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Perspectives 2009


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Perspectives 2009
Vasteras, Sweden
March 5th-7th, 2009
For those who have not attended, or perhaps not even heard of, the Perspectives International Festival for Creative Music, held in Våsteras, 90 minutes northwest of Stockholm, there are two comparable equivalents. In some ways, Perspectives is similar to the Vision Festival—the names are almost synonyms!—in its grassroots organizing and prominence given to "indigenous" musicians as well as visiting luminaries. But since the Vision is almost exclusively an acoustic free jazz festival, a better parallel might be the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville of Canada. Perspectives shares with the latter an expansive notion of creative music, including noise, electronica and minimalism as well as good old fashioned avant-garde improvising. If nothing else, the festival saves a line item in its budget by having no group require music stands.

Thursday-Saturday, Mar. 5th-7th was the third edition of the festival, after being held in 2004 and 2007. With his time given over entirely to logistical concerns, curator Mats Gustafsson played only for two minutes—on soprano—in duo with drummer and Festival MC Raymond Strid to kick off the weekend. But attendees needed not despair. 29 sets of music were in effect like peering into Gustafsson's head and three performers actually illuminated his particular approach to music. Those three, Dror Feiler, Peter Brötzmann and Akira Sakata, all saxophonists, were integral to Gustafsson's development and having them appear on consecutive nights was like spending the weekend with someone's family.

Almost all the concerts took place in two rooms at CuLTUREN, a multi-use cultural center, one a large traditional performance space with chairs and bleacher seating (Box 1) while the other was more of a black box theater where listeners stood or sat on the floor (Box 2). The only offsite activity were Friday and Saturday afternoon concerts at the Våsteras Konstmuseet (Art Museum). The main programming began at 5 pm and shifted between the two rooms, a new set of music every hour, finishing up around 1 am. And given that this was extremely difficult music to absorb, the mettle of the substantial crowds was certainly tested.

Also worthy of mention was a series of panel discussions held in the mid afternoon in between the Konstmuseet shows and the main programming. These covered "Perspectives of Music Production," moderated by John Corbett and featuring owners of independent record labels like Johan Berthling (Häpna), Stephane Berland (Ayler) and Marek Winiarski (Not Two); "Listen Eat Drink," a discussion of music and food; and "Perspectives of Perspectives," an overview of the history of the Perspectives Festival and an introduction to its new organizers for 2011. Unfortunately for this correspondent, the latter two were in Swedish only and the first took place mere hours after touchdown when fatigue was overwhelming. And there were also art displays in the various rooms of CuLTUREN, including one curated by Gustafsson that demonstrated his love of rare LPs. Called 12 by 12, participants were asked to do a 3 by 4 LP grid based on some underlying theme, whether it was monochromaticism, children's artwork or Sun Ra, with accompanying sound installation by Carl Michael von Hausswolff.

Setting the electronic tone early was the opening duo performance of Martin Herterich and Tobias Åström in Box 2. Box 1's events began with the Erik Oscarsson Quintet, with Virginia Genta (saxophones and winds), Mats Äleklint (trombone), Oscarsson (piano), Johan Berthling (bass) and Raymond Strid (drums). The vibe was late '60s Euro-free, with Oscarsson a festive keyboard basher and Genta shrieking away happily, either on her saxophone or just vocally. As with most examples of this music, some of the most interesting moments came during textural changes, whether it be through smaller groupings like piano and trombone or when Genta switched to instruments like wooden flute, recorder, percussion or thumb piano. A mashing of several approaches to free improvising, the effect was one of maximum effort, if somewhat fitful at times.

The trio of Jakob Riis, Anders Lindsjö and Liudas Mockūnas followed in Box 2, playing laptop, acoustic guitar and sax respectively. The methodology was minimalist and certainly the twang of an acoustic guitar is somewhat uncommon in this kind of music. Mostly the players indulged their percussive sides, benefiting greatly from the denser moments and echoing of each other's lines. Also of note were Lindsjö's guitar preparations.

