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Music Unlimited Festival 2014

Music Unlimited Festival 2014

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Music Unlimited Festival
Wels, Austria
November 7-9, 2014

Nothing about the appearance of the town Wels, in western Austria, suggests that this sleepy old commune located in the middle of a vast agricultural area is a Mecca for adventurous music aficionados. Every year, hundreds of people habitually gather from all over Europe to visit Wels' annual Unlimited music festival. This cosmopolitan tribe of like- minded people don't care much about conventional definitions of genre or style, as as long as the music is performed with total commitment, uncompromising intensity and healthy doses of imaginative freedom.

The festival atmosphere encourages a close, friendly bond between performers, label owners, agents, promoters, professional photographers and the audience. The festival's main hall, Alter Schl8hof, featured an exhibition by Slovenian photographers Žiga Koritnik and Petra Cvelbar while most participating musicians and most of the audience stayed in Wels for the festival's duration, enjoying a unique communal vibe. That vibe was strengthened by the musicians who concluded their nights as DJs, leading the varied, colorful flock of attendees toward a new morning full of new sonic experiences.

The 28th edition of this well established festival offered a program of 17 performances, emphasizing different left-off-center angles of improvisation, free jazz, alternative rock, contemporary music and out of this world sound experiments of the 21st century. The festival's artistic director Wolfgang Hermann balanced wisely between new, intriguing acts and returning guests who had appeared more than once at the festival. All performances offered different energies yet demanded close, sensitive attention and all eventually delivered plenty of inspiration and uplifting fun.

First Day: Friday, Nov. 7 2014

Dutch performance artist Peter Zegveld, together with guitarist Terrie Hessels (from The Ex) opened the festival with a theatrical performance revolving between the eccentric, frightening and hilariously funny. Zegveld operates a vast set of industrial sound machines that literally make sounds visible. He structures these mechanical devices on his own, including a noisy compressor that was outside the hall. There were metal barrels, megaphones, and weird objects that produced explosions, torrents of smoke, bursts of flame and varied metallic humming and gargling sounds, all rigged to a console of electronic effects.

This massive apparatus may sound like a definite recipe for sonic mayhem, but the charismatic Zegveld, with the ever experimental and provocative Hessels, succeeded in creating a moving, often dramatic and comical experience. Zegveld orchestrated chaotic noises with the attitude of an eccentric opera singer, with utmost pathos in gibberish Italian, adding elements of surprise and danger. Both Zegveld and Hessels were totally attentive to each other and didn't shy from contemplative, poetic pieces. Their short encore, presented by Zegveld as an "experiment in improvisation totale," featured him carrying a smoking wooden box, in a typical dadaist act. Zegvald entranced the front rows with a dramatic wordless speech while spreading smoke around himself, Hessels and, eventually, the enchanted audience.

The second set—by Brooklyn-based drummer-composer Harris Eisenstadt's Golden State Quartet, in its European incarnation with partner and bassoon player Sara Schoenbeck, clarinetist Michael Moore and double bassist Pascal Niggenkemper—presented Eisenstadt's ambitious musical vision. His wise compositions suggest intricate, haunting textures that blur distinction between the composed elements and highly personal, improvised interpretations. Eisenstadt's assured, non-hierarchical leadership emphasized a delicate balance between subtle, economical polyrhythmic pulse and loose skeletal forms. Exploration of the acoustic instruments' timbral range and generous freedom enabled each musician to expand on their own unique language.

The next group, with Dutch acoustic bassist Luc Ex (one of The Ex's founders) and his new group Naked Wolf, featured a different kind of energy. This cosmopolitan, Amsterdam based sextet —Australian trumpeter-vocalist Felicity Provan, Brazilian saxophonist Yedo Gibson, Finnish guitarist Mikael Szafirowski, French vocalist Seb El Zin and Austrian drummer Gerri Jäger—just released their self-titled debut (El Negocito, 2014).

