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Live Review

Moers Festival 2021

Moers Festival 2021

Courtesy Miriam Juschkat


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Moers Festival
Moers, Germany
May 21-24 2021

Just a few days before the start of this 50th anniversary festival, the local governmental authorities suddenly switched their virus regulations, allowing a crowd of 500 to attend each evening's outdoor park gig on the Rodelberg stage. During the daytimes, that stage provided no public access, with its gigs being broadcast by the French/German television network Arte. Meanwhile, 10 minutes walk across the park, inside the Eventhalle, the other half of the programme was also being filmed, once again with only a limited in-person audience. Arte are regularly involved with the Moers Festival, and debuted their pandemic broadcast coverage concept in 2020, at a point where such uncompromising action represented the vanguard of the globe's tentative efforts at livestreaming. The entire 2020 festival was presented live on two stages, with a full four day schedule, albeit concentrating on local German artists.

Here in 2021, the Americans came to town, in shockingly large numbers. Pumped full of vaccine, and clearly beaming with their return to travelling and gigging activity, they formed the frontal spike of this year's return to internationalism. Strikingly, there were also performers from the UK, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Serbia, and even Ethiopia. The festival had a testing lab onsite, for daily purging, but there were no signs of any outbreaks. While almost all festivals during the last year (those that have operated in the physical realm) have reined in to an indigenous roster, once again Moers was leading the field in making the effort to import players from distant lands. It must be pointed out that there has been a beneficial effect from various countries giving greater space to their native artists, but now that there's been a year of that, it seems like the prime time for a return to cross-border cultural exchange.

What better way to demonstrate that resolution than to open the festival with a heavily repetitive Swiss-French combo, deeply into rugged systems folk, stuffed with bagpipes (cabrettes), harmonium and hurdy-gurdy, breathing with lung-bursting circularity, psychedelic guitar figures dancing between the dragged-time drones? It was certainly an ideal dreamscape realised, as La Tène pretty much played their four-track Abandonnée/Maleja album in its entirety. If a prospective listener admires the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, this is a rustic-edged pulsation that's closer to Glenn Branca, relishing the already abundant drone overlaps present in the foundation form, exacerbating those via amplification and dogged layering. Forming a ritual circle, the players kneaded into a rusted-roots oneness of abrasive metallic-organic scurf. Tangled and clopping into a heavy headbang industrial pony procession. There were also percussion extras, such as shell crunching, glockenspiel hits and woodblock clacks, along with a gong-like resonance. Instruments would seep forward, then recede, the acoustic guitar never actually sounding acoustic, but fed through heavy amplification, rearing up emphatically for the last "Danse De L'Ortha" section. La Tène provided a stunning start to the festivities, and if there had been a crammed audience in place, we would have slug-danced all afternoon, bellies full of cidre and swirling uncontrollably.

Moers Festival has had an annual Improviser In Residence since 2008. This is not just for festival-time, but an ensconcement for an entire year, with the invited artist becoming embedded in the local scene, playing gigs, collaborating with local musicians, workshopping and often providing their own special quirks to the process. In 2021, it was time to gather together all of the preceding participants, apart from the sadly departed Sanne Van Hek. Thus came the Kleine Allee Big Band, named after the street where the improvising house is located, at the edge of this very large park. The resulting music was more hesitant than expected, often operating along moderne classical sonic lines, and only sporadically engaging with the grist that's doubtless preferred by folks who emerge from the foundation zone of freely improvised music with its roots in jazz. The organisation and tonalities were often more poised, carefully treading. The regular cacophonous outbreaks were more gripping, at least according to your scribe's ears.

The bass and drums of Joëlle Léandre and Gerald Cleaver provided an unusual improvising relationship, largely avoiding any overt 'rhythm section' teaming. Léandre favoured fast-bowing and detailed elaboration, her singing swoops sometimes gaining a pulse-momentum, prompting Cleaver to beat out thunder-patterns. Léandre vocalised while fiercely rapping her bass-body, finger-slapping too, Cleaver again matching the feel. He stood up to play a drumkit that now seemed like a percussion array, as the pair worked around rhythmic pushes, hinting but invariably receding. The pieces were quite brief, but they frequently had an enforced finish due to the enthusiasm of the livestream applause-bot, returned from 2020, and still apparently unskooled in the subtleties of improvised music. This grew into quite an issue amongst some of the performers, over coming days. In 2022, this activity will return to being the responsibility of the live audience, just like in the old days..!

