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A word of warning to the faint of heart: Saturday was Noise Improv day at the 22nd annual International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, and with one notable exception, it was defined almost exclusively by a kind of visceral emotional catharsis that made for an intense and often disturbing experience.
For the first time in the history of FIMAV, director Michel Levasseur enlisted an artist to curate a portion of the festival. Thurston Moore, best known as a member of Sonic Youth, is no stranger to the kind of extreme improvisation that challenges the senses and, for the most part, dispenses with commonly-held traditions like melody and rhythm. In contrast to the more form-intended concept of spontaneous composition, the groups that Moore chose to participate, along with his own project, "Dream Aktion Unit, were more concerned with broader brush strokes. They sacrified form in the pursuit of textural interests, creating a sonic collage where form was disregarded and something more vigorously spatial took its place.
Moore also chose a number of bands that covered a fairly broad spectrum of what might be considered a limited subgenre. Two groups took a 3 pm double bill and turned it into an almost nonstop maelstrom of sturm und drang. Hair Police, including guitarist/vocalist Mike Connoly, drummer Trevor Tremaine and electronics manipulator Robert Beatty, was perhaps the less successful of the two. Playing two extended pieces, the trio was characterized by an almost relentless onslaught of sound with little dynamic shift. The result appeared to be emotionally intense and rewarding for the group, but didn't translate particularly well offstage. Drums aside, the front was so dense that it was often difficult to tell where the sounds were coming from. Even Connoly's processed screams blended so closely with the rest of the sound coming off the stage that, unless one was paying attention, they were completely buried.
The festival programme describes Wolf Eyes as "part terrorist happening, part punk exorcism and part noise carnival. With regular member Aaron Dilloway on sabbatical, electronics manipulator/vocalist and saxophonist/electronics manipulator John Olson asked Mike Connoly to join them. Despite their extreme reputation, their set demonstrated more diversity and dynamics than Hair Police, giving the two long pieces more definition and flow.
A big surprise was the appearance of saxophonist Anthony Braxton, apparently a fan of the band for some time, who met them at the hotel the previous night and not only agreed to sit in, but was excited to do so. While his furious runs were sometimes lost in the sheer volume, there was a moment of brief respite where, over a dark layer of electronics, he and Olson worked off each other, creating an uncharacteristically harmonic passage consisting of ever-shifting long tones that was in stark contrast to the bulk of the performance. Wolf Eyes was also texturally broader than Hair Policewith Olson playing some form of horn in addition to his saxophone, as well as some kind of rudimentary stick with strings attachedand, with their attention to dynamics as a means of dramatic conveyance, proved of greater interest.
The 5 pm show provided some needed respite from the sonic barrage of Hair Police and Wolf Eyes. Stefano Scodanibbio is a classical double-bassist from Italy who possesses the kind of remarkable technique that, in the hands of a lesser musician, might be an end in itself. But for Scodanibbiowho performed a short piece by Luciano Berio, "Sequenza 14, before presenting his 45 minute-long original composition, "Voyage That Never Ends facility is clearly only a means to a very musical end.
Scodanibbio's wide array of extended techniques was in evidence from the first moments of the performance. Tapping the neck with both hands, extracting oddly-placed harmonics and demonstrating ability for the subtlest of nuance with a bow, he took the Berio piece, originally written for cello but rearranged by Scodanibbio for bass, and made it a thing of beautya showcase for the broader potential of an instrument commonly misconstrued as somehow inherently self-limiting.
"Voyage That Never Ends, released in '98 on the New Albion label, gradually unfolded with a certain minimalist sensibility, demonstrating Scodanibbio's ability to build on a simple bow-defined rhythm by introducing harmonics and overtones to give the early part of the piece its shape. Even more than the Berio piece, Scodanibbio's clear control of the instrument during "Voyage That Never Ends resulted in a melodic and rhythm orchestration that turned his bass into an instrument of endless possibilities.
The piece developed in an almost hypnotic way, with an insistent pulse articulated by the bow belying the subtle colours that emerged incrementally. Making the instrument sound like a chamber group at times by maintaining a pedal tone on the low string with his bow while extracting a range of harmonics with the other, Scodanibbio demonstrated the kind of musical lateral thinking that clearly distinguishes him in the arena of classical double-bassists.
