Punkt Festival 2009: Day 1, Kristiansand, Norway, September 2, 2009

John Kelman By

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Every festival has its raison d'être, but the Kristiansand festival, in Norway, has many. It's primary definer is its "Live Remix" concept—where performances in Agder Theatre's main hall are immediately followed by live remixes of the performance just passed, with additional musicians interacting, in real-time, with the remixer's vision.

But there's more to Punkt than its moveable feast—one that's already been brought to London, England in the fall of 2008 and will be taken to Germany's Enjoy Jazz festival in the fall of 2009. Punkt has also been about transparency; despite its often high profile artists, there are no barriers between them, the media and the fans. It's a culture which, over the course of years, turns into something even more: a true sense of family for those returning, sometimes from great distances.

Punkt Festival 09

Despite an increasingly international focus, Punkt has always been about creating a place where Norwegian artists like Nils Petter Molvaer, Eivind Aarset, Sidsel Endresen and Arve Henriksen interact with musicians from farther afield like, in past years, Jon Hassell, Gavin Bryars and Iain Ballamy. For its fifth anniversary, however, Punkt returns largely to its roots in Norwegian music, with a program that, along with Aarset, Endresen and Henriksen, includes festival newcomers like Albatrosh—a duo of young artists with an impressive debut, Seagull Island (Inner Ear, 2009); Helge Lien Trio, whose Hello Troll (Ozella, 2008) was one of 2008's best piano trio albums; Susanna and The Magical Orchestra, whose just released 3 (Rune Grammofon, 2009) continues a winning streak of intimate, electronica-centric singer/songwriting; and vocalist Maja Ratkje, whose work with the free improvising Spunk quartet continues to evolve with Kantarell (Rune Grammofon, 2009).

While the emphasis is on Norwegian musicians, the festival is recruiting some talent from abroad. American percussionist Adam Rudolph brings his Go: Organic Orchestra concept to Punkt, but with a group of young Kristiansand musicians; UK producer Guy Sigsworth comes to the festival for a seminar and remix; Swedish bassist Anders Jormin makes his first festival appearance in a remix with Henriksen and festival co-artistic director/live sampler Jan Bang; and, perhaps most excitingly, England's Sweet Billy Pilgrim makes a return appearance following its outstanding 2007 performance and hot on the heels of its Mercury Prize-nominated sophomore release, Twice Born Men (Samadhi Sound, 2009).

Punkt Festival 09

Shrinking, perhaps, in its greater attention to Norwegian artists and reduction in international focus, the festival is still expanding its offerings elsewhere, including a series of seminars by Endresen, Sigsworth, Jormin and others. A coup for the festival is certainly the appearance of director Phil Hopkins, who will first discuss and then screen Amplified Gesture, his film about the recording of David Sylvian's groundbreaking disc, Manafon (Samadhi Sound, 2009). And always looking to bring new talent to light, Punkt once again opens its festival with Punkt Elope, where four up-and-coming Norwegian groups—all but evening closer Navyelectre still unrecorded—get some well-deserved exposure.

And while there were only two days of full programming at Agder Theatre in 2008, Punkt 2009 features a full three days—twelve performances and ten live remixes, culminating in the closing performance "Exits," a multimedia event with new music by Bang and co-artistic director Erik Honoré, and featuring a large group of musicians from throughout the festival, commissioned video by Russell Mills, and set designs by longtime Punkt collaborator, Tord Knudsen.

As ever, Punkt remains unique amongst music festivals in its combination of no-borders programming and without-a-safety-net experimentation. It's not a jazz festival, though that's certainly part of the picture; it's not a pop or rock festival either, though there are unmistakable elements of both; and it's by no means a classical festival despite the appearance of members of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra. No, the only way to describe this festival is one word: Punkt. And that's a moniker that's become increasingly recognized, despite its relatively diminutive size (the theatre only holds 550 people), on an international scale. Punkt has always been a small festival that thinks big, and with the 2009 edition it may be returning to its largely Norwegian roots, but its presentation remains beyond world-class; there is, simply, no other festival in the world like it.