Continuing the festival's strong connection with global roots music, percussionist and composer Will Guthrie's Ensemble Nist-Nah are fundamentally an Indonesian gamelan formation, strongly in debt to the original form, but also enveloping recent Western practices. Guthrie is an Australian living in Nantes, France. Levels of activity moved from extreme softness of metal-bowing, stirring into a metallophone-ringing action, with low, amber tones reminiscent of an electroacoustic palette.

Converting to a surging, direct expression, Decoy operated in what could be termed free groove, with the English pianist Alexander Hawkins making a rare appearance on the Hammond B3 organ. Tenor man Joe McPhee also proffered his most gut-bucket, soul-blues aspect, though erupting with a free-blowing sensibility, paying homage to John Coltrane, with a recurring (old time) rap narrative, beatnik-style. This was interspersed with repeatedly climaxing freak-outs by McPhee and Hawkins, working with an exceptional rapport. Indeed, the connections between all players were electric, with bassist John Edwards and drummer Hamid Drake hiking up the collective passion. Drake replaced the usual Steve Noble at the kit. There was a remarkable section where Hawkins trickled high note slivers, Edwards flood-buckled his bass body, McPhee aurally shanked an assailant and Drake picked up and pieced together a return to the groove. McPhee took it down to a soft vibrato with his gospel-crooning vocal. There still aren't many combos operating in this free groove zone, making Decoy special via their risky balance.

Most new music acolytes will doubtless have witnessed more performances of Julius Eastman compositions in the last three years than at any point in their existences, unless they were around New York state during the 1970s and early '80s. Eastman's works have become extremely popular on new music venue and festival programmes, as he earns belated respect for his place in the evolution of minimalism and beyond. His 1974 piece "Femenene," was performed by Ensemble O and Aum Grand Ensemble, a largely French combination, with the Belgian keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin contributing significant electronic emissions. The composition was very symmetrical and logical, balanced as it began with extended shaker percussion work, the opening element in the extremely gradual construction of intrinsic pieces. Voices were interlain, but often merging closely with instruments to create shimmering flows, short phrases repeated, with gaps, gaining in dignity. Dumoulin worked down in an extreme bass cellar, nudging a steady evolution. There seemed to be fewer changes than in the work of Glass and Reich, stretching out to an even greater minimalism. Voice and trumpet fluttered together, and Dumoulin abused his pitch control. There were other strange tones, perhaps flugelhorn and bassoon altered electronically? The pace of 'solos' increased incrementally, with density and intensity, the extended experience slowly receding back down to the distance of an eternal shaker outro.

The festival's second day was loaded with extreme sonic attack, heavy degrees of free-form improvisation dotted throughout the programme, frequently engorged by an overload aesthetic directly ripped out of the innards of rock'n'roll, jumping the intestinal networks. The Resonators played early in the afternoon, dampened by drab weather conditions, and even the potential paltry real-life park audience driven scurrying for cover. Nevertheless, this German foursome's music screamed and howled with urgent intent, incapable of being caged after so long without high volume release. It was a powerful sensation indeed, to feel the direct speaker-stack thrust, and have eardrums pushed way harder than they have mostly experienced during their last year. Alto saxophonist Frank Gratkowski led the throttling onslaught, with his cohorts providing the abstract rock punishment, repeatedly demanding climaxes until their brutal message was understood. Guitarist Sebastian Muller reared up with psychedelic paroxysms, non-figurative jazz lines coated with dark-blackened salmonella-spawn-bubbling tapioca viral-load fx. Even though the park field was sparsely populated in the drizzle, this must have made for a very frightening armchair stream.

Next up, on the same Rodelberg stage, John Edwards made his second appearance, this time with an international combo, controls set for out-there improvisation. Even though this took place within the acoustic realm, and very much under jazz conditions, there was a particular aural thrust that held fascination for the rock-minded. Power levels were phenomenally higher than allowed in most jazz settings. They didn't require hard electric instrumentation, either. Edwards was joined by Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen, Spanish saxophonist Don Malfon and the Mexican vibraphonist Emilio Gordoa, this latter being quite a revelation during this festival. Gordoa is very interested in object placement on his instrument, adding many more extras beyond the usual bowed metal explorations and extensions. At times it seemed like he was virtually emptying his plastic bag of small objects onto the surface, to see what might happen. Then, he diligently controlled the accidents. Malfon's blocked drainage alto held massive threat, as Edwards did his usual best to sunder wood and strings, whilst Narvesen tumbled with complicated grace.

