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

John Kelman By

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Frode Gjerstad and Jan Bang

Following Bruford and Borstlap's clearer compositional approach to improvisation, Norwegian free jazz clarinetist Frode Gjerstad teamed up with Jan Bang for a set that revealed a different side of the same improvisational coin. Gjerstad has worked with artists like William Parker, Hamid Drake, Louis Moholo, Peter Brötzmann and the late Derek Bailey. Those names should suggest that Gjerstad's view of improvisation is more extreme than that of the duo which preceded him. And he didn't waste time, upon taking the stage, to jump into exploring the sonic possibilities of the clarinet. Bang was quick to respond, barely an instant behind Gjerstad, immediately feeding his playing back to him, albeit in a processed form.

Frode Gjerstad As impressive as Gjerstad's playing was, Bang's ability to fit into virtually any musical context was perhaps even more immediate. Some people don't consider a sampler an instrument because it doesn't create its own sound—it needs to take sounds from elsewhere in order to be able to have something to manipulate. But that's a moot point. One only has to watch artists like Bang to realize sampling is more than a technique, it is an instrument. Found sounds can be completely transformed and manipulated—creating, for example, a rhythm from a sample where there was none originally.

The improvised set began in abstraction, with melody a rare commodity and Gjerstad using his instrument more texturally. But Bang gradually created an insistent pulse that provided a strong foundation for Gjerstad. Regardless of the musical context, Bang is never less than completely engaged, and while he would stop/start his rhythm throughout, there was a distinctive visual groove happening on the stage. Proof that it's possible to take the most obscure and free material and fashion it into something that takes on a shape of its own.

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Bugge Wesseltoft

As innovative as Bang and his Punktfest partner Erik Honore are, it's possible that Bugge Wesseltoft will emerge as the most diverse artist at the festival. On the first of a two-part concert in the main theater which culminated in the Wagner Reloaded Project, Wesseltoft began as he did during his solo performance on the first day, gradually building a form from where there previously was none. The more one sees of Wesseltoft, the clearer it becomes that exposure to his records on Jazzland only tells a very small part of a much bigger story. His first improvisation came from a distinctly classical space, which was an appropriate approach to open the WARP show—or so it seemed.

Bugge Wesseltoft As on the previous night, Wesseltoft built his solo from the ground up, reaching a point where he seamlessly began to sample his own work, creating patterns over which he could continue to develop. But on this night he had more of his gear with him, allowing him to do far more. While some of the processed work appeared to come from the stage, he was able to send parts of his sonic manipulations to other parts of the hall, surrounding the audience in sound. In taking a piano phrase, slowing it down and adding heavy reverb, Wesseltoft's debt to Brian Eno can't be understated. Wesseltoft has his own approach to be sure, but it couldn't have happened without Eno's ambient innovations, in this case in particular his groundbreaking work with pianist Harold Budd.

Wesseltoft's second piece began inside the piano, gradually moving from a percussive slapping of the strings to scraping the strings and bringing out odd harmonics. This kind of free improvisation might sound random to some people, but the fact is that there's a lot of work involved in learning how to manipulate the piano with extended techniques like this. Wesseltoft clearly had a direction in mind as he came back to the keyboard and played with a hint of blues and conventional jazz language, demonstrating yet again a knowledge far broader than listeners familiar with his electronica records might suspect. Reaching back into the piano, he created a percussive rhythm that he again sampled and looped, returning to the keyboard for a burst of virtuosity that was by this point not at all surprising—or at all superfluous.

Beginning his final improvisation on a small hand-held percussion instrument resembling a tambourine, Wesseltoft demonstrated incredible imagination in sampling the sound from the instrument and manipulating its pitch to create one of a number of loops that also included sampling his voice and snapping fingers. Once he had built a foundation, he began to solo on a keyboard low to the ground.

