By Irwin Block
VICTORIAVILLE, QUE. – The first of 20 concerts at the annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville rolled out in this quaint town and the good news is that eclectic, experimental and daring remain operative keywords.
For its 30th edition, hundreds of fans gathered here from across North America, and in the first three presentations, heard a cross-section of innovative music that rank Victo as a major showcase for groups that break rules and cross boundaries.
The opener featured the multi-faceted singer Meredith Monk and her unique, wordless chants and vocalizing delivered with artful waves of the hand. With Monk, movement and music are one.
Her voice is silvery smooth and her melodies combine the wide-open spaces of classic Americana with tunes that recall the native voices of the U.S. southwest. She clicks, she hums, she ululates. Halfway, she invited mezzo-soprano Katie Geissinger for several duets and call-and-response exchanges.
A MacArthur “Genius” Award winner, Monk also accompanied herself on piano and Jew’s harp, somehow, managing simultaneously to hum and harmonize with the instrument.
It was her first gig here, a warm initiation to musical openness, suitably performed at the Mont Arthabaska mountaintop hall, one of two festival venues.
Size and volume were the follow-up when the Montreal-based Ratchet Orchestra presented a tribute to the legendary Sun Ra, whose 100th birthday is May 22, featuring saxophonist Marshall Allen, who now leads the Sun Ra Arkestra. Allen turns 90 May 25 and was to leave North America for an extensive tour in Europe, Japan and the U.S.
The first part of the concert, performed in the Coliseum, was built around the charts of big-toned bassist Nicolas Caloia, the orchestra’s leader and composer. Allen leaped on stage to join its 18 members, along with Sun Ra flutist Danny Ray Thompson.
The music reflected the Quebec improvised scene, with a sometimes overly serious almost academic reliance on structure. There were bright moments, especially with bass and baritone saxophones and bassoon injecting depth and profundity to the overall sound, and some wild excursions from guitars and strings.
Things loosened up with Allen’s sliding sax phrasing, as he took over directing the musicians and called for individual and group contributions from various sections as they played themes from a 1950s Sun Ra composition. According to Caloia, it has never before performed. The end result was thrilling for musicians and audience alike.
Ace electric guitarist Ava Mendoza, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., followed up at midnight leading her avant-rock power trio, with bassist Tim Dahl and drummer Nick Podgurski.
It was a high-energy outing, maybe overly so as the intensity overpowered Mendoza’s superior guitar chops. She is skilled at manipulating special-effect pedals and displays virtuosity in her fret-board runs, but the power sound tended to overwhelm her melodic side.
Mendoza studied with avant guitar master Fred Frith in Oakland before settling in on the U.S. East Coast. One fan described her style as “Fred meets grunge.”
It was a varied and bold first night.