Punkt Festival 2008: Day 2-3

John Kelman BY

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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Punkt 08's first day of full programming was a full one. In addition to five concerts and three live remixes, festival goers were treated to a lengthy public discussion between Brian Eno and Jon Hassell that proved as entertaining as it was enlightening. Punkt has also been running daytime seminars since inception, but this year another rare and equally enlightening event was Gavin Bryars' lunchtime session, with a performance later that evening that was, along with Nik Bartsch's Ronin, one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the festival. And it didn't disappoint.

Illness meant that two of Punkt's regulars—drummer Audun Kleive and singer Sidsel Endresen—had to cancel at the last minute. While their presence was missed, as always Punkt's Jan Bang and Erik Honoré recovered without a blip, making this first day one filled with memorable moments and some fine laboratory work in the Alpha Room Live Remixes.

Chapter Index
  1. Punkt Seminar: Gavin Bryars
  2. Jon Hassell: NEAR FAR -Bells in Kristiansand / Conversational Remix with Brian Eno
  3. Live Remix: Eivind Aarset / Jan Bang / Erik Honoré
  4. Gavin Bryars
  5. Synnove S. Bjorset / Ase Teigland
  6. J. Peter Schwalm featuring Sofie Clements
  7. Live Remix: DJ Strangefruit / Jan Bang / Erik Honoré / Rune Arnesen / Kheir- Eddine M'Kachiche
  8. Nik Bartsch's Ronin
  9. Live Remix: Nils Petter Molvaer / Eivind Aarset / Jan Bang

Punkt Seminar: Gavin Bryars

While the affable Bryars filled his hour-long seminar with enough information to require a separate article, perhaps the most important points of an otherwise relaxed and informal discussion were his description of how he developed his own voice; how he composes with specific performers (and instrumental configurations—sometimes by choice, other times out of necessity) in mind; and the genesis of perhaps his most famous piece, "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet."

Growing up in rural England, where the only live music was played by local amateurs, Bryars discussed the value of making do with what you have. He described an early ensemble—three members who all played piano, with Bryars also playing bass and the others playing tuba and tenor horn—where the permutations and combinations were limited. Learning to make music that sounded natural rather than music that sounded like it was made because of what he had available to him was a lesson that he continues to apply to this day, as is a philosophy where he not only writes for the instruments and specific performers in mind but views making music entirely as an experience of collegiality, friendship and mutual respect. Using various sound samples from his own work, and specific personal episodes, he shed light on the entire process.

Bryars went into great detail about his discovery of the 26-second snippet of tape that featured an anonymous old man singing a song about "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet," found on a tape of rejected research from a film on which—since the footage of the old man was never used—the singer's identity became lost. Bryars admitted that, even after hearing the musical fragment thousands of times, he is still deeply moved by it, and hearing the voice stripped bare as Bryars played the musical fragment, it's easy to understand why. A range of emotions from deep sadness to shedding a more positive light on an anonymous singer who revealed so much with so little (including, by singing in pure pitch, that he was not an untalented singer), will in fact, be remembered through the music.

Bryars kept the tone light but the information substantive, making it an hour well-spent by those in attendance, and a chance to start thinking about his upcoming show later in the evening.

Jon Hassell: NEAR FAR -Bells in Kristiansand / Conversational Remix with Brian Eno

With Jon Hassell a regular fixture at Punkt—participating in three of the festival's four years—and the involvement of Brian Eno, a longtime collaborator and friend, Punkt 08 seemed to provide more opportunities than usual to look at what this musical innovator could do in a variety of contexts. Audiences will have a chance to hear his new Maarifa Street line-up perform music from its upcoming ECM album (to be released in 2009), but in addition to another of the festival's most anticipated shows, Hassell took advantage of an invitation to come up with his own installation, NEAR FAR -Bells in Kristiansand. Throughout the festival, as part of the same Punkt Kunst facet of the festival that is featuring Eno's 77 Million Paintings for Punkt, the bells of the town's Domkirke are chiming every hour with a unique harmony designed by Hassell. Lasting less than five seconds, the experience, despite its short duration, sounded as if it could come only from Hassell and manifested a tonality that few would expect to hear coming from a church.

