Punkt Festival 2009: Day 3, Kristiansand, Norway, September 4, 2009

John Kelman By

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With the musical laboratory that's Punkt Live Remix, it's sometimes possible for a remix to actually surpass its source performance. With (for the most part) Punkt Co-Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré listening to each performance while it's in progress from their vantage point in the Alpha Room, they get to hear and select the individual tracks that they think would be ripe for use, sometimes stripping away any potential weak points. Not that Punkt's regular programming in the Agder Theatre's main hall has much in the way of weak points, but there are instances where the remix artists manage to take something good and make it even better; or, in at least one case on Day Three, something wonderful and make it positively sublime.

It's a good thing the music and other Punkt activities are indoors, however, as for the first year since AAJ began covering Punkt in 2006, the weather has been less than cooperative. Day Two saw a positively torrential downpour that lasted for hours and caused some flooding in parts of town. It's also a good thing, then, that the festival hotel is just around the corner from the Agder Theatre, although even making that brief trek at the height of the downpour was something to be avoided.

Day Three, while not exactly a return to the sunny weather that's been a companion of the festival in previous years, was certainly an improvement, with only light rain, and even the occasional streak of sunlight coming through the occasionally breaking cloud cover. But once the shows begin at 6:00 PM, the weather really doesn't matter; as long as there's no disruption in power, people in attendance at the festival could be anywhere and they'd never know anything was going on outside the four walls of the building.

Chapter Index
  1. Punkt Seminars: Sidsel Endresen / Pål Strangefruit Nyhus
  2. Anne Marie Almedal
  3. Live Remix: Guy Sigsworth, Jan Bang, Erik Honoré
  4. Sweet Billy Pilgrim
  5. Live Remix: Arve Henriksen, Jan Bang, Erik Honoré
  6. Susanna & The Magical Orchestra
  7. Live Remix: J. Peter Schwalm, Erlend Dahlen, Eivind Aarset

Punkt Seminars: Sidsel Endresen / Pål Strangefruit Nyhus

In order to broaden the appeal and the purpose of Punkt, the festival began running daytime seminars in its second year, but it was only in its third year that it began running them in English, recruiting people like Gavin Bryars in 2008. This year, the range is wide, covering everything from film editing and producing big names to getting intimate with the process of developing a unique improvisational voice...and disco. Punkt Festival 09 / Sidsel Endresen

Sidsel Endresen has been a Punkt fixture since its inception, and her groundbreaking work with many of its key Norwegian family tree was, in fact, one of the things that set the stage for Punkt to come into existence. For her Punkt Seminar, Endresen discussed the nature of improvisation, but before she got into the nitty gritties, she got her attendees singing; as good an entry point into what it is she does as any.

Most intriguing and enlightening was time spent explaining how she has developed her unique approach to vocal improvisation, one which seems to overflow with so many individual ideas that unpicking it seems like an overwhelming task. Surprisingly like a good project manager, Endresen has spent years breaking down her ideas into their smallest kernels, or "cells," as she called them. Then no small amount of time is spent honing each individual cell to the point where it's fully integrated as a part of her repertoire, so that she can call upon it at will and without having to think...at least, not too hard, as the ever-present challenge of balancing head and heart remains a clear focus for the intrepid singer.

"If it's too much here," she said, pointing to her heart, "it's completely therapeutic; if it's too much here," she then said, pointing to her head, "it's uninspired." Finding the right mix is not an unusual goal, but it was fascinating to hear Endresen talk about her evolving a vocal style in the absence of any formal methodology, creating her own instead. People forget that honing the voice is no different than with any other musical instrument, and that no small amount of it has to be about clinical practice, distanced from the multitude of musical reference points that continue to inform her music, but in less than overt ways—"like sleeping knowledge," as she described it.

