By Irwin Block
VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – It started with a French musician exploring the sonic potential of a church organ and ended with the madcap avant rock of a Quebec guitarist: a day in the life of this town’s festival of new and improvised music festival which ended its four-day run Sunday.
And in between these concerts, the Festival International de Musique Actuelle here on Sunday also presented what were clear highlights among the 21 concerts – outstanding collaborative work by guitarist Nels Cline’s quartet and a pristine solo show by saxophonist Anthony Braxton.
In the early afternoon, avant saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet at the console of the mid-sized organ at the beautifully renovated Saint Christophe Roman Catholic Church and used it as a sound lab. From hypnotic long tones, he grew the aural palate, building density and intensity and then showcased a variety of sonic artifices. He dabbled with chords, but ended with spare and lean sounds, contrasting with the church’s lush frescos and gilded columns, and respecting its sacred mission.
The mid-afternoon show featured two contemporary classical compositions by Montreal-based electric guitarist Tim Brady. He first played as soloist in Désir, a concerto for electric guitar and 13-member ensemble, an evocative work on the various emotional states in passionate love. Brady then took over to direct 8 Songs about Symphony #7, a reflection, with script and song, featuring on the historic performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony on August 9, 1942. It was an act of defiance, some said of madness, as thousands were starving to death in the midst of the 900-day siege by the German army. Brady has recreated this period and the essence of Shostakovich’s music in this eight-segment quasi-operatic treatment, with the baritone Vincent Ranallo and soprano Sara Albu reciting or singing about this horrific moment in history. The music was dramatic and compelling, the orchestra and soloists succeeding in shining an artistic light on a period of great darkness, with stunning impact. This work deserves repeat performances!
In the early evening, electric guitarist Nels Cline thrilled a packed and enthusiastic hall with his latest quartet, featuring his brilliant guitar buddy Julian Lage – they have been performing for several years in a duo – with journeymen drummer Tom Rainy and master bassist Scott Colley. They offered a mix – pieces by Carla Bley, Paul Motion, and several originals – of tunes that they then developed with often dazzling improv. There was not a single cliché that I could detect, but plenty of sustained effort to carry the music forward, without any ego tripping solos. Everything played was crafted to fit into the big picture.
For creative music pioneer Anthony Braxton, playing a solo concert on alto sax at age 71 must have presented a challenge, but he accepted the invitation. It was his 10th gig at this festival over a 35-year span and he was wearing his trademark blue cardigan, unbuttoned. He played nine pieces in about an hour, referencing in most the standard repertoire, but developing the music with the techniques he has honed over a busy creative life. Though parts were familiar, each piece had the thrust and contours of an original. It was a satisfying exposé, a reminder to a rapt audience of his role as a performer and teacher in advancing the creative music scene.
The final show showcased a new quintet led by Quebec electric guitarist René Lussier, with two drummers, a tuba player, and accordion player. The music had a wild, off-the- wall feel, raw and rough-hewn, and featuring unexpected musical twists and turns. We hope to hear more from this group as it develops.
The festival musical director reported that this year’s edition had met attendance targets. Without being specific, he said ticket sales had recovered from the 10-15 percent dip experienced last year.