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Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 2 - May 16, 2008


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Tim Brady / Fred Frith Cosa Brava / John Zorn Moonchild
Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville
Victoriaville, Quebec, Canada

May 16, 2008

Outside, as it is, of the conventional summer festival season, one might think the highly unconventional Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville would have even more challenges than other festivals when it comes to programming. But with a reputation that's evolved gradually over the past 25 years, FIMAV is a favored destination by many of the on-the-edge (and, sometimes, over-the-edge) artists who appeal to the festival's relatively small, but passionately loyal fan base. That attendees return year-after-year (there are more than a few who have been coming to FIMAV for nearly as long as it's been in existence) from locations around the globe is testimony to the uniqueness of the festival, largely the responsibility of Artistic Director Michel Levasseur.

Still, it has to be a challenge, not only to be able to bring the artists to Victoriaville (there's no airport; musicians are shuttled to the festival by bus from Montreal, 90 miles away), but to create daily programming that's far more than a series of independent performances. With FIMAV's three venues—the Cinema Laurier theater Colisee (where a hockey rink, for five days, becomes a fully outfitted concert hall) and a smaller performance venue at the local CEGEP—used in rotation up to twice/day each, allowing festival goers to attend every single show should they so desire, it's also important to create a schedule with a flow, the same way a record producer sequences tracks on an album.

Day two of FIMAV 2008 may not have had a distinct musical theme, but in its flow from the generally softer complexion of guitarist Tim Brady's collaboration with video artist Martin Messner to the ear-shattering music of John Zorn's Moonchild project, there was at least one definitive break yet an unmistakable evolution as the day wore on. Chapter Index
  1. Tim Brady / Martin Messier / Bradyworks
  2. Fred Frith-Cosa Brava
  3. John Zorn-Moonchild

Tim Brady / Martin Messier / Bradyworks

Tim Brady has led a dual career, not unlike Norway's Terje Rypdal. A fine guitarist, Brady has released a series of albums that focus more on a unique approach to playing that's a stylistic mélange of Robert Fripp's circuity and Fred Frith's angularity, amongst others. Compositionally, he's moved the electric guitar, with all its broad sonic possibilities, into the realm of contemporary composition on albums including 10 Collaborations (Justin Time, 2000) and GO (Ambiances Magnetiques, 2006). Brady's music can be rigorous and complex, but he's also an improvising musician, sometimes blurring the line between form and freedom.

For his 1:00 PM show at Cinema Laurier, Brady collaborated with video artist Martin Messier for a series of pieces where sound and image integrated seamlessly. Unlike keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft's multi-media performance at the recent JazzNorway in a Nutshell however, the visuals are not an automated response to the music, but a constructed set of images that bring Brady's already highly pictorial music to a more discrete light.

Technically staggering, Brady's control of a wealth of sound-processing devices allows him to expand the sound of one guitar into a very large soundscape. His layering of delay and oscillation, during the first composition of the performance, allowed what was initially a very small group of notes played with a relentlessly rapid tremolo (up-and-down picking) to evolve almost imperceptibly. Effects that generated no small amount of noise made the piece more about texture than tonality, even as he expanded the piece away from those initial few notes.

Other pieces occupied more traditional spaces of melody, rhythm and harmony, despite there being little of the conventional in Brady's writing. Blending richly arpeggiated chords with jagged punctuations, Brady at times favored knotty, long-form themes that would, no doubt, yield far more on repeated listens but, even with this one exposure, created lengthy and intriguing narratives.

Brady's writing ranged from the brief miniatures of "Switch," titled for his use of the five-way switch on his electric guitar, to the more expansive "57 Ways of Playing Guitar," which incorporated the use of preprogrammed material and additional guitar tracks ("I'm a great guitarist," Brady said while introducing the piece, "but not that great"). But it was his "Double Quartet (Hommage a Shostakovich)," on which Brady was joined by his Bradyworks group—saxophonist Andre Leroux, percussionist Catherine Meunier, sampler David Kronkite and Brigitte Poulin—that was both the performance's longest piece and its highlight.

Using images from St. Petersburg and revolving around a four-note motif that Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) often used—D, Eb, C, B, which represented his first name—Brady's piece began in new music territory, but with his effected guitar (in particular an overdriven tone almost never heard in classical music, with the exception, again, of Terje Rypdal) often a sharp contrast to the organic sounds of piano, tuned percussion and saxophone, it ultimately paid homage to one of Shostakovich's primary influences, Baroque composer J.S. Bach. Angular melodies, sharp dynamic juxtapositions and oblique passages were replaced with melodies approaching beauty, but from a unique perspective filtered through Brady's personal lens.

With Brady, Meunier, Poulin and Lerou forming the first of the composition's titular groups, it was the three hours of string quartet music Brady had sampled for use by Kronkite that formed the second quartet. Perhaps a nod to the economic realities of touring with a larger ensemble, the resourceful addition also created a more modernistic sound and allowed Brady to shape the music and sonic landscape in ways that might not have been possible with two full quartets onstage.

As a composer, Brady fits in alongside contemporaries including Evan Ziporyn, David Lang and Martin Bresnick. As a player, with and without Bradyworks, he shares a modernity of approach with Bang on a Can, So Percussion and Alarm Will Sound. But his incorporation of a very electric guitar has created his own space, one that continues to evolve and whose many facets were demonstrated at his FIMAV 2008 performance.