It was a good introduction to a lengthier encounter with Hassell at Fønix Kino, where he and Eno entertained over four hundred people for nearly ninety minutes as they essentially put on a workshop/laboratory experiment of their own. Both Eno and Hassell have been working on books, and it occurred to them that, sharing many of the same philosophies, they might well be writing the same book and so, perhaps, a collaboration would be in order.

Or not. While the ultimate outcome is yet to be determined, Hassell introduced the session, called "A Conversational Remix," as "eavesdropping on the process of making a book." With pages of text organized around the floor in front of the two onstage, they both referenced various pages of text to shed light on their shared philosophy, one that each articulates differently but which ultimately comes down to a shared idea that there's a disconnect between head and heart. Hassell's description (and tentative title of his book) is The North and South of You, the lyric from Cole Porter's "All of You" in this instance used to reference the dichotomy between the first and third world countries largely divided by the equator, and the equal split between the intellectual and the sensual, with the equator being the waist of the body. Eno's working title is Surrender which, relating to Eno's press conference the previous day, speaks to the idea that surrendering means gracefully becoming a part of something rather than controlling it, with his paradigm of north at one end and south at the other representing the opposing impulses of control and surrender.

On from there the two went, engaged in a combination of dialogue and monologue, with plenty of humor thrown into the mix, the clear result of a friendship that, in some ways could be considered a little curious as the two are very different people—Eno, ever the producer, at times directing Hassell not to describe a page that was being displayed on an overhead screen at the same time as the audience was meant to be reading it, only to have Hassell throw the same instruction back at him later on. But it was all in the spirit of good fun and the kind of repartee that can only come from two people who clearly see eye-to-eye on so many things.

Despite the lightness of the tone, the subject often came down to some substantive concepts, including that of pleasure being your compass, asking yourself what you really like and how all political systems work on a small scale but inherently not on a larger one.

Whether or not the two ultimately collaborate on the book remains to be seen, those at Punkt had a rare opportunity to hear the two artists together in conversation. It was a window into the minds of two iconic artists in an informal context that, despite being in a large theater, was not unlike sitting in a living room, listening to two old friends toss ideas back and forth.

Live Remix: Eivind Aarset / Jan Bang / Erik Honoré

Missing the first performance of the evening, electronic musician Rafael Toral, provided still the chance to hear at least some aspects of the performance at Punkt 08's first live remix, featuring guitarist Eivind Aarset alongside Punkt Artistic Directors/samplers/producers Jan Bang and Erik Honoré. The Alpha Room, where all the live remixes take place, is an intimate 250-seat venue that's darkly lit (a persistent challenge for photographers) and often makes the audience feel part of the experiment taking place on the floor in front of them (there's no stage). With sound painter Aarset, surely the guitar anti-hero if there ever was one, working with the remix, it was a largely dark and brooding performance, and a sharp contrast to the electronic manipulations heard the first night at Punkt Elope. Here space was an equal if not more significant part of the picture, where sometimes the sparest of colors, the simplest of lines, was enough to suggest other avenues for the three to explore.

For a team who have been working together since their teens, Honoré and Bang couldn't be more different as performers. Honoré, while focused on the music, often looks to be detached, only the occasional smirk indicating that something is going right...or, perhaps, wrong, always a possibility during the ever-present risk of the live remixes. Bang, on the other hand—and even with music that was in this case slow- moving and rarely with any kind of pulse—is a body in search of a groove. A highly visual player (he clearly knows every button and knob on his array of gear so intimately that he plays it the same way a pianist plays without often looking at his instrument) who can't stop bobbing and swaying, even to the subtlest of rhythms, including an emergent 5/4 pulse that drove much of the remix.

