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November Music 2015

Henning Bolte By

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November Music
s'Hertogenbosch
November 5-8, 2015

November Music is a yearly festival held in the medieval town of s'-Hertogenbosch in the southeast part of The Netherlands. s'-Hertogenbosch (also called Den Bosch) is the hometown of well-known Dutch painter Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516). The festival is a festival of contemporary music, new music in the broadest sense: in addition to the core of contemporary composers' music, there is room for neighboring branches, such as experimental pop, sound art/sound installations, as well as jazz and free improvised music. This music is presented during five days in the first week of November. Concerts are spread throughout the city, with the transformed old rusk and cookie factory of Verkade at the center. The festival went along with the factory's transformation in 1993. It opened with a new opera of Dutch-Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki "Mariken in de Tuin der Lusten (Mariken in the Garden of Earthly Delights)" based on the medieval miracle play "Mariken van Nieumeghen," and finished with a show of Finish hyper accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen who teamed up with famous Dutch all female Ragazze String Quartet for this occasion.

November Music has a special focus on young up-and-coming composers (this year: Florian Magnus Maier and Wilbert Bulsink), as well as arrived composers. There was a day with works of German composer Helmut Lachenmann, attended by the composer himself. Works of Kaija Saariaho, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Claude Vivier and Dutch composer Jan van der Putte were performed by the Asko|Schönberg Ensemble and Nederlands Kammerkoor, under Estonian conductor Tonu Kaljuste. November Music zooms in on jazz and improvised music on Friday and Saturday, and offers its music route (kunstmuziekroute) on Sunday. This article focuses mainly on the jazz-related parts of this year's program, with a few side steps.

Near East

Oriental or Near Eastern Music is a regular at November Music. This edition presented three concerts in that vein. Two by American musicians of Mesopotamian origin and one by a Dutch high profile mixed ensemble of jazz musicians, musicians of contemporary composed music joined by a string player (kemenche) from Istanbul.

Amir El Saffar

Amir ElSaffar, American born musician of Iraqi origin, plays trumpet and the santoor, a traditional Mesopotanian hammered dulcimer played with soft or hard mallets. Together with Khaled El Hafez, a traditional oriental vocalist, and Belgian Tana String Quartet, a contemporary classical Western ensemble with much crossover expertise, El Saffar performed a newly composed piece in traditional vocabulary based on the mysticism of Ibn Arabi's 13th century poem "Turjuman Al-Ashwaaq." It was a beautiful performance and a good introduction to the later performance with his 'modern' Two Rivers ensemble. Strings are quite common accompanying instruments in oriental music. Here the string quartet had a more central role. The strings of Tana, however, did not fully adapt to Eastern modal music, but operated at the intersection of oriental modalism with its quartertones and Western tempered music, which induced a productive subtle tension and friction.

Later, in the evening, Amir El Saffar performed with his complete Two Rivers Ensemble. The name of the ensemble refers to the two great Mesopotamian rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, as well as the 'in-fluences,' the influx of oriental music and jazz. Its music has been released by the prestigious American PI Recording label (amongst others Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman). The ensemble showed a line-up of four string instruments, double bass, buzuq, ûd, santoor and two woodwind instruments (trumpet and saxophone), Eastern percussion and drums. This kind of pairing can already be found in the Hard Bop era (think of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the bassist of Thelonius Monk, Yusef Lateef, and many more), was continued during the free jazz era and found new approaches and forms in the 80s and 90s of the last century (think of CoDoNa, Keith Jarrett, Nana Simopoulos, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Jon Hassell, and many more).

Maybe it was the combination of the trumpet and Iraqi reference that drew extra attention and added extra nuance. Apparently it was perceived and received as an uncommon thing, triggering extra quality and sensation. The group indeed produced a massive, loud, and sometimes ponderous sound of its own, a sound that clearly delighted and ravished the audience. Maybe it was this massiveness with clarion blasts and screaming horns—from time to time it overwhelmed and buried ûd and/or buzuq—that appealed to the audience. It was counter-balanced when El Saffar switched to the santoor with its more delicate sound and its reference to the Al-Ashwaaq piece. Both elements together ensured that the performance was well received.

