Punkt 2011: Kristiansand, Norway, September 1-3, 2011

Punkt 2011: Kristiansand, Norway, September 1-3, 2011
John Kelman By

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Punkt Festival 2011
The Agder Theatre
Kristiansand, Norway
September 1-3, 2011
It was almost not meant to be. Plagued by a combination of airline snafus and the residual effects of Hurricane Irene—which had hit the northeast coast of the United States a few days earlier, creating (amidst other much more serious results) a backlog of people looking to cross the Atlantic that took days to sort out—what was originally planned as four days in Kristiansand, Norway was to become a mere 40 hours. Arriving in this small town of 75,000 people on Friday, September 2 at 2:00 pm and leaving on Sunday morning at the ungodly hour of 6:15 am, it was the kind of grueling schedule that would be impossible to justify, were it any other festival. But this live remix festival which has, over the course of its seven years, become the go-to destination for a variety of forward-thinking musicians across the entire spectrum of music—from classical composer Gavin Bryars to producer/ambient forefather Brian Eno; from Fourth World progenitor Jon Hassell to Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones; and from pop producer/arranger Guy Sigsworth to electronic soundsculptor J. Peter Schwalm—is such a compelling and commanding event, that all physical considerations are dispensable. You can, after all, catch up on the near-zero sleep after it's over.

Punkt is, quite simply, a festival that can't be missed; there are too many one-of-a-kind performances that either happen there for the first time or, even more significantly, for the only time, that missing any year for a pathological music junkie is just not an option. The main stage performances in the Agder Theatre are invariably worth seeing—crossing, as they do, every possible realm of the musical continuum, ranging from electronic experimentation and free improvisation to contemporary classical composition and left-of-center singer/songwriting. But it's the live remixes in the Alfa Room—a smaller, more intimate laboratory, where audiences experience the show just seen in the theatre, remixed with the participation of other musicians—that define Punkt as a festival like no other.

Beyond a creative philosophy that most festivals lack, Punkt is also unique in its existence, beyond each annual festival, as a growing network of artists, writers and fans. Punkt may be the first time an artist collaborates with someone, but it's rarely the last. The festival refers to this as a constellation, and in its ever-growing size and reach, that's a better word than network. It suggests the greater scope of a festival which also transcends professional collaboration into the realm of family. People return to Punkt each year to continue the artistic work they began the first time they encountered Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, but at the after-party which runs towards dawn after the final night of the festival each year (and is now running the risk of becoming too big for its venue, K35), it's the personal level on which this expanding group of people operate that is perhaps, what makes it most special. Sure, you can throw a bunch of artists together and good things might happen, but when these artists know each other—care about each other—then real magic becomes far more likely.

And it's not just musicians, because the performances in the Agder Theatre are as much about the glorious set designs and improvised visual art of Tord Knudsen—a member of trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's group since 1994—as they are the music. Punkt, you see, views art as multidisciplinary; this is not music with lighting, for example, this is music and lighting, the two media inextricably linked and of equal importance (a description that is, by no means, picking nits).

Punkt Co-Artistic Director Jan Bang

The Punkt Family began, largely, as a Norwegian affair, and the core constituents—trumpeters Molvær and Arve Henriksen, live sampler Bang, sonic sculptor/remixer Honoré, guitarist Eivind Aarset and singer Sidsel Endresen—continue to be represented each year at the festival. But over the years, in addition to other Norwegians like singers Anna Maria Friman and Maja S.K. Ratkje, drummer Audun Kleive, other members (along with Henriksen) of Supersilent, percussionist Ingar Zach and pianist Bugge Wesseltoft being added to the fold, Punkt has become an international family, with participation of artists including Fourth World progenitor/trumpeter Jon Hassell, live sampler/multi-instrumentalist Dino J.A. Deane (USA), bassist Skúli Sverrisson (Finland), Sweet Billy Pilgrim (UK) and pianist Nik Bärtsch (Switzerland). If anything, the size of the Punkt Family has expanded almost to the point of bursting the Agder Theatre at its seams.

Which makes the pending opening of Kristiansand's Kilden Performing Arts Centre in 2012 a fortuitous event. With a main hall capacity of more than double the Agder's 550 seats, and the Alfa room also more than double its current 250, Kilden will allow Punkt the opportunity for further growth, and to attract a larger international audience to this lovely seaside town at the southernmost tip of the country ("punkt," in Norwegian, means "point"). There are, of course, concerns that this far more modern/spacious venue will impact the profound intimacy that's been a signature of Punkt since its first year in 2005, but there's also confidence that Bang and Honoré, fully aware of the challenges, will find a suitable way to migrate Punkt into its new digs.