As with Bang and Honoré, what becomes evident from watching Wesseltoft perform is just how intimate he is with his technology. To be able to build up a multi-layered piece from nothing requires a kind of understanding of samplers and sound processors that parallels the way traditionalists feel a conventional musician needs to approach his or her instrument. The difference with Wesseltoft is that he is completely conversant not just with his technology, but also with his conventional instrument as well, making his solo performance a unique experience.

But even that was not the full picture. Wesseltoft then brought onstage two separate ensembles—first a wind nonet with two clarinets, one bass clarinet, one contrabass clarinet, two oboes, two flutes and one bassoon; followed by a brass nonet featuring three French horns, two trumpets, two trombones, a euphonium and a tuba. In each case Wesseltoft conducted the ensemble through a composition that blended new music and improvisation—and the line between contemporary classical and improvised music is becoming fuzzy indeed. In the case of the wind nonet, all kinds of interweaving lines split out into improvised portions, to be brought back together on Wesseltoft's cue. The brass ensemble provoked some laughter from the audience; the trumpet players in particular playfully improvised with, well, unusual textures. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

The Wagner Reloaded Project (WARP)

It's hard to imagine a project like WARP taking place anywhere but Europe, and perhaps even more restricted to a country like Norway, where young artists like those performing at Punktfest are regularly stretching tradition through the use of technology. Certainly the ambitious idea of bringing together a string orchestra with a group of samplers including Bang, Honoré, Peter Schwalm and turntablist DJ Strangefruit—as well as texturalists like guitarist Eivind Aarset—would be hard to orchestrate anywhere else. It's hard to think of another place where all the required players would be available and interested in such a project, not to mention capable of moving forward with a common purpose.

It's incredibly fortunate that an audience as small as the one at Punktfest could witness this transformation of Wagner's music for the 21st Century. Percussionist Audun Kleive described the project as being "respectful," and from the first notes from Kristiansand Symfoniorkester's leader, cellist Vytas Sondeckis, that respect was instantly clear. The live sampling augmented the natural sound of the string orchestra, creating something that Wagner himself might have considered if he were alive today.

The material ranged from melancholic understatement to the greater drama for which Wagner was well-known. But the music never descended into melodrama, and in fact, the ambient aspect of the entire ensemble's approach brought a greater sense of beauty than a lone orchestra, surprisingly, could create. One of the many highlights was bassist Lars Danielsson's achingly tender solo spot—something that, based on his own quartet's performance the previous night, he was well-suited for.

Wagner Reloaded Project / WARP

As has been the case with the festival so far, the lighting was an integral part of the entire experience. More than simply illuminating the stage, abstract images and colors were projected on a large backdrop behind the ensemble, ranging from splashes of color to almost architectural designs. During Danielsson's solo his image was duplicated and projected in a gray scale, which was a very effective way to give him some visibility, since he was at the far back of the stage.

While the processing was used primarily as a textural device, there was a passage where drum programming acted as a strong rhythmic foundation, but even that sounded completely appropriate. And in the final movement, where Aarset's snake-like ebowed guitar meshed with the orchestra's strings, several things became clear. First and foremost, WARP's application of new ideas and tools to old material created a sonic zone where those familiar with the source material could feel comfortable and a younger demographic could be exposed to the classic music in an accessible and relevant way.

The logistics of WARP did not, however, come without a cost. Since the events were running over two hours behind, I had to make the unfortunate decision to miss out on performances by singer Mari Boine and guitarist Fennesz—one of the most talked about and anticipated artists at this year's festival.

Punktfest has one more day to go, though, and a solid lineup that includes Phonophani, Elsewhere, Bernhard Gunter, Arve Henriksen, Tys Tys and a double bill featuring two duos—Nils Petter Molvaer with Deathprod, and Sidsel Endresen with Jan Bang. But amidst a program defined by memorable performances, it's quite possible that WARP will be remembered as a defining moment for the festival.

Visit Karl Seglem, Bill Bruford, Michiel Borstlap, Bugge Wesseltoft, Vytas Sondeckis, Mari Boine, Fennesz and Punktfest on the web.

Photo Credit

John Kelman

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