Punkt Elope is like a pre-festival mini-festival, and an opportunity to experience some of Norway's young talent on the ascendancy. Last year's performance by Lama was both a highlight and precursor to the group's debut, Guidebook to Lamaland (Spoon Train, 2008). For the 2009 edition of Punkt Elope—again produced by Splashgirl pianist Andreas Stensland Løwe—only Navyelectre is recorded. But whereas The Mourning (Shipwreckods, 2008) was essentially a solo effort by Navyelectre alter-ego Jonas Howden Sjøvaag, live it became a quartet featuring two members of Mattis Myrland & The Grand Trunk Road Ensemble, as well as keyboardist Andreas Ulvo, a member of trumpeter Mathias Eick's quartet, heard at Mai Jazz 2008 in Stavanger, Norway.

Punkt Festival 09 / Mattis Myrland Mattis Myrland, Wenche Losnegård, Jo Berger Myhre, Jan Martin Smørdal

Myrland, a singer/songwriter with a distinctive predilection for late-1960s and earl-1970s American singer/songwriters including Leonard Cohen and Crosby, Stills & Nash, opened the evening with a set of appealing original music, focusing on the his own unaffected but clearly affecting voice, and those of banjoist/vocalist Hans Martin Austestad and harmonium player/vocalist Wenche Losnegård. With a sextet also including drummer/sampler Freddy Wike, bassist/baritone guitarist Jo Berger Myhre and guitarist Jan Martin Smørdal, there was plenty of available instrumentation to deliver music ranging from acoustic and sweet to electric and hard-edged.

Curious samples of even richer vocal harmonies, in addition to more jagged textures, sometimes underscored a group sound that was, at times, spare and ethereal, but elsewhere became dense and propulsive. Myrland's direct yet poetic bent was well supported, most notably by Smørdal, who added a touch of Bill Frisell-like idiosyncrasy to the music, with distinctive voicings and resonant, sustaining chords that oscillated in and around the music. Avoiding the prerequisite rhythm section sound, Myhre's baritone guitar work often took center stage instrumentally, even as Myrland's grungy, distorted acoustic guitar sounded more garage band than folk troubadour; still, in a strange way the group's confluence of seemingly disparate and incongruous textures came together in an attractive fashion and worked.

Punkt Festival 09 / Metamorphic Metamorphic violinist Sebastian Gruchot

Metamorphic took the music in another direction entirely. Violinist Sebastian Gruchot and Norwegian keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Ole-Bjørn Talstad delivered an improvised set that evoked vast, otherworldly landscapes, turned into concrete visions by visual artist Igor Molenda, who projected graphics and intriguing motion picture images onto a screen behind the musicians.

With a vast array of effects and real-time sampling, Gruchot and Talstad performed two lengthy free improvisations that drew on a considerable breadth of references, most notable Middle Eastern, with Gruchot's electric violin sometimes assuming the more vocal delivery of the Persian ney. But an equal part of Metamorphic's sound was its undercurrent of electronic sounds, from looped beats that were often no more than a plucked and muted violin string, to harsher ambiences and soft, hypnotic washes. Both improvs revolved around relatively simple premises—a simple two-chord pattern here, a two-bar motif there—but it was the duo's trance-inducing sonics that, with eyes closed, created images from an imaginary film but, with eyes open, seemed to be the perfect soundtrack for Molenda's sometimes gradual, other times dramatically shifting images.

Punkt Festival 09 / Philco Fiction Philco Fiction: Bjarne Christian Gustavsen, Andreas Lønmo Knudsrød Turid Alida Solberg

As intriguing as the first two sets were, Philco Fiction turned out to be a disappointment. In contrast to Mattis Myrland's honest delivery and music that was compelling in its unassuming simplicity, Philco Fiction's Turid Alida Solberg was all about affect, every move seemingly calculated and every vocal inflection equally considered. This kind of approach can work if you're Björk and have the imagination to back it up; but with the exception of Andreas Lønmo Knudsrød's straightforward but unshakable drumming, there was little to truly grasp onto.

