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BRUCE LEE GALLANTER REVIEW of the 22nd VICTORIAVILLE MUSIQUE ACTUELLE FESTIVAL!
Once again Bruce and his merry crew (Len, Jason, Kurt & Nicole) schlepped up to the wonderful and weird Victo Fest (or FIMAV) in the middle of the Quebec countryside, about half way between Montreal and Quebec City. This about the 18th Victo Fest that I've attended and almost as many for my friend Len Siegfried. Why do we look forward so much to this unique festival? Because every year is filled with surprises, musical and otherwise. This year, there were some 25 sets of immensely diverse music (avant-jazz, experimental, noise, lower-case improv, world) and it is challenging for those with open ears and minds to see and hear it all. What makes it even better is getting to hang out with dozens of devoted troopers, our friends from around the world, who attend almost every year. Contrary to popular belief, there are a few great restaurants in Victo (Mykonos, Olive Rouge and Eggsquis for a great breakfast). The long drive up and back always takes longer than planned, we always have hassles at the border, but we were still able to have a nice dinner in Montreal with our buddies Luc from L'Oblique and Don White from Texas. And the weather for most of the week was relatively warm with little rain. The concerts take place in three different locations, the colosseum, Cegep (the college) and the cinema, each with great sound. My only complaint is the pervasive smell of cow manure because it is harvest time in the countryside.
The first set was truly spectacular as it involved three large ensembles, L'Orkestre des Pas Perdus, La Fanfare Pourour and L'Orchestre de rue de Victoriaville and took place in the vast colosseum. What was so special about this set was that each ensemble was situated in a different place, one on stage and two at either sides of the room. Although La Fanfare Pourpour is known for their lighter side, the music was more serious. Strange, microtonal melodies were weaved and passed around the room, overlapping themes were played by different sub-groups. One highlight was an incredible multiphonic (Zorn-like) alto sax solo from the great Jean Derome with a clarinetist answering him as he walked closer to the the stage.
Jerry Granelli's Sandhills Reunion was another more subtle triumph and was presented at the cinema, just the right place for it. This pieces features Rinde Eckert doing some marvelous spoken words, telling a story about a mythic set of scenes from the midwest. Granelli is an elder jazz drummer who moves easily between different genres and professor who chose an international cast of fine players from different projects. Solos were kept to a minimum so that the octet could evoke the real feeling of the dusty west. Especially superb playing from clarinetists Francois Houle & Jeff Reiley, baritone saxist David Mott, guitarist Christian Kogel, cellist Christoph Both and Jerry's son Jay on electric bass and lap steel.
The first night ended with a truly incredible performance by the Nels Cline Singers at the Cegep. As our fave guitar hero from L.A. prepares to go on tour and do his first album with the ultra-popular roots rock band Wilco, he did a short tour with his amazing trio of Devin Hoff on contrabass and Scott Amendola on drums & electronics. Although they began with some soft, spacious improv, they built it up to some rather scary and extremely intense proportions. Nels sculpted an over-the-top noise solo in which he sampled and manipulated layers of feedback. It was breathtaking and a bit overwhelming, yet well focused. Devin Hoff is a newer name for many of us, although he is on all three discs by the NC Singers. He took of the best bass solos on the entire fest, plucking, bending and bowing the strings until they cried out for mercy. My favorite piece was a super quick jazz tune that reminded me of John McLaughlin's first and best date 'Extrapolation', one of my favorite records of all time. Nels took a number of devastating guitar solos that wowed the audience on numerous occasions. Scott Amendola is one the drummers around and played with immense craft throughout. He is also a marvel out sampling, manipulating and looping sounds, adding some strange spice at times. The nicely subdued version of Monk's "Jackie-Ing" was a perfect encore for a perfect set.
The first set on the second day was by Michel F. Cote's electronic quintet. The instrumentation consisted of Michel on electronics & direction, Diane Labrosse on sampler, Bernard Falaise on electric guitar, Martin Tetreault on turntables (often without records) and Frank Martel on theremin. The music was quite mysterious, quietly mutated electronics with dark layers of carefully crafted textures. At times it was a bit alien and hard to penetrate, at times it was like a slightly twisted dream-world that was took us all away.
