Sunday, May 23, 2004 was the day for débuts at the Festival International Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville, Canada. First there was the less-than-successful performance of Tim Berne’s Expanded Science Friction Band
. Later that evening French clarinettist/saxophonist Louis Sclavis introduced his current Napoli’s Walls project to a North American audience, and the result was nothing short of staggering.
Hearing the album does nothing to prepare one for the multifarious textures created by Sclavis and his group: long-time musical companion Vincent Courtois on cello and electronics; Hasse Poulsen on guitar and, most notably, Médéric Collignon on pocket trumpet, voices, horn, percussion and electronics. Collignon brought not only an incredible wide variety of sounds to the proceedings, but an impish sardonicism and clear sense of the absurd.
The music was difficult to pigeon-hole. Everything from wild free passages to delicate chamber work could be found. A certain folk-like sensibility was evident at times as Poulsen strummed away, almost frantically, at his acoustic guitar; and, of course, reference to Italian music that is the deeper source for the whole project. But, for the most part, such references were subsumed in a sound and approach that was completely unique. Sclavis is one of those rare musicians whose every note, every line is a fresh experience and this was no exception.
What was most remarkable about the performance was the variety of colours that each musician was able to pull from their instruments. Poulsen, using only an acoustic guitar, nevertheless extracted all manner of sound through judicious use of effects and, at times, prepared methods. Attaching things to the strings and then strumming away; using a slide to create other-worldly effects; hitting the instrument and submitting it to possibly more outrage than most rock guitarists, Poulsen still managed to create sounds that were for the most part organic.
Courtois plucked and bowed his instrument with everything from delicacy to passionate intensity; adding distortion and other effects at times to mask the instrument’s more essential sound, there were times where it was unclear what sound was coming from which instrument, with Courtois’ cello sometimes sounding more like a horn, other times like an electric guitar.
While Sclavis and Courtois are established players with cemented reputations, Collignon is clearly the find of the group. Whether contributing melodic themes on pocket trumpet, playing electronic percussion, celeste and sounds unknown, or scatting along frantically with Courtois or Sclavis, his complete sense of abandon was a sight to see. And yet, as seemingly out of control as he sometimes appeared to be, he never missed a cue when Sclavis signalled the entry of a thematic passage.
Like Berne’s performance earlier in the day, Sclavis managed to blur the line between completely free playing and intensely structured form. Just when one thought things couldn’t get any wilder Sclavis and Courtois would emerge with a complex melody that demonstrated that all the freedom in the world makes little sense unless there is ultimately a reference point. Sclavis’ reference points, however, can sometimes be so oblique as to almost pass one by if not careful.
From subtle cello/clarinet duets to pulsing drum rhythms with hints of electronica, Louis Sclavis’ Napoli’s Walls covered a lot of territory; yet for all its diversity there was a clear focus, and clear intention that tied the disparate ideas together into a performance that was, unquestionably, one of the highlights of the festival.
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