13 Monroe St., New York, NY 10002-7351
Phone: (212) 473-0043 - Toll Free: (800) 622-1387 - Fax: (646) 781-9846
BRUCE LEE GALLANTER REVIEW of the 26th ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL MUSIQUE ACTUELLE VICTORIAVILLE!
INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL MUSIQUE ACTUELLE VICTORIAVILLE - 26th Edition - May 20th -23rd
I've been attending annual Victo New Music Festival since 1988 when Fred Frith convinced me to take chance & drive up to Quebec in October, the beginning of the Canadian winter, the time when the festival used to be held. I went alone the first year, but made friends quickly although I spoke no French. Every year I'd bring more friends to check out this great, unique avant-garde/progressive/downtown music fest, with as many as six of us attending for a few years. The overall vibe & selection of musicians/bands changes every year, so you have to trust founder Michel Levasseur & his advisers. I am rarely disappointed with the musicians chosen, which is pretty amazing considering that I've caught about 500 sets in the 20 festivals I've attended so far.
This year was different. In advance there was a great deal of speculation and controversy as to whether this line-up would be successful or not. First consideration is that Victo took off a year in 2009 due to some family problems for Michel and the need for some time off to reorganize. The 2008 Victo Fest was, for many of my friends, the best one in several years with stunning performances from the Art Bears Songbook, Fred Frith's Cosa Brava, John Zorn's Dreamers & Jean Derome's Extended ensemble. It would be a hard edition to beat. Plus the ongoing worldwide recession has made things difficult for many of us who consider attending every year. Another difference this year was the shortening of the fest by one day & four concerts. This seemed to bother some folks but not me & my small group who actually stayed the extra day to just to hang out & unwind a bit. The schedule didn't look that tempting on paper beforehand so a number of the regulars decided not to it a chance. It was their loss and it seems to have hurt the festival's well-being as well. My feeling was to give Michel & his cohorts a chance, since he has so rarely let us down in the past. Yes, their were more Quebec-based & other Canadian musicians performing this year plus there were fewer big names, perhaps Bill Dixon was the main one. I drove up with a smaller group, just Jason, Hillary (her first Victo) & Eric in our car. I stayed with my ladyfriend Huguette who lives in Victo year-round & attended many of the gigs with us. After a shorter drive than usual, we made our way to Montreal to see Luc from L'Oblique Records and have dinner with our friends Charles, Cathy, Don White & Luc at La Casa Rosa. I was a bit burnt-out from the long drive, most likely from the lack of water & too much coffee, so I wasn't feeling too well on the first day of the fest.
The first set on May 20th was a French duo called Nabaz Mob with Jean-Jacques Birge & Antoine Schmitt. Mr. Birge was once a member of Un Drame Musical Instantane, a great progressive trio who played an earlier Victo fest. The performance was split into two halves. The first half was a an electronics duo that improvised using odd samples, electronics & radio transmissions. The music was occasionally interesting but not that engaging. The second half featured some 100 toy bunnies on stage, each of which had a triangle of six lights, each one had ears that went up & down and produced subtle electronic sounds. Visually it was a somewhat fascinating with different lines or patterns emerging and then slowly turning into other patterns. The music shifted slowly and was quietly hypnotic, reminding me of the beginning of "Out-Bloody-Rageous" from Soft Machine's 'Third' - with loops of organ softly massaging our brains into submission. Interesting but not very dynamic.
The next set was Sam Shalabi's 'Land of Kush', featuring some 24 musicians from Quebec. As a longtime fan of most of the things I've heard Mr. Shalabi do in the past, I was looking forward to this set more than most. The Land of Kush Orchestra featured five female vocalists with the odd instrumentation of oud, duduk, zurna, darbuka, harp, strings, reeds, electronics, synth & percussion. The piece itself was very long and consisted of many sections. Each of the five vocalists was featured in different sections and each was impressive & unique. The singers were most often the highlights of this long, evolving set. There was an intriguing b&w film that started the set off and which worked well with the electronics employed. A most hypnotic middle-eastern groove ran through the entire piece and tied the entire piece together. Different musicians got their chances to solo and each one fit well within the scheme of things. My only complaint is that the sound was a bit ragged in some sections and perhaps the piece seemed a bit too long. Then again, I wasn't feeling too well myself for the last part. I did review the CD for a fecent newsletter & felt it was pretty spectacular so check it out if you can.
