Music Unlimited Festival
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 setby 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 Jägerjust 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 Provanboth 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 composerstrumpeter 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