The album's front sleeve promises a sonic spectacle including "the room shaking with demonic orchestras, the snatches of fearful sleep, the voices outside the window." The group delivered a similarly infectious, demonic set charged with wild, hypnotic rock energy and clever improvisations with rapid changes in mood and pulse, poetic rap lyrics and danceable tight grooves. This ensemble didn't rest for a second, bursting with uncompromised joy and playful creativity that highlighted the strong personalities of each musician. There were highly arresting solos by Provan—both as a trumpeter and vocalist, Szafirowski, Gibson and El Zin.

The first night concluded with a roaring set by Brazilian power trio Chinese Cookie Poets (guitarist Marcos Campello, electric bassist Felipe Zenicola and drummer Renato Godoy). They began with a hypnotic, ear-shattering drone that was just the introduction for brutal mayhem in the most extreme and loud terrains. There was no attempt to ease or slow the uncompromising onslaught, that only got fiercer and wilder but exploring more layers and colors in the dense, tight textures.

Second Day: Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014

Day two began with free afternoon concerts. The first took place in the impressive Stadtpfarrkirche (Parish Church) and featured a solo, church organ improv by contemporary Austrian composer Christoph Herndler. He structured a long piece beautifully, wisely employing the church's high space and resonant acoustics. He exhausted the pipes' full sonic spectrum to create almost endlessly rich tones with echoed overtones. A constant flow of resonant gentle sounds, formed ageless, slow- morphing architectural textures.

Immediately after the end of this concert, the audience moved to the historical Minoriten building, for the duo of Greek vocalist Savina Yannatou and British double bass master Barry Guy. The duo have recorded one acclaimed album, Attikos (Maya, 2010). Their performance relied on some pieces from that album, but as could be expected, especially from such creative masters, the set offered a much more profound experience of the art of the two.

Yannatou is gifted singer with amazing vocal range and an organic manner of vocal acrobatics stretching from primeval, wordless articulations to concise, highly personal song interpretations. Guy is also a gifted musician/improviser whose rich language covers Baroque music, jazz, free jazz and free improvisation who developed his own inventive techniques that includes playing the bass with brushes, a stringless bow and sticking metal sticks between strings. Both Yannatou and Guy played as if they were two lovers employing respective instruments in the service of a higher cause. With mutual innocence, playful teasing, humor, compassion, affection and always demonstrating attentive listening and support, finding new ways to enchant and inspire each other. During their too-short set, imaginative improvisations morphed naturally into songs that encompassed ancient traditional Mediterranean cultures, Baroque, contemporary or playful, free improvisations. It was music of the moment, magnificent in its depth, beauty and virtuoso delivery.

Back in Alter Schl8hof, the evening began with the twenty musicians of Austria's GIS (Go for Improvised Sounds} Orchestra, augmented by three composers—trumpeter Gigi Gratt, Christof Kurzmann and pianist Elisabeth Harnik. This orchestra was founded in 2012 featuring young musicians from Wels and the nearby city of Linz and is supported by the local Kulturverein Waschaecht Wels. The orchestra focused on conducted, game-like improvisations that enabled conductors as well as enthusiastic musicians a lot of freedom to experiment through different, even conflicting strategies in the various orchestral sections of vocalists, horns, rhythm, strings, keyboards and electronics. The skillful musicians immediately moved between playfully structured narratives, coherent in spirit; into joyful chaotic outbursts back and forth, often too noisy and almost too wild to contain, without subscribing to any genre or style.

The all-female chamber trio Till by Turning (pianist Emily Manzo, bassoon player Katherine Young and violinist Erica Dicker) presented a challenging contemporary program by composers Sofia Gubaidulina and Morton Feldman. Thoughtful improvisations and arresting sonic explorations focused on extended techniques and inventive exploration of silence and space.

Despite the demanding nature of this set and the often minimal, almost silent sonic articulations, the trio succeeded in keeping the audience carefully attuned to an adventurous journey. The most memorable piece of this set was Young's solo for bassoon and electronics, in which her inventive breathing techniques were enhanced by different effects until her breaths, the bassoon's total timbral range, and the electronics formed a strangely beautiful wall of inimitable sound.