I missed the final set of the night by Vialka due to exhaustion and heard that they were great. From what I read about them, I was eagerly anticipating their set. Oh well.
The next day, May 21st, began with a trio of electronic musicians from Quebec: Alexis Bellavance, Nicolas Bernier & Erick D-Orion. The trio played in-the-round at a table in the center of the smaller room at the Colisee with the audience surrounding them. Each musician played an assortment items like computer, sampler, daxophone & other noise-making devices. I liked that they went from soft feedback to more explosive electronics with layers of static, a table-top guitar, small cymbals with pick-ups, brushes and bird-samples. The large musician who performed closest to us took a microphone and rubbed & banged on the floor with it, reminding me of the sounds/noise which children make with a certain innocence that we lose as adults.
Eric Normand plays electric bass & electronics & led the next ensemble who were also from Quebec. His group featured 2 violins, 1 cello & drums with his own electric bass at the right of the stage. I felt that the written music & playing of the entire group was mostly compelling but that Mr. Normand's playing didn't always fit with the other more acoustic instruments. Normand is obviously a fine bassist and used his e-bow and fuzz to color his bass in interesting ways, but the strings & percussion were often more interesting than anything that Mr. Normand played himself.
The following set featured eight multi-media players from Quebec called Les Filles Electriques & it was the one set that I was dreading the most. The last time I heard the two female vocalists, Alexis O'Hara & D. Kimm in their duo Mankind, it was one of the worst sets I've ever witnessed at Victo. For me, it was obnoxious, went nowhere and seemed to annoy many of the men in attendance. Strangely enough, Les Filles Electriques turned out to be one of the better sets of this year. It worked on different levels and provided us with a great deal of food for thought. Ms. O'Hara wore a bride's gown for much of the performance and used it to evoke confusion, anticipation & other feelings we associate with brides left alone at the alter. There was a mysterious dancer who contorted and switched roles in different sections. One section featured a male spoken word artist named Fortner Anderson who spoke in English & described a long but ambiguous ordeal of being a prisoner, and being held for days & months with tales of his more harrowing experiences but never mentioning any names of who was to blame. The music was made by Bernard Falaise (guitar) and Michel Cote (percussion) was dark & quiet & underlined the different speakers so well. Another vocalist named Khyro, a French-speaking rapper also let out a tirade of complaints about the Canadian government was most effective at stirring up the audience. Ms Kimm, who speaks in English, still gets on my nerves and has little of interest to say. My partner Huguette enjoyed the observations that Ms. Alexis spoke in French, something I missed out on. One of her observations was of the way couples deal with each other differently whether they are horizontal and vertical.
The next set was another highly anticipated one featuring Aun & Michel Langevin. Aun is a duo of Martin Dumas on guitar & electronics & Julie Leblanc on video & synth. Michel Langevin is the powerhouse drummer for the death metal pioneers Voivod. Martin Dumas played guitar by strumming quickly and creating a torrential force. Mr. Langevin's drumming was just incredible, a thunderous yet an immensely focused hurricane of blurred activity. It is rare when just the drummer is completely captivating but this is what is amazing about Langevin's playing.