Unlike Endresen's open window into her own developmental process, Pål "Strangefruit" Nyus' seminar was less about his own development and more a lecture— albeit one with plenty of musical examples—about how disco music evolved and how, despite the bad rap it's had ever since the days of a record burning extravaganza in an American football field in the late 1970s and, of course, the famous "Disco Sucks" shirts, it really was the precedent for later styles like house, hip hop and techno. As far as Nyhus is concerned, all of the above are really disco; the essentials are not dissimilar, only the name has changed.

A veritable encyclopedia of disco-fact, Nyhus talked about how the form emerged, beginning in the early 1970s, in American gay communities, and how artists like Dr. John and Manu Dibango made records that were early disco discs—and, based on the samples he played, it was hard not to hear his point. That the term "disco" simply emerged as music being played in discotechs, and that "house" emerged out of music being played at a Chicago underground club called "The Warehouse," was not lost on Nyhus' audience.

Nyhus also talked about the emergence of DJs ("disc jockeys, does anyone see the connection?" he asked rhetorically) and early low-tech extensions of a song for the dance floor by DJs with two copies of the same song on two turntables—a concept that led logically to early remixes which, in many cases, sold better than the original recordings, much to the chagrin of record producers everywhere.

Nyhus was just getting into the concept of remixing in the modern world with contemporary technology when, with time running out, he had to stop. Carrying on a conversation after the seminar, where he expressed the hopes that he could have had more time, what became immediately clear was that his knowledge of the subject is so detailed (and, by all accounts, his music collection so vast and comprehensive) that he'd have been able to do a week-long seminar.

Anne Marie Almedal

Anne Marie Almedal has been on a bit of a roll lately. An early collaborator with poet Nils Chr. Moe-Repstad, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré on the proto- Punkt CD Going Nine Ways From Wednesday (Pan M, 2001), the Norwegian singer has reached a larger audience in recent years, thanks to the theme song she recorded for a popular Norwegian television show. Opening a night that, in contrast to the more overtly experimental nature of Day Two, featured a wealth of more pop and singer/songwriter-centric acts, Almedal made her second appearance at Punkt in support of The Siren and the Sage (Warner Music Norway, 2007), her solo debut. It was a performance with plenty of positives but, equally, a few negatives that couldn't be avoided.

In contrast to Almedal's stripped-down and folksier performance at Punkt 2006, here she had an expanded quartet that should have provided her with a broader textural palette and greater arrangement flexibility. Unfortunately, this was not the case, as Almedal's arrangements began to reveal too little diversity; virtually every song revolved around triplet arpeggios, whether they were on piano or guitar, and the tempos were also largely similar.

There was no denying the individual talent of the players in her group— pianist/guitarist/vocalist Nicholas Sillitoe, guitarist Rolf Kristensen, autoharpist/vocalist Sigrun Tara Øverland and cellist Nemanja Markovic. Equally, Almedal possesses an attractive voice—sweet without being saccharine—and, despite a somewhat limited range, she has an ability to make the songs her own. But none of this was enough to save the set from simply becoming far too similar in tone from start to finish. What began with promise ended up failing to deliver, and much of it could have been avoided were there more variations in the arrangements.

Still, with a group of talented players, if a follow-up to The Siren and the Sage is in store (as it no doubt is), then hopefully some attention to broadening the group's scope will allow its positives to shine through more decidedly.

Live Remix: Guy Sigsworth, Jan Bang, Erik Honoré

That said, the very fact that the building blocks of Almedal's performance had value contributed to the success of her performance's remix—performed by Bang and Honoré in collaboration with producer Guy Sigsworth—a world-famous composer and producer who has worked with names including Seal, Björk and Madonna. With the weaknesses stripped out and only the strengths remaining, Sigsworth, who played keyboards on the remix, proved his producer acumen by taking Almedal's lovely voice and wrapping it in lusher textures and richer harmonies, demonstrating the kind of clear potential she had, if only there'd been greater diversity.

Sigsworth, Bang and Honoré also respected the core of Almedal's music; a gentle beauty that would have been out of context, had it been turned into something more jagged or angular. Still, there were stronger pulses from Bang, who cued specific music to come from Honoré, and some unexpected but brief punctuations that created both greater drama and greater contrast when the trio returned to somewhat more ambient environs.