Still, Punkt 2011 was a bittersweet year of sorts, for those who've made it an annual destination. People were talking about welcoming the greater potential of Kilden, but also about how the festival will be forced to make changes in moving to Kilden. Fear of the unknown is understandable. Given the track record of Punkt—not just in Kristiansand, but in London, Tallinn and Mannheim, where its core philosophy was proven a moveable feast—there's little doubt it will have to be different. However, there's no reason to lack confidence that it will remain the cutting edge artistic event it's been since inception.

Punkt Co-Artistic Director Erik Honoré

If there was one somewhat legitimate concern about Punkt 2011, it was that there were a large number of "remixes" taking place in the Alfa Room that weren't really remixes, using the source music from the just-finished main theatre performance. Dans Les Arbres' set was strong—free improv that, at its best, was inspired by what came before—and Guy Sigsworth's collaboration with Molvær even more compelling, but clearly scripted.

But if the number of "real" remixes was proportionately smaller than usual, it was balanced out by the participation of David Sylvian, who unequivocally made 2011 a Punkt year to remember. The British singer/songwriter was all over Punkt with an installation at the nearby Sørlander Art Museum which, twice during the three-day festival, was used as the underlying context for freely improvised sets by a series of artists including saxophonist Evan Parker and Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus. Sylvian also participated in a special recreation of Arve Henriksen's 2008 ECM recording, Cartography, on the closing night of the festival—where, in contrast to the small duo, trio or quartet shows the trumpeter has done in the past couple of years, Henriksen was able to recruit many of its participants for a very special, one-time performance that still left plenty of prerequisite room for collective free play.

But it was Sylvian's recruitment as Artist in Residence for Friday night when, in addition to programming three shows ranging from performances of the works of classical composer Dai Fujikura to two free improv sets, he put on the first and only performance ever of his classic 1988 collaboration with Holger Czukay, Plight and Premonition (Virgin). If that wasn't enough star power, John Paul Jones, after his now-legendary impromptu collaboration with Supersilent that spread the word about Punkt to a much larger (and different) audience last year, was back with the noise improv group's leader, Helge Sten, for a new experimental electronic collaboration called Minibus Pimps.

It was another outstanding year—a transitional year, to be sure, but one that maintained and, in some cases, raised the creative high bar set by Punkts from previous years.

Chapter Index
  1. September 2 Concert: Works by Dai Fujikura
  2. September 2 Live Remix by Jan Bang/Erik Honoré/Sidsel Endresen
  3. September 2 Concert: John Tilbury/Evan Parker/John Russell/Okkyung Lee
  4. September 2 Live Remix: Dans les Arbres
  5. September 2 Concert: Koboku Senjû
  6. September 2 Concert: David Sylvian, Plight and Premonition
  7. September 3: David Sylvian, Uncommon Deities
  8. September 3 Concert: Marilyn Mazur/Jan Bang/Per Jørgensen
  9. September 3 Live Remix: J. Peter Schwalm/Nordic Live Electronics Network
  10. September 3 Live Remix: Guy Sigsworth/Nils Petter Molvær
  11. September 3 Concert: Arve Henriksen, Cartography, Special Edition
  12. September 3 Concert: John Paul Jones/Helge Sten, Minibus Pimps
  13. September 3 Live Remix: Molvær/Mazur/Aarset/Bang/Honoré
  14. Wrap-Up

September 2 Concert: Works by Dai Fujikura

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Punkt and the Punkt Family, is its introduction of artists to audiences beyond their normal purview. He may have a strong reputation as a contemporary artist of note in the classical world, but there's little doubt that Japanese composer Dai Fujikura's career has received something of a career-boost from Sylvian—first for his participation on "Five Lines," the opening and previously unheard track from the Samadhisound compilation, Sleepwalkers (2010), but more importantly as a more active contributor to the singer/songwriter's latest, Died in the Wool: Manafon Variations (Samadhisound, 2011), where he composed, arranged, conducted and/or performed on seven of its twelve tracks.