With the space of a year between chances to see Aarset perform, it's always a treat to hear how he continues to evolve, with his own effects a seeming mess of boxes and wires that, like Bang and Honoré, he knows so well that he can create new colors the same way most guitarists create new melodies. But what's most impressive about Aarset, and the entire posse of Norwegians who regularly take part in the remixes, is how it's all about finding new ways to shape the sound, and has nothing at all to do with demonstrating how good he undeniably is. Aarset doesn't need to take lengthy solos—or solos at all—to prove his worth; the work speaks for itself, and the remixes always provide the best opportunity to hear where he's going.

Gavin Bryars

For composer Gavin Bryars' first performance at Punkt, he brought along regular collaborators including Norwegian soprano Anna Maria Friman, who appeared with her regular group, Trio Mediaeval, at Punkt 07, tenor/Hilliard Ensemble member John Potter, violist Morgan Goff, cellist Nick Cooper and electric guitarist James Woodrow. Bryars primarily played bass although he did turn to piano for one extended piece towards the end of his eighty- minute set. He also recruited trumpeter Arve Henriksen, another Punkt mainstay who'll be leading a live remix on the festival's final evening, for two compositions that represented a first-encounter for the two artists.

With the majority of the performance devoted to vocal works—albeit ones that ranged from short songs to longer-form compositions—the strings were often largely in a supporting role for material in minor keys and, consequently, often melancholy but deeply beautiful. Whether it was Friman in duet with Bryars, her voice soaring above his simple arco lines, or intertwining with Potter—as Bryars, Goff and Cooper created long, languid lines performed with such symbiosis that they often sounded as one instrument— she continues to challenge the orthodoxy of the classical soprano while remaining unmistakably of the tradition.

Relating back to Bryars' lunchtime seminar, the inclusion of electric guitar in a classical chamber ensemble might seem an odd choice, but his ability to score with the individual player in mind meant that Woodrow's chordal swells and occasional serpentine lines meshed organically with the others on the ensemble. And when Henriksen joined the group, his own tone distanced from a conventional trumpet, his ensemble work was equally natural. During the second piece, when his voice became more dominant, he demonstrated why he's one of the most versatile trumpeters anywhere. It's not so much a matter of his being multidisciplinary; it's more that his sound is simply so singular and pure that it can be adapted to virtually any context.

Both Goff and Cooper were given opportunities in the spotlight, as was Potter on a longer composition later in the set. When Bryars switched to piano it was for an instrumental piece that found him trading rhythm and melody with Goff in a seamless fashion. Bryars has become increasingly enamored with vocal music in recent years, and the evening's performance at Punkt demonstrated the kind of ideal blend of lyricism and a keen intuition for combining instruments in various ways to achieve a great deal from a relatively small configuration.

Synnove S. Bjorset / Ase Teigland

While Punkt is a festival that's all about looking forward, it's also a festival that's never denied the traditional roots that are at the core of many of its players— whether that be the jazz, classical or folk tradition. But for the first time, the festival is collaborating with the Arrin festival, a Norwegian event that features traditional music from around the world. For Punkt, they are bringing some of the country's finest folk traditionalists, and began their collaboration with a show featuring Hardanger fiddlers Synnove S. Bjorset and Ase Teigland.

Of generally thinner construction than the conventional fiddle, the Hardanger variety utilizes eight or, as was the case with this performance, nine strings—four that are played with a bow like a conventional fiddle, and five resonator strings situated below the played strings that are tuned to vibrate in sympathy and create a richer sound. The same way that many guitarists use altered tunings, so too do Hardanger fiddlers utilize multiple tunings and, consequently, both Bjorset and Teigland had three instruments each, all tuned differently.

Playing together at the start, middle and end of the set but leaving plenty of space for solo spots made it possible to experience not only clear lines from the Norwegian tradition to the Celtic tradition but in addition the storytelling tradition as part of the performance—in keeping with the overall concept of the music being passed from generation to generation as part of an oral tradition.