As if to compete, across in the indoor Eventhalle, the [ISM] trio headed for all-out wall-of-expression too, but doubtless by chance rather than competitiveness. This is another pan-nationality grouping, with Pat Thomas (Oxford) joined by Joel Grip (Berlin) and Antonin Gerbal (Paris). It didn't take long for Thomas to unleash his hammerblock rapidity, in the post-Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen pattern. The, ahem, rhythm section roiled and surged, maintaining a continuous pulse of pointillist bombardment. Thomas has a finger reach surely only rivalled by Randy Weston. Grip and Gerbal produced an almost disembodied free-swing shuffle motion. Again, an acoustic palette proved its equal to amplified electric excess.

Nihiloxica unite players from Uganda and the UK, combining an Afro-drumming posse with electronic interference. Besides their conga-like drums, they also had various handheld skins or shakers, plus a floor-level marimba-style set. Their approach is a direct urging towards dance entertainment, which doubtless reaches its peak during a crammed-body festival of yore. Even so, they had a limited-size crowd to fire up, producing a mixture of extrovert rhythm frenzy and atmospheric dub-trip pulsation. These were the shortest numbers in the fest, mostly around four minutes apiece. The band's frequent exhortations to party became a touch wearing, as the best celebration gangs usually just get on with the serious rhythm attack, letting their audiences move naturally towards ecstasy.

A prime example of a band that simply existed in a vortex of rhythmic dynamism were Fendika, from Addis Ababa, who wielded twin kraars (traditional Ethiopian harps), amplified with frazzled edges, a masenqo (bowed single-string, cello-equivalent) and a kebero drum kit. This line-up produced a surprisingly aggressive sound, precisely dedicated to action-shift rhythm patterns, with all members singing, and Melaku Belay dancing out front, in that distinctive Ethiopian shoulder-shifting style. Just when it looked like he wasn't going to make it, the advertised guest-star, Han Bennink, from Amsterdam, ascended to the stage and proceeded to forge an immediate bond with Fendika's percussionist Meselu Abebaye, using only snare and hi-hat.

To conclude the night, we returned to that earlier rock-jazz extremity theme, although Strictly Missionary also moved through some introverted passages of quieter development. Frontman Chris Pitsiokos demonstrated a facility on smaller instruments, besides his usual alto saxophone, blowing a mean harmonica, and fiddling with electronic devices. This illustrated a fixation on constant change, mood-mixing and section-shuffling, which was admirable, but had the effect of disrupting the flow, especially when the band only had 45 minutes to display their wares. It turned out that the best parts arrived via the most condensed, riff-based, saxophone-squall freak-outs, which is unavoidably what we would expect from a Pitsiokos set. It would be beneficial to catch this combo in a longer gig-situation, given space to spread out and extend. Just experiencing the soundcheck was tense and intense, so the actual set was guaranteed to ignite.

On the middle two days of the festival, its programme opened with the traditional Moers Sessions, which had been reduced in days and numbers, compared to their pre-pandemic 'natural' state. The concept is to place improvisers in hopefully unfamiliar situations and combinations, and the early afternoon Sunday sets were outstanding examples of this strategy. The first improvisation featured guitarist Fred Frith, drummer Hamid Drake and the less familiar vibraphonist Emile Gordoa (although now freshly familiar via his sterling work with John Edwards and company). They levitated between chamber bloomings (for the park environment), with all three players contributing detailed interference from additional small objects, in a feast of extended invention. All three were hyper-aware, adjusting rapid integrations of these alternative means and manifestations. Gordoa externally prepared his bars, working at speed, while Frith used thin sticks and trickled skimpy chains into a small frame drumlet. Gordoa managed to sound like a gamelan appropriation, using light-touch patterings, and this 20 minute set flitted by with its evanescent life.

