May 29-June 1, 2020
Under the lockdown, this year's Moers Festival wasn't able to welcome its accustomed audience in the flesh, but artistic director Tim Isfort refused to cancel or postpone, instead opting to livestream the entire four-day proceedings, with artists performing on two alternating stages inside the main Eventhalle venue. Always an uncompromising festival, Moers held to this year's slogan of "new ways to fly," as the French-German television producers Arte filmed for the livestream, and for subsequent transmission on their own network.
Sets were dipped in a flow of surrounding interviews, and mostly accompanied by the performance art antics of a silver-suited Miss Unimoers, who went about daily existence over the long Whitsun weekend, filmed on a green screen area, then collaged into tableaux on a spread of projection homes, which were cut in the shapes of a sofa, a flying saucer, a baby antelope, a tent and an astronaut, most often with those particular images living inside their allotted shapes.
The Unimoers 'daily existence' included profuse head-bleeding, forlorn wandering with a carrier bag, flaying the baby antelope's pulsing fur, flying unaided through the clouds, painting or drawing, being a chef, pedalling an exercise bike, and sitting motionless, like a lost soul. Just like most of us, during our isolations!
Unimoers evolved through personas and situations, slowly meditating on the current state of the globe. Such a remarkable presence could be viewed as a distraction from the music, and sometimes it was, but just as often, Unimoers would react sympathetically to the sounds, often in facial close-up, striking a still pose, staring wistfully into the ether. He balanced on a precipice between absurd humour and even more absurd doom-scenarios, windswept by bleak landscapes, seemingly heading for a nervous breakdown over Whitsun.
The Eventhalle was populated only by a skeleton crew and a skeleton audience. Your scribe travelled across the waves from Blighty, masked and disinfected, his pencil fully sterilised, red wine staining his facial covering, as he sucked up restorative juices. Directional arrows were followed, to seating that was dotted around the capacious hall with highly precise placement. This, dear reader, is the shape of gigs to come, when audiences are eventually invited back indoors.
As players and their sparse in-the-hall audience grew together into the new gig-shape, a heightened aura developed over the long weekend, involving relaxation into the rules, and then a release of quite possibly three months of artistic tension, on all sides, on all fronts. This doubtless manifested itself in the livestreaming end-product.
Likewise, the applause situation gradually changed. As the live folks in the hall were so few, the Moers team had invited a pair of sonic samplists, Achim Zepezauer and Wolfgang van Ackeren, to trawl the audio archives of this festival's five decade history, squirting archive applause into what were expected to be cruel silences. This duo were so enthusiastic that they frequently interrupted sensitive improvisations, imposed sudden endings or shattered atmospheres, prompting questions over their innate (or not) sensitivity towards free-form sounds. Their intrusions fared better when the act in question was louder, defended by dense noise qualities, the pair's audience appreciation selections becoming more unified with the music onstage. There were vintage claps captured from sets by Anthony Braxton
, Lester Bowie
, Talibam!, and David Moss
, amongst many more. By the end of the festival, rebellious applauders in the fleshly gathering had begun to impose their own appreciation of the sets, increasing their volume each day, adding real-time in-the-moment claps to the historic foundation.
The alto saxophonist and organisational wizard Jan Klare
also made a significant impression during the festival, firstly leading The Dorf, his texture-painting big band, then organising the nightly Moers Sessions, where various permutations of players arrived from various bands. The festival's first day was climaxed by the third session grouping, a set from soprano saxophonists Stefan Keune and Luise Volkmann, along with keyboardist Liz Kosack
and veteran drummer Achim Krämer, the latter hailing from the local area, being something of a festival 'discovery' for your scribe. Keune and Volkmann coldly sutured into a steely twine, as Kosack scampered down a bass-rumble alleyway, her contributions frequently exploring ambient texture or tone-spreading. Kosack customarily wears a variety of masks during performance, and was way ahead on the facial covering fashion scene, well before our virus hit hard. Krämer rooted around for widescreen metal results, plonking a small zither on his skins, spreading tiny details and detonating surprising clumps onto the field, unloaded carefully for maximum effect.