One of the anticipated shows of the festival came early, 8 pm slot in Box 1. Lokomotiv Konkret, the 30-year trio of Dror Feiler (reeds and electronics), Sören Runolf (guitar) and Tommy Björk (drums). From information given to this correspondent, this group has intense political undertones and was very much responsible for a particularly ferocious strain of Swedish improvisation now championed by the likes of Gustafsson (the program mentioned that Gustafsson saw this band as a teenager in his hometown of Umeå). Feiler is a testament to avant-garde fortitude and is almost shamanistic in his impact. The music was vaguely menacing and contained a remarkable dynamic range. Feiler—check out his group with Gustafsson, Nash Kontroll—plays almost every reed instrument from clarinet to a monstrous baritone sax, all with equal aplomb and the set of shortish discrete improvs was brutal but uplifting.

Bassist Clayton Thomas was a one-time resident of New York City before moving back to his native Australia. He then relocated to Berlin where he has become an important voice in European free improvisation. He would play the next day but introduced himself to the Box 2 Perspectives audience with a brief but eminently satisfying set. Two improvisations, almost exactly ten minutes each, showed the range of what the instrument can do unaccompanied. The first fêted and expanded upon the preparations and extended techniques of such players as Barry Guy and Barre Phillips while the second worked in compelling microtonal movement via bow, developing in a similar manner to the music of countrymen The Necks. Thomas could have played further and not lost any attention from his rapt audience but showbiz says leave 'em wanting more.

One of the more interesting electronic sets was up next in Box 1. DIEB 13 (Austria) mans three turntables while Hankil Ryu (Korea) works only with contact microphones. Each played solo sets to establish their aesthetics—a three-card monty game converging the analog and the digital or listening in on the chatter of an ant farm— before joining in duo. Having the context of their solo performances was instructive but often it was unclear who was producing which sound. Not as combative as expected, there was actual dialogue and thematic development.

Dutch pianist Cor Fuhler inhabited Box 2 for his set of solo prepared piano. Through items like contact mics, a slew of ebows, personal fans and percussive elements, Fuhler made his acoustic grand sound like the tone generators in use elsewhere during the festival. He looked like a mad scientist at times and the Frankenstein's monster of sounds he created were suitably creepy. But most importantly, Fuhler's pacing was expert, keeping the audience entranced with his activities.

The final set of the evening was frankly ridiculous. Billed as Perspectives Meeting, Feiler (on electronics), Riis and guitarists Jojo Hiroshige, Otomo Yoshihide and Per Svensson attacked their instruments and the eardrums of the audience with a crumbling wall of sound that was overwhelming and unpleasant. When Svensson started swinging his guitar around his head, drilling holes into and then using a belt sander on a piece of steel to shoot sparks at the first few rows, this correspondent decided sleep was more important than a fiery demise.

Day 2 began at Konstmuseet with the duo of Thomas Toivonen (acoustic guitar) and Chris Cook (keyboards), lo-fi ramblings akin to Derek Bailey meeting Joe Zawinul in an abandoned train station. Peter Brötzmann, who would play that night in quartet, followed with a long solo performance on tenor and clarinets. There was the usual brazen aggression but also some surprising moments of introspection. Brötzmann quipped that noon was not his usual time to work but he still filled the gallery space with his unmistakable tone, tempered by a moody blues inflection.

I of the Mourning began the night's music and was another trying set. Emil Ström, dressed in some sort of tunic, stood in the middle of Box 2's stage, playing the same electronically processed guitar chord endlessly while Tiffany and Alexandra Betts, dressed in black leotards, flanked him, screaming hysterically. OK, why not?

Pianist Marilyn Crispell, who is a veteran of the other two editions of the festival—see the recent Leo release of those sets, Collaborations—was a big draw in Box 1 but was shackled by the aggregate with which she was performing. No one can fault legendary Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson but saxophonist Joakim Milder and vocalist Lina Nyberg seemed out of place. A duet between Crispell and Danielsson, a pairing which did have a brief feature during the performance, would have been a deep, beautiful contrast to the rest of the festival. As it was, the quartet was tentative, no one wanting to lead and far too much politeness for an improvised setting. Nyberg, a pleasant enough singer, drew unwarranted attention by singing poetry, upstaging what could have been far more interesting without her.