The Scandinavian action jazz trio The Thing—Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Norwegian double bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love—need no introduction. Their performance in Wels ended a short and tight European tour, often joined by Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, a close and frequent collaborator. The trio and Vandermark recorded (Immediate Sound (Smalltown Superjazz, 2007) and Vandermark and Nilssen-Love collaborate frequently and intensely in various outfits. They just released Extended Duos (Audiographic/PNL, 2014), a box-set of six discs and one DVD.

Still, no matter how many times one catches The Thing on albums or video clips, it is unique to experience them live, especially together with Vandermark, andpreferably from the front row. The assured, charismatic presence of all three musicians, and their level of inexhaustible stamina, boundless amounts of energy, and immediate power are simply breathtaking. There is no other group on either side of the Atlantic that exhibits such sheer commitment, without letting down for a second. Vandermark fit organically into this muscular unit, clearly enjoying the high-octane re-creation of John Coltrane's classic "India." The powerful set also included a moving dedication to ailing German jazz booking agent Erhard Hessling, a former Thing agent who was in the audience, and a fascinating, dramatic new Nilssen-Love composition inspired by Nordic mythology.

The Saturday program continued with the trio of Dutch vocal artist Jaap Blonk, Norwegian vocal and electronics artist Maja S.K. Ratkje and electronics noise master Lasse Marhaug. Blonk and Ratkje previously recorded vocal improvisations on MAJAAP, later adding electronics for Post-Human Identities (Kontrans, 2004 and '05). Ratkje and Marhaug's ongoing collaboration is more extensive and varied, beginning as a duo (Music for Shopping, ( Synesthetic, 2003), Music for Loving, Bottrop Boy, 2004, Music for Faking (C3R, 2004) and Music for Gardening (Pica Disk, 2009), expanding as a trio with Fe-Mail and Marhaug (All Men are Pigs (Gameboy, 2004) and later as the Slugfield trio with Nilssen-Love (Slime Zone (PNL, 2012).

At first, this ad-hoc trio's meeting sounded like it would be governed by an immediate flow of manic inventions by Ratkje and Marhaug (using, for example, plastic wrap as a sophisticated sonic generator) while Blonk's idiosyncratic linguistic reconstructions and minimalist use of basic electronics would be lost in the mix. The charismatic Ratkje was wise enough to challenge Blonk to incorporate his impressive array of vocals with facial grimaces that integrated into a set full of healthy doses of wit and humor. The trio managed to assemble the distinct, highly nuanced languages of all three into an arresting set of what sounded as futuristic love songs for nervous workaholics and noisy, very noisy people.

The night ended quite late, or very early in the morning, with hypnotic, acoustic techno set by Austrian trio Elektro Guzzi—electric guitarist Bernard Hammer, electric bassist Jakob Schneidewind and drummer Bernard Breuer, all armed with an impressive set of pedals and effects, but refraining from any typical, techno-like machine-sounding loops or rhythms. This often slandered genre sounded fresh and y rich when this trio played and then, even much more so when sax titan Mats Gustafsson charged them with his powerful free jazz sensibilities. The repetitive, circular modules gained layers methodically, with power and volition, then disintegrated again, only to be formed as another powerful, acoustic techno improvisation that kept the elated audience dancing throughout the set.

Day Three: Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014

The last day of the festival began with another intimate performance at the Minoriten hall, by French musician Frédéric Nogray, who has mastered the art of crystal singing bowls. Nogary expands on the Far-Eastern art (mainly in Tibet) of resonant overtones and metallic singing bowls and introduces Western, contemporary sensibility. Nogray gently constructed a dreamy, ethereal suite of near transparent tones, accumulating more colors and shades and enjoying the unique acoustics of the historic hall and filling it with poetic and highly moving music.

