Punkt Festival 2010

John Kelman By

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September 3 Puntk Seminar: Supersilent

If Endresen prepared her audience with some of the basic concepts of improvisation, the following seminar by Norwegian noise improvising group Supersilent built upon them, bringing the idea of creative collective spontaneity into sharp focus—first, through a short performance; and then, through an informal question and answer period, where its three members—Arve Henriksen, Ståle Storløkken and Helge Sten—talked both with the audience and, playfully, amongst themselves, to shed some light on how they do what they do.

From left: Ståle Storløkken, Arve Henriksen, Helge Sten

Since first bursting onto the scene with the groundbreaking 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 2007)—an uncompromising three-disc set that set all the basic parameters for the group in motion—Supersilent has become one of the world's most unfettered improvising groups. Nothing is forbidden; everything is allowed. The group can move from extremes of volume, density and dissonance to softer passages of profound beauty and tempered space over the course of a long, unfolding period of time...or in a nanosecond. Conventions of melody, harmony and rhythm are available but not definitive or unshakable parameters. Initially a quartet with Jarle Vespestad, but reduced to a trio a couple years back, when the drummer decided to focus more exclusively on other projects, even the group's instrumentation is fluid. Initially a trumpeter, Henriksen, whose Cartography (ECM, 2008) was one of the year's best, has evolved a singing voice ranging from falsetto purity to near-throat singing gutturals, and a drumming style that substitutes sound for rudiments. Sten first came to light with Motorpsycho, but has since become an in-demand producer and audio manipulator. And Storløkken, a charter member of guitarist Terje Rypdal's Skywards Trio who has, more recently, garnered attention for his remarkable keyboard power trio, Elephant9, is a master of keyboard manipulation, an outstanding composer/arranger, and a fearless sonic explorer.

Together, the trio works with no boundaries, able to create infinite sound worlds from the smallest kernel of an idea; its most recent release, 9 (Rune Grammofon, 2009), is the result of three intrepid improvisers and nothing more than three Hammond organs. For its seminar, the trio worked with a more expansive instrumental palette, performing two vastly different improvisations. The lengthy first piece demonstrated how, even in the realm of free improvisation, it's possible to think in terms of song, structure and bigger picture. Nothing is preconceived, yet when the first piece ultimately came to an end nearly 25 minutes after it began, it referred back to the spare lyricism of its opening minutes, despite traveling through some undeniable extreme territory. Henriksen effortlessly shifted from drums to trumpet to voice to pocket trumpet, while Sten combined low-end synth tones with ambient guitar soundscapes and Storløkken layered melodies—sometimes oblique, sometimes almost singable—amidst angular textures coming from feeding his Fender Rhodes through an array of effects. A shorter second piece began more definitively, with Storløkken's rhythm-centric keyboards and Henriksen's thundering drums, but ended much more rapidly; evidence of the group's ability to follow each other and collectively intuit when to move on and when to stop.

With seminar moderator Tony Valberg kicking off the Q&A period, it soon became clear that Henriksen was the most comfortable spokesperson for the group; a more playful (mischievous, even) contrast to the relatively introspective Sten and Storløkken. Still, the two verbally reticent players contributed to the discussion; they may not have spoken often, but when they did, there was significant meaning. Henriksen spoke, at length, about the trio's attention to sound, and how things changed when he, Storløkken and Vespestad—members of an earlier group in the 1990s called Veslefrekk—when they began to work with Sten (a.k.a. Deathprod), who he also referred to as the "brains of the group." A fair statement, when considering that, in any given year, Supersilent might record tens of hours of improvisations, to be sifted through and shaped into a single 50-60 minute release by Sten, who also acts as Supersilent's producer.