While the two spoke entirely in Norwegian, AAJ photographer Jan Hangeland provided the running commentary, shedding light on a number of characteristics of the music, most notably that there are three types of songs written: songs for dancing, songs for weddings and other events, and songs for listening. Both artists introduced their songs, engaging the audience with stories of how the songs were written. In one story, an old church was built in a remote area in the mountains, but was later demolished, with the intention of moving to a more populated area. During the transport, one of the bells fell into the water and was never found, and after the second bell was mounted on the new church, it rang with a melancholy sound, as if it missed its partner bell. The song reflected that sadness.

While the Celtic connection is clear, the music had its own lilt that was subtly different, and both women used their feet to create a rhythm to propel the music Teigland possessed the richer tone, but both were fine players, creating some joyful noise especially when they played together.

J. Peter Schwalm featuring Sophie Clements

Composer/producer J. Peter Schwalm is another festival regular, having participated in the Quercus remix at Punkt 07 and the ambitious Wagner Reloaded Project (WARP) at Punkt 06. This year, in collaboration with visual artist Sophie Clements, he put on a performance heavy on atmosphere, groove, melody and texture that also included Eivind Aarset, drummer Rune Arnesen and bassist Tim Harries.

With three projection screens—one at the back of the stage behind a table where Clements and Schwalm worked, and one on each side of the stage angled outwards—despite Aarset, Arnesen and Harries being at the front of the stage this was more a performance about the visuals, and another example of how Punkt, in its combination of outstanding sound, lighting and stage design, surpasses most (if not all) other festivals in terms of the quality of the presentation. Clements' images, which ranged from abstract geometric shapes to waves of water and birds, worked in concert with the music that, while clearly form-based and cued by Schwalm, had enough room for improvisation and experimentation to make for a set filled with sounds of surprise.

From abstract musical shapes to defined pulses propelled even further by Arnesen's hard-edged backbeats, and from delicate chime-like arpeggios to denser sonic landscapes, the group delivered a set where sound and image integrated, with Aarset once again proving himself a masterful orchestrator. As on his most recent release, Sonic Codex (Jazzland, 2007), however, Aarset has begun to return to sounds more closely associated with guitar; here he created some skewed Hendrixian wah wah and, at one point, a riff that sounded like something off of an earlier release, Connected (Jazzland, 2004).

But it was Schwalm's musical conception and Clements' sometimes dizzying imagery that drove the set, with emotional range, vivid dynamics and surprising depth and nuance.

Live Remix: DJ Strangefruit / Jan Bang / Erik Honoré / Rune Arnesen / Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche

In the laboratory of the Alpha Room, sometimes experiments work better than others, and as in any experiment, the greater the number of variables, the more difficult it is to control.

DJ Strangefruit (aka Pal Nyhus) took a big leap by bringing together the largest remix group of 2008—Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, alongside an unidentified electric violinist and, in an unusual move, drummer Rune Arnesen. It may well be a Punkt first to have a member of the group being remixed invited to participate in the remix, but firsts are what Punkt is all about, so having Arnesen perform in real time along with a remix of his own playing with J. Peter Schwalm, if sounding a bit convoluted, deserves to be done if for no other reason than that it hasn't been done before.

With so many people involved, it's no surprise that there seemed to be some slight hesitation when the group began, as had the earlier remix, in a dark place. Sonically the group appeared, on more than one occasion, to be building towards something that either it didn't feel right and was abandoned or simply died a natural death. Still, there were some interesting meeting points, with the violinist building long, delayed violin lines that became buried in the ambient landscapes being constructed by Strangefruit, Bang and Honoré.

Arnesen stayed well away from the kind of propulsive energy of the original set—even though that was rarely tapped into for the remix—instead working with a reduced kit of bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat and djembe. He used his hands much of the time, though he switched to sticks and brushes, meeting his partners in color and texture. Bang found ways to inject odd electronic sounds and the occasional pulse, but the remix felt a little too much as if it were on the verge of something, while never quite making it.

Still, if risks weren't taken, there would never be the magical moments; and if this remix didn't exactly get where it seemed to be heading, the trip was just as worthwhile as the unreached destination.