Early No Wave chanteuse & confrontational performer Lydia Lunch seemed like an odd choice for the forward-looking Victo Fest but I must admit that she somehow fit into the squirming-in-your-seat aura of fascination & repulsion. Lydia did her own style of perplexing spoken word monologues with Philippe Petit, an intense French turntablist. I've been checking Ms. Lunch out for some thirty years in different bands (Teenage Jesus, Eight Eyed Spy, solo rants & most recently in a band with Nels Cline) and she never ceases to leave me unmoved. She is the master sexual politics & power, making us consider who is the master and who is the slave to temptations. She left us with a good deal to consider. Near the end she chided the Canadians to build a wall to keep the Americans out since the American military are the real terrorists of the world with 700 military bases in 150 countries. Mr. Petit is one of the finest, most intense & crafty turntable players I've heard in a long while. He created effective layers of complex counterpoint that always added a soundtrack like swirl to the disturbing observations that Lydia constantly dished out.
The final set of the night was by Les Momies de Palerme, also from Quebec and fronted by two young female vocalists. I didn't stick around too long since I was again burnt out. The singers voice were a bit too tame & pleasant for a festival that revels in more overwhelming extremes. They might actually be better on record but I was too tired to try so I split their set early for some much needed sleep.
Saturday, May 22nd looked to be one of those great six set days at Victo & it turned out to be even better than I imagined. The first set a quiet yet intense quartet from Norway & France with Xavier Charles on clarinet, Ivar Grydeland electric guitar & banjo, Christian Wallumrod on piano & harmonium and Ingar Zach on percussion. Both Xavier & Ingar have played here at Victo in different settings while Mr. Wallumrod has a number of fine discs out on ECM. The set was mostly restrained with little or no soloing. Ingar Zach, who has worked with Derek Bailey, Jaap Blank & Rhodri Davies and has some discs on labels like Sofa, is one of the most distinctive percussionists around. He plays timpani and small percussion & knows just when to add to the minimalist atmosphere. The set was mostly acoustic with some more restrained electric guitar from Mr. Grydeland. It was a perfect way to start the day.
Charlemagne Palestine is a legendary keyboardist & composer who grew up in New York but so rarely plays (t)here. He is known for doing solo concerts and rarely does collaborations. For this rare appearance Mr. Palestine was working with a trio from Germany called Perlonex. Perlonex feature Ignaz Schick on turntables & electronics, Joerg Maria Zeger on electric guitar with effects and Burkhard Beins percussion & electronics. Charlemagne is certainly a striking figure, sitting at the piano, drinking cognac from a large glass with a large pile of small stuffed bears to his side. The music began quietly with subtle drones, bowed turntable, rubbed cymbals & soft percussion with Mr. Palestine rubbing his cognac glass and getting a another soft drone at the center. The quartet created a mesmerizing alien dreamworld with rich yet ultra-subtle cosmic drones. The sounds built slowly, finally ascending into a space-jam kind of like Gong taking us on their journey to the stars. Later we moved into a more intense Acid Mothers like jam that came close to being violent before settling back down to the Mother earth for a soft landing.
Another of those fine lower-case improv sets featured Jim Denley (alto sax & flute from Australia), Philippe Lauzier (viol da gamba from Quebec), Pierre-Yves Martel (bass clarinet & alto sax from Quebec) and Kim Myhr (table-top acoustic guitar & devices from Norway). Considering that this is an international quartet who probably hadn't played together before, they worked very well together. I know extended reeds wiz Jim Denley from the time he was with Machines for Making Sense as well as with Stevie Wishart and have kept an eye on him since - He plays sax & flute in his own odd way, using balloons & other attachments to create unique & strange sounds. A viol da gamba is a Renaissance instrument that looks like a small cello with a rounded bottom. Mr. Lauzier played it in his own way with paper clips & other items to manipulation it. Kim Myhr, who led his own orchestra the next day, played a 12-string guitar laid on a table with a variety of devices like a small fan and a bow. This quartet often played very quietly and very carefully, making each sound count. The overall sound was hypnotic and otherworldly. At times it sounded like a few different boats were sailing by in the distance of each other with a different foghorn on each one. Not one of these four musicians ever played a regular sound or note on his instrument, as each sound was manipulated in some sort of way. My friend Eric commented that some of these musicians were trying too hard to be different but this didn't bother me since the outcome was so consistently captivating.
