Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville 2014

Mike Chamberlain By

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Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada
May 15-19, 2014

Victoriaville, Quebec is a town of some 40,000 two hours east of Montreal, a regional center known for the sober pursuits of dairy and wood production. For the past three decades (beginning in 1983), the town has also hosted one of the world's most renowned festivals of adventurous music, the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, or Victo, as it is popularly known. The festival is the brainchild of artistic director Michel Levasseur, who chose the town as the site of the festival simply because he has lived there all his life.

Over the years, the festival and the town have had a somewhat ambivalent relationship. While it appears that the city's business and political leaders have embraced the festival, which exists mainly on a combination of business and government sponsorship, the festival has not gained a lot of traction among the local population. But that situation seems to be changing, however gradually. The band of music nerds who travel to Victoriaville from points as far away as the Arizona, Portugal, and Germany each Victoria Day weekend to attend the festival must seem like a curiosity to most of the locals. Given that this is an aging cohort (there was much talk among the 50-somethings about how standing up for hours at music festivals is now impossible), there is a need for new blood. Since taking a one-year hiatus (there was no FIMAV in 2009), Levasseur has doubled down on efforts to renew the festival, reaching out to a younger generation (and the general population) with, most prominently, a set of sound installations along a popular bike path in the center of town.

Levasseur has always had to tread a paradoxically careful line in his programming, in trying to give a sense of the broad range of so-called avant-garde music while appealing to more narrow constituencies. For example: When I first attended the festival in 1999, many of the critics in attendance were old-line free jazz types who would complain about the amount of non-jazz on the program. Those people no longer make the journey, and the critics who still regularly attend are not put off by the other musics that have always been a part of Victo.

All that said, a number of the most interesting performances at the thirtieth edition of FIMAV were, in fact, jazz-related, including the first two concerts, Meredith Monk and the Ratchet Orchestra with Marshall Allen. Monk performed songs from the whole of her career, including several with vocalist Kate Geissinger, both vocal duets and accompanying Geissinger on the piano. Monk is one of a kind, whose work might at first come off as just so much vocal trickery, but as the concert moved along, the charm and emotional depth of the material won out. There is a wide resonance to Monk's voice that is most impressive and affecting.

Next up was a special performance by Montreal's Ratchet Orchestra, a somewhat motley crew comprised of both professional and amateur musicians under the direction of bassist Nicolas Caloia. In honor of Sun Ra's centenary, the group played the whole of Ra's Sunology: A Suite of Philosophical Songs, with guests Allen and flautist Danny Thompson, the first time the album has been performed in its entirety. Allen was in fine form, and not just for a 90-year-old man. His playing was fiery and impassioned, and he truly seemed to enjoy playing with the Ratchets. It helped that Caloia's arrangements captured the spirit of the Sun Ra Orchestra, with a delightful looseness and strong individual voices rising up through the ensemble passages.

Thursday ended with guitarist Ava Mendoza's new trio (new since her move to New York City) of bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Nick Podgorski, a heavy-rocking outfit that featured some gorgeously aggressive interplay between Mendoza and Dahl, Mendoza spitting out shards of notes that Dahl answered with thunderous aplomb.

Friday's program included a heavy dose of Quebec content, starting with bassist Eric Normand's large ensemble GGRIL (le Grand Groupe Regional d'Improvisation Liberée) from the unlikely outpost of Rimouski, a town in the Gaspé peninsula. Normand has done great work as an educator and organizer dedicated to developing improvising skills among local musicians. GGRIL's program included two conducted improvisations and one new composition by each of Robert Marcel Lepage ("and Jean Derome, stalwarts of Montreal's musique actuelle scene. The members of GGRIL play with great spirit and joy; among the standouts were violinists Raphaël Arseneault and Catherine S. Massicotte and cellist Rémy Bélanger de Beauport. I had seen GGRIL in January at Open Waters in Halifax and been quite impressed, but I was a bit disappointed here; the musical ideas seemed to lack a bit of sharpness and cogency. Well, improvisation is by nature fickle, and these are young musicians. The evolution of GGRIL is an exciting and I would say important development for improvised music in Quebec.

I must have completely missed the point of Radwan Ghazi Moumneh's presentation of his project Jerusalem in My Heart. The drones by Moumneh and abstract film projections by Charles-André Coderre did not appear to connect with each other, with a resulting emotional flatness.

