Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville 2011

Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville 2011
Kurt Gottschalk By

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Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Canada
May 19-22, 2011
The 27th annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) was a remarkably consistent four days of concerts. It held high points, to be sure (the Ex, Zeena Parkins, Jaap Blonk), and inevitable low points as well. But there was also a singular peak of pure fascination, that being something called Echo Echo Mirror House, presented by the ever-challenging Anthony Braxton. There was little by way of quiet, instead a still satisfying mix of richness and clarity, often mid-volume and mid-tempo. And where the 2010 was dominated by the Montrealaise contingent, this year the Quebecois were largely grouped into a sprawling, 30-piece orchestra with the rest of the fest represented by New York and L.A., Holland and Japan, Australia and Siberia.
The FIMAV leadership has never been overly concerned with crowd- pleasing tactics, but this year's first night was still fairly red letter. Japanese avant vocalist Koichi Makagami opened the proceedings and Vancouver turntablist Kid Koala closed it, representing two varieties of cuddly grown men. In between them, longstanding Dutch punk band the Ex outfitted itself with a horn section for one of the most purely enjoyable sets of the fest.
Makagami is a vocal improviser of remarkable talent and inventiveness, which was displayed during an all-too-brief solo piece before his trio set. After a quick and fast-changing cartoon monologue, he was joined by drummer Sato Masaharu who, if not Makagami's match, could keep pace with the vocal exercises. In short orde,r Siberian string player Bolot Bayryshev joined them, rounding out a trio whose performance was built largely around vocal drones and throat singing, but with Makagami's trumpet and theremin added to it, along with Masaharu's percussion (his kit comprised of a hand-carved drum sideways, small cymbals, a cowbell and other handheld percussion) and Bayryshev's strings, put through heavy flange and other effects. Repetition was their mission if at times, their downfall. Together they struck a music of heavy trance-inducing chant.

Lest it be thought that there's something speciest about calling them "cuddly," it should be noted that Makagami, in vocal and facial gesture, could be a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, and that Kid Koala did, in fact, wear a Koala suit on stage, and that the word "adorable" had already been taken. Koala played an anything-goes set built from spontaneous ideas and works-in-progress using hip-hop pastiche as the mortar. The piece of avant hip-hop comedy theater also included a pillow fight between a pair of audience members and a screening of a short animated break-dance battle during which the audience was asked to provide crowd sounds to be recorded and dubbed onto the final edit. Koala's work, when conceived and realized, can be pretty great. This wasn't, but it was purely fun.

In its latest incarnation, Dutch punk group the Ex has become a bass-less band, sometimes bottomed out by one of the two guitars (or three, when new singer and front man Arnold de Boer was playing) detuned or pitch-shifted down. With the Brass Unbound horns, the bass was also supplanted by the mighty baritone saxophone of Mats Gustafsson, who probably could have stood up against the electric guitars without benefit of microphone. The band has worked with horns before, both in improv settings and in their collaboration with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, but it's never quite been punk-band- with-horns before. At FIMAV, the section (which also included trumpeter Roy Paci, saxophonist Ken Vandermark and trombonist Wolter Wierbos) were dynamic, sometimes adding a feedback squall, sometimes performing tight punctuation, sometimes taking over the abandon for the core of the band. And of course, just playing. Vandermark, in particular, took a wonderfully Afrobeat-psychedelic solo, while Paci took a wonderful turn mimicking de Boer's voice.

The band's international concerns are more in line with their political leanings than punk tradition. In addition to the Ethiopian songs, they played a Hungarian folk tune they had recorded with the late Tom Cora some 20 years earlier to a cheer. (There are only so many rooms in the world where the cellist's name still draws applause.) The horns pushed the band further at times, but were best when they amalgamated a sort of punk Stax revue, as on "24 Problems," which should rightly be their new hit single.