While the composition's seemingly infinite subtle variations made its title appropriate, Scodanibbio ultimately built the piece to an understated climax where, even after 45 minutes, the end came all too soon. A masterful and moving performanceand even with the festival only half overScodanibbio's concert should go down as one of the highlights of the festival.
Formed in New York in the early '90s, the No-Neck Blues Band is defined by a certain musical ambiguity and anonymity thatdespite releasing an almost unheard of number of limited edition recordings in the first decade of its existence, perhaps only rivaled by renegade singer/guitarist Eugene Chadbournehas engendered a still relatively small yet vehemently devoted following in the past few years. More organic than Hair Police and Wolf Eyes, No-Neck Blues Band has precious little to do with the blues, but its steadfast avoidance of anything other than lo-fi equipment immediately differentiates its form of free improvisation, which is as likely to draw its inspiration from tribal rhythms, chant-like melodies and even a certain folk sensibility.
It was easy to lose count of the number of instruments and found objects this seven-piece unit used to create a sound collage that had more stylistic and dynamic shifts than either Hair Police or Wolf Eyes. Group members were as likely to shift from guitar to bass to mandolin to percussion as they were piano to saxophone to dropping found objects on the stage floor. The sheer number of different instruments resulted in a constantly changing sonic landscape that could be almost primitive with its use of an odd array of percussion, or more densely textured, with two percussionists, two guitars, piano and electric piano building thick and chaotic layers.
Despite the group's maintained anonymityone player actually wore strange head gear that prevented the audience from seeing his face and the players were never introducedtheir performance had a strong theatrical component. One member, at different points, walked back and forth across the front of the stage, tossing some kind of drum and stomping his foot hard on the stage floor. Primal rhythms would emerge, with group members converging for short periods before directing their attentions elsewhere. This distinctive group, defined by its low-tech approach, a primitive philosophy and a certain musical naïveté, managed to range from the disturbingly disordered to the humorously slapstick over its hour-long set.
Thurston Moore's Dream Aktion Unit is essentially a dream band which draws improvisers from a number of sources, lets them go, and sees what can happen. In his press conference the morning of the show, Moore indicated that there had been no rehearsal, and that he was hoping they would work out some general premises at the sound check. Without knowing what went on at the sound check, it would appear that there was little direction, with a reliance, instead, on instinct and raw emotion.
The nine-piece ensemble, which included two drummers, violin, cello, bass, two saxophonists and two guitars, realized its potential for dense sonic clusters early in the performance. Moore seemed more interested in the various kinds of feedback that he could elicit from his acoustic and electric guitars than any kind of traditional playing. Moore has worked with guitarist Nels Cline, and there are certain points of intersection in the ways they manipulate sound, although Cline is clearly a more studied player with a wider range of musical interests. And while Cline often demonstrates a kind of reckless abandon, his own material is more composed, as opposed to Dream Aktion Unit, which found Moore in a mode of unconsidered reaction.
There were shifts throughout the hour-long set, but for the most part it was a broader examination of the space that Wolf Eyes occupies. Violinist C. Spencer Yeh was as likely to be found screaming into a stereo microphone setup as he was creating wildly abstract sounds on his instrument. Saxophonist Paul Flaherty was clearly the musician with the greatest musical history, and there were times where his voice emerged, almost lyrically, from the fierce density of sound that was more a tumultuous continuum with both ends being just differing gradations of extremity.
Overall a day of almost unremitting ferocitywith the exception of Scodanibbio's late afternoon performanceit was nevertheless a significant one that brought focus to a subgenre that has a relatively small but remarkably committed following. And,with Levasseur opening the festival up to the participation of guest curators, it created a precedent that may well hold some interesting possibilities for future seasons of FIMAV.
Visit Hair Police, Wolf Eyes, Stefano Scodanibbio, No Neck Blues Band, Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth and the International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville on the web. For a full schedule of this year's events, click here.
Continue: Day 4