Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 2 - May 18, 2007

John Kelman By

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One of the great things about the Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV) is that, unlike many festivals, it's possible to attend every show. With three venues—a movie theater, converted arena and intimate room in an educational institution (CEGEP, one of a network of 48 post-secondary schools in Quebec), shows are programmed to cycle through the venues two times on the festival's busiest days (Saturday and Sunday). Within reasonable walking distance, the layout allows sufficient time between performances for attendees to get to the next venue.

Day two of the 24th edition of FIMAV ran the gamut from acoustic to electro-acoustic to eardrum-shattering electric, and from unadorned free improv to metal spectacle. Just another day in the life of FIMAV.
Chapter Index

  1. Michael Snow / Alan Licht / Aki Onda
  2. Theresa Transistor
  3. John Zorn Solo
  4. Melvins

Michael Snow / Alan Licht / Aki Onda

The first show of the day was proof that the most unconventional of instruments can be used to create imaginative soundscapes. Canadian pianist/electronic manipulator Michael Snow has led a life of diversity as a celebrated avant-garde filmmaker and improvising artist. New York-based guitarist Alan Licht has operated in a variety of musical spheres, influenced by everything from the minimalism of Steve Reich to no wave bands like Sonic Youth. Japanese-born, New York-based Aki Onda is an equally intrepid artist who, aside from composition, production and photography, uses a most unlikely instrument—a cassette Walkman—to create a personal view of music as texture and experience.

The trio's hour-long performance, while not its first, found them still very much in exploratory territory, looking for ways to shape sounds ranging from spare and atmospheric to dense and industrial. Snow began on piano, and while his approach was unencumbered free play, a brief humorous snippet at the end of the performance demonstrated that even the most unfettered artists are often grounded in conventions, or at least options they may choose to employ or disregard . Repeated motifs evolved into aggressive block chords and furious flurries of notes.

Michael Snow / Alan Licht / Aki Onda

Michael Snow, Alan Licht, Aki Onda

Licht entered gradually, his playing early in the set the closest to conventional guitar tonality that would be heard during the group's set. With reverse looping followed by a relatively clean tone, he created cascading lines that interacted with Snow's contributions—sometimes at odds, other times managing to connect more directly. But after the first few minutes, all pretense of instrument usage common to all three musicians fell by the wayside, with Licht using his instrument more like a controller to generate sounds that were then radically altered by his array of effects. Onda's entry was even more deliberate, slowly adding texture to the gradually intensifying and occasionally assaultive mix.

Once Snow moved off piano to a mid-1970s Kat synthesizer and Licht began to make use of his array of processing gear, any semblance of following familiar conventions in the creation of musical phrases was abandoned. Difficult though it was to discriminate exactly who was doing what, careful visual attention paid off. Snow and Licht could both be seen adjusting controls that synched up with some of the harsh textures—even, at times, linked to transient or oscillating electronic rhythms that would occasionally surface, only to disappear again, as the ambience turned even more aggressive, increasingly occupying the foreground.

That Onda could use for "samples" personally created cassette recordings so effectively and in so many ways was among the impressive accomplishments of this demanding set. While one might not think that the kind of electronic-noise improv this trio makes would be a moving experience at the visceral level (the way, say, music with a defined pulse is), Onda's physical engagement laid waste to any such misguided notion. At times he would extract a sound from his Walkman, hit play and then pull sharply back on the hand-held unit, creating an acutely felt sonic shift. Like Snow and Licht, he also processed his native sounds, often beyond all recognition.

While there was little relationship to the familiar, the set had its own form, even if suggestive of a relentless barrage of sound. Snow, at various points, put a portable radio up to a microphone, broadcasting whatever he happened to find, including a radio announcer discussing a festival taking place in Victoriaville. Like many other moments during this often intense spatial-temporal audioscape, serendipity reigned—the postmodern self-referentiality of the radio announcement being a prime example. But perhaps what made the set so interesting was, above all, the audience' awarenesss that many of the sounds being produced by Snow, Licht and Onda were as new to the artists as to the audience. Improvisation as texture, not as rhythm, melody or fixed form. class="f-right">

Theresa Transistor

While the majority of the sounds created by Snow, Licht and Onda derived from analogue sources, Theresa Transistor's hour-long set was a combination of cutting-edge technology and acoustically generated timbres. An electro-acoustic (or acousmatic) group of four Quebec musicians—Monique Jean, Christian Bouchard, Christian Calon and Mario Gauthier—Theresa Transistor transformed the intimate surroundings of the CEGEP room into an almost participatory environment for the audience.

