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Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville

Photo credit: Martin Morissette

Mike Chamberlain By

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Various venues
Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Quebec
May 21-23, 2021

It seems appropriate that a festival of forward-looking music should be the first organization to present live indoor concerts in Quebec in more than a year. After having to cancel the 2020 edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (aka Victo, or FIMAV) and facing the unpalatable prospect of a second year without a 37th edition, festival director Michel Levasseur made the bold gamble that he could get Quebec's public health authorities to go along with presenting indoor concerts with an in-person audience.

Somehow, Mr. Levasseur managed to get permission to hold a festival, but under strict pandemic regulations, especially regarding the movement of people inside venues. By necessity, the festival was limited to (with a couple of exceptions) artists living in Quebec, and it was held over three days with twelve concerts, rather than the usual four days and twenty performances.

Even though the few who were able to attend missed their friends—musicians and music lovers—from outside Quebec, Michel Levasseur and his team must be commended for managing to put on a festival at all under such trying conditions. Indeed, it was an emotional moment when in his introduction to the opening concert Levasseur dedicated the festival to his father, who for health considerations had to miss his first FIMAV since the festival's inception.

Attending Victo after almost fifteen months of social and physical isolation was something of a surreal experience, and in fact, it was difficult to overcome the sensation of doing something illicit by attending indoor concerts, even if the size of the audience was severely restricted by the spacing regulations inside the rooms. The feeling gradually dissipated over the three days.

In his introduction of the quartet of Erick d'Orion, Rene Lussier, Robbie Kuster, and Martin Tetreault on the festival's opening evening, Levasseur noted the difficulty of categorizing the music featured at Victoriaville. Is it emerging music? Is it intelligent music?

Given Qubec's gradual emergence from the pandemic experience after months of lockdown—Quebec was especially hard-hit by the first wave of the pandemic—"emerging music" seemed appropriate. At least, music by people emerging from social isolation. One noteworthy aspect of the program was the number of world premieres, which was probably a product of the long isolation period experienced in Quebec.

The first performance of the festival was, somewhat unusually, a more or less conventional set of songs sung by Israeli-Canadian singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, who performed songs taken from her album 13 Lunar Meditations:Summoning The Witches (Third Ear Music, 2021), accompanied by a superb quartet of violist Jennifer Thiessen, bassist Stephane Diamantakiou, guitarist Bernard Falaise, and drummer Ivan Bamford, later joined by percussionist Hamin Honari. The weird feeling of being in a concert hall for the first time in over a year was accentuated by the fact that Gottleib addressed the audience completely in English between songs. The mainly francophone audience responded warmly to the music, which was lively and highly textured. Impressive, the way Gottleib used her voice, rising above the ensemble playing or pulling back and becoming another instrument in the ensemble. A promising beginning to the festival.

The second set on Friday was by the afore-mentioned quartet of d'Orion, Lussier, Kuster, and Tétreault. Totally improvised, the performance was the high point of the festival. As the group was about to start, Lussier was heard to muse (in French), "A concert? What are we supposed to do?" Of course Lussier and the rest knew what to do. Washes of computer-generated sound by D'Orion established a base for the other musicians to build on and around, Kuster pushing rhythm, Lussier and Tétreault making forays into the musical space remaining, Lussier prodding with single-note lines, Tetreault exploring texture and rhythm. There were patches in the hour-long set that were exploratory and inchoate, but the quartet always managed to find their way into a musically interesting groove.

Time has seemed elastic over the past fifteen months. Days felt like weeks, weeks felt like days, months felt like years, and the before time felt very far away. Many people spent weeks on end alone at home, which may be why much of the music presented at the festival felt somewhat languid, featuring long, held notes and slowly-developing themes.

Such was the case for GGRIL, the large ensemble from Rimouski, Quebec, led by music educator, bassist, and community organizer Eric Normand. Since its inception in 2002 the group has improvised most of its work, but in recent years, it has been performing compositions by members of the organization. This is a natural progression for a project that is about nurturing and educating musicians in a small, somewhat remote community. The four pieces were what might be expected from new composers, and in fact did not sound a lot different from GGRIL's improvisations, which often feature small parts of the ensemble playing against other parts of the ensemble, the use of small instruments, and long introductory buildups.

The 5:30 bill at the Carre 150 was a double bill opening with Tamayugé, the Montreal-based duo of Maya Kuroka (voice) and Tamara Filyavich (electronics) whose jump-cut cutesy playfulness and twisted pop attitude contrasted with the lava-like doom metal of Thisquietarmy X Away who followed. It was unclear what Kuroka was singing, it may have been Japanese, English, or nonsense syllables. Filyavich's quicksilver playing covered a lot of ground, from pops and crackles, washes of sound, poppy rhythms, as she played the foil to Kuroka's quirky unpredictability.

There is a robust heavy metal audience in Quebec, and so the first-ever performance between guitarist Eric Quach and drummer Michel Langevin of Voivod, under the names Thisquietarmy and Away, was highly anticipated. Langevin laid down heavy grooves for Quach's heavily processed guitar, which for the most part was based on held chords which Quach manipulated with an impressive array of pedals. Once again, the music was textural and slow-moving, content to lock on a groove and a guitar riff or motif and explore their possibilities before moving on the do the same with a different groove and motif.