On the Saturday afternoon, a quartet of Marlies Debacker (piano), Florian Zwissler (synthesiser), Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba) and Etienne Nillesen (percussion) employed their reasonably unusual line-up to make a strolling development of shred phrases, a collectively swaying motion of moderne classical-tinged improvisation. The tuba had a large mute, doubtless more effective than our masks. Slowly extruded grumblings, tiny ratchetings, and periodic low swellings formed a fresh kind of ambient music.
In the early evening, sticksman Krämer returned as part of another quartet, with Klare, trombonist Hilary Jeffery
and bassman Reza Askari. One of the most gripping stretches of their set involved Jeffery declaiming texts by the recently (and suddenly) deceased Dutch trumpeter and electronicist Sanne Van Hek (aka Sannety), who was the Moers Festival Improviser In Residence for 2010. Jeffery found a different way to mask, fully encased by a Mexican wrestling helmet. This raging build-up of finely-shaped passion dispersed eventually to a near-silent rumination, with sparing sonics contributed by all, creeping through every dynamic possibility, shading thought for the aftermath.
The later evening brought two curious examples of audience engagement, their qualities magnified by close temporal proximity. The Niels Klein Trio were joined by the EOS Kammerorchester, led and also conducted by Susanne Blumenthal. Tenor man Klein had composed material that rested comfortably in the jazz tradition, with large ensemble arrangements spreading outward in non-controversial fashion. The set's unusual aspect was provided via the continual screen-projection of a frontal perspective on Blumenthal, which gave an ultimate insight into the communicative relationship between conductor and ensemble, but also succeeded in being too dominant an image, completely distracting from the music, rather than underlining its intentions. Presumably this strategy was Blumenthal's own concept, or at the very least, approved by her, giving Arte permission. Anyway, she gave Miss Unimoers a break...
Next up were the garage-glam Berlin rock trio of Gewalt, whose jagged riffing held particular power when sharply following EOS. Further questions were prompted, though, as their stage-backline band/brand perspex box-display may or may not have been present for reasons of irony, mocking the old rockin' ways, or it may have been a sincerely youthful ego-projection facilitator. There were some songs that reeked of cliché, but the cumulative string-aggression of Gewalt's riffs, and shared vocal yelps, gained in potency as short songs were slung out with confident rapidity. The set was lifted even higher by the parading street band invasion of Rabatz!, horns'n'snares entering from the side, sweeping across the stage, then marching out down the aisle.
This gave the immediately following 51% combo a tough mission to follow strongly. Alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard
convened an all-female spread that included Kosack (again, sporting a different mask), with drummers Mariá Portugal and Yuko Oshima, the latter principally known via the Donkey Monkey duo. Eberhard made soft brushstrokes, but singer Almut Kühne was a touch strident, when entering to disrupt the mood. Never mind, as the full spectre atmospherics resumed before too long.
Portugal returned soon, for the night's first Moers Session, teamed with fellow drummer Simon Camatta, from The Dorf. Their entwined inventiveness did much to power a striking set, contrasting with the academic frisson provided by the piano and vibraphone of Antonis Anissegos and Taiko Saito. Portugal and Camatta maintained a hyper-fast barrage of groove-jazz and Afro-pulse cross-rhythms, although eventually breaking towards a gentler dissipation.
Late on the Sunday afternoon, Plan Kruutntoone took to the stage, Dutchmen dominated by anarchic guitarist Hans Visser, who clearly emerges from the post no wave string- klang era, cutting riff angles with a slice-edged attack. He also brought out his homemade instruments. Further making a prominent impression was dancer Dennis Schmitz, wiry and prone to prone-ness, steadily casting shapes, then altering like a poseable mannequin. Visser laboured towards making the sound of smashing slates, climbing this wounding mound whilst issuing belligerent vocals, the landscape electroacoustically altered via the piano and electronics of Reinier Van Houdt and Dolf Planteijdt. The band could also probe with extreme subtlety, with accordion, frosty-ether electronics and spindly acoustic guitar, Schmitz hanging in these expanses, looking like he was conducting. Even when the loud eruptions returned, they're rationed, surrounded by equal measures of silence.
This combo heralded a tendency during the last two days for outfits led or dominated by eccentric elders influencing groups of youngsters, and pulling them towards musics that perversely operated with contrasting dynamics, levels of savage action or pausing ponderment, playing with unpredictable chemicals in the name of surprise experimental results.
