Fete Quaqua: London, UK, August 19-21, 2012

John Eyles By

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Fete Quaqua
The Vortex
August 19-21, 2012

Fete Quaqua is the annual three-day festival of improvised music organized by guitarist John Russell as an offshoot of his monthly Mopomoso evenings at The Vortex. "Quaqua" is a Latin word which translates as "wherever," and encapsulates Russell's declared intention that the festival should "provide a fertile ground for free improvisation." In 2012, Mopomoso has been celebrating its twenty-first anniversary, making it London's longest-running regular improv club. The year was also a significant anniversary for Fete Quaqua—thirty years since the first one in 1982—and audience members at The Vortex included musicians Terry Day and Roger Turner, who had both played in that first Fete Quaqua. Mopomoso and Fete Quaqua have both established a tradition of welcoming improvising musicians from across the world, many of whom have become regular visitors to them. That tradition has ensured an open atmosphere rather than a cliquey feel that could deter newcomers, be they musicians or audience members.

Alongside Russell, the 2012 Quaqua line-up added his fellow Mopomoso founder, pianist and trumpeter Chris Burn plus Lawrence Casserley on electronics and sound processing, cellist Hannah Marshall, Adrian Northover on alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones; from Sweden, bassist Nina de Heney and pianist Lisa Ullén; from Brazil, Swiss-born Thomas Rohrer on rabeca; from Japan, Sabu Toyozumi on percussion and erhu; and Germany's Ute Wassermann on vocals plus whistles. Violinist Satoko Fukuda—a Mopomoso regular—was also scheduled, but could not attend. Sadly missed was saxophonist Lol Coxhill, a regular highlight of past Fetes Quaqua, who died in early July after a long spell in the hospital. .

Each of the festival's three evenings followed a similar format, opening and closing with an ensemble (or tutti) involving all ten musicians; in between those there were six sets featuring smaller subsets of the ten musicians. These subsets varied in size from duos to quintets, with trios and quartets being most common. In them, all ten players were used equally and, across the three days, no combination was ever repeated. Inevitably, time constraints did not allow all the subsets to perform that audience members would have liked (do the calculations: from ten players it is possible to select well over 600 different duos, trios, quartets and quintets, but there were only 18 slots available.)

This methodology mirrors the approach once employed at Company weeks, which often brought together players who had never played together in fresh combinations, frequently leading to surprisingly original music. With eight sets each evening, they tended to be relatively short, typically about twenty minutes. This meant that there was plenty of variety on offer, and no grouping outstayed its welcome—although in some cases the audience would have preferred a longer set from a grouping. Across the three days, seeing each player in six or seven different groupings, plus the six ensembles, gave the audience an opportunity to appreciate different facets of their playing.

The six ensembles formed an intriguing sequence, as they gave tangible evidence of how the ten musicians had gelled over the three days. The opening ensemble, on the first evening, acted as a warm-up for the audience and players alike; the players all played together, their individual contributions combining to create a collective wash of music within which all the individuals could be appreciated. By the time of the final ensemble, things were very different as the ten played a set that would put many established groupings in the shade. Bursting with joyful exuberance, it had plenty of peaks and troughs and provided an appropriate sense of climax to the festival.

Fittingly, Russell himself played its closing notes, the last notes of the festival. Throughout the three days, he was an avuncular presence, always jolly and full of good humor with everyone. As a player, he was generous and chameleon-like, adapting his guitar playing to fit whoever he was playing with and to make them sound as good as possible. Russell's duo with Toyozumi on percussion was one of the festival's highlights. The two know each other's playing well, and it showed; at times they set a cracking pace, with Russell's fast and furious finger work being matched by the drummer's alternating use of his hands and sticks, but they also displayed incredible delicacy and subtlety.

Four of the ten players were new to Fete Quaqua—Casserley, Northover, de Heney and Ullén. The two Swedes were impressive, as they had been at Mopomoso in February when they played together. The two are an established duo and on each evening they appeared together in a small grouping but never appeared as a duo. The bassist is a dramatic performer who plays all over her instrument, sometimes plucking with both hands simultaneously or banging on the surface, in a style somewhat reminiscent of London's own John Edwards, always providing sympathetic support to other players. The pair were particularly impressive in a quartet alongside Marshall's cello and Toyozumi's erhu, the pianist's inside playing effectively making this an unconventional string quartet. Saxophonist Northover also made a strong impression in all his appearances at the festival, in particular in a trio with de Heney and Toyozumi on drums. Fortunately for those who were not able to attend, most sets were videoed, so this event is well documented on YouTube.

Across the three days, if one set exemplified the special ethos of Fete Quaqua (and Mopomoso), it was a duo pairing Rohrer on rabeca with Toyozumi on erhu, a set in which the sounds of the two contrasting stringed instruments become interwoven, responded to each other and coalesced. Yes, a Swiss-born player of a Brazilian fiddle, and a Japanese player of a Chinese two-stringed fiddle, duetting in London. Ah, the wonderful world of improvised music. Long live Fete Quaqua!

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