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Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville 2015, Part 1

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Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Canada
May 14-15, 2015

Part 1 | Part 2

At first, second, and third glance, the lineup for this year's 31st edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville looked exceptionally strong, and over the first two days, happy to say that most of the performances have lived up to expectations, or at least have provoked discussion.

The festival began innocently enough on Thursday at 8 at the Pavilion Arthabaska, a chalet overlooking the city of Victoriaville and the surrounding countryside, with a performance by Jason Kao Hwang's Burning Bridge octet, a string and brass band that played a sort of American free jazz with Chinese inflections and blues tonalities. Violin, pipa, erhu, and bass faced off across the stage with tuba, trumpet and trombone, doing a suite of compositions from Hwang's recording "Burning Bridge." Hwang's group achieved the balance that they were looking for. The compositions featured sections of duos, in all possible permutations of the string/bass combination, and the playing was full of color and texture, detailed, voices emerging unexpectedly behind whatever was the momentary focus. The colorings of Joe Daley's tuba and Sun Li's pipa were astonishingly subtle and effective, and the soloing of Hwang, trumpeter Herb Robertson and trombonist Steve Swell was inspired.

Composer Jean Derome kicked off the year of celebration of his 60th birthday with the premiere of his new game piece, Resistance, performed by a group of nineteen of Montreal's finest improvisers. The piece is based on the idea of the 60Hz cycle and the difficulty of maintaining a stable cycle in the face of atmospheric changes, to rather brutally summarize based on what Derome said in his press meeting on Friday. The music pulsed and swelled more than it moved forward, but that is not to say that it was entirely static (pun not intended), as the score and Derome's directions gave the musicians room to make subtle adjustments in the moment. Derome, whose career spans some forty years, seemed to be newly energized by this music, and it was good to see.

Radwan Ghazi Mounmeh's Jerusalem in My Heart and the rock group Suuns teamed up in the midnight show for a set of Middle Eastern grooves and rock crunch. This was a much more engaging performance than JIMH's set at last year's Victo, as they closed out the evening with a rocking 50-minute set that was something of a foretaste of what was to come on Friday.

Simply describing Linda Bouchard's piece "Murderous Little World," might take the rest of this review, and even that would not do the complexity of the presentation justice. Reading parts of seven Anne Carson poems, the trio Bellows and Brass (accordion, trumpet, tuba) perform Bouchard's music in front of a series of video projections, but the trio do more than just play the music, as they act out Keith Turnbull's stage directions. This is the sort of concept that has great potential to cause either boredom or annoyance, but such was not the case for "Murderous Little World."

Friday night was anticipated as the unofficial "rock" night of the festival, and it started with the wonderful Deerhoof, who were playing Victoriaville for the first time. The world's nerdiest surf ban thoroughly charmed the audience with their mix of surfabilly riffs and Japanese funhouse looniness. Bassist and singer Satomi Matsuzaki bounced around the stage like some kind of crazed cheerleader, as if the dense and subtly textured music was not enough to grab the audience's attention. This is smart rock that plays with rock conventions without ever forgetting that music has to make you move.

Sometimes, though, music is moving in some not so pleasant ways. The Slovenian group Laibach presented a complex dilemma for this reviewer, as their Wagnerian doom metal performed in front of a video projection of crypto-fascist imagery drove me out of the room. Some claimed that Laibach's performance was satire, but if it was, it was impossible to get in on the joke, and thus not very effective as satire. Were they presenting a Hitleresque totalitarian vision, or were they sending it up? I don't know, and I didn't care to find out. This was the first time I have ever left a show for political reasons, and though Victoriaville has over the years presented much extreme music—no problem there—this was not in keeping with the spirit of the festival. Or, as I said, I missed the joke.

Friday evening finished with a midnight set of caveman sludge rock by the Italian duo Ovo, making their first appearance in North America. It was fun, and it was heavy, and it was loud, and it was a good way to finish off the first two days of the festival, which continues today and tomorrow with what looks like a terrific program that includes performances by Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog, the Nels Cline Singers Unlimited, and Kaze. My review of the Saturday and Sunday performances will be up on Monday.

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