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Punkt Festival 2009: Day 4, Kristiansand, Norway, September 5, 2009

John Kelman By

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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

For its fifth year, Punkt Festival's evening programming was, more than any other, organized around clearer thematic lines, although that still meant a considerably broader purview than most other festivals—and, of course, there was the occasional exception. The first day spotlighted up-and-coming talent; the second, largely more experimental improvisation; and the third, singer/songwriters. For Punkt 2009's final day, the emphasis was more decidedly on jazz, in conventional terms, than on any other. Still, within that very broad spectrum, the music ranged from a conventional piano trio format playing anything but traditional jazz; an improvising duo that has, for this performance, expanded to a quartet for a more chamber jazz approach; and an artist for whom his latest project doesn't just stretch the boundaries of jazz but dissolves them and, in so doing, creates an entirely new language.

The final day of Punkt usually involves a trip for its guests—artists, media, labels, publicists— that often means a chance to get out on the water for a chance to explore the marvelous scenery around Kristiansand, located at the southernmost tip of Norway. With the weather forecast less than cooperative, and with some special Punkt Seminar programming planned for the early afternoon, the activity this year may have been shorter and not involving water (other than some drizzle that continued to fall during the morning, but finally made way for sunshine in the afternoon), but it was no less thoughtful—an opportunity to hear Susanna & The Magical Orchestra unplugged, performing a brief concert at the 200 year-old Gimle Gård Manor House Museum.

The last day also delivered a couple of surprises for Punkt fans—one, for Punkt artists as well— that truly defined the multifaceted, multidisciplinary and always forward-thinking premise that if a concept is becoming too safe, too predictable, then the Punkt way is to shake it up and look for ways to get it out of its comfort zone. One of Punkt's biggest advocates in the media has been Fiona Talkington of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who has not only been at the festival since its inception, but was instrumental in bringing it to London in 2008, for the festival's first road trip (the first, now, of many planned). With Live Remix one of the core premises of the festival, it's a moveable feast that only needs a venue with two rooms that can be connected technologically.

Talkington was recruited to be the festival's presenter for its fifth anniversary, and they couldn't have picked a more articulate spokesperson. Every introduction not only described the act to come, it contextualized it within the broader purview of the festival. Talkington also took the opportunity, twice during the festival, to conduct brief public interviews with its founding co-artistic directors, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré to shed some light on what they felt was the purpose of Live Remix. Bang described it as working simultaneously in the past, present and future, while Honoré explained that the festival's inception was founded, at least in one part, on a wish to take the concept of remix—originally an innovation but, by the turn of the century, something that had become corporatized and commoditized—back into experimental territory by removing the comfort zone of time. In the studio, he explained, producers sometimes have months to meticulously make their choices and shape their remixes; at Punkt, they usually have only minutes— something that can be both exciting and frightening at the same time.

As Punkt 2009 wound its way to the finish line, there was little doubt that nothing about it could be considered safe; and that with a remarkable new first—a remix of a remix—even its own innovations could be subject to the same desire to avoid predictability and caution on which it was initially founded.

Chapter Index
  1. Susanna & The Magical Orchestra
  2. Arve Henriksen "Cartography"
  3. Live Remix: Peter Tornqvist/Members of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra
  4. Helge Lien Trio
  5. Bugge Wesseltoft/akiko
  6. Albatrosh, featuring Lene Grenager/Hild Sofie Tafjord
  7. Live Remix: Helge Sten/Jan Bang
  8. Punkt Kunst: "Exits"
  9. Festival Wrap-Up



Susanna & The Magical Orchestra

One of the biggest opportunities of attending Punkt is the chance to participate in one-time events, performances that will rarely, if ever, be heard again. And so, when a small group (under 20) of festival guests were driven up to Gimle Gård Manor House Museum for a short acoustic set by Susanna & The Magical Orchestra, following its Agder Theatre performance on Day Three, it was an even rarer privilege. Singer Susanna Wallumrø and keyboardist Morten Qvenild may well occasionally perform in an acoustic context—other than one electric keyboard used very sparingly and fed through the smallest of speakers, this was a completely unplugged performance, without microphones or PA system—but likely never in such beautiful surroundings as the museum.

Gimle Gård Manor House Museum, built towards the end of the 18th century, was a private home/mansion until the mid-1980s, when the family that owned it passed on and it was converted into a public museum. In a room lined with gorgeous artwork, it was an ideal context for Susanna & The Magical Orchestra's intimate performance—a five-song set that, rather than focusing on the duo's just released 3 (Rune Grammofon, 2009), culled most of its material from the all-covers Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon, 2006) (with the exception of 3's rework of Roy Harper's melancholy "Another Day").

The duo performed an elegantly spacious version of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," a take on "Jolene" that was likely far darker than what Dolly Parton ever had in mind, and a completely stripped-down reworking of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," contrasting with the duo's equally brooding but more texturally rich version from the night before. All too often, when a group is taken away from PA systems which allow the quietest moments to be clearly heard, and the benefits of live mixing, reverb and, in the case of Susanna & The Magical Orchestra, additional processing to expand the aural landscape, what's left are glaring deficiencies. Quite the opposite, Wallumrø's voice was even more commanding, bringing clarity to the quietest whisper. None of her nuances were lost and, if anything, her delivery was even more vulnerable and heart-breaking. Qvenild's playing was equally spare, even more empathically linked with Wallumrø than in the larger context of regular performances.