From left: Cecilia Zilliacus, Johanna Persson, Kati Raitinen, Karin Dornbusch

Here at Punkt 2011, a series of Fujikura compositions opened the festival, performed by various permutations and combinations of members of the string trio ZilliacusPerssonRaitinen—violinist Cecilia Zilliacus, violist Johanna Persson and cellist Kati Raitinen—along with clarinetist Karin Dornbusch. It was an inspired choice, with all four players, virtuosos in their own right, capable of navigating some of Fujikura's most challenging charts with deceptive ease and seemingly effortless aplomb.

Fujikura's music was not without its intrinsic beauty, but it did set the tone for an evening largely occupying a left-of-center stance, with oblique angles and corrugated surfaces. Extended techniques abounded, with Dornbusch delivering the strongest solo performance of the set by a narrow margin. Fujikura's "SAKANA" demanded much of the clarinetist, who combined circular breathing with unorthodox tonguing and embouchures in a piece that, like the three other solo features for members of ZilliacusPerssonRaitinen, was bookended by the opening World Premiere, "Scion Stems"—a special commission for Punkt, dedicated to Sylvian and written for string trio—and "Halcyon," which brought Dornbusch together with the string trio for a finale of unexpected drama and equally surprising moments of calm tranquility.

In his 2010 All About Jazz interview, Jan Bang spoke of the criteria used to select main stage performers: ..."made from a decision as to whether or not there is enough material by the artist to allow it to work in a remix session; that's our first concern." Certainly, with a combination of unique tonalities, periods of discrete lyricism, and enough space to give remixers room to move, Fujikura's opening set was a strong way to both open Sylvian's curation and develop the live remix possibilities of Punkt 2011.

September 2 Live Remix by Jan Bang/Erik Honoré/Sidsel Endresen

Speaking with Sidsel Endresen, after her 2011 Oslo Jazz Festival performance with Humcrush a few weeks earlier, she expressed some concern about the challenge of remixing Fujikura's music.

She needn't have worried. For the first live remix of Punkt 2011, Endresen was joined by festival Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré for what turned out to be one of the festival's best remixes...ever. Endresen's voice has always been characterized by its remarkable malleability, but to hear her open the remix alone, with a frighteningly accurate interpretation of a bow being slowly scratched across a violin's strings, was one more affirmation of a singer who is changing the landscape of her instrument, with an approach that combines an undeniably mellifluous voice with a seemingly endless array of extended techniques that allow her, at one moment, to sound like a stuttering conversation in reverse, and the next, to deliver haunting melodies with a rich, deep lyricism rooted in many musical spaces; but, ultimately, occupying just one: her own.

From left: Jan Bang, Sidsel Endresen, Erik Honoré

Those unfamiliar with the innovations that have taken place following her two outstanding albums for ECM—So I Write (1990) and Exile (1994)—and the stark electronic landscapes of Undertow (Jazzland, 2000), need only look at her solo recording, One (Sofa, 2007) and Live Remixes Vol. 1 (Jazzland, 2008), to hear the early stages of her cell-based approach to improvisation, where small vocal techniques that often seem impossible for a single, unprocessed human voice to accomplish are honed to the point of effortlessness, and ultimatley combined in endless variations.

Bang and Honoré have been working together so long that they rarely needed to look at each other. While their instruments may be unconventional—samplers, mixing boards and processors amongst them—there's little doubt that it's music they were making, as Bang not only processed sounds that Honoré was feeding him from the Fujikura performance, but Endresen's voice as well. Bang first innovated the concept of live sampling by taking musical fragments from players around him, processing them, looping them or applying other electronic modifications, then feeding then back to the stage in real time, and encouraging those same players to work off his sounds, in the mid-1990s when he was working with keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft and, subsequently, Nils Petter Molvær. Here, after 15 years of experience, it's a marvel to hear what he hears—and what Honoré hears—in a source performance, and where both can take it, with the addition of their own musical aesthetics.

As angular as much of the Fujikura show was, Bang, Endresen and Honoré managed to find compelling melodies hidden in the nooks and crannies of ZilliacusPerssonRaitinen and Dornbusch's performances, as well as more expansive aural washes and unexpected pulses. Watching the four musicians' reactions as they sat in the midst of the Alfa Room audience, it was clear that Bang, Endresen and Honoré were taking their music to places none of them could ever have imagined, and that's precisely the value of Live Remix: to take extant performances and use them to create something new, something that's as personal to the remixers as it is those who made the original music.



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