The audience moved afterwards to the nearby local cultural center, MKH, for the trio of Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi, now based in Berlin and known for his exquisite use of daxophones, his Altered States group and collaborations with fellow sonic alchemist Otomo Yoshihide, cellist Noid (aka Steyrer Arnold Haber) and DIY- electronics player Tamara Wilhelm. The trio released I Hope It Doesn't Work (Mikroton, 2014), a debut that marked a construction and deconstruction of fleeting ideas---acoustic, electronic and sampled. All sounds were created in the moment, without trying to form a cohesive trio, but to emphasize different voices and detailed, subversive textures. Uchihashi demonstrated his virtuoso, poetic playing of the late Hans Reichel wooden shapes of daxophones, excrating surprisingly human sounding voices with a bow and a small mallet from these beautiful shapes.

The evening performances began with a powerful set by Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and the eleven musicians of Large Unit, that just now released a 3-album box-set Erta Ale (PNL, 2014). Nilssen-Love Unit presented his clever compositions that combines tight elements like those of Frode Gjerstad's Circulasione Totale Orchestra, and the immediate energy bursts of Peter Brötzmann's Tentet—two outfits in which he played prominent role—and adding an element of danger with noise master Lasse Marhaug and the quirky guitarist Ketil Gutvik. Nilssen-Love wisely chose some of the most distinct, personalities of the vibrant Norwegian free jazz scene for this "unit," with one Swedish player, trombonist Mats Äleklint Quartet.

At times this massive team sounded like two, even three groups racing against each other in tough, uncompromisingly orchestrated duels then uniting immediately for muscular climaxes. The tight pieces highlighted drummer Andreas Wildhagen, double bass player Jon Rune Strøm and trumpeter Thomas Johansson. Each have already developed their own, highly personal language. The Unit's triumphant set proved that this excellent ensemble has only begun to explore its options. It will be most interesting to listen to future endevours.

As often happened in this festival, the following set held a different kind of intense energy. Swedish double bass master Nina de Heney and French alto saxophonist Christine Abdelnour weaved delicate, highly poetic free improvised textures, often challenging essential aspects of conventional techniques or sound. Both players were attentive to any fragment of sound, playing in an intuitive, imaginative manner and introducing inventive strategies of playing. Abdelnour's breathing techniques playing with a plastic bottle stuck into the sax bell, questioned the accepted ways of holding or blowing this metallic instrument. De Heney's instincts expanded Abdelnour's ideas in a light, rhythmic basis. Nuanced textures were fascinating and received enthusiastically by the curious audience.

Next came the new improvising quartet Perch, Hen, Brock & Rain. The group is comprised of some the most successful duos in the free improvised scene—Dutch reed player Ab Baars and viola player Ig Henneman, with New York-based saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey. In the middle of their debut European tour, the quartet delivered a set characterized by masterful know how and profound communal conversation. The quartet's subtle telepathic interplay offered complex polyrhythmic segments, abstract sonic searches (mainly Baars on the Japanese shakuhachi flute and Henneman with the viola bow) and playful, tight rhythms.This set stressed the quartet's great potential.

The final concert turned the Alter Schl8hof hall into a joyful dance party. The Dutch group The Ex, who just celebrated its 35th anniversary, had already performed at this festival eleven times before, and returned in expanded form with Brass Unbound, featuring sax players Vandermark and Gustafsson, Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos, Italian trumpeter Roy Paci and special guest Baars. Any attempt to define The Ex's aesthetics as a band is futile—punk, alt-rock, post-rock, free improvisation, Ethiopian rock—all is there and much more. And all is charged with manic, irresistible, intense, energy, clever, provocative lyrics, tight, danceable grooves and the unique ability to add any audience to the communal celebration.

The Ex + Brass Unbound released one album together, Enormous Door (Ex Records, 2013) and the set included some of the best pieces from that project like "State of Shock" and the inevitable closing encore, a powerful, infectious reworking of "Theme From Konono." Uplifting, raw energy radiated from the stage into the dense, dancing audience who laughed at the friendly banter of guitarists Terrie Hessels, Andy Moor and vocalist-guitarist Arnold de Boer. The crowd were moved by the singing of drummer-vocalist Katherina Bornefeld and overwhelmed by fierce walls of sound produced by the Brass Unbound. What an amazing, happy conclusion to a great festival.

Photo Credit: Eyal Hareuveni

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