It was a relatively brief remix, but in the course of under 30 minutes it created a warm, room-enveloping ambience that proved exactly why Punkt remixes are becoming well-known around the world. The ability to see into a performance and find the potential that may not have been realized—or, perhaps, even considered—is what makes the inherent risks of the remixes always worth the journey, even if sometimes they don't necessarily succeed. In this case, however, not only did the remix succeed, but it managed to surpass the original performance and, perhaps, create ideas for future consideration.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim

When Sweet Billy Pilgrim last played at Punkt 2007, it was a struggling act with a critically acclaimed but commercially less-than-successful debut, We just did what happened and no one came (Wonderland, 2005). Struggling to find gigs, it came to Punkt as a two-piece featuring songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Tim Elsenberg and banjoist/vocalist Anthony Bishop, unable to bring drummer Alistair Hamer. Still, its performance was one of that year's highlights. Punkt Festival 09 / Sweet Billy Pilgrim / Tim ElsenbergA lot has changed. The group's follow-up, Twice Born Men, released in 2009 on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label, has garnered even more attention and acclaim. The album has been nominated for the esteemed British Mercury Prize and, with the awards coming up on September 8, 2009, whether or not Sweet Billy Pilgrim will win has yet to be determined, but there's an increasing contingent rooting for them.

The group has grown, too. Elsenberg's writing has become even more poetic, more complex and more confident. And with greater success comes not only a fall tour, but the chance to do it as a full band. What better place to bring it than to Punkt, a festival that was custom-made for Elsenberg's intelligent songwriting and has been talking about its 2007 show and remixes ever since? With Hamer joining Elsenberg and Bishop (also playing bass) and the group fleshed out to a four-piece touring unit with keyboardist/vocalist David Preece, the Punkt 2009 audience finally got the chance to experience the group the way it was always meant to be heard.

The group took to the stage over a wash of harmonium, heading into the traditional folk-influence but more modern-edged "Atlantis" from What we did, but not before Elsenberg did a little guitaristic channeling of guitar icon Richard Thompson. With an evocative voice that remains understated even as it is almost painfully honest and unassuming, Elsenberg's lyrics remain as poetic as ever. Between songs, however, it was another story, as Hamer and Preece joined in with the same comfortable, self-deprecating banter that Elsenbeg and Bishop demonstrated in 2007; a strange contrast to the music, perhaps, but in many ways completely in keeping. "Were any of you here last time we played," Elsenberg asked. After some applause, he quickly replied, "Lovely not to be able to see you again," and with that the group launched into "Future Perfect Tense." "Parts of it are in 7/4," Elsenberg quipped, "see if you can spot them."

In 2007 Elsenberg revealed—and it's really no surprise given the stylistic markers that he's subsumed into his writing in ways that largely avoid the obvious yet are there to be found—a penchant for progressive rock and King Crimson/Robert Fripp in particular, so its also no surprise that "Future Perfect Tense" devolved into some more serious channeling, with Bishop's fuzz bass briefly descending to John Wetton-like density. Elsewhere in the set, the group substituted a more direct approach to some of Twice Born Men's more programmed and electronic textures. Hamer was not only a rock solid player, but an imaginative one as well, while Bishop proved as capable a bassist as he was a banjoist. Preece handled keyboards, samples and accordion, expanding the group's sound; and with everyone a singer, some of the set's most beautiful moments came during "There Will It End," with Elsenberg playing harmonium and more richly harmonized vocals replacing the heavily overdubbed unison vocals on the studio version.

Freed up as a guitarist, Elsenberg approached some near-abandon at a couple of points during the performance, but for the most part he was as tasteful with his choice of notes as he was with his tone. Sacrificing some of Twice Born Men's more acoustic textures, the live versions took on a greater energy while also being more moving. Elsenberg may be its clear leader, but there's little doubt that Sweet Billy Pilgrim is a group, and one that may well be on the cusp of something bigger. Roll on Tuesday.