With lyrics that were sometimes simply too coy for their own good ("What I know now is what I know now"), Solberg's voice was attractive enough. But her onstage persona was too studied, too directly rooted in Björk's coy but more sincere delivery and, simply, too distracting. Bjarne Christian Gustavsen's retro keyboard tones were derivative, even though he created some fine melodic and harmonic content and was a tasteful and spare guitarist to boot. But despite Solberg's attempts at garnering attention, it was Knudsrød who truly commanded it. Confident and straightforward but with a vivid tone and solid sense of time and groove, his playing leaned towards Melt (Geffen, 1980)-era Peter Gabriel with greater emphasis on the kit and less on the cymbals. But with average material and too-cute wordplay, it wasn't enough to elevate Philco Fiction's performance above the common and familiar.

Punkt Festival 09 / Nayelectre Navyelectre Andreas Ulvo, Jonas Howden Sjøvaag, Mattis Myrland, Jan Martin Smørdal

On record a solo affair, in performance Navyelectre's Jonas Howden Sjøvaag's performing quartet took his evocative writing—mostly taken from The Mourning—and gave it both greater vitality and improvisational energy. The music was a curiously attractive but often dark mix of repetitive minimalism, indirect classicism, at times oblique yet poetically effective lyrics, and occasional pop beats. Sjøvaag's delivery was understated; while there was no shortage of subtle drama, it felt somehow more honest than that of Philco Fiction's Turid Alida Solberg. Perhaps it's because Navyelectre has been around longer, and is now on the cusp of its third album, following The Mourning and its self-titled 2003 independent debut, but where Mattis Myrland's show was appealing in its almost naïve sentimentality, and Metamorphic attractive in its hypnotic use of texture, there was a confidence and comfort onstage that made Navyelectre's show the clear highlight of Punkt Elope.

Not only a compelling songwriter and nuanced deliverer of his dark-hued lyrics, Sjøvaag also proved to be a fine drummer, with the group opening up his writing, at points, for strong solos from keyboardist Andreas Ulvo. Ulvo has been helping to transform Matthias Eick's more introspective and acoustic The Door (ECM, 2008) into something more assertive in performance. Here, he similarly metamorphosed Sjøvaag's "Then spring exploded into light" into near-fusion glory, with a fiery synth solo driven by the drummer's loose approach—far more interpretive than on the album—and guitarist Smørdal's quirky accompaniment. Smørdal was also featured later in the set, demonstrating his roots in Frisell, but equally asserting his own voice, less inherently inward-looking and, at one point, even approaching overdriven and aggressively strummed chordal frenzy.

Myrland contributed backup vocals, acoustic guitar and harmonium to the set, his voice soaring harmonically above Sjøvaag's, but it was the drummer's ability to place so much meaning into the simplest phrase that made him the most commanding singer at Punkt Elope. While he has little to do with Leonard Cohen in terms of subject matter or songwriting approach, Sjøvaag does share a profound command of language, and an ability to deliver his own words better than someone with, perhaps, a better voice by conventional measure. It's no small challenge to take solitarily conceived and recorded music into performance by a larger ensemble, where the writer has to trust others to interpret his music. As good as its Punkt Elope performance was, it's a shame there's no live recording with this group; it would be a valuable contextual contrast with Sjøvaag's studio material.

Relocated from Charlie's Pub in 2008 to the more spacious Kick club, Punkt Elope had better overall production values, better sound and a broader stylistic context in 2009. Four groups, all with something to offer in different ways; four performances that varied from fair to captivating. Altogether, just one more way that Punkt is working to expose deserving Norwegian artists to a larger audience, including media from other countries like Canada, England and Germany.

Tomorrow: Adam Rudolph Go Organic Orchestra; LabField, Kim Myhr/Sébastien Roux, Sidsel Endresen, Maja Ratkje and Jarle Bernhoft; remixes featuring Jan Bang, Erik Honoré, Sidsel Endresen, Mungolian Jetset and BJ Cole.

Visit Mattis Myrland, Sebastian Gruchot, Ole-Bjørn Talst, Philo Fiction, Navyelectre and Punkt Festival on the web.

Photo Credits
Page 1, John Kelman
All other photos, Jan Hangeland

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