By Irwin Block (email@example.com)
MONTREAL, Que. – If you want to explore music that is unexpected, unique, challenging, and varied, the place to be is in Victoriaville, Que. May 15-18. That is the where the Festival de musique actuelle de Victoriaville is presenting a remarkable series of 20 concerts for its 30th edition.
During four days, this normally placid town halfway between Drummondville and Quebec City becomes a mecca for hundreds of avid fans from across North America who are drawn to a cultural experience that cannot be duplicated. For those who stay over for the entire series, it’s illuminating and fun.
Over the many years that I’ve attended, the common denominator for this “music of the moment” is the lack thereof: It is experimental and free in sprit, improvised, composed, or both, that can fit a range of categories, including electro-acoustic, electronic, acoustic, avant-jazz, free jazz, avant-rock, folk or beyond labelling.
The major concert on opening night (May 15), Montreal’s Ratchet Orchestra, led by bassist/composer Nicola Caloia, fits the bill exactly. It plays at 10 pm at the city’s hockey coliseum, re-arranged with a stage, drapes on two sides with art on the walls, and a bar at the back.
Caloia first brought together fellow musicians in the early 1990s in the spirit of Sun Ra, the legendary leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, who died in 1993. His concerts were visual as well as musical celebrations – fun-filled and richly creative. He claimed to have come to Earth on a goodwill mission from outer space. Among other things he used popular Walt Disney film themes as vehicles for expansive musical excursions.
Says Caloia: “I wanted to make a large band that improvised and also could interpret pieces that were not limited by musical genres. I like Sun Ra because he didn’t seem to respect any type of boundaries whatsoever. “When he found himself in an unacceptable environment he created a new one without limiting his imagination in any way. I find that generally inspirational. I like his sound, the way he went at it in many different ways, simultaneously.”
To celebrate the Sun Ra centenary, Marshall Allen, the saxophonist who took over the Arkestra after the leader died, is coming to Victoriaville to join the orchestra. Allen turns 90 at the end of May, and the show also will be “a very sincere and humble offering” to him. With 19 musicians, including some of Montreal’s most experienced improvising artists, the orchestra will perform what Caloia calls “one giant piece, a kaleidoscope of material.”
Asked how long he’s been working on the structure, Caloia responds, “The first show was in ’98. The idea then was to improvise but also interpret pieces in way that is not inhibited or limited by musical genres.”
Another highlight is the return of British saxophonist Evan Parker, 70, one of the founders of the improvised music scene and a master musician and expert in circular breathing, the technique that allows wind players to produce a continuous and uninterrupted tone. Parker performs twice: May 17, 8 pm with British electric guitarist Fred Frith, a Victo regular, and May 18, 3 pm, when Parker presents his current version of the Electro Acoustic Septet. It includes veteran improvisers George Lewis (trombone), Ikue Mori (electronica), and Ned Rothenberg (clarinet).
Ken Vandermark, 49, a hard-blowing saxophonist and composer who is part of a younger generation of free jazz leaders, performs with his new tentet (May 17, 10 pm) It’s the current group’s first gig outside of hometown Chicago and exciting, energetic and kinetic music is in the cards.
At midnight that Saturday, there will be no need for coffee. Listening to Japanese Noise master Keiji Haino will wake up the ghosts. He appears with Oren Ambarchi, Australian electronic guitarist and percussionist, and guitarist Stephen O’Malley, master of death drone. Bring earplugs. Haino also performs on Friday at 10 pm in a super show that links him with French avant rock guitarist Richard Pinhas, powerhouse drummer Tatsuya Yoshida and Masami Akita (electronica).
The Victo scene is male-dominated, but some remarkable women are in the lineup, including the wordless vocals of Meredith Monk, with Katie Geissinger (May 15, 8 pm), Brooklyn-based avant-rock electric guitarist Ava Mendoza (May 15, midnight), Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld (May 18, 1 pm), and Paris-based sound sculptress Maja Ratkje (May 18, 5 pm).
Two other larger ensembles also stand out. On Saturday, May 17 (3 pm), Gordon Grdina’s ten-member Haram orchestra has its Victo debut with Arabic-based melodies and rhythms in an avant context. On Sunday, May 18 (10 pm), guitarist Fred Frith presents his 11-member Gravity Band, based in San Francisco.
Tickets range from $22 to $38 (Canadian), with discounts for purchasing a group of concerts. A two-concert package (8 and 10 pm), with a room (double occupancy) and breakfast at Hotel Victorin costs $106, plus taxes. Info: 819-752-7912.