In fact, another example of such age-blending came that same evening, with Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johansson (77) and German electronicist Jan Jelinek, big gold kit sitting adjacent to small tabletop of gear. Jelinek also sat on a drumstool, low down, just like his linear pulsations, multi-layered in their texture-majesty. Excitement and dogged purpose were driven hard, changes in gradual evolution rather than sudden jolts. Howling hum-waves swooped over stacked treble and bass fibrillations, chuff-chuffing like an alternative Saint Germain, cymbal shimmer, bass drum bombing undertow, suspended organ-like tones, quickening thrums, until dying towards quietness, Johansson using brushes, skins resonant, then subject to Jelinek dubbing, the sticksman graduating to full mallet booms. It was a jazz rave!
Just over an hour later, highly-respected German trombonist Conny Bauer
(76) teamed up with stripling Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen
. Drum clutter and 'bone melody opened, as both players walked around an essential line, finding its heart-core, until a jungle beat prompted freer blowing, blubbered bass multiphonics extended, as Bauer collected growling patterns, pulling out their logical innards. Gunter Hampel
(82) is another walking German classic, his discography stretching back to the mid-1960s. On the Monday afternoon, Hampel led his Music & Dance Improvisation Company, switching between vibraphone and bass clarinet. The partially-family line-up also included drums, tenor saxophone (or electronics) and a singer, as five dancers invaded the green screen space of Miss Unimoers, projecting their uncaged moves around the various screens, as well as shooting across the actual stage area. They could be shaking either trees or earthworms. This year's Moers Festival made several significant moves towards the relationship of dance with free-form music. The electronics of Johannes Schleiermacher were reminiscent of those used in the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet
, by Bebe and Louis Barron. Then, when he switched to tenor saxophone, Hampel picked up his bass clarinet, as swing dance met free jazz, in both sound and vision.
There was time for a pause in the older folks parade, made by The Notwist, although this Munich-area rock band could almost be considered veterans, as they've been performing since 1989. Sounding less rockin' than of old, this crew boast multiple multi-instrumentalists, who often elected to play various keyboards at the same time, not picking up their potential chugging guitars until later points in their pulsating set. Dim lighting and repetitive grooves gave segued songs a united vibration, a coasting accumulation that became steadily more menacing, even landing on a trumpet-spattered free jazz climax.
The Mayfield is a new band led by pianist and composer Heiner Goebbels
(67), with an unusual line-up of ondes martenot, electric guitar and massive percussion. They specialised in a rock complexity that didn't forsake the scaly grit, operating with an electroacoustic starkness. The electronic aura was arrived at as much by effects and technique as by full equipment array, on a terrain of groaning drone. Cecile Lartigau had the tiny drawer of her ondes martineau open, clearly prepared for open-heart surgery on its insides, and Nicolas Perrin was using his guitar as a sampling monster, rarely sounding anything like an actual axeman. French percussionist Camille Émaille's kit was bolstered by kettle drum, large gong and huge bass drum, primed for detonation. She was the highly impressive new discovery of the weekend. It's been three decades since Goebbels played at the Moersfest, and he certainly made a savagely controlled sonic scar on the proceedings this time around.
The festival's last set, and the final Moers Session of the Monday involved something of an inner circle supergroup, featuring ringmaster Klare and Improviser In Residence Portugal with guitarist Thorsten Töpp (guitar and press office), and Tim Isfort (upright bass and festival artistic director). They were even joined by actor Matthias Hesse, otherwise known as Miss Unimoers, and revealing further talent for improvisational oration, his glottal escalations stoking up the tension as their set progressed. Klare held tones then made riffing undercuts, while Hesse's well-shaped ranting was phonetically echoed by Töpp's guitar, Isfort revealing his expressive capacity on acoustic bass, as his last appearance at this festival involved an electric axe. Collectively they upheld the energy sphere, and sent both the livestream viewers and interior fleshly audience homeward (or upstairs to bed) in suitably rucked- up fashion. After all of the virus travails, and swift responses to sudden changes, this Moers Festival succeeded in being a vivid success, feeding off the tensions of an improvised existence, and reacting with swift agility, never settling down, always on the move.
The Arte programmes are available to stream
until 28th June 2020, and the YouTube footage will be around forevermore.
Photograph: Nils Brinkmeier