Like many others also El Saffar harks back to the golden Middle Ages, the bright Andalusian era when the Orient was prospering, whereas Europe had a lesser civilization, culture and technological level. It is good and legitimate to celebrate the splendid art and culture of those times. Is it a retreat on safe(r) territories, consolation, hope, a nostalgic utopia? For Western concertgoers and listeners it is double exotic: from afar, a far away era and a different (far away?) culture. What does it mean for their perception, and image of the Orient? And what does this mean for the bearers of culture and arts from various regions of the Near East? Is it a fruitful approach to gain common ground?

Up North

The concert entitled Near East Up North raised great expectations as well as skepticism; skepticism, because there are too many well-meant East-West, Orient-Occident divans around nowadays, expectations because of the Dutch high profile line-up meeting kemenche player Derya Türkan from Istanbul and percussion master Jarrod Cagwin , formerly also residing and teaching in Istanbul, currently living in Catalonia. Derya Türkan formed the link between a group of Dutch jazz musicians comprising award winning pianistJeroen van Vliet, bassist Eric van der Westen and saxophonist Mette Erker on one side and members of Asko|Schönberg-Ensemble, the most prestigious Dutch Contemporary Music Ensemble and this year's ensemble in residence, a unique collaboration with high musical potential under the secure direction of Dutch composer/arranger and pianist Martin Fondse, one of the busiest and most sought-after leaders in the Dutch musical community, and also known for his collaboration with Brazilian rock star Lenine.

Three elements came together here and melted: a versatile occidental musician, Derya Türkan, with an instrument that has a very special and delicate Eastern sound, a jazz component, a component of contemporary composed music, and a percussionist who is experienced in all three worlds, able to ignite and rhythmically lead and guide a group into and through new sonic territories. Fondse and Cagwin complemented each other as they managed to melt both sides whereas Türkan was able to unfold the enchanting sonorities of his instrument that subsequently where deepened and highlighted by both parties. Fondse and Cagwin—he acts as rhythmic coach of famous German Ensemble Modern—are familiar with both worlds.

Occasionally both parts also switched roles. The jazz part then played the score and the members of the new music ensemble made a couple of serious improvisational attempts. Both parties delivered a tight and airy, straightforward, and vertically expanding performance. It resulted in a brilliantly performed piece full of deep grooves, delicate soundings, shining sound colors, and a wonderful outflow—a memorable concert.

Ambrose Akinmusire/Lunatree

Ambrose Akinmusire is a self-conscious young musician who did not need to push himself into the foreground. He is also observant, and fosters the interplay of his fellow musicians. His trademark is a full deep tone from which he can whizz into high register tones very quickly, if functional and necessary. His tone, use of registers and dynamics shared some of the characteristics of the great Bill Dixon, one of the key figures of the New York avant-garde in the 1960s and '70s.

At this year's November Music he appeared in two collaborations: his own quartet together with the Dutch New Music ensemble Lunatree and in a trio with vocalist Theo Bleckmann and Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje. Akinmusire has collaborated with Bleckmann as part of his own group for a while now. Bleckmann—a high-profile vocalist and singer who has worked with the likes of Meredith Monk, Uri Caine and John Hollenbeck—is no ordinary or straightforward jazz singer. His voice has a very distinguished timbre and he has the ability to curve with his voice like a figure skater, which often allows him to use his voice more like an instrumentalist manifested in Akinmusire's fully confluent trumpet-voice-sax-frontline. The ability to achieve that, to allow space for strong contributions like Bleckmann's to fully unfold, seems a special talent of Akinmusire as a leader. New for him was the collaboration with Dutch ensemble Lunatree and the collaboration with pianist Harmen Fraanje.

Akinmusire and Lunatree devised a special way of alternating importation and interplay. Both groups alternated their performance on stage and at certain points shared the stage fully or partly. It was a sympathetic trial with some highlights and good ideas, but it remained a bit pale. It became no grand guignol, yet no smoldering session either.

Colors of Improvisation

A good concert performance is a specifically appealing merging of opposites—like the composition of a dish by a creative chef. This in mind assists to convey the following musical impressions of mine.