Correction, a Swedish piano trio, was up next in Box 2. The group has a recent album on Ayler and has great potential, existing in the nexus between the music of Paul Bley and Howard Riley and Cecil Taylor and Alexander von Schlippenbach. They will be much better when they decide which they like best as the music had a tendency to lurch from one to the other without warning. But at least their attitude is irreverent and interestingly, drummer Emil Åstrand-Melin didn't use cymbals. If they stay together and develop as a unit, look out.

The next four-set stretch of the festival that was outstanding for its breadth and quality. One of the highlights was billed by Mats Gustafsson in his introduction as the "Battle Between Two Thomases," drummer Raymond Strid (his last name means 'battle' in Swedish) collaborating with bassist Clayton Thomas and keyboardist/pianist Pat Thomas. Strid and Pat had worked together before but Clayton was new to both. No matter as their three improvisations—25, 7 and 15 minutes respectively—were remarkably organic and disciplined. The trio moved between large squalls and explorations of smalls sounds, Clayton's bass preparations a crucial element. There were the usual frenetic moments, usually via Pat's keyboard, but the intent was spontaneous composing in its purest and most laudable form, noise and quiet, melody and abstraction coexisting with purpose and drive.

Moving from this back into Box 2, French clarinetist Xavier Charles played solo, giving what amounted to a Master Class in extended reed techniques; close your eyes and you could hardly believe the range and clarity of sounds. Circular breathing, almost inaudible overtones and John Butcher-esque soundscapes made one wonder why some musicians resort to electronics instead of simply practicing.

And then came Peter Brötzmann with trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, bassist Kumiko Takara/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love (of ZU) and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The highly-anticipated quartet was actually not as aggressive as one might expect. Brötzmann is a musician who usually plays up to his colleagues and since Kondo is not solely a squeaker, there were some, dare we say, reflective moments, particularly when the pair played without the rhythm section. Sadly Pupillo, hardly a wallflower, seemed tentative for much of the set but the sweat pouring off of Nilssen-Love was a testament to his effort.

And finally American trumpeter Peter Evans, one of the few non-Europeans at the festival, showed that all the talk of a rising star in the improvising world is probably still not enough. To be a good improviser, you need a keen intellect, stamina, original vocabulary and focus. To be a great improviser, you need to be Peter Evans. His train of thought on trumpet or piccolo trumpet, a particularly demanding instrument, is dark and he is far from being all technique; for 30 minutes, his pacing and dynamic range was astonishing and he generates more sounds than most saxophonists.

It was becoming clear that the last set of the evenings were meant so that listeners would "Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." Hijokaidan—guitarist Jojo Hiroshige and vocalist Junko—reprised the horrific cacophony of the previous evening's Perspectives Meeting. All that needs to be said is that the music was clearly audible several feet outside of Box 1.

The Saturday afternoon set at Konstmuseet was the only performance to break the rule of no music stands. Baroque violinist Maya Homburger and bassist Barry Guy presented a 70- minute set of their long-standing duo. The juxtaposition of their material—18th century pieces by composers like H.I.F. Biber with structured improvisations by Guy, as well as a closing piece he wrote for her that received its world premiere—is compelling, particularly as it is festooned with some of the most astonishing bass playing one can ever hope to see. It is rare to see recitation and invention cohabitate within the same set, much less the same tune. Particularly exciting were two multi-part solo expositions by Guy, the first based on paintings and the second inspired by the work of Samuel Beckett.

An hour before the onset of evening programming, Xavier Charles, along with Frédéric le Junter and Jérôme Jeanmart, played as Silent Block. Played might not be the best term. The concept is a massive table full of homemade instrument and sound generators. One example out of dozens were a pair of speaker cones in which Charles would throw wooden balls to produce random rhythm tracks. Less music than science experiment, the trio were set up in the middle of Box 1 with the audience/onlookers crowding behind them like they were touring the Manhattan Project.

