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Live Review

Punkt 07 - Kristiansand, Norway - Day Two, August 30, 2007


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As 5:00 PM approached, anticipation of the first official day for Punkt 07 continued to grow. The Agder Theater is a beautiful venue, with a large bar area for meeting up with artists and other media folks from as far away as Japan and China. Like the increasingly cosmopolitan makeup of the musicians who have come to perform at Punkt, there's a large contingent of writers to ensure that the word about Punkt continues to spread.

Yet another unique aspect of Punkt is how, while the audience is in the Alpha Room for the live remixes, it not only manages to set up the equipment for the next artist in the 500-seat theatre but to create new set designs as well. With all the technology used by most of Punkt's artist roster, the instrument setup alone can be a complex logistical challenge. But adding complete set redesigns in the space of less than an hour —ranging from the spare, almost spartan, to the remarkably detailed, and with completely different lighting—would be an impossible feat for most festivals. Not for Punkt.

Chapter Index

  1. Huntsville
  2. Huntsville Live Remix: Sweet Billy Pilgrim
  3. Joanna MacGregor and Jan Bang / Michiyo Yagi
  4. Quercus: June Tabor / Iain Ballamy / Huw Warren
  5. Quercus Live Remix: J. Peter Schwalm / Daniel Kluge / Eivind Aarset
  6. Hans Appelquist
  7. Hans Appelquist Live Remix: Nils Petter Molvær / Ryan Francesconi


Huntsville's debut, For the Middle Class (Rune Grammfon, 2006), was another example of how Norwegian artists continue to find new ways to redefine the nexus of improvisation, technology and tradition. A trio featuring bassist Tony Kluften (who also works with a sampler), percussionist Ingar Zach (who, likewise, does sampling—some of it in real time), and Ivar Grydeland, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, pedal steel guitar and banjo (with a wide array of processing effects and looping), Huntsville manages to combine organic sounds with sometimes densely harsh electronics, to create a kind of futuristic "roots" music.

The trio's 45-minute set was a logical extension of For the Middle Class, with many of the same elements and, at times, direct reference to pieces including "Add a Key of Humanity" and the propulsive and tabla sample-driven "The Appearance of a Wise Child." But while some of the textures were familiar, Huntsville's almost recombinant integration of sampled and looped motifs with more abstract textures was fresh and exciting—likely, in many cases, as much of a surprise for the group as it was for the audience.

Grydeland was particularly impressive alternating between his various string instruments, setting up a simple and lyrical loop on pedal steel before moving to electric guitar to create additional melodic fragments as well as more jagged and distorted attacks to provide an intense backwash of sound. Zach was equally potent, creating rapid percussion samples before moving to brushes on his eclectic drum set. While largely a textural player, he did create forward motion at times, playing push-and-pull with both Grydeland and Kluften, who created his own sound world by using his bow in unconventional ways.

That acoustic instruments can be combined with forward-thinking technology, where folkloric elements can live together with more densely-layered electronics, is what gives Huntsville's approach to improvisation its distinction. As strong, if not stronger, in performance as on record, Huntsville hopefully has a new disc in the works representative of the trio's uniqueness.

Huntsville Live Remix: Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Preceding the group's performance on August 31, British group Sweet Billy Pilgrim's guitarist/vocalist, Tim Elsenburg, reduced the harsher elements of Huntsville's performance into near ambient space. Layering a simple, melancholy set of changes over processed slices of Huntsville's work—in particular Grydeland's looped pedal steel guitar—Elsenburg demonstrated how song can be created in real time, and how differently one can view and be inspired by a single musical source.

Adding an almost spiritual vocal, Elsenburg may have begun more ethereally, but he did migrate to more propulsive rhythm by introducing that kinetic aspect of Huntsville's performance, and augmenting it with his own looped figures. Elsenburg would stray into different territories but always find his way back to his original thematic premise.