The formula of matching a Dutch musician or group with a well-known group or musician from outside has been applied to the jazz programming of the festival, in particular, for many years now. This year it worked out fairly well in two concerts. There was real rapport between the musicians and far reaching engagement in each other's sound worlds, temperaments, and kind of energy. The approaches were different, clearly contrasting and challenging for the musicians and the audience.

Ambrose Akinmusire had signaled to the festival his wish to collaborate with a Dutch pianist. Fraanje is one of the internationally most profiled Dutch jazz musicians witness for example his role in the highly successful Dutch-Senegalese trio of cellist Ernst Reijseger and vocalist Molla Sylla, in the Norwegian formation Rubicon of bassist Mats Eilertsen, as well as in Eilertsen's trio. The addition of German born New York vocalist extraordinaire Theo Bleckmann seemed a logical step and apt choice. Bleckmann and Akinmusire have been collaborating for quite a while and Fraanje has been working in a format with vocalist intensely for years (Fraanje and Bleckmann are both signed with prestigious German label Winter&Winter). As a vocalist and composer, multiple and multidisciplinary cross-genre collaborator Bleckmann has been a mainstay of the New York scene for now more than 20 years now and his most prominent role is maybe his work with the legendary vocal group of American maverick composer and vocalist Meredith Monk. Meredith Monk has barely performed in The Netherlands whereas Bleckmann does so on a more regular basis, but the Dutch audience is quite unfamiliar with his voice and his approach. Hence the teaming-up of this threesome was overdue, challenging and promising.

The trio performed nine well-structured pieces starting carefully, even a bit tentative to interweave their winding and gliding lines. Fraanje kept the piano reticent but decidedly moving and clearly pointing. It was interesting to listen to the configuration with Bleckmann against the background of the melisma of the Sylla-Reijseger-Fraanje configuration in mind: stark contrast, making clear in what different ways the space is filled with sound and left open, and where to meet vibration(s). It started to flourish in the fourth piece that had a nice waltz feel. In the next piece, a kind of "She's Leaving Home"-song the three musicians came together, and met on a higher level. Bleckmann used electronic loops sparsely; together with Akinmusire he dug into darker spheres and finished, close miking, with a rendition of the piece "As I Am." Their performance indicated there is a will and potential to further unfold and the capacity to arrive at something common, to create something new.

Dutch leading trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, back at November after a longer hiatus, had signaled his wish to the festival: he would like to team-up with Jon Balke, the Norwegian keyboard wizard and mastermind of ensembles like Masqualero, Magnetic North Orchestra, Batagraf, JøKleBa, but also the oriental Siwan. Balke is a prime example of the versatility, decisive openness and creative adaptability of Norwegian musicians. It was not only the difference in personalities but also the duo format that set different conditions. Vloeimans and Balke jumped in expeditiously, full blow. As a spectator (and listener) I got the impression both had the most fun throwing in new effects and producing sound wonders one after another in strong cadences, thereby seemingly losing the deeper core of the music. Luckily they re-balanced in time—quite usual for this kind of setup -returned to the core and really worked on it, worked it out jointly, and brought it to a resolving end. It came forth from their preparation. Vloeimans mentioned he made some attempts to write something in advance but gave up. He grabbed something from his archive instead and, according to him, playing around with it in their first meeting on the spot increased his own urge to just jump in. Balke's beats together with his lyrical lines did the rest.

Two different set-ups, two different sets of temperaments and approaches, all with their own ways into and out of, doubts, juggling and arriving. There is a pendant on the listener's side. The listener also goes through a process and various states including rejection, (dis)satisfaction, euphoria. It can lead into strong defensiveness of affirmative loops or, by permitting inner conflicts, into new sensations, discoveries and widening of one's horizon. True improvisation, however, is about the balance of process and outcome, the known and the unknown, the (new) horizon. Dissatisfaction is a highly subjective thing and legitimate. Rejection or even belittling is something else, needing strong arguments. Often, though, belittling and hyping something means taking the same route.

The openness disposed in the first two performances vanished through the subsequent closing concert: the high-energy machinery of Phronesis, a great group that rendered an impeccable and highly dynamic show. It can be considered from two angles. From an entertainment point of view it makes sense to end after the 'first meeting search' of the first two groups, with an energetically blasting, fast forward moving group that serves the need for holdfast. From an artistic point of view it would have been advisable to program something continuing the process approach of the first two performances in order to really develop the concept, enrich it and give it still more edge and fruition, to stimulate the curiosity and thirst of the audience, re-frame its musical perception and demands. November Music with its genre-bending and genre-crossing impetus would be the right place to do so.