An even darker and denser set was provided by Philip Jeck on turntable/mixer and Janek Schaefer on turntable & sampler. Mr. Jeck has a unique way of taking that static sounds from scratchy records and stretching, magnifying and building those sounds one at a time, until they become extremely dense and unnerving. Another piece dealt with disembodied voices, spiraling strings, layers of crackling and ethnic stringed instrument(s). Mr. Schaefer also did his best to manipulate the sounds and turn them into other things. Often mesmerizing, occasionally disturbing and at times too thick to deal with.
The most anticipated set at this year's fest was the first time meeting of two giants - Anthony Braxton and Fred Frith. Both are master improvisers, diverse composers and bandleaders and currently both are college professors. It was obvious that both of these master musicians have much respect of each other's unique talent and sound, as each listened closely and worked together so well. They began very quietly, cautiously spinning little fragments of sounds. Fred had his stereo guitar which held in hand and also laid down to pluck, rub, bow and work with the strings in a variety of ways. Mr. Braxton often used a warm tone that showed off his Paul Desmond influence, a sound that has been emerging from his arsenal more in recent years. Fred used some pedals to loop selective sounds and weave an incredible tapestry underneath Braxton's equally astonishing sax playing. This was one of those truly magical moments that only seems to happen at Victo from time to time. As the set progressed, they got more adventurous, yet always worked together in a completely enchanting way. Hopefully, this set will be released on a future Victo release. Until then, anyone who was there will hold on to this grand moment in the memory.
Another more anticipated set was by the legendary Czech progressive outfit, Plastic People of the Universe. Sadly, it was somewhat disappointing to many in attendance. The history of the band tells the sad story of their beginning in the late sixties, when they were outlaws playing behind the Iron Curtain and inevitably a couple of them ended up doing time in jail. They disbanded in 1986 and regrouped in 1997 and even lived in NY for a bit under the name Pulnoc. Unfortunately the Agon Orchestra, who were suppose to accompany them here didn't make it. Their live set at Victo was closer to the riff oriented music of the Velvet Underground (their early influence) or Hawkwind, rather than the Mothers of Invention (their other early influence). Their music was well played, with some strong solos from their lead guitarist and saxist, but for me, it was not very interesting. Parts of it sounded rather new wavish with some quaint keyboard or violin parts that never cut loose. Word is that their saxist, earlier in the day had asked Braxton to have a sax duel with him just like those jam sessions of yesteryear. Braxton alleged declined the offer and this was probably a good thing. Besides Braxton was saving himself for a very different surprise.
The day ended with wonderfully with a the great downtown duo of Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori on the college. It was great to see/hear Zeena playing her acoustic harp, someting she only brings out for special occasions. Both Zeena and Ikue are also master improvisers who have worked together for a longtime in different projects, often with Frith and Zorn. Their first duo disc came out just last year and they were on the cover of The Wire, something they well deserved. Zeena coaxes a wide variety of unorthodox sounds from her acoustic harp by using bows, picks and pieces of wood to work the strings in different ways. She also a sampler at times to add odd colors and textures. Ikue Mori is thee sorceress of the sampler and consistently comes up with fascinating sounds which she alters often subtly. The duo will record their second disc and have composed some new pieces which they presented in part up at Victo. This gave their set a strong connected quality as they weaved some more planned parts with some strongly improvised sections.
The third day at Victo was mostly curated by our pal Thurston Moore and featured a number of noise/improv bands that might not have ever played without his push. The first set was by two very different turntable players Martin Tetreault and Kid Koala, from different generations, but both from Quebec. There was a lighter touch at hand here. Kid Koala took some jazz drum snippets and slowly chopped then up as Martin, who often just plays the turntable without records also just added occasional bits and pieces. Never too dense or too weird. Bird calls, car racing sounds and things that made everyone smile for the first show of the day. There was a hilarious moment when a record about turntable etiquette probably from a radio station was played. It was a nice way to start our six set day that included a whole lot of noise.