As the thirty-minute remix drew to a close, Elsenburg referenced King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, creating long, sustained melodies that he then looped and layered but kept buried in the overall mix. As the rest of the music dissolved, leaving only these sustaining loops, Elsenburg took his bow and closed the remix on an atmospheric note. His remix may not have been as eminently adventurous as Huntsville's, but it ended up being a gentle coda that had its own appeal.

Joanna MacGregor and Jan Bang / Michiyo Yagi

For the second theatre show of the day, Punkt brought together two musical contexts that, on the surface, might seem incongruous but, when experienced together, made perfect musical sense.

British pianist Joanna MacGregor's performance with live sampler/Punkt co-founder Jan Bang demonstrated how barriers between musical styles continue to be dissolved. While classically trained, and with a discography and touring schedule that has seen her collaborating with orchestras around the world, MacGregor has developed a personal language for solo performance that brings in elements of jazz harmony and a greater experimental aesthetic for shaping her music. Bang is the perfect collaborator, with a keenly intuitive sense of what should be sampled, feeding back motifs like a repetitive trill to MacGregor, who then responded with her own, dramatically evolving ideas.

MacGregor and Bang's 25-minute set began sparingly, but built with a sense of inevitability as the two interacted. MacGregor may be an undeniably virtuosic pianist with a broad set of musical references, but for her it's clearly always about the music. She demonstrated a remarkable sense of invention that ranged from densely clustered blocks of sound to rapidly repetitive single notes and frequent explorations inside the body of the piano. From fragile delicacy to Cecil Taylor-like block attacks, MacGregor is one of an increasing number of musicians who not only span the arbitrary, and frequently artificial, divide between classical and improvised music, but bring the two together, simply sonic shades of a broad musical continuum.

Less about change and melody (though there were appearances of both throughout), and more about mood, dynamics, texture and long-form narrative, MacGregor and Bang demonstrated another of Punkt's unique characteristics: first encounters. The duo created music without any kind of safety net, and it's the ability to allow festival audiences a window into these laboratory-like experiments that keeps Punkt's program exciting and diverse, show-to-show and year-to-year.

After a brief intermission, Japanese koto player Michiyo Yagi took to the stage for a brief set that brought ancient tradition into the 21st century. Yagi plays the koto, an ancient Japanese multi-stringed instrument originally derived from the zither. While it's normally heard in traditional music that is largely lyrical and definitively consonant, Yagi has expanded the instrument's potential with prepared techniques and an attack that can, at times, be jaggedly visceral.

Yagi may well be the only free-improvising koto player in the world, collaborating fearlessly with artists including saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker. She's also performed in rock groups, classical settings and noise improv. But while her work can be largely experimental, she also retains a sense of tradition that was evident in the first part of her set, during which she played the large, 17-string bass koto. Producing a deeply resonant timbre, Yagi bowed and plucked the instrument, creating rich yet spare melodies.

But it was when she switched to the 21-string koto, which is in a register about two octaves above the bass koto, that the true breadth of her approach was heard. Beginning, again, with a more traditional approach, Yagi sang to a haunting koto melody, and it appeared that her set was going to remain form-and thematically-based. But she soon dispensed with that implication as she began strumming the instrument with increasing vigor, using a drumstick in her left hand to alter the pitch of the open strumming by sliding it up and down the instrument. Yagi built the intensity to a fever pitch, beginning to hit the strings with the stick, reaching a powerful and abrupt ending.

It was a stunning set that captivated the audience, who would not let her go without a brief encore that, once again, demonstrated her ability to mix tradition with a more modernist outlook.

