By Irwin Block
VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – A saxophone quartet, Mongolian folk singers, and the return of a near-iconic pianist and his son were among the highlights Saturday at this 33 rd edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle, a 21-concert showcase of new and improvised music.
It began in the early afternoon in a beautifully renovated and fresco-rich Roman Catholic Church where the American group Battle Trance demonstrated an original approach to the sax quartet. They’ve labelling it Indie-classical. While such groups as the World Saxophone Quartet combined three or four different sized saxophones in performance and recording, all four players in Battle Trance played tenor sax.
And rather than paying tribute to jazz tradition, leader Travis Laplante, with Patrick Breiner, Matthew Nelson, and Canadian Anna Webber (subbing for Jeremy Viner) played an original program, a carefully prepared and beautifully executive 50-minute suite. Standing silently in a semi-circle, they started in unison with a drone-like sound, slowly developing harmonies, with an edge of dissonance, then shifted into polyphonic territory.
With only subtle gestures from Laplante, the group ranged over a program that including a rollicking segment of Americana, simulated a raging windstorm, replicated the sound of foghorns, engaged musically with each other in various combinations, and offered repeated motifs that underscored a sense of urgency. They ended in total and extended silence.
The mid-afternoon show featured 19 mainly American musicians, led by trumpeter Nate Wooley, playing his Seven Story Mountain cycle, using taped recordings of sounds made in and around his house. It began with a mood-setting “confession” monologue and brass octet fanfare, then came the electronic soundscape, a softly textured trumpet entry, bell-like chimes from two vibraphones, and slowly growing musical intensity, density, and a range of sounds that grew the tension until it becomes almost visceral. The volume arc receded toward the end. In sum, a thrilling musical experience.
They handed out ear plugs at the door for the late-afternoon performance of the audiovisual piece called International Internal Catastrophes, by Greek sound artist Thanasis Kaproulias, who uses the NOVI_SAD moniker. The visuals and sounds were recorded and filmed in Iceland and the sometimes thundering intensity of what is reproduced enhances or contrasts with the visuals of waterfalls, ice chunks in the sea pounded by waves, and rushing rivers. We are supposed to question our perceptions. Some of the aphorisms flashed on the screen, such as Everything Alive Deserves Mercy, were borderline trite.
Combining three Mongolian female singers – sisters, one of whom is classically trained – with German improvisers Gunda Gottschalk (violin) and Ute Völker in a performance capacity may sound like a novelist’s invention, but it happened. The Germans discovered them on a field trip in Mongolia and “struck a chord” with Badamkhorol Sandandamba, a leading exponent of the Mongolian love song. The German improvisers recorded a CD with the three sisters and began performing Sky and Grassland.
Gottschalk and Völker played mainly background, underscored and enhanced the vocals, and while it seemed like an unlikely juxtaposition of the traditional and ultra-modern, there was a good vibe on stage. No cultural appropriation here. The Mongolian sisters, dressed in elaborate indigenous costumes, exuded warmth, and charm, and communicated with humour and sincerity in their native tongue. Of course, when the Germans played without the singers, they displayed great skill and polished technique in the world of free improv.
The biggest audience of the first three days turned out to welcome American pianist Terry Riley in concert with his son, the classically trained guitarist Gyan Riley. It was the senior Riley’s first gig here since 1988, and at 81 was in fine form at the piano and as a vocalist. His repertoire included Hindustani ragas with chords, and Arabic music, with an edge of blues – among his passions, He alternated on the melodica and the music he produced was joyful and energetic, clear and defined, a fine listening experience. The concert was more an homage to a musical pioneer than a chance to witness anything spectacular.
The show at midnight featured Maja Osojnik, the Slovenian-born vocalist, composer, sampler and sextet leader. Wild and off the wall are terms that come to mind in describing All.The.Terms.We.Are – rock, progressive rock, noise, and cabaret fit much of the content. Each segment featured a spoken-word script, often echoed by cellist Audrey Chen, with such lines as “I had a dream that I was dead” and “I became a frozen lake so you could skate on me.” Osojnik eventually screams, “Tell me what the fuck you want me to be!” With all musicians eventually playing with maximum volume and intensity, it sounded like a shout against insanity, only to end in total silence.
The festival concludes tonight with a solo performance by saxophonist Anthony Braxton.