By IRWIN BLOCK
VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – True to its mission, the 34th Festival de musique actuelle de Victoriaville kicked off its four-day celebration of music that is “out there” Thursday night, breaking conventions, expanding auditory horizons, and exploring new aesthetic values.
The welcoming speeches for visitors and musicians who flock to this city, 87 miles north-east of Montreal, from across North America, Europe, and Asia were short. The music in the first eight of 19 scheduled concerts said it all, from avant rock, to pure improv, and free jazz, with unusual instrumentation and lots of experimentation.
The opener, in the town’s bright and modern downtown auditorium, was a two-part tribute to Montreal-based saxophonist and composer Walter Boudreau, beginning with a cover band of a dozen younger musicians playing Paix (Peace), considered his first major work. The music was a throwback to the late 1960s when the piece was conceived, with elements of heavy rock, jazz, and contemporary classical. Considered revolutionary in the early 1970s, the piece suited the festival’s adventurous. Unfortunately, because of an unresolved mixing-board issue, the words and tunes chanted by two vocalists were drowned out. In the second part, Walter Boudreau conducted his own composition, Solaris (incantations VIII-IXh), a contemporary classical suite, with a 15-member Société de musique contemporaine du Québec ensemble. It is a sombre work, conjuring some apocalyptic visions, and without the propulsive elements of the previous work.
The next gigs were played in the nearby hockey coliseum, transformed into concert spaces, with convenient bar, tables and chairs. Lan Tung, the Vancouver-based composer and vocalist who plays the two-stringed erhu violin with virtuosic skill, showcased her Giant Project. It combines her own Proliferasian septet and Taiwan’s five-member Little Giant Chinese Orchestra, with traditional instrumentation and directed by her friend from their student days, Chih-Sheng Chen. Their jazzy, often swinging tunes were fun to hear, demonstrating that Chinese traditional and Western instrumentation can co-exist, with the right direction.
The midnight closer was a collective improv effort called David and the Mountain Ensemble, a Montreal-based crew of mainly younger musicians, reflecting the city burgeoning creative energy. The 12-member group is led by drummer David Dugas Dion, who shepherded it through the hour-long visceral experience, dominated by its wall of rhythm and sound. With his back to the audience, Dion used John-Zorn style flags to call up new directions for the band. Repetition and dense sound rather than rhythmic or melodic variety tended to have a numbing effect, especially as the clock neared 1 a.m.
The two afternoon concerts on Friday were shimmering examples of individual creativity when it comes to spontaneous improvisation. Charlotte Hug, the classically trained Zurich-based viola player, opened her solo show in the beautifully renovated, late 19 th century St. Christophe church. Using her soft-bow technique on a viola built in 1763 by J.G.Thir, Hug emerged from behind the church altar weaving subtle sounds from both her viola and her voice, clucking and whispering as she played with the viola, never bowing it in any conventional way. She struck the strings with her bow, loosened it, then bowed the strings to lay out long descending and ascending tones. She alternated from three different bows as she sculpted sounds from her instrument, always with a mischievous smile, prancing on stage in bursts of creative energy. Part improv and part performance art, every sound and silence spoke of spontaneous creation.
Free improv was the guiding force in the trio featuring long-time Montreal-based collaborators Malcolm Goldstein (violin), Rainer Wiens (prepared electric guitar and kalimbas), and joining them for the first time Liu Fang, playing the pipa, the four-stringed instrument known as the Chinese lute. There was an evident caution in the encounter, with Goldstein playing melody fragments, Wiens playing with sound, and Liu, sitting in the middle, with a more traditional approach as she bridged with harmonic excursions.
The evening concerts featured two American avant jazz groups, starting with the Rova Saxophone Quartet – Larry Ochs (tenor), Bruce Ackley (soprano), Steve Adams (alto, sopranino), and Jon Raskin (baritone). Rova was founded 40 years ago, but the current personnel have been together since 1988 and it showed in the tightness of their collaboration, the level of communication, and precision in their balancing of charts and improvised solos. Though structurally complex, everything they played sounded smooth and sophisticated, more like classical contemporary than a jazz unit.
There were no doubts about labels when it came to the next show, featuring bassist William Parker and his In Order to Survive quartet, with drummer Hamid Drake, Rob Brown (alto sax), and veteran pianist Dave Burrell. Parker set the scene with his consistent and persistent pizzicato in tandem with Drake, then Brown embarked on his voyage with fluid and imaginative theme development, and Burrell took over with his percussive attack on the keyboard. The first piece lasted a full hour, and they continued with two more for another half hour. “In order to survive, you must keep hopeful lives,” Parker said in his parting message.
The midnight gig featured the Swiss trio known as Schnellertollermeier – described by their label, Cuneiform Records, as a “brutal-jazz power trio” – electric guitarist Manuel Troller, electric bassist Ani Schnellmann, and drummer David Meier. This is a super tight group, offering high-volume unison playing of repeated motifs, propelled by drummer Meier’s pulsating polyrhythmic attack. It was so loud, some of us covered our ears. Though well past midnight, the enthusiastic audience bopped their heads to the beat, and were ready for more.
The festival continues Saturday and Sunday.