Quercus: June Tabor / Iain Ballamy / Huw Warren

British vocalist June Tabor has been on the scene since the mid-1970s, bringing an often dark outlook to traditional folk music with albums including her classic Abyssinians (Shanachie, 1983). Intense, and with a nuanced delivery that's paradoxically powerful in its sheer understatement, Tabor has, on occasion, experimented with contexts outside the tradition, liberally mixing traditional folk tunes with farther afield material by Duke Ellington and Elvis Costello (who wrote "All This Useless Beauty" for Tabor). Quercus (Oaks), a collaboration with saxophonist Iain Ballamy and pianist Huw Warren, is another distinctive milestone in a career that's had more than its share of highlights.

Ballamy is well-known in Norway and to Punkt, having played at the festival in 2006 with the reduced duo version of Food, featuring percussionist/ electronics artist Thomas Strønen. He worked with Tabor on her 2005 Topic album, At the Wood's Heart, one of her best albums in recent years, and while the emphasis was on tradition, Ballamy's distinctive ability to mine a melody and find new ways of variation made the evolution towards Quercus a logical one.

Warren is an adventurous player who is as comfortable inside the piano as he is out. A mainstay on the British scene, he's collaborated with artists including singer Clare Martin, guitarist John Parricelli and American violinist Mark Feldman. His musical relationship with Tabor goes back to the late 1980s on Aqaba (Shanachie, 1988). He has worked with Ballamy in other contexts, but came together with the saxophonist and Tabor on At the Wood's Heart which was, no doubt, the place where the seed for Quercus was sown. He possesses a vividly lyrical sense, yet he's also capable of seamlessly shifting a song between its inside essence and outside potential.

It's Quercus' intriguing allegiance to tradition, while at the same time stretching the music's boundaries harmonically, that makes his such a compelling group. Tabor began the set alone, age making her voice even deeper and richer than it's always been. Her unparalleled ability to evoke great emotion with the slightest of inflection, the subtlest of lilt, the barest hold of a note, is uncanny. There's no grand melisma here: only the pursuit of the song's deepest meaning. She is, however, deeply entrenched in the tradition, so that when Warren entered with more ethereal reharmonization of the melody, joined soon after by Ballamy, the true identity of Quercus emerged.

Perhaps the most overtly jazz-centric group on the program (at least in the more conventional definition), it's the surprisingly successful meeting of two seemingly disparate musical worlds that makes Quercus so unique. With Tabor as a solid anchor, Warren and Ballamy are free to take the material—ranging from centuries-old songs to World War I compositions and originals from both Ballamy and Warren— wherever their muse might lead, always with the knowledge that Tabor will bring things back to the core essence of the song.

Tabor is an intense and quietly charismatic performer but, again, not in an overtly dramatic fashion. Her introduction to the musical adaptation of A.E. Houseman's World War I poem, "The lads in their hundreds," made clear just how deeply she gets inside the words, and equally the freedom that Warren and Ballamy have to explore where a simple melody can be taken. It's difficult, perhaps even foolhardy, mid-way through the first day of programming, to call this one of the festival's highlights, but it's certainly an early contender.

Quercus Live Remix: J. Peter Schwalm / Daniel Kluge / Eivind Aarset

Entering the Alpha Room, where German sampler/keyboardist/producer J. Peter Schwalm, Punkt mainstay/ guitarist Eivind Aarset and "video guitarist" Daniel Kluge were deconstructing Quercus' set, the immediate impression was of how far from its origins a piece of music could be taken. Bird sounds and other ambient sounds filled the room as Shwalm and Aarset began to develop a textural approach to Tabor's looped voice.

As the music began to coalesce into more defined shape and defined rhythmic pulses emerged, Kluge began to use his instrument to improvise with images recorded at the Quercus show. While it looked like a guitar, it was, in fact, a controller that allowed Kluge manipulation of whatever images were being displayed on a large screen behind the trio, as well as the ability to affect speed and direction of motion, creating staggered visual rhythms that synchronized beautifully with the aural landscape created by Schwalm and Aarset.