The next set my favorite one of the entire fest, it featured Barre Phillips on acoustic bass, Catherine Jauniaux on voice and Malcolm Goldstein on violin. This set was completely acoustic and didn't really employ any extended techniques yet it was completely successful nonetheless. It was most magical and flowed organically. Barre Phillips has long been one of my favorite contrabassists, ever since hearing the (John Surman) Trio albums from 1970, as well as dozens of albums after that. Mr. Phillips also played a superb solo set here at DMG earlier this year & I was honored to have him. Catherine Jauniaux is an old friend who I recall so well from her days in NY when she was married to the late Tom Cora. She has long been one of my favorite vocalists and is sadly under-recorded. She did make a fine trio disc with Barre & Ned Rothenberg last year, but it was her first in a long while. Malcolm Goldstein is more known as a composer, but it turns out that he is a great improvising violinist as well. I've only heard him live once & that was twenty years ago. For me, this was the perfect trio, with Malcolm on the high end, Barre on the low end and Catherine somewhere in the middle with her immensely charming voice & presence. Catherine's range goes from Edith Piaf-like vocal sounds to quirky birdish bits. I kept thinking that this trio is perfect, communicating on a high level and taking us with them on an inner journey that only our fearless fellow travelers could do.
Certainly, the most anticipated set of this fest was the Bill Dixon Ensemble, 'Tapestries for Small Orchestra'. One of the best & most important releases of 2009 was Mr. Dixon's three disc set on the Firehouse 12 label. It was Mr. Dixon's dream ensemble and for this festival, he was able to bring this fabulous unit to the prestigious Victo stage. This was their one & only performance. Dixon selected four trumpeters - all master brassmen: Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes & Rob Mazurek on cornets and Stephen Haynes on trumpet. The rest of ensemble featured Michel Cote on clarinets, Glynis Lomon on cello, Ken Filiano on contrabass and Warren Smith on vibes, marimba & percussion. For the recording, Mr. Dixon's own trumpet & electronics was featured as the central soloist. Dixon strode slowly up onto the stage and seemed to be in fragile form. Word is that he is ill, yet he did a great job of leading & directing this extraordinary ensemble. The band seemed to be split in half with the four brassmen on the left, the strings & reeds on the right and Warren Smith's percussion in the center further back on the stage. Starting off with youngest member of the trumpet section, Taylor Ho Bynum took the first solo of the night. Each trumpeter got a chance to solo and each one was very different, bringing their unique skills to the forefront as well as challenging the other members of the ensemble. While one trumpet soloed, the others created shrewd harmonies around them. Strangely enough, Mr. Dixon who had his back to the audience also took a couple of strong solos which in turned out were taped in advance. These also fit perfect into the scheme of things. The rhythm team of cello, bass & percussion plus clarinets also got their chance to stretch out and were equally impressive throughout. The set combined the best ideas of modern jazz and contemporary classical streams. I am sure that it was recorded and I hope that it is released as it will take some time to fully absorb all the incredible moments and fascinating ideas.
The final set of the night was Carla Kihlstedt's new project 'Causing a Tiger' with Shazad Ismaily on bass, guitar, Matthias Bossi on drums & piano and Carla on violin & vocals. I had seen this same trio at the beginning of their tour at The Stone not too long ago and felt that their earlier set was rather indulgent and tedious. Considering that this was the final set (of six) for that day and it started at midnight, I almost talked myself out of going. Since I am a longtime fan & friend of Carla's, I decided to get her the benefit of the doubt. I've caught Carla with Two Foot Yard, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the Art Bears Songbook & Frith's Cosa Brava and she has consistently knocked me out. For this trio, Carla, Shazad & Matthias, blended the best parts of their previous bands and created something new and startling. Carla mentioned that all of the lyrics were taken from some 15th century poet with whom I was unfamiliar. The music was often dark, moody, skeletal, intense, focused and completely gripping. Carla used her voice and violin to seduce us and keep us at the edge of our seats. Shazad did a great job of creating textures on guitar & bass that would provide perfect counterpoint between Carla & the drums. Matthias is a great drummer who has also worked with Sleepytime & Cosa Brava. He know exactly when to play and when to lay out. Matthias also played some strong electric piano on a couple of pieces. Causing a Tiger has a new studio disc out on Victo which I haven't heard but will be in stock sometime soon. This set was a great way to end a wonderful & challenging day here at the Victo marathon.