The high point of the brief set was Leonard Cohen's enduring "Hallelujah," even surpassing the duo's version on Melody Mountain. With a tremendous vocal range and potential for greater melisma, it would be far too easy for Wallumrø to fall into the trap of other Cohen interpreters who put their voices ahead of the words. Instead, it's Wallumrø and Qvenild's very talent that liberates them to fill every decaying note, every fragile phrase with profound meaning—not just on "Hallelujah," but in every song of this very special—and all-too-brief—performance.

Arve Henriksen "Cartography"

Arve Henriksen's Cartography (ECM, 2008) is more than a career consolidation and the trumpeter's most impressive musical statement to date; it's truly a new way to look at the process of composition, a new approach to collaboration and improvisation, and a more production-intensive project that's at odds with ECM's usual two day recording, one day mixing philosophy. But with the album now a year old—and its creation dating back even further—in performance it has continued to evolve, even as Henriksen performed it as a trio with live sampler Jan Bang and guitarist Eivind Aarset at Natt Jazz 2009 in Bergen, and expanded to a quartet with percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken at Molde Jazz 2009. Henriksen's Punkt performance augmented the core trio with Trio Mediæval soprano Anna Maria Freeman, who also participated in Henriksen's stunningly moving closing performance to his run as Artist-in-Residence at Molde Jazz.

If the opportunity to watch Henriksen perform this music three times in one year has shown anything, it's that Cartography is more than an album; it's a new language that the trumpeter continues to hone, in concert with his band mates. Many of the same pieces were performed, notably the powerfully moving "Recording Angel," which opened the hour-long set. But while some of the key definers remain constant—most notably Henriksen's deep lyricism and, even in the rare moments where the freer improvisations turned more angular, a profound bond with his audience—the way in which he interacts with Aarset and Bang continues to evolve to a level so mitochondrial that it's no surprise that, amongst the many visuals that turned the show into an experience for the eyes as well as the ears, there was text describing the nature of DNA and the human genome.

Friman's participation added a new dimension to the music, her pure voice providing a melodic counterpoint to Henriksen's horn—and his own angelic falsetto. At times singing together, it was a hint of the music the two performed together at the Molde closing concert, but the benefit of a smaller ensemble meant more room for extemporaneous exploration. When she first appeared, she was using the same hand-held tuned percussion (long, rectangular bars that, when shaken, created single, vibraphone-like notes) as she did with Trio Mediæval; Henriksen, too, used these unusual instruments. Aarset and Bang—now going back many years together as members of trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's now-dissolved quintet—are both sonic conceptualists who are constantly finding new ways to evolve the music of Cartography. Aarset, in particular, eschews traditional virtuosity (though he is, undeniably, one) and here, like so many of the musicians performing at Punkt, was about serving the demands of the music, not himself.

Henriksen's palette continues to broaden and refine. In addition to expanding extended techniques for his three horns, singing is becoming a larger part of what he does. In addition to his vulnerable falsetto, he demonstrated increasing skill at throat singing, creating brief, sometimes rapidly delivered monologues in Norwegian that, with references to Friman and Punkt, were still partially clear to the festival's English-speaking contingent, and singing in his natural range with increasing power. The music was texturally rich and, linking a number of pieces together into two continuous suites, remarkable for its ability to mesh free improvisation with constructed segments that were all the more remarkable for their sudden emergence through cues that were barely, if at all, perceptible. As Cartography continues to evolve, it's chances to hear it in performance that provide the best window into where Henriksen is going with this new and distinctive vernacular.

Live Remix: Peter Tornqvist/Members of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra

Another of Punkt's regular participants is Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra's Peter Tornqvist. While not precisely a live remix, the conductor/composer took aspects of Henriksen's Cartography, using them as the foundation for a contemporary composition that still incorporated both free improvisation and live sampling, to demonstrate that even in the classical world, new technological innovation is being used to keep the music alive and relevant.

With a 14-piece ensemble that included strings, woodwinds, horns and percussion, in addition to violin soloist Victoria Johnson (currently a research fellow at The Norwegian State Academy of Music), an electric keyboard and that ubiquitous Punkt staple, the MacBook, Tornqvist's group took up almost the entire floor in the Alpha Room. In many ways, Tornqvist's composition seemed, at least on the surface, a direct contrast to what Henriksen is about. The trumpeter's melodicism was replaced by more oblique themes; a smoother improvisational veneer was replaced with sharper, more angular and often more jarring soloing; and music of layered complexity was replaced with writing that was both longer in form and more detailed in construction. It made for a less-than-obvious link between the two, and yet there were connections to be found, most notably in the interaction between the ensemble's primary soloist—who scraped and scratched the strings as much as she bowed them in more traditional fashion—and Tornqvist's live sampling of her often extreme approach.

A link could also be found conceptually, as Tornqvist continues the search for ways to expand the classical language. Long, droning string passages worked in concert with tuned percussion to create an ever-shifting foundation. And while the link was less direct, what Tornvist achieved as an extension of Henriksen was something more aesthetic. A remix, at its core, is about taking one person's music, deconstructing it and rebuilding it with the voice of the remixer, moving both artists' music forward in new and unexpected ways. Inspired by Henriksen's language—and, from past years' performances at Punkt, that of other modern improvisers—Tornqvist has been creating his own expanding musical philosophy; one that lives unmistakably in the classical world but, at the same time, breaks down its own borders by bringing in elements anathema to purists. If the only way for music to move forward is to intrepidly take risks and look past conventions, then Tornqvist is a hidden treasure in Kristansand; an artist ignoring the confines of his chosen field and, instead, searching for new ways to make it relevant in the new millennium.

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