Thurston's first pick was a young trio who met at school in Kentucky called the Hair Police. The not-so-average trio consisted of cheap electronics, electric guitar and drums. They began quietly but soon launched off into some explosive rocking episodes. They were pretty tight and focused but only seemed to play at two different speeds, very slow & drone-like or very fast. The cheap electronics were actually pretty effective and sounded like a squealing sax at times. When they got heavy, they reminded me of The Swans and sometimes I had to laugh at how silly they were. I'm sure what few jazz snobs were there, were not so charitable. Although nothing quite prepared us for the second set by Wolf Eyes.
There was a rumor that Mr. Anthony Braxton was going to "sit in" with some noise band called Wolf Eyes, but I don't think anyone took that comment seriously. Word is that he had heard them at a festival in Scandinavia and was floored by their performance. Very strange indeed. When this young, punky noise trio came out and told us that Mr. Braxton would be playing with them - there he was, many were quite shocked. Wolf Eyes is an odd trio of homemade electronics, electric guitar and sax/more electronics. John Olson, their big shaved head saxist, was also their spokesman and was pretty funny and quite astute. They started with all three members playing some scary processed cymbals as Braxton played some quieter sopranino on top. The trio moved through bowing and scraping metal, intense guitar feedback and growling electronic noise-scapes. It reminded me of Organum at times, just not as accomplished. They ended in a frenzy of pounding noise with screaming vocals that was almost too much. For their encore, they asked Mr. Braxton if they should play their hit "Black Vomit" and he said, "of course"!?! It was a tribal, throbbing epic of slow noise that grinded, growled and groaned until it hit its stride and exploded with Braxton squealing sax riding on the waves. Not what anyone would have expected, but it worked and showed how barriers occasionally disappear up at Victo.
The next set was also not also not one of Thurston's picks, but was also one of more anticipated ones. It was a solo contrabass performance by Stefano Scodanibbio, one of the giants of modern classical bass. Stefano has two amazing solo and duo bass discs out on New Albion and has worked with Terry Riley and the Arditti String Quartet and has even gotten a blessing from Luciano Berio to reinvent his work "Sequenza". Stefano played one long work that moved slowly through different sections as he plucked, strummed and bowed the strings in a very methodical way, always building to the next section. It was most astonishing and I often found myself in a trance-like state as he weaved different themes into the long evolving work.
On the opposite end of the spectrum came New York's mysterious No Neck Blues Band, who do improv only shows and have nothing to do with the blues. This occasional bizarre and unpredictable seven piece band, switches off between many instruments: guitars, piano, sax, bass, ethnic percussion and drums. They weave elements of space-rock, free/jazz/improv with folky themes. They sound is often mellow, rambling, ritualistic and often seems to have that anything goes attitude. This wacky Japanese babe (Michiko Cook) sometimes plays frenetic piano or screaming alto sax or just rolls around on the floor with Test's bassist Matt Heyner, who rarely plays his bass here. Two or three different guitarists quietly play fragmented parts that actually sound like one fine guitarist with a number of great ideas. Strangest of all is that bearded dude, Keith Connolly who wanders around the stage in shades playing the odd ethnic drum or percussion and looks as if he could flip out at any moment. I know Keith and he is really a decent fellow, so don't be deceived. The funny thing is that when I close my eyes and listen, they are actually making some nice music. Their set actually ended just as they were about to break into a real song or so it sounded.
Thurston Moore's Dream Aktion Unit were up next and were a nine piece all-star improv project which included a diverse cast of Okkyung Lee on cello, Paul Flaherty on alto sax, Chris Corsano & Trevor Tramaine (from Hair Police) both on drums. This was another set that seemed great on paper but was a bit of a disappointment. It began quietly, filled with tension and suspense but inevitably turned into a scream fest. Although it was focused at times, often it just went over-the-top without enough listening or focus to the free-noise. What was unfortuante was that Thurston had chosen some wonderful players (Flaherty, Okkyung Lee and Chris Corsano), but they rarely got a chance to stretch out or work together in duets or trios. There were some great moments and some explosive waves, but I would have loved to have heard Flaherty, Lee and Corsano battle it out by themselves. Chris Corsano is just amazing on drums and did his best to push the energy higher & higher.
