On paper, the line-up of the 23rd edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) looked audacious: a predominance of voice-oriented projects, some questionable meetings, three concerts with Mike Patton, etc. This suggested an unpredictable outcome. Yet, a recurring complaint was the lack of jazz and related forms of improvised music. Considering that more than a third of the 24 concerts could be filed under such a description and that recent editions of the FIMAV featured musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Peter Brötzmann, Ellery Eskelin and William Parker, this criticism could be explained by the absence of popular figures of the genre. Leaving aside the question of whether this assessment is ill-founded or not, the jazz facet of this 23rd edition turned out to be disappointing overall. For example, despite a very promising first 10 minutes, Mandarin Movie - a six-piece band led by Rob Mazurek - gave the impression of a free-for-all with the musicians doing all they could to be heard. Earlier on Friday, the trio of Antoine Berthiaume (electric guitar), Quentin Sirjacq (piano) and Norman Teale (electronics) could not live up to the surprise created by the opening segment of their set. It started as an original and interesting proposition of a dense mass of sounds and radical electronic manipulations, but it quickly transformed into an unrewarding, yet intense solo piano performance by Sirjacq who barely seemed to listen to his two acolytes, both of whom did not have much to say anyway. Unlike last year's acclaimed performance of the Nels Cline Singers, the guitarist's return to Victoriaville with multi- keyboardist Andrea Parkins and drummer Tom Rainey was not the highlight it was anticipated to be. Cline's and Parkins' contributions worked well together, as were Cline's and Rainey's at times. Unfortunately, taken together, the trio's music too often simply did not seem to go anywhere. It resulted in an honest, but forgettable hour of music. On Sunday afternoon, Fieldwork offered an ambivalent performance. On the one hand, this New York trio has perfectly digested influences from the past into a genuine contemporary jazz that remains melodic despite a great technical complexity. The skills and ease of pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey were also very impressive. On the other hand, saxophonist Steve Lehman appeared unimaginative and lackluster in comparison. Moreover, the length of their set became an obstacle to its full appreciation as it cast a shadow over its strengths. An exception to this rule was Huntsville. Featuring Ingar Zach (percussion), Ivar Grydeland (various guitars, banjo, radio, etc.) and Tonny Kluften (double bass), this trio blended various tendencies in improvised music with a melodic sensibility to create something of their own. The richness of the musicians' sound palettes coupled with the precision and cohesion of the execution contributed to the refinement and apparent simplicity of Huntsville's music. Perhaps it ran out of steam by the end, but it was not enough to taint the listener's appreciation. N.R.A. - a trio composed of Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion), Ricardo Arias (balloon kit) and Vic Rawlings (cello and open-circuit electronics) - was another exception. While a 70-minute continuous improvisation was definitely too long, the emphasis on textures, the slow unfolding of ideas and the virtuosity and intensity of the musicians made it a riveting and unforgettable experience. This said, the FIMAV has never been, strictly speaking, a festival of jazz and improvised music. With concerts by the likes of D. Kimm/Alexis O'Hara, Étage 34 with Beñat Achiary, SUNN 0))), Borbetomagus & Hijokaidan and Dälek, this year's edition also explored a multiplicity of aesthetics such as spoken word, rock, doom metal, noise and even hiphop. Unfortunately, these other musics proved not to be the panacea they could have been in the light of the jazz facet. As a matter of fact, this later facet could be said to be representative of the whole festival. While most concerts were good and none fell in the dreadful category, too few of them generated the excitement and astonishment one is looking for.
Fe-Mail - the Norwegian duo of Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje (voice, theremin and electronics) and Hild Sofie Tafjord (French horn and electronics) - surely was one of them. While they themselves describe their music as noise, the underlying perspective on noise proved to be a sophisticated and thoroughly thought-out one. Not restricting their practice to the distortion pedals and white noise so characteristic of the genre, their approach revealed close links with electroacoustic and musique concrète, if only in their choice of sounds. Even though it often took the form of a sonic assault, the musicality and construction of their performance, coupled with Ratkje's singular vocal work, resulted in moments of sheer beauty. Nothing less.
Credits must also be given to the improbable pairing of Mike Patton and Fennesz. It surely was not perfect and had more than one dull moment but it definitely was not the catastrophe it was expected to be. While both musicians were true to themselves, there was a real concern with Fennesz' contribution keeping the improvisation together and focused, something for which he deserves praise, as it was crucial in making this concert successful.
This 23rd edition of the FIMAV was a pleasant one. Whether it was fulfilling probably depends on one's tolerance to good, but somehow unexciting music...
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