For the first time in many years, Sunday was the final day of the festival with five more highly anticipated sets. The first set of the day featured an international sextet with Jacques Demierre on piano, Urs Leimgruber on soprano & tenor saxes, Charlotte Hug on viola & voice, Francois Houle on clarinet, Thomas Lehn on analogue synth and Dorothea Schurch on saw & voice. Considering that this was a six piece ensemble, the overall sound was quite restrained and closer to the European version of lower-case improv. Each member would enter the picture as the sound would slowly build. I knew of all of the members of the group except for Ms. Schurch. I had just seen & heard Thomas Lehn with Konk Pack a couple of months ago, as well as in previous encounters. I've caught Demierre at Tonic, Hug at Victo, Leimgruber at Victo and Houle at Victo more than once & in a trio at the old DMG store. This set was Euro lower case improv at is best & most focused. I've heard Francois Houle & Jacques Demierre play very different, depending on who they are playing with and the space they are playing in. Mr. Demierre played a good deal inside the piano as well as concentrating on different sections of the piano keyboard. He is a completely unique musician who rarely gets the recognition he well deserves. It is rare to see/hear anyone playing a saw in an improv context, only Charles Noyes some thirty years ago comes to mind. Mr. Schurch consistently took her time, only adding saw & vocal sounds on rare occasion when they fit within the minimal scheme. Charlotte Hug is a more dynamic viola player, yet here she also concentrated her playing more than I've heard in the past. Ms. Hug also uses her voice in odd ways, creating sounds that I wasn't sure were coming from her or not. Although I've heard analogue synthesist Thomas Lehn be more intense with a band like Konk Pack, here Lehn also toned down and fit perfectly into the more minimal soundscape. What was a revelation for me is that only two weeks later, at the end of their tour, I caught Demierre, Hug & Leimgruber with Elliott Sharp (on electric guitar) at The Stone. This set was quite a bit more extreme & intense, but no less successful. It showed that these musicians knew well how to rise to the occasion for a much different circumstance and play in a very different way.
The next set that day was also more revelatory. It was the North American premiere of Kim Myhr & Trondheim Jazz Orkester from Norway. This 15-piece large ensemble featured some names I knew like Jim Denley (reeds from Australia), Sidsel Endresen (voice, CD's on ECM), Christian Wallumrod (pianist from ECM) and Ingar Zach (distinctive percussionist who records for Sofa & Rune Grammofon). Although this unique ensemble is called a jazz orchestra, their sound was not really that jazz-like. Their sound was more stripped down and dealt with various twisted textures: bent drones, sliding notes, expanding & contracting very carefully and at times quiet and calm. Mr. Myhr was at the center of this somber storm playing his acoustic guitar laid on a table with different gadgets. No one plays their instrument in any normal way, yet the sound remains consistently focused and engaging. At times, the music rises up and slowly turns into a siren-like wail before is descends back into cautious calm. It was one of the best performances of this fest, although I did feel as if we were all floating in the air and suspended in the clouds.
The next set could not have been more different form the previous one. Andy Moor has long been a guitarist for the great Dutch punk/prog/ethnic band The Ex. For this set Moor was working with a spoken word artist & sampler-player named Anne-James Chaton. It was a fierce, intense duo. Mr. Chaton took sampled vocals and chopped them into effective fragments. Slides of the duo's uneventful plane flight were matched by more frantic, highly charged sounds. Moor often used his electric guitar like a weapon, chomping out phrases, repeating rock riffs without the benefit of a rhythm team to ride upon. Sometimes Chaton sounded as if he were reading a news report, but since it was in French, I was not sure what he was saying. The set built as the riffs got more intense and the voice became more alarming. I get the feeling that Chaton was reading a list of weapons manufactures from Canada or from perhaps around the world. He eventually used a megaphone to make his announcements more extreme as Moor counterbalances his brutal riffs like well timed shrapnel. I was exhilarated by the end of the set, but not really ready for what was in store next. We ate our final festival dinner at a French restaurant in midtown Victoriaville and then it was off to the final set at the cinema.
