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Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 3 - May 19, 2007


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With a festival as inherently risk-taking as the Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV), it's a given that some shows will work better than others. There may also be failed experiments, but it's to the festival's credit that it doesn't rely on the tried-and-true. Invariably, even the less-successful performances are, at the very least, worth checking out.

Day three of the 24th edition of FIMAV was all about operating without a safety net—and, as usual, within a wide array of musical contexts—with some of this year's most and least successful shows yet.
Chapter Index

  1. Signal Quintet
  2. Victoriaville Matiere Sonore
  3. Carla Bozulich Evangelista
  4. Acid Mothers Gong

Signal Quintet

With the emphasis that the festival has placed on electro-acoustics this year, the often "foreign" sounds make it a challenge to determine, from a technical standpoint, how one performance rates against another. That said, perhaps it's better to base the success or failure of these experiments in texture and three- dimensional soundscaping less on production than on the effect: a performance's emotional resonance with the listener and the appearance, at least, of some form of thematic-structural arc across often lengthy pieces. Based on these criteria, the day's first performance by Signal Quintet—consisting of Swiss experimentalists Jason Kahn, Tomas Korber, Norbert Moslang, Gunter Muller and Christian Weber—rates as the most successful of its kind this year.

Signal Quintet

Signal Quintet: Jason Kahn, Tomas Korber, Christian Weber, Gunter Muller, Norbert Moslang

While the stage was largely devoted to assorted electronic gear, there were a couple of conventional instruments—Kahn's single snare drum and Weber's double-bass. But any semblance of traditional expectations of the instruments was quickly dispensed within the first few minutes of the quintet's opening 45-minute improvisation. Kahn used only his hands (often only his fingers) to create subtle rhythms that he then processed and fed to his band mates. Weber's application was more acoustic, but he rarely played the instrument in a normal fashion—opting, instead, to create odd sonorities by bowing below the bridge, or even the body, of the bass, rubbing the strings, and more.

Unlike the electro-acoustic performances of Day Two, when it sometimes appeared as if sheer density and field placement substituted for narrative coherence, this show was all about purpose and gradual development. Rarely possessing any form of melodic content, it nevertheless told a story and found the quintet members speaking with a clear and unified voice. Rather than overt sonic assaults, the performance was filled with understatement and nuance, demonstrating a remarkably subtle interaction. For those who feel that sound without melody, harmony and rhythm—especially with largely electronic textures as its basis—isn't music, performances like this make a compelling argument to the contrary.

Not that there wasn't at least some aspect of conventional music-making. Throughout much of the performance the listener could feel a pulse—albeit a soft one—that was, more often than not, generated by Moslang's optics-driven gear and Khan's "effected" drum. There was often also a droning low-end pedal tone that, along with the delicate beat, created a trancelike ambience that avoided the static and obvious while contributing to the sense overall of a dynamic field.

Free improvisation, whether it be acoustic or electronic, conventional or otherwise, succeeds or fails based on the focus and purpose (or lack thereof) of the participants. Sharing some common ground with the ambient music of Brian Eno, the interactive and improvisational nature of this performance could be equally hypnotic, but differentiated itself by being of a kind that invited scrutiny and demanded specific attention. Regardless of whether or not this collective made music by conventional definition, it demonstrated that beauty can, indeed, be found in the most unexpected of places. In what has already been a strong year for the festival, this performance will, no doubt, go down as one of its best. class="f-right">

Victoriaville Matiere Sonore

Contrasting with Signal Quintet's performance, Victoriaville Matière Sonore was a strong idea on paper that didn't always succeed in the implementation. The premise was good: construct a forum for a number of composers/sound artists to create individual pieces based on field recordings made around the Victoriaville area. Have the process overseen by renowned experimental blender of natural and industrial sounds, Francisco Lopez, and link the pieces together into a single work with a broader overriding arc. In addition to López, AimE Dontigny, Louis Dufort, Chanal Dumas, Steve Heimbecker, Mathieu LEvesque, HElène PrEvost and Thomas Phillips all contributed to the 90-minute show.