Rather than being on a stage facing the audience and serving as its focal point, with the audio system projecting sound from the stage towards the back of the room, Theresa Transistor set up its notebook computers, processing gear and assorted odds and ends on tables in the center of the room, surrounded by the audience. Speakers were situated around the perimeter of the room, encompassing rather than unidirectional. The result was a sonic "theater in the round," something to be felt and experienced as much as heard, a kind of improvisational performance that worked live but would likely be less successful on CD.

Theresa Transistor

Theresa Transistor

The set was best experienced with eyes closed, letting the washes of sound, electronic beeps, rhythmic white noise and more become the soundtrack to an imagined movie. While the majority of the work seemed to be computer-generated, watching the four musicians made it possible to see a number of natural sounds sampled as in a working laboratory, then processed and fed back into the mix, driving an ongoing and complex four-way sonic conversation. Whistles, spoken word and whispers spoken into a microphone, a small bell tree, a tape head passed near a power bar were all sound sources for the quartet. Musical samples emerged at one point, providing a temporary respite from the more angular abstractions of most of the performance.

Like the Snow/Licht/Onda performance, Theresa Transistor was very much music of the moment, though not necessarily music in the terms with which it is usually described. As much as the sound and interaction amongst the artists was improvised, so too was the aural field itself. Location, or the point from which the sound emerged amongst the speakers surrounding the audience, was just as important as the sound itself. Another uncompromising set on what would turn out to be a challenging day all around. class="f-right">

John Zorn Solo

Altoist/composer John Zorn has become something of an icon to followers of the festival, performing at FIMAV more frequently, perhaps, than anyone else over the past quarter century. Distinguishing his performance at the 24th edition of FIMAV was a solo saxophone set of stunning virtuosity and invention, proving that the sounds one can get out a single wind instrument can be as seemingly infinite as those generated electronically.

Zorn's set was acoustic in the most literal sense. No microphones, no sound system. Just Zorn, his alto, a stool and a bowl of water. That he filled a room the size of Cinéma Laurier with sound was remarkable in itself. That he maintained the listener's interest throughout a first piece lasting over forty minutes, followed by a shorter piece and an encore that the audience insisted upon before any thought of leaving, was even more extraordinary.


While the performance was freely improvised, it was not without structure. Zorn began with a series of moving harmonics and multiphonics, gradually introducing into the mix more urgent notes that eventually evolved into a discernable pattern. The altoist seamlessly shifted gears between each widely divergent texture, developing long, uninterrupted phrases through seemingly endless circular breathing. Solo performance is nothing new to Zorn, and over the years he's developed a style that can be as much performance art as it is actual music, as much a feat of physical conditioning as of unabated woodshedding.

Still, while there was no shortage of the abstruse wailing, guttural noises and high-pitched squeaks that were satirized so memorably in a brief segment on television's The Colbert Report (the episode covering Zorn's being awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Grant), hearing these sounds in the context of a complete performance revealed far more substance. Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture work was there, sometimes subtly, elsewhere more overtly, when he'd briefly find his way to a more mellifluous tone. Equally there was no shortage of humor, with Zorn moving from loud dissonances to quiet harmonic squeals as he placed the bell of his horn against his leg.

The soloist-sole performer was also a master of dynamics, filling the room with piercing or earth-moving blasts one moment, making the audience lean forward to hear a whisper-like phrase the next. It was a captivating set that engaged the audience so thoroughly that even the quietest moments were heard clearly throughout the hall.

Just when you were convinced you'd seen/heard it all, Zorn continued to demonstrate how much more can be done with a single acoustic instrument. For his second piece he removed the mouthpiece, brought a bowl of water onto his stool and began an improvisation sounding much like a duck call. Wrapping his hands around the mouthpiece, he opened and closed them in various way, thus broadening the palette, then literally blowing into the water. Again, a breathtaking virtuoso performance yet by no means short on humor.