The last night of the festival began in earnest with Lindha Kallerdahl's Friends of the Tiger, a jarring avant pop group with a pair each of guitars and drums, piano and the leader's vocals. Kallerdahl has a recent solo disk on ESP and an impressive resumé working with some fine international improvisers. But this set, with its maudlin aesthetic and garage band playing, was underwhelming and completely out of place with the rest of the festival's programming.

Perhaps that made the Perspectives audience even more eager to see the solo set by drummer Sven-Åke Johansson that followed in Box 1. Swedish free improvising is an established quantity in 2009. Back in the mid '60s, Johansson was its only native proponent. He played in an early edition of the Manfred Schoof Quintet, featured prominently in Peter Brötzmann's first trio and on Machine Gun, has amazing duet albums with Alexander von Schlippenbach and has recorded his own solo percussion albums. Dressed in a rumpled suit and looking more like an accountant than a musician, Johansson played a deliberate 40- minute set that begin with 12 minutes of maddening snare roll. He then moved to a standing position with a number of floor toms and cymbals as well as a piece of cardboard surrounding him. He examined their sonic capabilities with sticks, brushes and bows, all in turn, creating sound and texture rather than rhythm and momentum. His final flourish was to play his drums with a pair of English cucumbers. Watching him slicing them on the cymbals to close his performance made the eight-hour flight worth it.

A quick dash back to Box 2 for the solo performance of French horn player Hild Sofie Tafjord, a half-hour of severely processed brass. Her breathing and tapping on keys created a percussive bed and a sequencer underlaid a colorful foundation. Think drum 'n' bass without either or ECM at its most dystopic. After a while, the nature of French horn was lost somewhat and the louder the music, the less distinct it became. But it is certainly an unusual context for the instrument and the affair was more majestic than most electronic forays.

Some like electronica while others are acoustic purists. Its all about intent really. That idea made the Box 1 set by Filament— Sachiko M (sampler) and Otomo Yoshihide (turntable)—especially trying. For 40 minutes, the pair engaged in minimalist minimalism, a squeak here, a scratch there. The spaces in between either generated tension or sleepiness and a misplaced sneeze from the crowd would have ruined the whole thing. The duo preceded their performance by asking that no one take pictures as it would disturb their concentration. OK but what would the pictures be of except two people 20 feet apart barely moving? What was probably most noteworthy—and unthinkable in the States—is that a few hundred people sat in complete silence watching this and then erupted into applause that was deafening by comparison.

Another duo followed in Sofia Jernberg (vocals) and Lene Grenager (cello). Soon to have an album on Mats Gustafsson's Olof Bright label, their 20-minute set refreshed the hackneyed notion of a sum being greater than its parts. A simple improvisatory setting could have been tedious or contradictory or maybe just mediocre. But Jernberg, whose vocal command is absolutely incredible, and Grenager, who must go through bows weekly, are committed to their sound and to each other. Completely unprocessed and with severe pressure on the vocal chords and cello strings, serious listening and communication was the order of the music. It might have lagged if it went on very much longer but was a perfect amuse bouche for what would be this correspondent's last set of the festival.

It is rare for a festival to close on a high note. But due to an early departure time on Sunday and a quickly disintegrating brain, your correspondent chose to finish his listening with the Akira Sakata Trio (sorry, Borbetomagus). The Japanese alto saxophonist/clarinetist is best known as one third of pianist Yosuke Yamashita's '70s trio but works as a marine biologist as well!. Playing with the American 'rhythm section' of bassist Darin Gray and drummer Chris Corsano, Sakata gave a 45-minute lesson in what amazing consequences can come from sincere free jazz. From the first note, he blew inspired shrieks and wails that still kept their musicality over the churnings of Gray and Corsano. An interlude where Sakata growled and whispered Japanese folk songs about fisherman and then charmed with his clarinet only lulled the crowd into false security before Sakata picked up his alto once more and melted everyone's faces.

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