The Route

Sunday always offers The Music Route, from 11:30 a.m. until 18:00 p.m.. This year it presented more than 26 musicians/groups who gave brief, 39-minute concerts at illustrious places spread throughout the old town. Musicians/ensembles have two or three slots to perform. Visitors compose their own program and have a fair chance of seeing enough of the musicians/groups they want to see, either walking or biking from place to place. The performances are genre-/activity-labeled and this year there were various thematic routes to follow. The concept is derived from another Dutch festival, the one day Zomer Jazz Fiets Tour (Summer Jazz Cycle Tour) in Groningen, a music route by bike, through the northern Dutch countryside.

As a visitor you can go for names, instruments/line-up, site or genre, or you can throw the dice. This year I strolled from the beauty and strangeness of slow emerging, sustaining and vanishing sounds to reminiscences of the sounds of singing and organ in the days of Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516) in modal improvisations on Fender Rhodes and harmonium. I traversed some rough narratives in imaginative rock recycling and surfed on the waves of hyper-jazz. And pacing in the late afternoon, I experienced soundings and migrating sounds, circulating through the nave. FinalIy, I rushed to sense the air on the inner and outer edges of sound and texture.

Even if it would be a nice task to identify the related performances and musicians in the program guide, I prefer to give some hints here showing the variety of this day's program. I started at the performance of Dutch born vocalist Jessica Sligter from Oslo, Wilbert Bulsink (electronics), one of the two young composers in focus, and Norwegian violinist Ole-Henrik Moe and Kari Rønneklev of Norwegian duo The Sheriffs Of Nothingness. I went on to the art exhibition hall of Willem II to listen to young keyboard talent Matteo Mijderwijk and walked around the corner to find the cavern where celebrated Belgian threesome of guitarist Bert Dockx, bass guitarist Fred Lyenn and drummer Steven Cassiers made the walls tremble and the glasses tinkle. After some great rock recycling narratives I made my way to the shack where young Dutch enfant terrible, jazz guitarero Reinier Baas, had gathered four strong horns to chase the sheep (Reinier Baas (g) + Morris Kliphuis (French horn), Jean-Paul Estiévenart (tr), Martin van den Berg (b-tromb), Jan Osting (tromb)). Strolling through the medieval quarters you can meet other visitors telling you about their experiences, which can lead you into other directions. A Belgian friend urged me to visit the Grote Kerk, the big church for a formidable performance there. Knowing that I can trust him, I made my way to the Grote Kerk and was not disappointed. It was just magic what those four musicians were doing there: Jacob Lekkerkerker on (small) church organ, Oene Van Geel on viola, Alfredo Genovesi with electronics, and Nathalie Forget on Ondes Martenot. Not repeatable, but unforgettable. It could have been a wonderful ending but ... . But the violinist suggested a follow-up worthwhile. That is why I finally ended up on the inner and outer edges of sound and texture where I again met the Belgian friend. Ensemble Caméléon performed "Book for Strings and Slides" by Wilbert Bulsink and "Three Interludes (on the nature of absence)" by Bart de Vrees, two agile and open-minded young Dutch composers. It was worthwhile, amusing and inspiring—reconciliation when thinking of the performances missed.

It revealed that the route has substance, that threads can be detected and that you can be surprised by connections and experienced insights. However, the musicians stay on their (medieval) sites, remain a bit isolated. It seems the potential of connecting at certain points in a certain way could be used more.

Conclusion

As mentioned earlier November Music offers a considerable range of music and musical performances—also with musicians acting in different fields/genres. To which extent visitors stay in their habitual territory or transcend it, is up to themselves. It is a kind of approach which had its merits in the past but in the long run might be considered a bit too non-committal. It is at best adding up, cumulative. There are plenty of chances to transcend and explore, no doubt, but it could be more triggered or provoked, more sharpened and more interacting; for instance by musical confrontations, rebuilding or remixing as part of a chain or a gravitating Calder mobile.

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