By Irwin Block
VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – They came from across North America to this four-day festival and in the first nine of 21 concerts were treated to an eclectic offering demonstrating how wide the range and depth can be in the world of new and creative music.
For its 33rd season in this quiet town off the beaten track, 100 miles northeast of Montreal, Michel Levasseur, the veteran curator and musical director of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle, welcomed visitors, saying the arts constitute sustainable development that can succeed when properly supported.
The festival is regarded as a showcase for both established name artists and younger musicians seeking recognition. As expected, the first gigs were a mixed bag, with audiences divided as to artistic merit. The after-concert banter is a big part of the fun.
Thursday’s all-Canadian lineup began with dancer and performance artist Bill Coleman stumbling creatively over a stage filled with common objects, accompanied by the electronica and sound effects of composer Gordon Monahan. Coleman awakened slowly on stage, his hands unfolding as he stumbled over pieces of plastic. As he falls, plastic fragments emerge from under his clothes. Monahan attached sensors to the dancer’s muscles, his movements triggering various electronic sounds, while other sounds emerged from such common objects as cooking pots. When water drops from a horizontal pipe soaking the dancer, we wonder, is he drowning in the clutter? While visually arresting, musically it lacked an equally powerful impact.
In the next concert Montreal-based Colin Stetson displayed his virtuosity on the bass saxophone with a solo where, hyperventilating, he emitted parallel lines and textures by amplifying both the mouthpiece and his throat. He then led a 12-piece ensemble in a re-arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony #3, also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. He gave that 1976 composition a post-rock flavouring with the addition of a rhythm section and there were some beautiful sections, especially when mezzo-soprano Megan Stetson, the leader’s sister, gave the melodies an operatic grandeur with her powerful projection and warm intonation. And yet, there were few musical surprises during its 100-minute duration.
The midnight show featured two experimental films – cityscapes with sound textures, the audiovisual material gathered by Swedish experimental field recordist Benny Jonas Nilsen and processed with Quebec resident Karl Lemieux. Unearthed depicts the devastation of a highly polluted area on the Russian-Norwegian border, while Yujiapu focuses on abandoned concrete high-rises in a Chinese city where shortage of funds created a modern ghost town. The soundtracks accentuated the obvious.
Friday was a more exciting day, and in the first afternoon concert the audience rose to its feet in rapturous applause after a superb concert by a string trio of American cellist Tristan Honsinger, and two Canadians – violinist Joshua Zubot and bassist Nicolas Caloia. They performed In the Sea from the alter of beautifully renovated Sainte-Christophe d’Arthabaska church. It’s in an older part of town, where the late Canadian prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier lived and prayed.
Working from a book of tune fragments, the trio improvised in an expansive and joyful collaboration, varying the tempi, textures, and volumes. Occasionally, Honsinger launched into a chant, or uttered a few words, injecting a comic element to the performance, as if to say, let’s have some fun here, and not take ourselves too seriously. The music ranged from sunshine Americana to segments that resembled some of the darker works of Shostakovich. This trio is well worth checking out on its current 19-stop North American tour.
Electronica and dance were the combined art forms for French artists Kasper T. Toeplitz and his partner, Myriam Gourfink. Toeplitz presented composed noise music from his laptop as Gourfink, in a simple black dress and black boots, in slow motion danced her way onto a table in various shades of light and darkness, with the music growing in intensity. She slowly returned to her starting position in tandem with the music. It was well-planned and programmed, easy to watch and absorb, though predictable.
There was something sad about the 8 p.m. concert that combined ailing vocalist Linda Sharrock, her partner, German saxophonist Mario Rechtern, and Austrian violinist Mia Zabelka. Sharrock, who has worked with Pharoah Sanders and her ex, the late jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, survived a severe stroke in 2009, which left her partially paralyzed and aphasic. She was helped on stage, where she sat during the concert and uttered what sounded like extended moans and groans. The other musicians offered sonically adventurous material, but sadly, Sharrock’s vocals detracted from her partners’ creative outpouring.
The follow-up concert by the Indonesian duo called Senyawa was a revelation. With a great voice – power, clarity, versatility and a warm sound – Rully Shabara was accompanied by Wukir Suryadi, playing two remarkable home-made string instruments made from bamboo, string, and bits of metal. With pedals and loops, Suryadi was able to sound almost orchestral. They gave the music, based on the varied musical traditions of Indonesia, a foot-tapping, finger-snapping urgency. It was exciting, vibrant, varied, and meaningful – simultaneously accessible, challenging, and dramatic.
The second part of what was a double bill featured the post-rock ensemble known as Ex Eye, led by Montreal saxophonist Colin Stetson, with American electric guitarist Toby Summerfield, drummer Greg Fox, and Shahzad Ismaily on Moog synthesizer. The music is loud, powerful, and urgent, much appreciated by an audience that had its share of doom metal freaks, but to my ears, every piece ended up with the same overwhelming and pounding sound and texture. Their new CD on Relapse Records drops in June.
The big surprise of a long day was the Boston-based art-rock sextet known as Bent Knee, featuring vocalist Courtney Swain. It has the look and feel of a garage band, propelled by the powerful and varied drumming of Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth, and although I could barely make out the words of the vocals it didn’t seem to matter: The group’s sound was fresh and refreshing, its unpolished nature part of its charm. When I heard the line, In God We Trust, I could feel the sound of protest from a generation engulfed by uncertainty. The music is the narrative – raw, authentic, and innocent. Their wildly applauded, 95-minute show that started at midnight was breathtaking. Land Animal, their fourth album, drops in June.