On a level of pure enjoyment, the Ex and Zeena and the Adorables were clear high points, actuelle-styled party music. Zeena Parkins' new band features a pair of percussionists (acoustic Shayna Dunkelman and electronic Preshish Moments), together playing complex instrumental compositions boasting a pop sensibility. With Parkins on electric and concert harps, as well as keyboard and effects, it could have come off as a transmogrified piano trio with a melody instrument out front. But Parkins is too smart for that and the pieces were construed as organic wholes and played with wonderful precision, especially when Dunkelman turned to the vibraphone. They encored with "Something for Sophia," written by Henry Mancini for the 1966 Sophia Loren/Gregory Peck movie, Arabesque—an adorable bit of exotica

Zeena and the Adorables

But if FIMAV 2011 is to go down in history, it will be for the performance of Anthony Braxton's conceptual framework, Echo Echo Mirror House. The festival has shown a strong dedication to Braxton in recent years; he now has more releases on the affiliated record label Victo than any other artist, and this promises to be another release. It was arguably a logical (if befuddling) extension of his Ghost Trance Music, wherein subgroups of the ensemble are allowed to play other Braxton pieces within the larger performance. For this effort, the members of the septet were equipped with iPods so that they could play past recordings of his pieces in the midst of a composition built from maps and colored transparencies.

Braxton and trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum began the set on their iPods, introducing an immediate confluence of musics. Then Braxton and Jessica Pavone moved, respectively, to saxophone and viola, and in short order other acoustic instruments followed. It was similar to the Ghost Trance, but even more ghostly. The concert was performed by at least three orchestras, two of which could be neither seen nor apprised. For the audience, it was an immediate dive into internal logics which must simply be agreed upon and accepted as a matter of faith if one is to listen at all. Braxton music, of late, has always included concurrent streams of information, but usually to a lesser degree and built in more gradual increments.

While Echo Echo Mirror House certainly didn't violate the logic systems of Braxton's music (and in a sense, how could it?), it was a definite change in aesthetic. Braxton has spoken in terms of a "post-Albert Ayler, post-John Cage continuum" and this was very much nearer the Cagean end of the spectrum than he's often been before—not in a happenstance way but in line with Cage's "circus" pieces or, for example, his multi-media work HPSCHD, where there is simply too much information—not noise, not interference, but real information—to process. Braxton's music isn't often chaotic, but this certainly came off as such, even if in fact it was a chorus of conflicting streams—rather like how planets, meteors and asteroids all follow mathematically determined paths but still collide. The systems here were independent and so inevitably ran into each other.

Anthony Braxton's Echo Echo Mirror House

The process also introduced a strange variable: whereas players might have at times tried to avoid reacting to each other within the Ghost Trance Music, here it was made impossible. Some of the musicians playing the piece had recorded their parts years prior, playing another piece before Echo Echo Mirror House was even conceived. By the constraints of time and technology, they could not interact. They were active, yet frozen within the piece, while the living musicians played. The piece oddly robbed audience members of the opportunity to hear soloists, at least as they would usually be heard in a jazz setting. The iPods played at a slightly louder volume than the ensemble, guaranteeing that the prerecorded tracks couldn't be tuned out as background noise. The musical ideas within the piece were clear, but subsumed in a multitasked whole. Like shooting stars, their solos were hard to catch but beautiful to behold.

The disparity in loudness was slight, but crucial, creating a tension between volume and clarity. And, in a sense, that was a current throughout the festival: none of the music was quite quiet, but never was there a loss of clarity, a sort of tandem tribute to the inventiveness of the composers presented and the always excellent sound production at Victoriaville.

And as far as that uneasy brotherhood between volume and clarity goes, the most extreme example was a quintet made up of French electronicist Richard Pinhas, Japanese noise master Merzbow and the extreme heaviness of the Michigan trio Wolf Eyes. Two guitars, a keyboard, a laptop, a cymbal, a saxophone and plenty of electronics occupied the room in what was assembled, one supposes, to be the loudest thing since noise bands Borbetomagus and Hijokaidan shared the same stage in 2006. Still, they opened with distinct textures and an organizational sense that was nearly symphonic. The first 20 minutes were pristine, beautiful even, and at a deafening level. Even within the din, there were distinct voices (although telling whose voice was whose was another matter). If they didn't keep up that high standard of interplay for the whole of the set, they had earned themselves room to relax into a bit of reductivism.