The final show of the day was another double header at the Cegep, Dead Machines and Double Leopards. Dead Machines is a (married) duo of Tovah Olson on electronics and John Olson (from Wolf Eyes) on sax & electronics. John gave an impromtu opening monologue that was totally hilarious, mostly about his marriage and poking fun at the seriousness of this fest. This set was broadcast on Radio-Canada and I am sure some of the Quebec listeners were confused by his rambling. The duo both played cheap or home-made electronics and it was pretty interesting. There was a section where Tovah played a old double-reed thing as John played soprano sax in long tones. They looped each note and then stretched them out even further. It got a bit loud at times and even a bit disturbing. Overall I dug the creative way they transformed all their sounds into more alien transmissions, although it seemed a bit sloppy.
The Brooklyn based Double Leopards were up last and by this time it was nearly 1am and I was pretty tired and well saturated. The quartet all kneeled on the floor using dozen of pedals and other devices. They created an ocean of white noise and that very slowly evolved into a more pulsating, throbbing sound. They seem to deal with a series of drones and subtle electronic soundscapes, none of which changed very much as things slowly evolved. They were later joined by the Dead Machines duo and things moved further out into space. Three of these folks appeared to by singing or screaming for one section, but I couldn't actually hear their voices. Hmmm. By this time I was way to tired and welcomed some sleep and silence more than usual.
The fourth day at FIMAV was the one day that made the jazz-heads smile, it was a mostly amazing six set day. It began with Hubbub at the Cinema, a marvelous French quintet with three fine discs on Matchless and For 4 Ears. Their instrumentation consists of piano, alto & tenor saxes, electric guitar and percussion. This set was the only one that featured what is currently referred to as "lower case improv", something that has been more in evidence at the last few Victo Fests. Hubbub took their time to create ultra subtle textures, often just a few notes at a time. Frederic Blondy worked both inside the piano as well as on the keyboard, letting the ghosts slowly escape into the air. Both saxists, Bertrand Denzler and Jean-Luc Guinnet, would select one note or a fragment of a phrase, carefully weaving their crafty reeds into a delicate tapestry. Guitarist Jean-Sebastien Mariage never used his guitar in any usual jazz-like way, utilizing sticks and pieces of metal to alter the strings, selecting just a few sounds at a time, some angular, some sharp, but always fitting perfectly within the group sound. Although their drummer Edward Perraud had a drum set at his disposal, he also worked with a minimum gestures, tapping, bowing, rubbing and quietly scurrying around his set. What made this set special was that there was some intense listing going on, the group breathed and worked together as one force. It was very dream-like and we could float away while listening to it. A perfect set to begin this wonderful day.
The next set was another of those eagerly anticipated sets, the Anthony Braxton Sextet, and it was for me the culmination of what this festival is about: a glimpse of the future of new music without boundaries. This marvelous sextet featured Mr. Braxton on just a few reeds (alto sax, clarinet & sopranino), Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpets & trombone, Jessica Pavone on violin, Jay Rozen (not the drummer with a similar name) on tuba, Chris Dahlgren on contrabass and Aaron Siegel on drums & percussion. This group had done a short European tour last year and they are performing what Braxton refers to as "Accelerated Ghost Trance Music". What was most fascinating about this is how Mr. Braxton has taken the essence of his last compositional phase ("Ghost Trance Music") and let it evolve into something somewhat less difficult to grasp. The dozen-plus discs and concerts of "Ghost Trance" were quite controversial, often misunderstood and many listeners complained of the constant repeating and shifting lines. Braxton has accelerated "Ghost Trance" by giving it more breathing space. Although this newer work started together with the sextet playing harmonized lines, it soon broke into fragments of inter-connected lines. Various subgroupings emerge, a great muted tuba and violin duo in one section as Taylor takes an auspicious flugel solo and Braxton takes an outstanding sopranino solo. There were numerous duos and trios that were woven around one another yet everything felt connected to an inner pulse. Everything seemed to move in waves, with the dynamics and textures constantly shifting. There was always a few different melodies or ideas going on, so one had to concentrate to hear it all. It had many of us on the edge of our setas throughout its hour long duration. This music is much closer to modern classical than jazz and Braxton forces the sextet to redefine their roles in this music. There is no division between the rhythm team and the rest of the band, as everyone's role is constantly in flux. I would hope that this set also ends up on CD as it would be great both hear this brilliant music again (and again), as well as let others hear it.