Live Remix: Arve Henriksen, Jan Bang, Erik Honoré

Making his first Punkt 2009 appearance, Arve Henriksen has had a pretty eventful year himself, with Cartography (ECM) picking up similar acclaim for its 2009 US release as it did when first released in Europe in 2008. He'll be playing with that trio at the festival's final day, but here he found himself in the Alpha Room with Bang and Honoré, looking for new ways to interpret Sweet Billy Pilgrim's music. Not surprisingly, the trumpeter/vocalist/sonic manipulator managed to turn an already memorable live performance into one of the festival's best live remixes.

Plenty has been written about Henriksen's distinctive trumpet tone—now tones, really—and a voice that has gone from angelic falsetto to, in recent years, more viscerally in the natural range. He continues to evolve distinctive extended techniques, and he found ways to use all of these musical tools in a characteristically inventive way that matched Sweet Billy Pilgrim when it came to emotional resonance. In recent times Henriksen has begun speaking into his horn through the mouthpiece, an effective device. But he did something here that seems to be new: not only speaking through his horn, but actually playing a more conventional trumpet sound at the same time. If nothing else was remarkable about the remix, that would be enough, but there was plenty more.

While the entire remix—another relatively short one, but truthfully so perfect in its synchronicity that it was really exactly the right length—had plenty to recommend, one brief passage revealed something about just how deeply its participants interacted and integrated. Near the end of the remix, Henriksen looked down at a piece of paper, and began singing a line from one of Sweet Billy Pilgrim's songs in his natural range. Gradually, imperceptibly at first, Honoré began to fade up Elsenberg singing the same line as Henriksen seamlessly shifted to falsetto. It was a chills-up-the-spine moment that may well be the festival's single most magical one, but demonstrated just how in touch everyone was with the tracks they'd sampled from Sweet Billy Pilgrim's performance and that, while there clearly is some advance consideration given to a remix's foundation, it wasn't just the audience who was surprised by how the remix evolved.

Taken together, Sweet Billy Pilgrim's performance and the Henriksen/Bang/Honoré remix demonstrated all that's important about Punkt, a rare place in the world (Punkt is, in fact, Norwegian for "point") where fixed form can synthesize with complete improvisational freedom to create an unforgettable experience for the relatively small audience (the main hall holds approximately 550 people, the Alpha Room under 200) fortunate enough to be there at that particular moment in time.

Susanna & The Magical Orchestra

When Punkt 2009 is over and it's time to tally the best performances of its four-day run, it will be a very close call—if one can even be made—between the Sweet Billy Pilgrim performance/remix and that of Susanna & The Magical Orchestra. Susanna is Susanna Wallumrød who, in addition to her Magical Orchestra, has been releasing solo albums under just her first name, including Flowers of Evil (Rune Grammofon, 2009). The Magical Orchestra is Morten Qvenild who, in addition to creating a truly orchestral foundation here, is keyboardist/co-founder of In the Country, whose Whiteout (Rune Grammofon, 2009) is both its most ambitious album to date and another contender for the year's best, following its equally positioned debut, This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat (Rune Grammofon, 2005).

Together, the duo has released its third album, appropriately titled 3 (Rune Grammofon, 2009). This special release concert culled material primarily from this new disc, but the duo also sourced music from its previous Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon, 2006) and List of Lights and Bouys (Rune Grammofon, 2004). As might be expected from a duo that revolves a great deal around programming, looping and processing, there wasn't a tremendous difference between the album and its performance in terms of the actual content—especially because Wallumrød is not a singer to overstate her case; relying, instead, on nuanced simplicity. Still, live there was an energy that brought the material to greater life, not to mention the visuals—both Tord Knutsen and Jan Martin Vågan's set design, lighting and video work. And while Wallumrød's stage presence was as paradoxically understated yet commanding as her delivery , Qvenild was also curiously compelling to watch, moving almost in slow motion to the duo's brand of dark, electronica-tinged ambient pop.