The Growlers are a Montreal-based heavy metal choir led by Pierre-Luc Senécal, who has assembled a choir of fourteen voice artists, each of whom specializes in certain growling sounds. Senécal composes pieces for the voices, who sing, or growl, over a pre-recorded electronic and percussive track. The festival program billed The Growlers as the world's only growler choir. In the first half of the concert on Saturday at 7:30 in the Colisée des Bois-Francs, the choir was joined by Montreal poet Fortner Anderson, who recited two of his poems. The second part of the concert featured compositions by Senécal. The two Anderson pieces were powerful expressions of existential dread, and the choir established an appropriately dark, apocalyptic mood. The Senécal pieces were less emotionally powerful but perhaps flashier musically, as Senécal stretched the capabilities of his choir's voices.

In recent years, the concert day at Victoriaville has begun at 1 pm in the St. Christophe d'Arthabaska Church with an acoustic concert, usually a solo. On Saturday, pianist Eve Egoyan performed from "Asking," a work written by composer Maria de Alvear for Egoyan, as well as a second piece, title unannounced. Egoyan tried to produce every possible variation on the melody of "Asking," while the second piece made use of the acoustic possibilities of the church to present a gorgeous display of overtones.

Sunday started with a solo trombone performance by Scott Thomson, who has made appearances at Victo over the years as member of the Ratchet Orchestra, Ensemble Supermusique, and Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People to name a few. Thomson dedicated his performance, titled "Aerosolo," to the recently-deceased{MF Doom. Thomson did three pieces in his 50-minute set, featuring slow explorations of the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities of various notes, generally in the lower register, employing a variety of mutes. Thomson has a warm, round tone that gives him a lot of sonic room to work with, and he work with it he did.

The Sunday concert at 3 pm in the Colisée (the big room, but reduced to about 150 capacity) was supposed to be a double bill with Alberta-based artist Kathleen Yearwood followed by the trio of Bernard Falaise, Pierre-Yves Martel, and Jean Martin improvising together for the first time, but Ms. Yearwood was ill and unable to travel, so instead the audience was treated to an opening solo set by guitarist Bernard Falaise, who has appeared at Victoriaville almost as much as anyone over the past twenty years. Falaise can play anything on the guitar, and here he played with the textural possibilities of wood and metal, wire and electronics. The trio set with Martel on bass, keyboards, and electronics, and Martin on drums and electronics was another rich experience, as three experienced and resourceful improvisers presented rich textures of manipulated, thick sound with a strong rhythmic pulse.

In the penultimate concert of the festival, at 5:30 in the Carré 150, Montreal's Quattour Bozzini presented a program of works by Quebec composers. The first was by Nicolas Caloia, bassist and leader of the Ratchet Orchestra, and on the second, by Jeff Chippewa, the quartet was joined by alto saxophonist Yves Charuest. The final part of the performance was an improvisation with the quartet and Charuest joined by Caloia on bass. The quartet—violinist Clemens Merkel, cellist Isabelle Bozzini, altoist Stéphanie Bozzini, and violinist Alissa Cheung—are superb musicians who tread the line—as so many do—between the classical and the avant-garde, with, in this case, a strong leaning toward the latter. Once again, the textural elements of the instruments themselves were foregrounded.

The final concert of the cutdown FIMAV was another production of Ensemble Supermusique under the direction of Joane Hétu and Danielle Palardy Roger, celebrating 40 years of Productions Supermusique, an existence nearly parallel to the festival itself, with whose history it is strongly connected. Michel Levasseur alluded to the shared history in his introduction, hoping for a few more good years for both Supermusique and the festival. The concert, titled "Le Fleuve" (for the Saint Lawrence River, which is the backbone of Quebec), featured compositions by Jean Derome, Hétu, Palardy-Roger, and Clio Palacio-Quintin. It seemed appropriate that a festival of Quebec musicians that began with a program of songs by Ayelet Rose Gottlieb inspired by women's stories would come full circle to a performance of compositions inspired by Quebec's mother source performed by a group comprised mainly of women. The performance was compelling throughout, demanding and full of detail, yet accessible and, in the end, optimistic. Especially notable was the use of voice, which is a hallmark of Hétu's work.

Thus ended the 37th edition of FIMAV. The festival was missing a lot of elements, and in some ways was a bit of a sad affair, with limited opportunities to socialize and share ideas, which is a great thing about the festival. But there were plenty of posiitves, and that was the music and what it said about the health of the new music scene in Quebec. It seems that a year of enforced isolation has not been a completely bad thing, and as we emerge from the pandemic, beautiful new music is emerging too.

Next year, with luck, the world will be more-or-less normal in terms of travel and health restrictions and the rest of the world can meet us in Victoriaville. But this meeting of Quebecers was right in terms of the music. Michel Levasseur and his crew made the best of a bad situation, and somehow managed to put on a festival. The rest was up to the musicians, and they were more than worthy.

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