Fred Frith- Cosa Brava

With a career that's ranged from solo prepared-guitar improvisations to classical compositions such as those heard on Eleventh Hour (Winter & Winter, 2005), it's Fred Frith's rock groups that remain some of his most memorable ensemble, including Henry Cow, Art Bears and Keep the Dog. It's been a long time since Frith put together an ostensibly rock band but, based on his performance at Cinema Laurier, Cosa Brava may be one of his best. While its penchant for strong melody may have been at odds with those FIMAV attendees whose tastes lean more to the extremes, suggestions that the group's music was simplistic were far off the mark. Like Zorn's The Dreamers show on day one of FIMAV 2008, Cosa Brava is undeniably accessible. But with complex counterpoint, episodic writing and songs that effortlessly shifted in tone and texture, there was clearly a lot more going on under the hood than the potentially but deceptively reductive sound of the end result.

With a visible quartet featuring violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), keyboardist/accordionist/vocalist Zeena Parkins (Skeleton Crew, John Zorn, Nels Cline) and drummer/singer Matthias Bossi (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Book of Knots), Frith has assembled a group of contemporary players who have already proven themselves capable of expanding pop/rock music into more experimental directions. With sonic manipulator The Norman Conquest (Norman Teale) working offstage, Frith has been able to realize and even greater audio landscape.

It takes great skill to fashion a sound rooted in complexity yet avoiding the trappings of over-consideration, but Frith's writing succeeded so well that the various stops and starts, irregular meters and elliptical melodies went by naturally, with a feeling of unforced ease. Switching between electric guitar and bass, it was also a chance to hear Frith play without all the prepared trappings of his free improv duo show with saxophonist Anthony Braxton at FIMAV 2005. Still, Frith's control of effects was remarkable, as he would put down his guitar, pick up the bass, create a bass loop and then return to guitar.

With Cosa Brava just off a seventeen-date European tour, the group worked its way through Frith's deceptive writing with a chemistry that allowed it to reference Celtic folk melodies, progressive rock tendencies and atmospheric ethereality without ever resorting to the obvious. Bossi's strength was his ability to imply groove while rarely setting into conventional backbeat-driven pulse, choosing instead tribal tom toms contrasted with delicate wood bocks and sharper punctuation. Parkins, who played more keyboard than accordion, created a wealth of textural backwashes, but was an equal member when it came to complex contrapuntal lines shared by her, Kihlstedt and Frith. While delineated solos were a rarity in the show, Parkins' occasional spotlights were compelling as ever.

With everyone in the group commanding attention, and with interest in Frith—standing towards the back of the stage beside Bossi—a given, it was Kihlstedt who demanded the most notice. Diminutive, but visually arresting as she created sweeping melodies and propulsive chordal rhythms, her rarified singing worked in contrast to Frith's deeper, yet equally attractive voice.

The only downside about Cosa Brava's show was that there was no CD to buy afterwards. Still, with interest in the group growing, and Frith's clear enjoyment of working with Kihlstedt, Parkins, Bossi and The Norman Conquest, there's hope that a disc won't be too far off.


John Zorn- Moonchild

If The Dreamers was John Zorn at his most accessible, the polar opposite Moonchild was Zorn at his most aggressive and challenging. Not because the music was complex—though the arrangements he has written for bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Joey Baron and singer Mike Patton were far more complicated than they might have seemed, so overpowering was the sheer volume and intensity of the group—but challenging to withstand because the music of Moonchild, undeniably Zorn's loudest project since his early 1990s Painkiller trio, was the musical equivalent of projectile vomiting. Clinically interesting, but not exactly a pleasant experience.

That Baron can move from the subtleties of his work with John Abercrombie (and, for that matter, the relatively nuanced The Dreamers) to full-out bashing speaks to his breadth of skill. Dunn was impressive the previous evening, but he was overall more rhythm section anchor. Here he was the group's melodic (if one can use that term to describe the trio) leader, creating all the harmonic contexts around which Patton delivered his indecipherable screams, guttural growls and high pitched squeals.

While The Dreamers attracted a slightly larger crowd, accommodated by setting up approximately 540 chairs in the Colisee's concert hall, Moonchild was nearly as packed with a slightly smaller seating capacity. Both the audience reaction and the relative popularity of the trio's three discs—Moonchild (Tzadik, 2006), Astronome (Tzadik, 2006) and Six Litanies for Heliogabalus (Tzadik, 2007), the latter an expanded version also including Jamie Saft, Ikue Mori, Zorn on sax and three additional vocalists—suggests that Moonchild is here to stay, at least as long as the prolific Zorn continues to be interested in writing for it.

First emerging with the equally hardcore Mr. Bungle (where he first met Trevor Dunn) and the more commercially palatable Faith No More, Patton possesses the ability to sing in a more conventional fashion, but here it was all-stops-out, as he prowled the stage, crawling around at times like a simian and other times like a crab. His exaggerated expressions and over- the-top vocals commanded equal attention alongside Dunn's full-out body-slam bass playing. Baron, playing like a man possessed, was largely hidden behind a much larger kit than he usually plays, seen only occasionally as he stood up to create great washes of sound around his many cymbals.

The music of Moonchild is certainly not for everyone, absolutely not for the faint-of-heart or those trying to protect their ears (even with earplugs and at a distance, this group was loud). But for anyone with even the slightest bit of head-banging metal in their background, Zorn's Moonchild provided plenty of catharsis, along with writing that was deceptively complex, and demanding so much intensity from the trio it's likely that coming off the stage they were completely energized, but not long after totally enervated.

Tomorrow: Houle/Smulovitz/Gagnons/Griffiths, Baumann/Ziegler, Spunk.

Visit Tim Brady, Fred Frith, John Zorn and FIMAV on the web.

Photo Credit: Martin Morisette

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