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Following day four's triple threat of Anthony Braxton Sextet, Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet and William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, one might expect the final day to be anticlimactic. And to some extent they'd be right, but, for the end of the 22nd International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV), programme director Michel Levasseur still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
Opening the day was a French duo with harpist Hélène Breschand and electric guitarist Jean-François Pauvros. Breschand has a solid background in classical music but, like Zeena Parkins, who appeared on the second day of the festival with Ikue Mori, she has chosen to explore broader possibilities by using a variety of extended techniques and the application of electronic processing. As often as she was found playing her harp in a more traditional fashion, she was equally likely to be seen bowing the strings, creating a loop from sighing into the harp's pickup, or running wooden mallets along the body of the instrument in a way that, with the application of heavy doses of reverb, created a thunderous effect.
Pauvros demonstrated a more rudimentary technique but, like Breschand, applied an unorthodox approach that included bowing the strings, placing a small cymbal on the neck of his instrument and lightly tapping it as it was run along the strings, radically detuning strings, and all manner of rubbing, slapping and tapping.
Their hour-long improvised set began in an ambient musical space, with Pauvros delivering long bowed tones and Breschand gently plucking dark chords. Slowly, the piece evolved into a stronger landscape marked by a sound of thunder from Breschand and either jagged punctuations or a cacophony of non-musical sounds, resulting from Pauvros talking into his guitar's pickup while simultaneously rubbing his hands vigorously on the neck.
Spontaneity shouldn't mean operating in a vacuum, and while it offered moments of engagement, the performance suffered from an apparent lack of focus. Of the two, Breschand seemed to be the most intuitive, finding ways to augment Pauvros who, on the other hand, seemed altogether too random in his choices. Falling too easily into simple clichés, Pauvros' contributions would have worked better had he approached the performance with a stronger sense of purpose rather than moving from idea to idea with no real eye to developing a broader arc.
Despite its shortcomings, the rarely heard combination of guitar and harp was often alluring, even in more extreme moments where the textures were harsher. It's a challenge to create spontaneously, and perhaps Breschand and Pauvros would have been more successful had they worked within a more directed context, and played shorter pieces rather than attempting such long-form improvisation, where it's essential to view things on a larger scale.
Accordionist/keyboardist/vocalist/composer Lars Hollmer has been a fixture on the Swedish scene since the late '60s. He has been involved in projects that span a variety of potentially interrelated genres, including avant-garde, progressive/art rock and neoclassical; he was a member of the idiosyncratic fusion/progressive group Samla Mammas Manna, which regrouped in '99 after nearly two decades in limbo. Hollmer's playing, despite the bombastic trappings so often inherent in the genre, has always transcended such potential shortcomings with a refreshing degree of self-effacement and whimsical absurdity.
And so, Hollmer's collaboration with the Québécois nineteen-piece Fanfare Pourpourwhich has been together for a decade and, with a lineup of amateur, semiprofessional and established musicians playing accordions, violins, horns, guitar/banjo and assorted percussion, have pursued its own brand of world music combining Québec and Cajun folk, Dixieland and other stylesseemed like the perfect pairing.
The hour-long set consisted mainly of Hollmer compositions, but it drew heavily on Scandinavian folk tradition. There was a certain "oompah factor pervading most of the performance, but Hollmer often introduced a degree of unpredictability by placing polka rhythms into the context of irregular meter, as well as some unexpected dynamic shifts. Arguably the most accessible show of the festival, Hollmer entertained with his dry introductions, and it was clear that he and Fanfare Pourpour were having a great time.
How exactly Hollmer's music fits into the definition of Musique Actuelle is a little unclear. Aside from a couple of brief passages, there was no free improvisationin fact, there was next to no soloing, period; nor was there anything that particularly associated his writing with new music or the avant-garde. Still, at the end of the day, definitions are unimportant. Hollmer and Fanfare Pourpour put on a show that was fun, upbeat and largely joyous. While some of the odd meters might have proven challenging, this was the closest thing to dance music programmed by the festival. It is what it is, and for what it is, engaging and entertaining.
The surprise of the day andwith the possible exception of day three's compelling show by Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbiopossibly the entire festival, was the late afternoon performance by French accordionist Pascal Contet. Contet has been developing a reputation in Europe as an adventurous and fearless innovator, both on his instrument and in a broader musical sense. Another artistVictoriaville seems filled with themwho refuses to place conventional limitations on his instrument, Contet grabbed the audience immediately with his first piece, which began in total darkness as Contet began playing to pre-recorded electronic sounds, extracting textures from his accordion that left many wondering just how he did it.
The first half of the hour-long set consisted of composed pieces. Contet's remarkable technique found him effectively using two microphones placed on either side of him, to create a vivid stereo image in the hall. With elements of minimalism combined with placing notes so closely together that the overtones gave an implication of microtonality, Contet sounded, at times, like Philip Glass or Steve Reich meeting György Ligeti. There were passages based on repetition and gradual development, but equally there were more complex moments. At times Contet sounded as if he were using some form of echo device on his accordion, but close examination showed that he was doing it naturally with nothing but his two hands.
The second half of the programme consisted of spontaneous free play and was even more revealing, despite a strong first half. In the same way that pianist Keith Jarrett is able to build pieces from a blank slate that have clear form and sense of purpose, Contet's improvisations often sounded as if they were preconceived. Continuing to baffle the captivated audience, Contet managed somehow to bend notes, create tremolo effects and extract a far greater range of notes than one would think possible from the accordion. As he traveled from the lyrical to the dissonant, from the gentle to the powerful, and from the tangible to the abstract, Contet's masterful ability to find form where there was none was the kind of "eureka moment that makes Victoriaville such a profoundly worthwhile experience.
And so, with the International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville winding down for another year, one is left with the clear sense that what makes it unique is programming that places often disparate groups and/or styles together with little or no safety net. While risk inherently implies that some shows will be more successful than others, and some might not work at all, at the end of the day that is the festival's beauty and charm.
While it's often impossible to anticipate exactly what will be seenalthough FIMAV can always be counted on to bring some familiar faces, albeit many times in new and unforeseen contexts, to deliver shows that meet or exceed expectationsit's the element of total surprise and new discovery that, perhaps, is the defining characteristic of a festival that is truly an entity unto itself, with only a handful of others approaching, but never quite matching, its overriding sense of adventure and blurring of boundaries.
Visit Jean-François Pauvros, Hélène Breschand, Lars Hollmer, Fanfare Pourpour, Pascal Contet and International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville on the web. For a full schedule of this year's events, click here.