One of the highlights of last year's Vision Fest was an incredible duo of Xu Fengxia on guzheng and Gunda Gottschalk on viola, both of whom worked with Peter Kowald. One of this year's delights was a solo set from Xu Fengxia on her many stringed koto-like guzheng from China and using her voice. Ms. Fengxia is a virtuoso who combines the ancient with the modern, from delicate Buddhist meditation music to deep, dark and nearly violent improvisations. She moved between the two extremes with ease, pushing all of our emotions to the ends. She played a lovely traditional Mongolian folk song and followed it by playing a piece that imitated a horseback riding episode. She bowed and plucked her guzheng with immense authority and also sang incredible well from prayer like chanting to some more intense vocalizing. I urge you to check out her recent solo disc on FMP or her dynamic duo disc with Joe Fonda on Leo Lab.
The Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet has evolved personnel wise since their last show up a Victo five years ago. Now there are only four members from Chicago (Ken Vandermark, Fred Longberg-Holm, Kent Kessler & Michael Zerang). The current version includes original members Mats Gustafsson & Joe McPhee plus newcomers Magnus Broo on trumpet and Per-Ake Holmlander on tuba. Although the set started with some heavy free-jazz blasting, something that Brotzmann helped invent in Germany in the mid-sixties, this is just a part of what this great all-star ensemble is about. The often friendly looking Joe McPhee looked totally bad in shades and black clothes and played some incredible pocket trumpet, as Brotzmann sparred with him on tenor. The set appeared to be a suite of sections that broke the band into duos, trios and larger units, giving ample solo and duo space to everyone on stage. It was great to hear both newer (to these shores) cats, Broo & Holmlander, who both to numerous inspired solos. The was much more dynamic and varied than some would imagine, since most of the players contributed to the compositions and directions. They seemed to cover the history of jazz, using elements and melodies from different eras.
Downtown's best big band was next at the colosseum, William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. Even here in NYC, this great group does not play that often, so getting a chance to hear them all the way up north in the massive colosseum was a great opportunity for all. They began with Sabir Mateen and Matt Lavelle doing an opening vocal invocation as William Parker played didjeradoo, with Sabir and Matt soon switching to bass clarinets. It was a great way to wake and evoke the spirits and William called it, "Gamma Cluster". Their first long piece was dedicated to the recently departed Modern Jazz Quartet bassist Percy Heath, one of William's inspirations. The big band was soon swinging tightly as the fire-breathing horns answered each other - trombones vs. trumpets, saxes vs. bari sax & tuba. It took a while for the sound people to get things right, so the first burning solo from Rob Brown was lost in the air. By the time Alex Lodico got his chance to solo on trombone, one could hear him loud and clear and he did it right. "Tripan Blue" was another long, epic-length piece and it was fantastic. The different horn sections tightly stopped and started, the spirits were really soaring. Incredible solos from Alex on trombone, Sabir on tenor sax, Steve Swell (trombone) and Lewis Barnes (trumpet) together and a most impressive Dolphy-esque alto solo from Charles Waters. The great rhythm team of William on contrabass and Andrew Barker on drums also did a marvelous job of navigating the tight rapids and pushing the large band further into the ozone. It often reminded of some of the better sets I caught by the Sun Ra Arkestra in the late seventies.