Victoriaville Matiere Sonore

Francisco López / Victoriaville Matière Sonore

Similar to the Theresa Transistor performance on Day Two, but in the larger ColisEe venue, the artists were placed in the center of the hall, surrounded on all sides by the audience and with a sound system facing in around the periphery of the hall. With the equipment setup on a riser with minimal blue lighting, there was little for the audience to watch, encouraging it, instead, to simply absorb the sounds without visuals and to find meanings on a more personal and imagination-driven level.

The eight pieces were linked by a nature recording of birds, used to allow one artist to leave the center stage so that the next could take his/her place. Other than FIMAV CEO and Artistic Director Michel Levasseur's usual spoken introduction to the show, there was no applause between pieces, nor was there any announcement of order of events, so it was impossible to know whose pieces belonged to whom.

Intriguing sounds were many and diverse, ranging from the natural to the artificial, and there was considerable processing applied. Like Theresa Transistor, equal importance was given to where individual sounds appeared and to how they traveled around the aural landscape. The problem was that, to a large extent, the approaches used were obvious and often overly dramatic. Lacking the nuance of Signal Quintet (and, because these were solitary pieces, the interaction of the earlier performance), the overall levels were high, the sounds often overly dense and the collages often too busy for the listener to sense any sort of unified statement.

Sometimes it's good to make the audience come to the music rather than the other way around, and a better balance of dynamics and more discernable narrative for each piece would have made the entire show more successful. Still, credit is due for an imaginative experiment that, some shortfalls notwithstanding, was well worth pursuing.


Carla Bozulich Evangelista

Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Carla Bozulich hasn't performed in some time, as she explained at her evening performance of a new song cycle, Evangelista. Surrounded by a group of Montreal musicians—bassist Tara Barnes, organist Nadia Moss, violinist Jessica Moss and cellist Beckie Foon—the featured performer appeared before the crowd for a one-time performance, the kind of exclusive experience that has come to define FIMAV.

Carla Bozulich

Bozulich first emerged on the potent post-punk scene of the early 1990s, perhaps best known for the rock- centric alt-country of the Geraldine Fibbers. Known for wearing her emotions prominently on her musical sleeve, she gave a performance that was raw, imperfect—and wonderfully human. There were moments of sheer beauty contrasted with instances of harsh aggression and fragile intimacy pitted against moments of cathartic rage. All with an honesty of delivery that made it another festival high point.

Most of her music came from Evangelista, a recent project that's not only a welcome return for Bozulich, but one of her finest projects to date. That violin and cello can mesh so well with visceral electric bass, organ, and Bozulich's untrained but absolutely perfect electric guitar, is a strong testimony to the integrity and feasibility of the singer's concept—and, of course, to the flexibility of her group.

Bozulich—who confessed that she was very nervous—seemed, at times, to barely contain an uncontrollable energy striving to get out. The result was a dynamic performance during which she explored a range of emotions, with a voice that could be powerful one moment, vulnerable and whispery the next. At times walking the stage, elsewhere sitting on its edge and, at one point, lying flat down on her back while she sang, Bozulich may have been nervous, but you'd soon doubt that initial disclaimer, based on her unforced yet commanding presence.

Her group was equally impressive, with Jennifer Moss and Foon sometimes creating a chamber-like ambience even while, at times, surrounded by the denser atmosphere of organ, and electric guitar and bass. But they were equally capable of their own kind of fiery intensity. In addition to bass, Barnes contributed some samples that linked the performance to the technology-based sonic landscaping that's been a defining point of much of the festival.

