, Huntsville hopefully has a new disc in the works representative of the trio's uniqueness.
Preceding the group's performance on August 31, British group Sweet Billy Pilgrim's guitarist/vocalist, Tim Elsenburg, reduced the harsher elements of Huntsville's performance into near ambient space. Layering a simple, melancholy set of changes over processed slices of Huntsville's workin particular Grydeland's looped pedal steel guitarElsenburg demonstrated how song can be created in real time, and how differently one can view and be inspired by a single musical source.
Adding an almost spiritual vocal, Elsenburg may have begun more ethereally, but he did migrate to more propulsive rhythm by introducing that kinetic aspect of Huntsville's performance, and augmenting it with his own looped figures. Elsenburg would stray into different territories but always find his way back to his original thematic premise.
As the thirty-minute remix drew to a close, Elsenburg referenced King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, creating long, sustained melodies that he then looped and layered but kept buried in the overall mix. As the rest of the music dissolved, leaving only these sustaining loops, Elsenburg took his bow and closed the remix on an atmospheric note. His remix may not have been as eminently adventurous as Huntsville's, but it ended up being a gentle coda that had its own appeal.
For the second theatre show of the day, Punkt brought together two musical contexts that, on the surface, might seem incongruous but, when experienced together, made perfect musical sense.
British pianist Joanna MacGregor's performance with live sampler/Punkt co-founder Jan Bang demonstrated how barriers between musical styles continue to be dissolved. While classically trained, and with a discography and touring schedule that has seen her collaborating with orchestras around the world, MacGregor has developed a personal language for solo performance that brings in elements of jazz harmony and a greater experimental aesthetic for shaping her music. Bang is the perfect collaborator, with a keenly intuitive sense of what should be sampled, feeding back motifs like a repetitive trill to MacGregor, who then responded with her own, dramatically evolving ideas.
MacGregor and Bang's 25-minute set began sparingly, but built with a sense of inevitability as the two interacted. MacGregor may be an undeniably virtuosic pianist with a broad set of musical references, but for her it's clearly always about the music. She demonstrated a remarkable sense of invention that ranged from densely clustered blocks of sound to rapidly repetitive single notes and frequent explorations inside the body of the piano. From fragile delicacy to Cecil Taylor-like block attacks, MacGregor is one of an increasing number of musicians who not only span the arbitrary, and frequently artificial, divide between classical and improvised music, but bring the two together, simply sonic shades of a broad musical continuum.
Less about change and melody (though there were appearances of both throughout), and more about mood, dynamics, texture and long-form narrative, MacGregor and Bang demonstrated another of Punkt's unique characteristics: first encounters. The duo created music without any kind of safety net, and it's the ability to allow festival audiences a window into these laboratory-like experiments that keeps Punkt's program exciting and diverse, show-to-show and year-to-year.
After a brief intermission, Japanese koto player Michiyo Yagi took to the stage for a brief set that brought ancient tradition into the 21st century. Yagi plays the koto, an ancient Japanese multi-stringed instrument originally derived from the zither. While it's normally heard in traditional music that is largely lyrical and definitively consonant, Yagi has expanded the instrument's potential with prepared techniques and an attack that can, at times, be jaggedly visceral.
Yagi may well be the only free-improvising koto player in the world, collaborating fearlessly with artists including saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker. She's also performed in rock groups, classical settings and noise improv. But while her work can be largely experimental, she also retains a sense of tradition that was evident in the first part of her set, during which she played the large, 17-string bass koto. Producing a deeply resonant timbre, Yagi bowed and plucked the instrument, creating rich yet spare melodies.
But it was when she switched to the 21-string koto, which is in a register about two octaves above the bass koto, that the true breadth of her approach was heard. Beginning, again, with a more traditional approach, Yagi sang to a haunting koto melody, and it appeared that her set was going to remain form-and thematically-based. But she soon dispensed with that implication as she began strumming the instrument with increasing vigor, using a drumstick in her left hand to alter the pitch of the open strumming by sliding it up and down the instrument. Yagi built the intensity to a fever pitch, beginning to hit the strings with the stick, reaching a powerful and abrupt ending.
It was a stunning set that captivated the audience, who would not let her go without a brief encore that, once again, demonstrated her ability to mix tradition with a more modernist outlook.
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