The last set of the day was by the legendary Japanese vocalist Tenko, who also played at two previous Victo Fests, the last time was a decade ago. She was accompanied by three drummers, none of whom used cymbals to get in the way of her range. The drummers played ritualistic beats, never breaking out of their grooves. It often sounded more like one drummer. Tenko dug deep and let out her scary, bellowing voice, letting it all out. Sometimes doing partially spoken word and let the demons inside emerge. At nearly 1am, it was a bit too much at the end of a long day of challenging music. It some ways it was painful, but I did feel that Tenko was really tapping into a primal source that was almost too much to deal with. The consensus with my friends was that we wanted to enjoy it more than we actually did.
The fifth and final day at FIMAV began with the French duo of Jean-Francois Pauvros on electric guitar and Helene Breschand on acoustic harp. I had not heard much about the harpist before this, but it turns out that she does have a trio disc out on 4 For Ears. Mr. Pauvros appears to have been around for much longer having worked with Jacques Berrocal in Catalogue and with Haino Keiji. The duo began with hushed sounds, with Helene gently plucking the harp strings as J.F bowed his guitar getting a cello-like sound. Helene also bowed the lower strings of her harp creating a haunting drone. JF later used a slide to get ghost-like sounds on his guitar as Helene used some echo devices to layer a few sounds most effectively. JF is a master of the bowed guitar as well as using his whammy-bar to create short bent phrases that were on the more restrained side, unique for someone to use that bar in a quieter way. My only reservation was that the set went on for too long and could've been edited down a bit. Other than that it was nice to begin the final day.
It is always a gas to hear from Lars Hollmer, keyboard and accordion player for the legendary Swedish progressive outfit Samla or Von Zamla, who started in the early 70's and still play on occasion. For this performance Lars collaborated with the charming La Fanfare Pourpour from Quebec. It was a wonderful match. Both Lars and the 19 piece ensemble both embrace a fun-filled and festive vibe. Lars provided tunes based on Scandinavian folk themes that were always touching and made everyone smile. It was often very circus-like with Pierre Tanguay playing cutting blades, bicycle ringers and lots of other silly percussion. Lars switched off between accordion and melodica and was always rather cherubic. It was cartoon music for children of all ages, quite delightful and refreshing from the more serious side of things.
Pascal Contet also plays the accordion, but was on the opposite side of the spectrum. He played an accordion that had only buttons on either side. His sound was very dark and eerie with swirling lines which made me feel like I was drowning in thick waves. I could little or no melodies within the waves. The sound was still rhythmic and pulsating. It sounded more like an organ from a horror movie than an accordion. Although I dug the duo disc that Pascal has with Joelle Leandre, I felt the solo set was almost too much effect and not enough content.
Which brings us to the final set and another very highly anticipated one, the sensational Boredoms who were unlike anything that any of us could have imagined. The Boredoms have reinvented themselves on each release and did it again, shocking many of us devoted fans. The current band features three great drummers (including Yoshimi P-Wee), all facing each other and their truly dynamic lead singer, Yamatsuka Eye. The piece was very long and completely explosive. As the drummers provided a hurricane like force of intricate pounding drums, Eye danced, screamed and played some synth like a complete madman. Eye plays these two light balls which trigger a variety of intense samples and electronic sounds. He dances violently in the dark as the light balls flash as they trigger those sounds. Yoshimi also did some occasional singing and played bit of sampler as well. But what really worked best was the tight, pounding layers of drums that took us on a journey through the jungles of the world and hurled us into outer space. It did have elements of sixties psychedelia and seventies Krautrock, as well as space-rock jamming. It was one of the most spectacular sets I have ever witnessed and I doubt that anyone there will ever forget about it. It was finally the perfect ending to the mostly magnificent Victoriaville New Music Festival.
There really is no other festival quite like the International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville and that is why so many of us die-hards go back every year. Very special thanks to Michel Levasseur and his wonderful crew, you all do a great job and we are all very thankful for this.
- Bruce Lee Gallanter