Sten also explained that, while Supersilent might edit the beginning or ending of a piece to create more appropriate entry/exit points, what you hear is what went to tape. Surprisingly, given Sten's predilection for sonic manipulation, there's almost no post- production editing or sonic manipulation. All of which makes Supersilent's remarkable body of work, that will expand significantly this year with the release of no less than three albums—10 (Rune Grammofon, 2010), recorded before the 9 sessions and the group's first recordings as a trio but, another first, made at Oslo's legendary Rainbow studio and featuring Storløkken on acoustic piano; 11 (Rune Grammofon, 2010), a vinyl-only release of additional material from the particularly fruitful sessions for 8 (Rune Grammofon, 2007); and 12, from another trio sessions that took place at Athletic Sound following the Henie Onstad Art Centre sessions that resulted in 9—all the more extraordinary. That this now-trio of musicians can work so effortlessly with sound and concept in real time—creating music that may be all- improvised, but inevitably possesses true shape, true form—makes it stand out amongst the groups that rely on post-production to bring these characteristics to their music.

From left: Ståle Storløkken, Arve Henriksen, Helge Sten

With certain things visible during the group's performance—a nod here, a smile, there— the question of preconception also came into play at the seminar, and it was confirmed that, while Supersilent uses visual cues to make split-second decisions about direction, none of it is discussed in advance. Henriksen's nod to Storløkken at the start of the second improv was nothing more than an indication to "go!," while Storløkken's nod in Henriksen's direction, towards the end of the first improv, was nothing more than an acknowledgment, "this is good, let's keep going." That Supersilent has never rehearsed, per se, doesn't mean that its individual players don't rehearse for their work with Supersilent. That Henriksen, Storløkken and Sten are busy in a variety of other projects only means that their extracurricular work—and tireless work at home, exploring the possibilities of their various instruments and the acquisition of new ones—results in a constant expansion of Supersilent's already infinite potential. It seems hard to grasp that something infinite can continue to evolve; but like a universe that continues to expand after the Big Bang, Supersilent's 1-3 was its Big Bang, and the trio's subsequent work has proven no limits to what it can do.

September 3 Concert:Veljo Tormis 80th Anniversary, Performed by Segakoor Noruus

Along with Arvo Pärt, composer Veljo Tormis is one of Estonia's most important cultural exports. Like Pärt, much of Tormis' writing stems from a tradition steeped in religious tradition and folklore. Unlike Pärt, however, Tormis' primary focus has been on choral works based on runo songs from Estonian folk tradition, and the connection between the Baltic state and Finland, which is Estonia's geographic neighbor, less than 100 kilometers across the Gulf of Finland in Northeastern Europe. The idea of bringing Tormis—a traditionalist, if ever there was one—to Punkt might seem antithetical to the often technology-centric festival; but Jan Bang's interest in contemporary classical music runs deep and wide, in past years bringing composer Gavin Bryars to the festival (a recording of his 2008 performance has, in fact, been released in 2010 as Live at Punkt on GB Records); putting together the ambitious Wagner Reloaded Project, which brought together a strong orchestra with live samplers, drummers, keyboardists and more at Punkt 2006; and recruiting Jon Hassell for a rare performance of his pre-Fourth World composition, "Solid State," at Punkt in 2007.

Segakoor Noorus Choir, Raul Talmar Conducting

And so, bringing not only Tormis, but the 32-piece Estonian Segakoor Noruus Choir, under the direction of Raul Talmar, was completely consistent with Punkt's goal of bringing any and all music to the festival that might be appropriate for reinterpretation in Live Remix. Dressed in traditional Estonian clothing—the women in black dresses, white blouses and cylindrical red and gold hats; the men in austere black suits with white shirts and hats—the moving cycle of 11 pieces (some including multiple songs, such as the five-part suite from "17 Estonian Wedding Songs") began with the 13 women alone, singing a gentle Estonian lullaby for soprano and female choir, "Lauliku Lapsepöli ("Singers Childhood"), from Litany to Thunder (ECM, 1999). Solo voice ebbed and flowed throughout the song, as it did throughout the set, but this was largely chamber choral music, more about collective intertwining harmonies and contrapuntal parts.

When 13 of the 19 men joined in, the choir's range expanded accordingly; yet again, when the balance of the men came onstage about halfway through the 45-minute performance. Despite the size of the Agder Theatre's stage, the riser on which the male singers stood, behind the women, was barely large enough to contain them, and when a percussionist joined in—playing a single large gong but culling a remarkable variety of tones and textures—for the explosive "God, Protect Us From War," it almost seemed as though the theatre itself wasn't large enough to contain a choir capable of singing as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a storm. Tormis' source material, coming from sources as diverse as "The Arrival of the Wedding Guests," from "Votic Wedding Songs" on Forgotten Peoples (ECM, 1992)—in a language so close to extinction that in2005, The Economist suggested that there were only 20 people speakers left—to the surprisingly rhythmic "Forced to Marry a Man," from Forgotten Peoples' "Vespian Paths," came together in a journey that crossed cultural, religious and traditional boundaries, culminating in the dark "We Are Given," ending mid-sentence with "Still we feel the... / Still there is air in..."

As static as the choir was, conductor Talmar was a commanding focal point throughout the performance, moving across the stage and encouraging the various members of the choir. Sitting in the front row, it was possible to hear him quietly blow on a pitch pipe and provide a brief hummed segment of the first line of each piece, to give the choir key and tempo. But with Tormis' music demanding in its harmonic complexity, ranging from glorious consonance to disturbing dissonance, it was a remarkable performance made all the more stunning for Segakoor Noruus' broad demographic ranging over 50 years. A couple of the younger women had body piercings, and it was clear that, while they were steeped in a cultural tradition, they were also young women who, outside the choir, were involved in many of the same pursuits found amongst their peers. It spoke to a possibility to be both contemporary and a part of a cultural tradition; a combination that, sadly, is a rare commodity in North America.

September 3 Live Remix: Maja Ratkje

It's hard to imagine a better choice to remix Tormis' music and Segakoor Noorus's performance than Maja S.K. Ratkje. Ratkje, a multidisciplinary electro-acoustic composer/vocalist, is comfortable in the world of contemporary classical music, having delivered her own masterful River Mouth Echoes (Tzadik, 2008) and both composition and vocals to Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli's more folkloric but still far-reaching Passing Images (ECM, 2007). She's also a founding member of the all-improv group Spunk, whose 2008 performance at Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville was a highlight of the Canadian left-of-center festival.

Unlike Sidsel Endresen, who works completely acoustically—though often finding herself in electronic environs through the company she keeps—Ratkje's work involves extended vocal techniques, but also an extensive personal setup of computer, Theremin, sound processing and assorted other devices to create expansive sonic landscapes. Ratkje appeared, in fact, at Punkt 2009, on a double bill with Endresen, that brought into sharp contrast the two singers' radically different —but unmistakably innovative and experimental—approaches to expanding the possibilities of the human voice.

And so, Ratkje's remix of Tormis was a stunning example of remixing, reinterpreting and expanding upon source material from a considerably different space. It was also an early sign that Punkt 2010 was making some subtle changes to its Live Remix presentations in The Alpha Room. Rather than just a couple of small stands with red globe lights to provide the barest illumination, a combination of smoke and gently swirling lighting augmented Ratkje's remix, not so strong as to be distracting from the laboratory work going on, but, instead, drawing the attention into it. Ratkje used snippets of the choir from various points throughout the performance, sometimes creating a lush backdrop of looping, over which she added her own voice, which ranged from pure and melodic to sharp punctuations, created with a small microphone that she actually, at times, kept inside her mouth. She used the airiness of breath, squeaks and squeals, and other unusual textures, sampling them on the fly, processing them, and adding them to an increasingly densifying mix; the volume, too, began to increase, with occasional gut-punching bass shots reaching almost ear-splitting levels.

Watching Ratkje manipulate sound was as impressive as watching Jan Bang do the same. With what looks like a mad scientist's nightmare on a desk in front of her, Ratkje's knowledge of every piece of gear, every device, was so thorough, so intimate, that she worked on an instinctive rather than intellectual level, manipulating her gear with the same natural ease that she manipulated her voice.

As capable as she was of vocal gymnastics, Ratkje never did anything without a purpose, as she pushed and pulled Tormis' music into shapes the composer likely never could have conceived, but which he apparently loved, after it was over. The choir, too, could be seen in the packed Alpha Room, oftentimes appearing shocked and stunned at just how much Ratkje managed to be revere the performance and dispense with its orthodoxy. As the first remix of the evening, Ratkje set the bar incredibly high for what was to come. Fortunately, the rest of her Punkt mates were up to the challenge.



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