The audience response was overwhelming, and when Bozulich returned for a well-deserved encore, her intention was to play an old Geraldine Fibbers song on her own. But a quick on-stage discussion with Jennifer Moss resulted in an unexpected and compelling duet. It was the kind of surprise that made for a loose but captivating performance that both addressed and exemplified the imperfect wonders of the human condition. class="f-right">

Acid Mothers Gong

When the British progressive rock group Gong first emerged in the late-1960s, following singer/guitarist Daevid Allen's departure from the nascent Soft Machine, it became the prototype for psychedelic space rock. And while many point to American groups like The Grateful Dead for fueling what would ultimately evolve into the jamband scene, Gong was doing it first (or, at least, concurrently) on albums like Camembert Electrique (Charly, 1971) and the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy—Flying Teapot (Virgin, 1973), Angel's Egg (Virgin, 1973) and You (Virgin, 1974).

The apparent death (or, at least, debilitating illness) of progressive rock in the late 1970s meant considerable challenges for Allen and wife/Gong co-founder Gilli Smith. Still, despite various geographic relocations, the pair pushed on through the 1980s. With the advent of the internet creating a resurgence of interest in groups by bringing together fans in a virtual global community, Allen began to build a veritable cottage industry of Gong spin-offs, including Gong Maison, Mother Gong, Planet Gong and New York Gong, on which he (and sometimes Smith) collaborated with an ever-increasing pool of international musicians.

Acid Mothers Gong is a relatively recent pairing of Allen and Smith with Japanese psychedelic rockers Acid Mothers Temple, and the group's FIMAV performance represents another North American premiere for the festival.

Acid Mothers Temple, when compared to the original Gong, is far more trippy and intense, an ante that is only upped when combined with Allen, Smith and guitarist Josh Pollock. Long, largely anarchistic jams filled with feedback, heavy reverb and speed riffing by Pollock alongside AMT guitarist Kawabata Makoto and bassist/flautist/drummer/singer Atsushi Tsuyama are fueled by AMT's remarkable drummer, Tatsuya Yoshida.

Acid Mothers Going

Acid Mothers Gong: Hiroshi, Pollock, Komori, Tsuyama, Smith, Yoshida, Allen, Makoto

The set opened with a psychedelic drone, Smith beginning one of many chants, "In the beginning—," which was a fair start. The spacious ambience became increasingly chaotic, culminating in the arrival of Allen, dressed in a Catholic frock chanting "Vive Le Quebec" repetitively until reaching the final word of the infamous speech by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1967 ("Libre"). It was the beginning of largely political rants that dominated the set, including "A Letter to George Bush" and a diatribe on terrorism ("Why terrorists, why terrorists? Where resistance ends terrorism begins. They are freedom fighters, not terrorists"). Allen ultimately took off the frock to reveal an all-white getup underneath, clearly part of the group's political-theater agenda.

Political disposition aside, the music itself was mixed. Between the eight musicians—also including keyboardist Higashi Hiroshi and guest, soprano saxophonist Keiki Komori—there was more than enough to create some seriously joyful noise. The problem was that, over the course of nearly two hours, the largely continuous set, while cathartic, approached an unpleasant monotony. Wildly chaotic free play was juxtaposed with spacey ethereal passages, but only occasionally did some semblance of song form emerge, and when it did, it didn't last long.

Song form clearly wasn't the point, of course; but even the most exploratory collective improvisation needs a focus, needs to tell some kind of story, even at an abstract level. There were segments that approached narrative, but they were ultimately consumed by the frenzy that drove most of the set. Allen, approaching seventy, spent as much time gesticulating as he did playing, singing or chanting. Smith stood largely still in front of her mike. Theatrical presentation was an equal partner to music and lyric, but by the end of the set the lasting impression was of a one-trick pony that's overstayed its welcome.

Still, one can't expect every show at any festival to be stellar, especially with a festival like FIMAV, where complacency is forbidden and experimentation is de rigueur. Half the fun is in attending as many shows as possible and finding out what works—and, occasionally, what doesn't.

Visit Jason Khan, Tomas Korber, Norbert Moslang, Christian Weber, Francisco López, Carla Bozulch, Acid Mothers Temple, Planet Gong and FIMAV on the web.

Photo Credit
Martin Morisette

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