Total Music Meeting 2008
English bassist John Edward's instrument is by no means pristine. Scuffs and scratches sully the top of its belly and the veneer is worn down on its left edge like a badge of improvisational fortitude. He stood on the stage in the auditorium of the Berlinische Galerie one night last month with his bass, two separate entities for just a moment, until Edwards went hurtling into a full throttled performance that utilized most every aspect of the instrument.
For the 40th anniversary of the Total Music Meeting festival, a small but diverse sampling of artists gathered in Berlin, November 6th-9th. Pioneers of the European avant-garde such as Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove, German trumpet player Manfred Schoof and South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, who have had a presence at the festival throughout its history, laid down a solid foundation of confident fluency. But the stars of this show were undoubtedly the members of the new generation, who had ventured from New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Melbourne, bringing with them talent, creativity and incredible perseverance.
American trumpet player Peter Evans, with only a nearby microphone for amplification, embarked on a solo cavalcade of furious blowing, madcap bebopping and careful breathing for 40 intense minutes on Friday night. During one serene moment, he played a duo of notes that flowed from his bell like a pair of satin ribbonsa transporting multiphonic that festered into what sounded like a vintage radio broadcast not clearly transmitting. Throughout his set, he displayed a striking ability to muster the essence of early electronics by demonstrating a precise control over the amount of air passing through each valve and the amount of force his lips projected through the mouthpiece. A melody-less, "Steamboat Willie"-like passage evolved into beatboxing, as Evans alternated squeaking and growling with a lip-puckered pop.
Shifting the atmosphere from a solo to a duo context, Australian pianist Anthony Pateras and French percussionist Le Quan Ninh took their positions on stage, but waited for a good 20 seconds for the murmur of a brief intermission to fizzle out. While Ninh rubbed a cymbal against the centerpiece of his setup, a large, elevated bass drum, Pateras thumped on a severely prepared piano, culling tiny hollow notes from its stringed innards. There was a natural earthiness to the duo in the percussive rhythms of the keys and the thunder of the drum, but their essence transcended time, mingling reminiscences of tribal prehistory with something vividly experimental. Over the course of their set, Ninh employed pinecones, singing bowls, tiny balls, an archer's bow and his own breath to create a vast palette that texturally contrasted with Pateras' metal-tampered instrument. In an especially mysterious and moving technique, the pianist rubbed his palms against the keys, gleaning a sort of wooden wind chime music box effect that quietly wound its way through Ninh's echoing shards of metal against stretched animal skin.
Historically, the Total Music Meeting has been instrumental in facilitating cultural development between East and West Germany and interestingly, a photography exhibition of Berlin panoramas taken just a few years after the end of World War II was on display at the museum and available for the audience to peruse during intermission.
In the current atmosphere, today's Total Music Meeting focuses on presenting new talent alongside the tried and true and at the end of each evening, it was the heavyweights who took the stage, accompanied by players sometimes 40 years their junior, as in the case of Van Hove and Polish percussionist Tomek Choloniewski on Thursday night. The pair joined Edwards, Moholo-Moholo and bassist Adam Linson in a rousing set. Moholo-Moholo commanded from behind his drum set, unleashing a precise urgency that mingled vividly with Van Hove's glistening atonal piano structures. Confident Edwards was slightly incapacitated due to a broken string, but still managed to impress by producing a guttural tone with his bow. From the other side of the stage, fellow bassist Linson took a solo that turned out to be one of the most beautiful moments of the evening as he swung his bow against his strings, producing a high-pitched sound that was more electronic that acoustic. As a whole, the quintet excelled at creating a continuous ebullience, which was often questioned by Choloniewski's rattling and pounding on metal bowlsan effective counter to Van Hove, Moholo-Moholo and Edwards' lyricism.