The second improvisation featured guitarist Ava Mendoza, keyboardist Matt Mottel, drummer Hubert Zemler and singer Marie Nachury. Most of the set adhered to a riff momentum reminiscent of the NYC no wave sound of the late 1970s and early '80s, although some ears might have heard psychedelic matter within its core. They built and built and built, Mendoza slinging out solos against clipped strokes, Nachury making trilled vocal sustains, altered electronically, and Mottel threading vine-knot basslines, as hints of Hawkwind and Acid Mothers Temple also entered the vortex. Mendoza got into prog surf rock with a whammy bar climax, and Mottel pushed for a further freak-out.

In complete contrast, back indoors, the English electronicist Richard Scott collaborated with Seicento Vocale, operating at the lowest areas of activity, where each micro-gesture counted immeasurably to the entirety. Scott carries his gnarled-root wiring in a small suitcase, and wears a bright red jacket. Once the singers began to gradually enter the terrain, Scott kept the electronics very subtle, although his contribution was more marked during the introductory section. It sounded like he was sampling their voices in real time, sculpting them carefully to merge into the scenario, becoming their future accompaniment. The performance held an affecting aura, but the voices and electronics mostly acted as separate entities, even though Scott attempted to unite their textures. Ultimately, it could be argued that they might all have had a better time if completely separated into two sets.

Voices frequently provided an impediment to your scribe's pleasure during this year's festival, in a possibly coincidental feast of classicist-influenced trilling. The trio set featuring pianist Myra Melford, bassist Jöelle Léandre and singer Lauren Newton was made almost unbearable by the latter's 'does humour belong in classical music?' self-consciousness, combining 'high art' would-be dada acrobatics with 'low art' slapstick japery, neither of these succeeding.

The vocalisations of Swiss violinist Laura Schuler were subtler, working close to her bowed lines, but they still had the effect of making her improvisations sound sometimes stilted and formal. Just think of those old 1970s guitar dudes who would sing along to every twist of their extended solos! Schuler and her Quartette gave an otherwise impressive performance, the leader's solos always fine, and saxophonist Tony Malaby taking several spotlight spells as her roiling foil.

Your scribe also had 'personal taste' problems with the Dutch group Picatrix and the French band Le Grand Sbam. The former outfit, despite shadings of jazz, blues and cabaret, featured singer Greetje Bijma mainly concentrating on a stilted operatic delivery, the latter ensemble negotiating the extremely pompous extremes of prog, loaded with ridiculously precise vocal constructions, toppling into retro-ridiculousness.

Contemplating this considerable wedge of similarly poised vocal style-mongering, perhaps this was actually a premeditated aspect of the programme....

The meeting between Schime and Muzikon was an example of shining success in the matching of jazz with a moderne classical string-dominated ensemble, both hailing from Belgrade. Schime hunched right at the heart of the players, symbolising the close unity of this music, each member delivering solos that shimmered with heat-haze energy, chiefly on saxophone and piano, but with consistent momentum from bass and drums. The ranks of the mini-orchestra surrounded them, visibly intent on marrying sonics, supporting, contrasting or hitting hard, as required by each evolving section. Despite working with reasonably conventional melodic material, supple and sleek in the main, they all still managed to instill a sense of teetering drama, the tension of each resolution's imminent arrival.

C'est Le Temps, C'est Le Tango displayed very little connection with the Argentinian form, this Congolese trio sounding closer to the traditions of Haiti, in their blend of vocals and percussion. The guitar and bass sounded more obviously Congolese, but still soaked in the Atlantic Ocean. Singer Huguette Tolinga's percussion array also included a gong and a large taiko-like drum. One of her particularly vigorous solos seemed to actually weld the guitarists together closer, driving the lead stringsman Kojack Kossakamvwe into a wild solo of his own. Ultimately, they made a kind of vodou-soukous marriage. It might have been a distraction, whether in the fleshly world, or on the broadcast, but their set was accompanied by the dancing rituals of the special festival rats, giant-sized and mangy, like they'd been born out a radioactive sewer, their matted fur strangely pulsing from within, their eyes imbued with a magnetic personality. The band seemingly knew what was in store, and their fairly straight-ahead partying songs took on an odd quality of end-times abandonment.

For complete contrast, the electronic duo CEL provided the Sunday night's final set. Felix Kubin is one familiar half, but drummer Hubert Zemler is less known. Zemler included almost as much electronic matter as Kubin, from his drumstool, the duo intent on landscaping, or perhaps we should say spacescaping, given the amount of vintage science fiction monochrome images flickering behind them, intrinsically linked to the audio. Initially, there was an awakening sensation, then a glimmering sequencer pattern arrived, as multiple detailed elements were steadily unloaded onto the cosmic surface, all of them dedicated to the robo-dance. A "24 hours for decontamination" announcement boomed out. If only!