One of the more controversial sets at Victo was by Tanya Tagaq, a young Inuit singer from the Northwest Territories of Canada. Tanya's trio included Jesse Zubot from Vancouver on violin and Jean Martin from Toronto on drums. Although the art of Inuit throat singing comes from more traditional sources, Tanya sings and moves in her own unique way. The stage was filled with that unnecessary smoke-machine ambience as the trio launched into their over-the-top set. Tanya wreathed and screamed, twisting her voice(s) into often scary Exorcist-like convulsions. There were a series of low, guttural, animal-like sounds that were certain to give some folks nightmares. These low sounds were more rhythm than melodic and had a way of producing fear or anxiety. It was indeed a spectacle and it was hard not be overwhelmed by the extreme sounds presented. No doubt that Jesse and Jean, both of whom are members of LaConnor, are also gifted improvisers, but it was hard to add much to Tanya's overwhelming presentation. The set seemed to divide the audience between those who dug the spectacle and those who found it a bit too much. Towards the end, Tanya commented that it felt good to be a festival where the trio was not considered to be too weird. Tanya Tagaq embraced many roles simultaneously: woman, child, actress, sorceress and singer. My friend Eric commented that it was a good idea to have this over-the-top set at a festival that favored more restrained sets of lower-case improv to balance things out. Good point.
The final set of this year's Victoriaville Festival was by Rene Lussier & his new band. Rene is a unique guitarist, composer & bandleader and one of the first musicians I discovered at this festival way back during the earlier years of Victo (mid-eighties). Rene was once a member of Fred Frith's Keep the Dog & Fred's Electric Guitar Quartet. Before that Rene was part of Conventum, a legendary Quebecois folk/rock/prog band. Since the early days of Victo, Rene has recorded more than a dozen discs as a leader, co-leader or collaborator, each one different and each one successful in different ways. Lussier comes to Victo every few years with a different concept or band. This year's ensemble featured Lori Freedman on clarinets, Marianne Trudel on piano, Martin Tetreault on turntables, Nancy Tobin on electronics, Fred Fortin on electric bass, Michel Langevin on drums and Rene on guitar, voice & compositions. The name of the project was "7 Tetes" or "7 Heads", the number of the musicians involved. The music ranged from those Frith-like progressive guitar oriented melodies to layers of focused improv, giving a chance for each member of the ensemble a chance to stretch out. Rene always adds bits of his own sense of the absurd to the occasional more serious moments. Some of the best moments featured a series of strong duos & solos: drums & turntables were just one that I noted as being particularly inspired. Lori Freedman is a wonderful clarinetist and got a few chances to solo and interact with the rest of the band in hew own unique way. Rene's music a fine blend of progressive writing, humorous moments, wailing guitar, with free & focused moments. He even sang a touching ditty near the end. For many of us it was a perfect way to bring this fine festival to a close and to sum up the true charm music that naturally emanates from our friends up in Quebec.
Although I was somewhat skeptical about this year's line-up in advance, I needn't have been. I have always trusted Michel Levasseur & his advisers for many years in the past. Although attendance was down by about a third, this year's Victo Fest was indeed a success on many other levels. There were no sets that I felt the need to leave early or not attend at all. Overall, it was filled with many challenging sets and was not unlike the early years when I didn't recognize many of the names. I hope that the International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville continues for many years to come. There is no festival quite like it anywhere on our troubled planet so please remember that "FIMAV is BACK!" Hope to see you all next year.
- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery