Punktfest 06 - Kristiansand, Norway - Day Two, August 25, 2006

John Kelman By

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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3
When British drummer Bill Bruford stepped up to the mic for the first time during his engaging and highly playful duet with Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap, he made the comment that "as a true road warrior, by all accounts this is an incredibly well-run festival, setting a new high bar for overall competence." And those are truthful words from someone with enough years on the road to know. While organizing any festival, especially where numerous acts will appear on the same stage, is a challenge, Punktfest has to be one of the greatest nightmares from a logistical perspective.
Chapter Index
  1. Challenges

  2. Hanne Hukkelberg

  3. Karl Seglem

  4. Bill Bruford and Michiel Borstlap

  5. Frode Gjerstad and Jan Bang

  6. Bugge Wesseltoft

  7. The Wagner Reloaded Project (WARP)


Almost every act incorporates electronics to some extent, so just organizing soundchecks so that acts can set up, make sure everything works, and then come back later for the show with the assumption that everything still works is a big enough task. Add to that the festival premiere of the Wagner Reloaded Project (WARP)—featuring an orchestra, four sampler/live remixers and more—and it's a wonder that artistic directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré have had any sleep in the couple of months leading up to Punktfest.

Punktfest may be small in size with respect to attendance (the theater only holds a maximum of five hundred people), but it's big-time in terms of organization—from the people handling the surprisingly large press contingent that has come from around Norway as well as England, China, Japan and, of course, North America, to the folks who make sure that audiences transition between the main theater and the Alpha Room quickly between shows. And all this without the formality and heavy-handed rules that define most festivals with a similar number of artists performing.

Access to artists is simply not an issue—if you don't see them attending the shows, you're sure to run into them at the festival hotel, the Clarion Hotel Ernst. Informality is the defining factor here, and that's another reason why Punktfest is so unique—and so completely enjoyable. Sleep may be a rare commodity here, but nobody seems to mind because everyone is having too much of a good time. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Hanne Hukkelberg

Hanne Hukkelberg And so, following a diverse and outstanding first day, day two of Punktfest kicked off with Norwegian singer/songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg and her group. When you enter a theater and, along with the usual assortment of guitars, keyboards and drums, you find an upside-down bicycle and a large tin garbage pail center-stage, you know you're in for something different.

Hukkelberg's debut record, Little Things, was released in Norway in 2004, and abroad the following year. Critical praise portraying her as a "most eerie, quirky, beautiful and unusual" artist goes a long way to describing Hukkelberg and her group. In addition to the bicycle and garbage can, her group also includes a variety of more conventional but less commonly used instruments in this kind of context, including banjo, glockenspiel, flute, accordion, an instrument that sounds like a sax but sure doesn't look like one—and, of course, a sampler.

Idiosyncratic like early Bj?rk but not cloying or cute, Hukkelberg's music, like much of what appears at Punktfest, is difficult to categorize. It's a strange combination of beauty and eccentricity. There are all kinds of textures, which are surely considered and well thought out, but never feel contrived. A typical Hukkelberg song might start with a variety of electronic blurps and bleeps, using that tin garbage pail to define a rhythm or a guitar pattern that is taken out of the ordinary by just the slightest stagger. But it may well then transform into a lyrical space where drummer Peter Baden keeps time on a drum kit (which includes a variety of odd things like a metal pail along with the usual gear), and keyboardist Kare Chr. Vestrheim creates a dense string wash that sounds like Crowded House-era Mitchell Froom.

Hukkelberg's voice can range from soft and whispery to surprisingly strong, but it never loses the richness that makes it a treat to hear. Woodwind/glockenspiel player Lena Nymark, like Anne Marie Almedal's backing singer Sigrund Tara Overland, added the "X" factor. In addition to more conventional harmonies, Nymark at times sounded like a singing pigeon being held underwater—but in context it was not only an impressive feat, it was exactly what was needed. One of the emerging patterns with the singers at Punktfest is that English is the language of song, Norwegian the language of speech. As with Garbarek, Endresen and Almedal from day one, Hukkelberg's lyrics are all in English and, while that may be with a clear view to an international audience, none of these artists suffer in the lyric department.

Hukkelberg's music can be complex and episodic or simple and direct. Given the irregular meters in more than one song, there's even a temptation to consider what she does as progressive, but not in the sense of conventional progressive rock bands. Hukkelberg and her band manage to bring together a diversity of influences, however, everything from a Latin vibe to sounds from the deep American South. But it's all filtered through a strangely colored lens that gives even the most lyrical of melodies a skewed feel. "Eclectic" is a term that's bantered about all too often—and unfortunately can sometimes suggest a lack of clear direction. But Hukkelberg's music, despite its diversity, ultimately sounds like nobody's but her own.

While there seems to be a larger market for groups like Hukkelberg's in Europe, there is an alternative scene in North America (including bands like The National and Arcade Fire) which would, no doubt, welcome Hukkelberg's eclecticism. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Karl Seglem

By the end of Karl Seglem's solo set in the Alpha Room following Hukkelberg's performance, six words came to mind: the Hendrix of the Goat Horn. While Seglem is a fine tenor saxophonist, his show focused on two goat horns that have been adapted for playing by a Norwegian instrument maker. One actually has a reed, along with finger holes to change pitch; the other requires more of a trumpet embouchure.

Seglem began his set—largely improvised, and consequently returning the day's music to the spontaneous creation that is one of the festival's foundations—with an extended solo on the reed-based goat horn. During this performance, clearly rooted in Scandinavian folk music, I couldn't help thinking of Jan Garbarek—but a Garbarek who took the early album Dis (ECM, 1976) and continued on from there. Seglem was able to alternate between a lower-register melody and a high pitched pedal tone that gave his improv a harmonic center. But while his first piece began lyrically enough, he began to gradually introduce more unusual elements—whispering and grunting through the horn, taking the piece to places of greater extremes.

Karl Seglem On his second tune Seglem improvised over a densely layered track that will be on a forthcoming album this fall, triggered by his Apple laptop (a ubiquitous item at Punktfest). The backing track was a densely layered ambient piece that again had roots in Scandinavian folk music, like his improv.

If Brian Eno were Norwegian, he might make music like this, although Seglem's improvisation was more clearly delineated than the way Eno would likely approach this music. Once again a question comes up about the improvised music at Punktfest: is it jazz? But again, the real question is this: does it matter? Conventional jazz has its roots in the folk music of a different culture, so is what an artist like Seglem does any less valid or relevant?

Switching to tenor for his third piece, he demonstrated a remarkable control over harmonics and the range of the instrument. He often played in a range more befitting a soprano saxophone, but with the tenor's more robust timbre, it nevertheless retained its own distinct voice. Gradually introducing delay, he introduced electronic manipulation, which became more obvious when he introduced a pitch shifter as well. While harmonizing a saxophone is nothing new, Seglem somehow managed to get deeper into the relationship between the notes he played and those that resulted from processing.

Seglem shifted gears again, reading a Norwegian poem over top of a programmed track that sounded like significantly processed acoustic guitars. As the track continued, he finished the poem and picked up his second goat horn, and it's here that the set really took off. On its own, the horn had a plaintive voice that truly evoked the feeling of being lost in wilderness, but Seglem soon began speaking, blowing sheer air and adding some hand percussion.

As the track took on a rhythmic pulse, Seglem kicked in the a distortion pedal and began looping some of his phrases. With an octave divider creating pulsing low notes, he increased the volume, added a wah-wah pedal and began to wave the horn near his amplifier, creating feedback that would have made Hendrix proud. And all this from a goat's horn. No surprise from an artist playing at a festival where technology meets tradition, albeit a tradition considerably different than one might hear elsewhere. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Bill Bruford and Michiel Borstlap

With Seglem's set still ringing in my ears, it was back to the main theater for the most conventionally jazz-centric show of the festival thus far. Still, when Bill Bruford and Michiel Borstlap get together to play—a few times a year, as Bruford described, likening it to dinner with a friend, but not too often, because that friend can be a challenge—the results are anything but predictable.

It was clear from the start that Bruford and Borstlap were having as much fun playing as the audience was listening—perhaps more. Given that their sets are wholly improvised, the chemistry between them was remarkable. While there were moments where it appeared that one was definitely playing with the other, neither managed to be fooled for very long. Able to literally stop on a dime and pick back up with complete synchronicity, Bruford and Borstlap's playing ranged from dark and abstract to more groove-laden.

Bill Bruford / Michiel Borstlap

Bruford's path has moved increasingly towards this kind of improvisation. While his Earthworks band revolves around a greater sense of structure, Bruford's own playing, perhaps as muscular as its ever been, has also become much more relaxed. It's loose in a way that earlier work, even with semi-improvisationally based art rock bands like King Crimson, simply could not support. But Bruford has always been a jazzer at heart—it's just taken him thirty years to get back to it. And while he could be powerful and athletic in performance, he could also be subtle and textural, using a number of different sticks for different effects on his unique, symmetrically configured drum kit.

Borstlap is a perfect foil for Bruford. Versed enough in the jazz tradition to be able to go there if he wants, he's also broadly familiar with other styles—so the duo might lean towards a bluesy feel that almost swung, but then it might switch almost telepathically to something more abstract, and then back again. Bruford's eyes were almost constantly on Borstlap, who split his time between grand piano and Fender Rhodes. There was the distinct feeling that either one could take the music anywhere, and that they were just as surprised as the audience at the sudden turns it sometimes took. It's also entertaining to watch them toss back and forth who should actually start the next improv, and equally interesting to see just how they decide that it's time to stop.

The set covered a lot of ground. But given that both players have a predilection for structure, it's no surprise that their free improvisations sounded more like intentional compositions. Borstlap might find his way to a specific motif that would suggest a rhythmic approach from Bruford. He was also just as likely to deviate from that motif, sometimes subtly other times more dramatically. But the most remarkable thing about the way these players function was how they would find their way back together with no apparent cue. Playing this kind of music requires the confidence to know that a suggested direction will be followed, and that following a suggested direction will never get one into inextricable trouble. Or, perhaps, even if it does, there's always a way out to be found, if one only looks hard enough.

During Bruford's relaxed banter with the audience, he explained how he often thinks up titles to songs that have never been played, in order to give Borstlap a conceptual starting point. In his typically dry manner, he decided to inform Borstlap that the last tune of the set would be called "One Last Chance to Get It Right." A perfect title to end a set where, far more often than not, Bruford and Borstlap both got it right. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


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