On several occasions it was beneficial to sit in a certain Evenhalle seat which allowed dual viewing of the live broadcast screen monitor and the actual beholder-reality in front. CEL and their space journey, for instance. Or catching the spliced escapades of the cosmic rodents during the Congo-tango set. Or, perhaps best of all, the veteran pianist Lubomyr Melnyk playing solo in a style that levitated between folk minimalism and lyrical improvisation, his onscreen image surrounded by a flow of tiny sheep, which could also be maggots, if peepers were squinted. Clearly, the Arte viewers could have a completely different experience. Indeed, the festival was also inhabited by green beings, clad in spray-on bodysuits, dancing, playing, tussling, sitting immobile, lying down under green blankets, with even the film crew garbed in the same greenery, and a main stage in the Eventhalle populated by large green balloons. Natural interference!

A large chunk of the closing Monday was devoted to moderne composition, all of the sets captivating in their various levels of inwardness. Meeting Point presented the teenage composer Julius Von Lorentz, writing for an ensemble that combined younger players with veteran improvisers Joe McPhee and Pat Thomas, playing tenor saxophone and piano, the former also vocalising, the latter sometimes under his lid, probing the varieties in sparseness. The full ensemble joined later, the music getting bolder, portentous, with Thomas soon going for his full keyboard attack, alongside drums and a large percussion spread, to heighten the eruptions.

The next session involved the music of the veteran French composer Éliane Radigue, presenting part of her "Occam Ocean" series for the acoustic Orchestra Of New Musical Creations, which featured players from France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland. Reeds, guitars, accordion, piano, percussion, brass and strings made up the enlarged spread. There was some electronic presence in the ranks, but the overall aura was acoustic in character, restrained, faint, and exceedingly gradual. It was as if the musicians were using natural means to gain the effect of an environmental electroacoustic work, which came as little surprise, given that Radigue's early decades were taken up entirely by tape pieces.

There are surely very few contenders for a composition such as this, in terms of absolute sensitised subtlety, and sheer slowness of development in natural space. Each player had to be phenomenally disciplined in controlling and shaping such low-event motion. Entering the Halle, it took a while to understand everyone's silence, as the performance had already begun, an ambient hum gradually discernible. It took patience to be subsumed, but the rewards were considerable, especially when dwelling in close proximity to many of the other sets, by outfits intent on opposite zones of construction, using density, hyperactivity, high volume and low bass rumbling to slam open their very different realms. One of the beauties of the Moers Festival is such a side-by-side coexistence of icepick-in-the-forehead rock'n'roll with ambient-salve minimalism.

One of the festival's most powerful sets happened earlier that afternoon, on this final holiday Monday. Das Queue featured those Improvisers In Residence once again, with Matt Mottel (keyboards) and Kevin Shea (drums) joined by players they'd met in Moers during earlier weeks: Marja Burchard (vibraphone) Keisuke Matsuno (guitar) and Maasl Maier (bass). The set opened with a full-tilt free-suspension improvisation (or guided improvisation), collectively pushing with an in-flight rhythm wildness. Sat at a table, front-of-stage, was Ron Stabinsky, imported from NYC solely for his skill as master of the glowing glass orb-buzzer. This was to be a live contestant game, as the second part of the set invited a large bunch of improvisers, corralled by saxophonist Jan Klare, wise-owl organiser of the Moers Sessions.

Das Queue is born out of the pandemic experience of waiting in line, waiting on call centres, waiting on quarantine, waiting for a hospital bed, waiting for a test, waiting for a vaccination, waiting for services engendered by other services not being available, waiting on The Man. The artists formed a queue, snaking around the side of the stage, for the ultimate improvising competition, hitting the microphone, giving their all, at least until Stabinsky held palm on globe, buzzing 'nay.' Then, their time was up, but fortunately the music was so rocketing, the vibe so inspired, that all had their second or indeed third chance to radiate, producing some of the best soloing results possible, under heavy pressure. Then the bag burst, and all players flooded the stage, soloing in chaotic unison, vaccines running wild in their veins, free improvisation re-born in a laboratory.

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