Qvenild, with multiple keyboards, a computer and other technology spread around him, may have been the one dealing with the most gear, but Wallumrød was no stranger to technology, harmonizing her voice on the memorable chorus to "Guiding Star" and processing it more subtly on the opening "Recall." Even when the beats were relatively subtle, as they were on "Recall," what made—and makes—Susanna & The Magical Orchestra so surprisingly appealing is a certain humanity that lies underneath the layers of electronic textures. Qvenild's choice of synth tones were anything but organic; yet there was something distinctly natural about the way programming and real-time playing came together, even on songs like "Someday," which began with pulsing white noise.

The visuals were, as ever, an integrated part of the performance. From stark white light to a red backdrop over which white lines moved upwards across two layers of projection screens—one translucent, the other opaque—the staging and as-ever impeccable sound were both examples of the remarkable level of quality unfailingly paid by Punkt to all aspects of presentation.

Live Remix: J. Peter Schwalm, Erlend Dahlen, Eivind Aarset

The Susanna & The Magical Orchestra live remix represented a number of firsts for Punkt 2009. It was the first appearance of guitarist Eivind Aarset, another festival mainstay. It was also the first remix that didn't involve Jan Bang and Erik Honoré. Turning things over to another regular Punkt performer, German producer J. Peter Schwalm, and Norwegian percussionist Erlend Dahlen (also making his first Punkt appearance), it was evidence of just how much a voice Bang and Honoré bring to the table. This remix was as outstanding as the one that came before it, but it was a radically different approach.

Still, there were similarities. Schwalm also possesses a keen ear for extracting just the right material from a full performance for use in a remix. Aarset possesses an unmatched ability to transform his instrument into something that, paradoxically, rarely sounds like an electric guitar yet creates textures that couldn't be created by anything but one. Having participated on many remixed with Bang and Honoré in past years, he provided some continuity.

Yet the differences far outweighed the similarities. Live remixes rarely feature a "real" drummer, and Dahlen is a powerful player who, over the course of the remix, gradually built in power until he became its dominant voice near the end; first contributing spare colors, but gradually turning heavier with almost tribal thunder and, ultimately, pushing a strong groove that contrasted with the more programmed beats heard in most remixes. It's often difficult to tell exactly what Aarset is doing, but he created clearly discernible, chime like tones, dense and heavily overdriven textures, and long ebowed lines.

But it was Schwalm who drove the overall shape of the remix, grabbing a snippet of Wallumrød's vocals and using it in part and in whole, all the while creating his own rich pads and washes. The arc of the remix built dramatically across all three players, ending in the same fade to black that most remixes have, but unequivocally the broadest-spectrum remix of the festival so far.

With Punkt 2009 entering the home stretch, it's a return to improvised music in the main theater, albeit of a kind less oblique than the focus of the festival's second day. With a combination of first-time appearances and more showings from Punkt regulars, it will culminate in a multimedia closer, Punkt Kunst: "Exits," that should prove to be another unique achievement for the intrepid festival.

Tomorrow: Arve Henriksen "Cartography," Helge Lien Trio, Albatrosh featuring Lene Grenager/Hild Sofie Tafjord and Punkt Kunst: "Exists"; remixes featuring Peter Tornqvist/Members of Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra, Bugge Wesseltoft/akiko, Helge Sten/guests.

Visit Sidsel Endresen, Pål "Strangefruit" Nyhus, Anne Marie Almedal, Guy Sigsworth, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Arve Henriksen, Susanna & The Magical Orchestra, J. Peter Schwalm, Eivind Aarset and Punkt Festival on the web. Photo Credits

Page 1, Agder Theatre, John Kelman

Page 1, Sidsel Endresen, Pål Nyhus, Jan Hangeland

Page 2, Tim Elsenberg, John Kelman

Page 2-4, All Other Photos, Jan Hangeland

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