Gros Mené is a hard-rocking Quebec trio led by bassist and gravel-voiced vocalist Fred Fortin, and they were joined by the veteran guitarist Rene Lussier for the Friday 8 p.m. show at the Pavilion Arthabaska, a new to the festival venue located on Mount Arthabaska, a high point overlooking Victoriaville. Lussier and Fortin had played with Pierre Tanguay in an earlier iteration of the group, but Gros Mené's bar-band approach is a long way from that of the earlier trio. This was a fun show, raw and bluesy with attitude, and some fine lead by guitarist Olivier Langevin, with Lussier providing color.

That was just the warm-up to an evening of heavy sounds, as that show was followed by the quartet of Richard Pinhas, Keiji Haino, Kazuhisa Uchihashi, and Masami Akita (Merzbow). Ear protection was required. Merzbow provided the subtle shades of textures, Yoshida was powerful almost to the point of being overbearing, and Pinhas fired notes all over the top of the wall of sound. Haino played much less guitar and more electronics than seen at this festival in recent years, but he contributed several passages of very beautiful singing, and even a bit of dancing, in an utterly compelling performance.

Ufomammut are a long-standing Italian heavy metal trio, but this was their first-ever performance in North America. The show drew a crowd of headbangers for these messengers of doom, and Ufomammut delivered a powerful bottom-heavy sludge-fest. In their honor, I raise my beer bottle.

Saturday was jazz-oriented, starting at one o'clock with the duo of Montreal saxophonist Francois Carrier and drummer Michel Lambert in a meandering series of improvisations that seemed to go everywhere and nowhere, with little overt communication, either between Carrier and Lambert, or between the musicians and the audience. Sometimes random is just random.

Haram is a fusion of Arabic music and free jazz led by Vancouver-based, Lebanese-born oud player Gordon Grdina. This was a highly energetic, crowd-pleasing show, with some great moments coming from the interaction of violinists Jesse and Josh Zubot with trumpeter J.P. Carter.

On to 8 o'clock at the top of Mount Arthabaska and a rare meeting of two of the improvising world's giants, saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Fred Frith (this was only their third duo performance ever). Parker, of course, alternated between the soprano and tenor saxophones in a series of short pieces that heard both musicians communicating intuitively, with a sense of restraint that made it seem like each note had been carefully sculpted. Frith seemed to play the straight man for the most part, often using his guitar as a percussive instrument to play off against Parker's multiphonics. Gorgeous throughout, and exactly what many at the festival had come for.

Ken Vandermark followed at 10 p.m. at the large room, the Colisee A, with his latest project, Audio One, which contains all Chicago-based musicians, among them a formidable reed line of Dave Rempis, Mars Williams, and Nick Mazzarella. This showed a step forward in Vandermark's composing. The compositions had a loose, open feeling, the ensemble passages were beautifully voiced, and there was some very interesting interplay, in particular between alto violinist Jen Paulson and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. Approaching age 50, with so much behind him, Vandermark seems to be finding another gear.

Sunday began with a special performance by saxophonist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld. A couple in real life, this was their first duo concert on stage. It might be facile to say that the music was intimate, but that is how their original compositions felt.

Evan Parker's Electo-Acoustic Septet was comprised of George Lewis, Ikue More, and Sam Pluta on electronics (Lewis also played trombone), Parker, and cellist Okkyung Lee, clarinetist Ned Rothenberg, and trumpeter Peter Evans, a stellar mix of younger and older musicians who more than lived up to the billing. The real-time processing of the acoustic musicians was done with intelligence and grace, and there were a number of noteworthy solo spots, with Peter Evans being especially impressive. Collective group improvisation with such vitality and wit is rare indeed.

The 8 p.m. show was something entirely different, a very drole, very quebecois concoction of words and music led by saxophonist Pierre Labbe and word artist Michel Faubert titled parlures et perjures. Think a lot of quebecois French word play and aggressive lounge music—I mean that in a good way—and you'll have the idea. You had to be in on the cultural references to get what they were up to. It was a populist offering in a weekend that was marked by various forms of musical populism.

Finally, Fred Frith presented his Gravity Band in a Canadian premiere, doing the material from Frith's 1980 solo recording, Gravity, with a group of younger musicians from the Bay Area, where Frith lives and teaches at Mills College. . The dual guitars of Frith (who played electric bass on several songs) and Ava Mendoza were the focal point of the accessible set of songs, and percussionist William Winant moved things along with a deft, sure touch throughout.

Overall, there was much to be happy about at the 30th edition of Victo. What the future will bring, no one knows; each edition is an entity unto itself. Since the hiatus five years ago, though, the festival has been rejuvenated, and one hopes that this will remain the case for some time to come.

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