By IRWIN BLOCK
Victoriaville, Que. – The final concerts at the Festival de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville were a mix of the new and not-so-new in this showcase of experimental and improvised music.
The last of 20 shows in this small but charming town began with Montreal-based violinist Sarah Newfeld playing mesmerizing tone poems with her partner in life, the acrobatic and virtuosic saxophonist Colin Stetson.
As Neufeld laid out repeated phrases on her electrified violin, occasionally keeping time with her shoes, Stetson roamed creatively and at length with his exceptional circular breathing ability on tenor and bass saxophones and the rarely played contrabass clarinet. The contrasting tone and textures of these combinations and the duo’s obvious complicity bodes well for future collaborations.
British saxophonist Evan Parker led his marquee Electro-Acoustic Septet that combined acoustic players Peter Evans (trumpet), Okkyung Lee (cello) and Ned Rothenberg (clarinets) with the electronic explorations and variations of Ikue Mori, Sam Pluta and George Lewis, who occasionally played trombone.
In the 50-minute opening piece, the group began with clicking, chirping, animal cries that resembled the sounds of a wildlife-rich rain forest, slowly building to something big and orchestral. It was an incredible display of individual improvised creation and partnership. The virtuosic playing of cellist Lee, who attacks the music with fire and passion and bursts with ideas, injected drama into what was an incredible concert.
Norwegian singer Maja Ratkje was impressive as she combined expressive vocal contortions and chants with computer effects from a busy table of electronic devices. The purity of her voice, amplified with echoes and modified by distortions, made for an exciting hour.
The Gravity Band and its recreation of material from guitarist Fred Frith’s pop-style 1980 dance album of the same name was the not-so-new presentation that constituted another highlight. Frith’s 11-member band included ace guitarist Ava Mendoza, one of his former students, and prominent Bay Area musicians such as percussionist/teacher William Winant and clarinetist Aaron Novik. The material ranged from Celtic and Russian folkloric melodies to much-loved Dancing in the Streets – a joyful romp. These threads were woven together into a passionate avant package under Frith’s leadership, a tribute to his role in taking the music into uncharted territory with a sense of humour and history.
With 4,800 tickets sold to 20 concerts, and an estimated 10,000 who visited free outdoor sound installations, festival artistic director Michel Levasseur declared “mission accomplished, we fulfilled all our goals.” As for next year, he had no idea what shape it would take, promising only that it would not become a “heavy-metal festival” in a bid to boost ticket revenue at a time of declining support from governments.