Festival director Michel Levasseur specializes in finding or curating such unexpected pairings, and one such wonderful meeting on the program was the North American premiere of French turntablist eRikm with percussionist FM Einheit of the legendary German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. eRikm showed a great knack for using scratch techniques against the raw pounding of Einheit, who played an amplified suspended metal coil with a hammer and doubled on a piece of sheet metal the size of a door covered with chunks of cement (musique concrète?), which he proceeded to break further with his hammer and shuffle and drop with his hands, kicking up a cloud of dust. When he struck them with his hammer, sparks flew. Literally. Even underneath the cloud of dust from the breaking of rubble, the raw primitivist rhythms were clear as a bell.

Australian pianist Anthony Pateras deals with volume, even when making very quiet music. Some of his best work involves a softly played but heavily amplified and prepared piano. For FIMAV, he appeared in the duo Pivixki, with drummer Max Kohane of Australian grindcore band Agents of Abhorrence. They were exciting and visceral, being only a rhythm section but not trying transcend that (or pretend that they had). Pateras played some melodic chord figures at times, but it wasn't really about riffs. It was about modes and textures and, again, clarity within intensity.

Few might better typify the crossroads of clarity and intensity than the German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who appeared twice at the festival in honor of his 70th birthday. He brought a new trio with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Massimo Pupillo (Brötzmann seems to have a thing of late for Italian electric power-bassists). When they hit full stop, it worked on the brain something like the Braxton set: There was far too much to take in, even if there were only three of them. The density and the attack were a challenge to muscle through— which of course is exactly why it was so exciting.

The Brötzmann attack was made easier to unpack the following day, when he played a solo and magnificently unamplified set. (He didn't need a mike, and even joked at a press conference that morning about a concert with an electric guitarist where he couldn't be heard: "And I can play rather loudly if I want," he exclaimed in exaggerated understatement.) Without the conflagration of the trio, he had nothing more than the slight acoustic decay of the movie theater to augment his brusque and forceful reading of standards and improvised ballads. He played with a forceful whisper and, as the set progressed, with his usual bluster as he folded in a mix of reed flutter and overtone, pushing with a magnified focus on repeated runs and single notes, examining the parallels and crosscurrents, really, of communication, of shared existence, of how emotions can flow freely or run concurrent, can seem to contradict each other. Had their been a set list, it would do little to outline the set he played. Tunes like "I Surrender Dear" and "Round Midnight" were interpolated within his free-flowing monologue, but in too deeply personal a sense to be framed as "playing the standards." The life lessons were underlined by his encore reading of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman," a woman still sad in his telling but crying to be noticed, not alone at home but alone in the crowd, in the world.

Strangely similar to the Brötzmann (and on the same afternoon) was the solo voice lecture/recital by Dutch voice artist Jaap Blonk. He opened with the repeated sentence "Are you listening?" in his own forceful whisper, slowly pushing in volume and growl. Blonk loosely played the role of Dr. Voxoid, a professor speaking on the history of sound poetry and falling into the subject, seeming to lose himself at times or lose the character for the sanctity of a piece at other times. He performed pieces by pioneers in the field, including Antonin Artaud and Kurt Schwitters, as well as works of his own devise. He performed a suite of pieces he wrote in "Underlinds," a nonsense language he created out of Dutch phonemes, explaining that that way it didn't have to be translated and could be enjoyed by anyone. The pure range of technique Blonk has developed—down to the fricative sounds of his "cheek synthesizer"—is impressive, but what might not have been expected within a performance of something that sounds as dryly artful as "sound poetry" was Blonk's sense of humor. He was, along with everything else, quite a good actor with a surprising sense for physical humor.

Sandwiched between the two solo shows was a set by 7K Oaks, a quartet featuring bassist Pupillo, saxophonist Alfred 23 Harth, pianist Luca Venitucci and drummer Fabrizio Spera. They, too, followed a slow ramp-up, opening with slow piano notes and Harth's samples and live processing, layering shades of white noise while the electric bass rumbled. As the mix grew weightier, Harth created a reverse echo of sampled then real saxophones. The prolonged improvisation worked particularly well against the backdrop of Variation kaléidoscopique, a lovely piece of distorted landscape by Montreal video artist Hugues Dugas. As the Oaks played on, the scene was a sweep of forest spun through a distorted mirror. Together they were fairly hypnotic.

Visuals were also key to Stained Resonance, the collaboration of guitarist Nels Cline and painter Norman Wisdom. In previous performances and on their excellent DVD (released in 2010 by Cryptogramophone) they proved they can do a fast show, but nothing was hurried here. Wisdom did quick, painterly sketches, repeating human figures cloaked in sex and death, and just as quickly smears, wipes or paints them away. He demonstrated an ability to paint an S over a circular blob and, in that gesture, suggest the age and ethnicity of the figure just created. Here the movement was slower on both men's parts, which might have made for more thoughtfully constructed music but didn't show Wisdom at the peak of his skills.

Dutch violaist Ig Henneman presented a drummer-less sextet playing chamber compositions with avant jazz soloing, especially from saxophonist Ab Baars and slide trumpeter Axel Dorner. The pieces worked like polarized themes and solos, calls and responses, creating layers that were then skillfully laid over one another or alongside one another with no loss of clarity. One particularly nice piece, "Toe and Heel," was based on the memories of organ improvisations after Mass, named for the technique used in playing foot pedals.

Henneman's band was half Dutch (bassist Wilbert de Joode filling out that side of the equation) and one-third Canadian, with bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and pianist Marilyn Lerner representing the homeland. Another Canadian pianist was also on hand to help make quota. Vancouver's Paul Plimley played a lyrical set, even gospel-tinged at times, which nicely retained its melodicism even when it grew in complexity. He delivered a sort of CV of playing styles, an enjoyably varied recital that exhibited his mastery by demonstrating that speed of playing and shifts in ideas don't necessarily have to come with a sacrifice of harmonic clarity. He made choices that, in immediate hindsight, seemed obvious, but in the moment were rarely apparent; at one moment with the simplicity of a John Lennon piano song, later in a rattling, percussive piece with the piano prepared and sounding like a demented yet mannered harpsichord.

But the heavy Canadian load was the thirtyish-strong Ratchet Orchestra from Montreal. The band counts, among its ranks, some members of that city's vital Ambiances Magnetiques collective, including Freedman, Jean Derome and Tom Walsh, but also includes amateurs and hobbyists, ranging from 15 to 76 years of age. Playing the matinee after predicted and much ballyhooed Rapture, they opened their set with a Sun Ra chant:
It's after the end of the world
Don't you know that yet?"
Proceeding into a variety of stylized jazz pieces—rich and distinct if a bit antic-y at times but vibrant nevertheless—the group encored with a piece that echoed of Quebec's wonderfully upbeat and country-tinged folk music.

FIMAV pulled off a remarkable feat in 2008, closing the festival with guitarist Fred Frith and percussionist Chris Cutler and a new ensemble, which also included Zeena Parkins, performing songs originally recorded by their seminal avant rock band the Art Bears. This year's finale echoed that grand gesture by bringing in another such "songbook" project, this one featuring Art Bears singer Dagmar Krause. Comicoperando (Domino, 2007) is a setting of songs written by Robert Wyatt, a founding member of Soft Machine and easily one of the more sophisticated pop songwriters of the last 40 years. The group performed songs spanning more than two decades, focusing particular attention on his albums Shleep (Hannibal, 1997), Rock Bottom (Virgin, 1974) and Old Rottenhat (Rough Trate, 1985), with the voices of Krause and Annie Whitehead (who doubled on trombone), and the voice and direction of Karen Mantler. The performances and arrangements were all satisfying, loving even, and natural, but the added pleasure was watching the rhythm section of Cutler and bassist John Edwards playing pop songs—easily but not lazily.

Cutler and Edwards are master improvisers, and a week in the small town of Victoriaville can do much to blur boundaries like "pop" and "improvisation" and "jazz." Or even "art music" and "sound poetry." And with clarity.

Photo Credit
All Photos: Martin Morissette

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