A powerful and insistent standing ovation brought Zorn back for an encore, though the crowd favorite couldn't resist a preliminary comment of feigned incredulity: "That was really hardcore—and you want some more? Probably, much more. There are likely few audiences outside FIMAV who would get this excited by an hour of solo saxophone that ranged from thematic to anarchic. But what was made clear by this performance—and the entire day—is that music comes in many guises. It may not always be pretty, but it can most assuredly be compelling if not captivating, and Zorn's set was the clear highlight so far. class="f-right">


Waiting in line outside the Colisée, it became immediately evident that Melvins were attracting a different audience. The average age dropped by at least fifteen years, and a level of excitement suggesting this band of twenty years duration (as opposed to a band made up of twenty-year-olds) was, at the very least, worth checking out.

Walking into the venue was further evidence that something different was coming. Contrasting with the usual table and chairs seating, the hall (with the exception of some bleacher seating at the back) was set up for standing only, a veritable ravefest configuration. The lighting was more extensive, and two drum kits largely dominated the stage. The room continued to fill right up to show time—the largest attendance for an event so far, rivaling even Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore's Dream Aktion Unit performance in 2005.

When FIMAV's Michel Levasseur introduced the band, the crowd went wild—but still was made to wait for the group to appear on stage. With stark purple lighting swirling around the stage and bathing the audience, over five minutes of programmed noise unmistakably linked this performance to the electronic experiments of earlier in the day (of course this was all about preplanning). With an air of spectacle, the first to appear on stage were the group's two power drummers, hulking their individual paths to their respective kits like two Hunchbacks of Notre Dame. Dale Crover and newcomer Coady Willis (who, along with bassist/ vocalist Jarred Warren come from the hardcore band Big Business) launched into a choreographed and repetitive primal rhythm that slowly built in intensity over the harsh electronics still filling the room, ultimately dominating and setting the stage for the appearance of Warren and guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne.


Buzz Osborne, Coady Willis, Dale Crover, Jarred Warren

The sound of Melvins' music? Think Black Sabbath but ratcheted up about ten notches and, at times, even more dirge-like. The visceral punch of Osborne's guitar and the plodding pace of the opening tune were enough to make the audience's ears bleed. But inside the metal veneer is a group that's more adventurous than it might seem. It's not a total stretch to hear a group like this cover Alice Cooper, but when it covered Merle Haggard...that was something completely different. Osborne's larger than imaginable sound and Warren's often fuzz-toned bass created a deep, dense foundation, and while Osborne rarely soloed, the spots where he did it were more primal invention than overt flash.

The group's recent expansion to a twin-drummer lineup was an inspired move. Aside from the added power, the arrangements focused plenty of attention on Crover and Willis, who played in staggeringly taut unison but also worked through arrangements almost orchestrally Wagnerian in scope.

Melvins' uninterrupted set also demonstrated the importance of continuity, set structure and seamless movement from one song to the next. Osborne and Warren often sang unison, but harmonies occasionally emerged. The first part of the set was light on verse-chorus song structure, though the set ultimately balanced the inattention to song-form formulae with arrangements that, however head-banging, contained a complex subtext of shifting meters and dropped beats.

The energy never let up during Melvins' energizing ninety-minute set. Nor did the volume. The audience was enthusiastic, with the occasional stage diver adding some visual fun for those in the bleachers, not to mention an extra thrill or two for the stage-crowders. Melvins may not be everybody's cup of tea, and might seem an odd programming choice for a festival that will be featuring Anthony Braxton in two different performances on Day Four. Anyone who saw Braxton here in 2005 will, however, know that Melvins fit into the larger definition of Musique Actuelle—and that it's not beyond the realm of possibility that, were Braxton to hear the group, he could easily turn out to be a forceful advocate (as happened with Wolf Eyes) of a band that puts the "heavy in heavy metal.

Visit John Zorn, Melvins and FIMAV on the web.

Photo Credit
Martin Morisette

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