Nik Bartsch's Ronin

While Nik Bartsch has been exploring what he calls Zen Funk or Ritual Groove Music since the turn of the decade with a series of independently released albums, it's only been with the international exposure of Stoa (2007) and Holon (2008), both released on ECM, that the Swiss pianist and his group Ronin has received a remarkable upsurge of critical and popular acclaim. The group released a live album, Live (Ronin Records, 2006)—with bassist Bjorn Meyer, drummer Kaspar Rast and percussionist Andy Pupato but without reedman Sha—but a lot has happened since that time.

There's a confidence and looseness that makes what Ronin does—a compelling mix of Steve Reich-like minimalism with a small, rhythm section-based ensemble that grooves as hard as it is hypnotic—far more spontaneous. Solos don't figure much into what Ronin does, although everyone's playing commands the kind of attention that makes delineated soloing largely superfluous. Instead, it's the way the group weaves its way through Bartsch's oftentimes complex concepts, using nuance and understatement to create the variations that give the music both its sense of excitement and unpredictability, that makes for an experience that's both trance-inducing, in the best Zen Funk fashion, and demanding.

More evident than on record was Bartsch's exploration of the inside of his piano on a consistent basis, as well as the addition of several percussion instruments around his piano that he hit with terrific energy when the spirit moved him. The performance of some older material but largely "Modul" pieces from Holon answered the other question—how did the group signal its way from one segment to another? The answer? A loud and regular "Ho!" from Bartsch, which put the rest of the group on notice that a change was about to come.

For a group that's been touring this material (though this is its first time to Norway), they all seem to be having as much fun playing it now as when they first put it together. Meyer, in particular, was clearly enjoying himself, a mobile contrast to the stationary Sha, who was most visually impressive (while always being sonically arresting) when playing the big contrabass clarinet. In keeping with the Zen part of the equation, Ronin has a wonderfully clean stage—everyone uses in-ear monitors so there are no clunky monitors cluttering up the stage—which made the stunning lighting all the more effective.

Live Remix: Nils Petter Molvaer / Eivind Aarset / Jan Bang

It's hard to imagine how Bartsch's could be remixed, reimagined or improved upon, so rather than attempting to recreate the kinetic energy of Ronin, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang didn't even try. While some of the pianist's repetitive parts were sampled, processed and put back out in radically altered form, and Bang took advantage of grabbing certain repeated percussion motifs, the remix was surprisingly abstract—hypnotic, in an entirely different kind of way.

As Molvaer's only appearance at this year's Punkt, it's a shame the remix didn't last longer, or that he didn't take the material further into some of the rhythmic areas he's known for. Still, since the break-up of his group last year (touring, instead, with Aarset and drummer Audun Kleive, who was replaced by Bang here due to illness and who might have created a more groove-happy space), he's been experimenting even further, with apparently a lot of material in the can just waiting to be shaped into one or more releases. He's also been doing solo shows a lot more, which may explain the predisposition for his Mac notebook rather than his trumpet, which he played, but not enough.

Still, in recent work and on soundtracks documented on his recent Re-Vision (Sula, 2008), the trumpeter has proven himself a strong sonic conceptualist above and beyond his main axe and was as much a part of the aural collage as Aarset and Bang. It seemed at times, however, as though the group wasn't quite sure where it wanted to go, with the adventure ending almost unexpectedly. Still, the inherent chemistry between these three musicians, who have played together so much over the past years, meant that there was always a certain level of communication and simpatico that made this experiment, if not entirely successful, another one well worth hearing.

Tomorrow: Performances and remixes by Oynn Groven Myhren, Splashgirl, Arve Henriksen, Hakon Kornstad, Nils Okland, Jon Hasell's Maarifa Street, and J. Peter Schwalm.

Visit Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, Synnove S. Bjorset, Ase Teigland, J. Peter Schwalm, Sophie Clements, DJ Strangefruit, Nik Bartsch, Eivind Aarset, Nils Petter Molvaer and Punkt Festival on the web.

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

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