Aarset's ability to transform the guitar into a controller of a seemingly infinite multiplicity of textures remains unequalled. His mastery of the array of effects on a table in front of him and at his feet, and his intimate knowledge of how all these devices interact, allows him to fashion new sounds on the fly. The soundscapes he creates are as freely improvisational as those by any guitarist focused on more conventional concepts of melody, rhythm and harmony, although these are also a part of what he does.

Schwalm's ability to grab pieces of the Quercus performance and reprocess them into new shapes while, at the same time, adding his own pulses and sonic ideas, made him an ideal partner for Aarset. Together with Kluge, Schwalm and Aarset delivered what will, no doubt, go down as one of the most successful remixes of Punkt 07.

Hans Appelquist

Punkt may be largely about improvisation and the interaction of artists known and unknown to each other, but it's also about intrepid experimentation with various media and song forms. Swedish composer/multi-instrumentalist/singer Hans Appelquist unveiled his latest project, Naima at Punkt; a multi-media performance that combined images, sampled voices, and layers of multi-tracked music that brought together an indie rock (and, at times, even slightly progressive rock) sensibility with a quirky vaudeville vibe and more. The title character is, in Appelquist's words, ..."an entity with a pelican's head who one had endless confidence in and who one could ask for advice every time one did not know what to do."

While the majority of the material was, by necessity, pre-recorded, Appelquist moved from keyboard to guitar, sometimes singing, other times leaving it to his existing tracks. He created, then commanded, a natural but charismatic stage throughout the set, an evocative combination of the absurd and the heartfelt—a poignant tale of the search for liberation from responsibility but, ultimately, the message that "obligation is a burden that can't be shared," even as it places the bad things in life in context with the good. Using everything from an on-screen internet chat to animation and arresting and rapidly shifting visual images, Appelquist spun his tale of Naima, who delivers her message directly at times, but equally can be something of an enigma.

The music was an equal mix of the serious and the droll, the lighthearted and the significant, with Appelquist's visual playing and vocal delivery in perfect harmony. Considering the number of audio and visual cues he was working with, his ability to inject temporal elasticity in an organic way made the performance, and the story, all the more human.

Hans Appelquist Live Remix: Nils Petter Molvær / Ryan Francesconi

Some material isn't ripe for remix, and sometimes that's okay. Appelquist's performance was undeniably strong, and so, too, was the first encounter between trumpeter/Nu Jazz progenitor Nils Petter Molvær and American guitarist Ryan Francesco. But the two performances felt less connected in the remix, with Molvær and Francesco seemingly going their own way, largely independent of the sampled material from Appelquist's set. In the end, however, that was by no means a bad thing.

Francesco is a member of Joanna Newsom's band, a group that fuses Appalachian folk music with indie rock. Here he was a spare foil for Molvær, working closely to support and sometimes drive the trumpeter's snakelike lines and characteristically unusual effects. Like his performance at Kick during the pre-festival opening activities, Molvær is clearly creating new textures to expand upon his already rich vernacular.

The remix began in ambient territory, with brief, sharp bursts that disrupted the calm as the music evolved into a more beat-driven space. Still, the haunting beauty of Molvær's lines and Francesco's tasteful and interactive work kept the thirty-minute remix on the gentler side, ending on a humorous note as the end of the remix was applause from the Appelquist performance—a clear signal that it was time for the audience in the Alpha Room to do the same. A fine way to end a strong first day of programming at Punkt.

Performances: Solveig Sletthjell/Slow Motion Quintet, Trio Mediæval, Kammerflimer Kollektief, Sweet Billy Pilgrim.
Live remixes: Scanner/David Rothenberg, Erik Honoré/Nils. Chr. Moe-Repstad, Jan Bang/Eivind Aarset/DJ Strangefruit, Sidsel Endresen/Jan Bang/Erik Honoré.

Photo Credits

Agder Theatre, Huntsville, Joanna MacGregor, Michiyo Yagi, Quercus: John Kelman
All Other Photos: Jan Hangeland (also at MySpace)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

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