AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: 39th Musique Actuelle Festival Kicks Off

Victoriaville, Que. — There was an uncertain mood here Thursday night among regulars at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle, which got underway in this town, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.

The reason for the concern? Michel Levasseur, the festival’s founder and artistic director, has announced he’s retiring.

At the opening press conference, Levasseur was praised for being “bold and rigorous,” pushing ahead with “passion and devotion” insisting this festival be a showcase for innovative and taboo-breaking music and resisting pressure to take a more mainstream approach.

Surrounded by family members who are active in the organization of the festival, Levasseur said he hoped that since its modest beginnings in 1982, the festival had helped spread a message of “peace in the world.”

The three opening night concerts, all featuring women leaders, certainly lived up to the festival’s eclectic tradition.

The quintet called Poil Ueda links a French-based experimental rock quartet with Junko Ueda, the Japanese singer and storyteller who lives in Europe. Over a loud wall of rock-based sound, the singer chanted the first tune, a 9th century melody whose evocative and spiritual sounds are said to offer protection from evil spirits.

She followed up with what she described as epic tales of samurai and political rivals, and battles from the previous millennium, an evocative soundscape for those of us who cannot understand Japanese, well integrated and propelled by a tightly coordinated band — with nary a chart to be seen.

In the second show, electronics musician Ikue Mori followed up with her sextet known as Tracing the Magic — title of her much-admired album on John Zorn’s Tzadik label — with Sylvie Courvoisier (piano), Charmaine Lee (voice, electronics), Ned Rothenberg (clarinets, alto sax, shakuhachi flute), David Watson (bagpipes), and Ches Smith (drums, percussion).

These skilled and well-coordinated improvisers took the audience on a unique exploration of sounds and textures. The broad range of instrumentation — Lee’s haunting chants, Smith’s dynamism on drums, Courvoisier’s plucking strings inside her piano, or slamming chord clusters, Mori’s sound sculpting on computer — contributed to the group’s symphonic scope and sonic variations. A rich and satisfying show.

The big revelation was the midnight show called Bhakti, led by Zoh Amba, 23, on tenor sax, with Micah Thomas (piano), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Miguel Marcel Russell (drums) in the night’s first free-jazz excursion.

It’s Amba’s aggressive vibrato that gives her sax a sound all its own. She led the way confidently with her relentless attack and her band followed, punctuated by the richly-textured two-fisted pianism of Micah Thomas and imaginative improv of bassist Morgan.

On Friday, European improvisers Emilie Škrijelz and Tom Malmendier displayed their craft in an unusual exploration of sound textures, ambient noise, and pulsating rhythms, alternating with stretches of silence and calm. She uses the accordion as a source of sound, somewhat like a synthesizer: at one point she rubs the keyboard with a mallet to extract a drone-like effect, often bouncing it on her knee as she manipulates other devices with her right hand.

She also is a turntablist, who uses a stack of records to scratch and draw sound out, while Malmendier explores sound possibilities on drums and electronics. The duo displayed solid communication through the 50-minute program, but more sonic variety from the accordion could have injected more color into the performance.

A big surprise came at the 5 pm show when innovators from Trois-Rivières, Camille Brisson and Isabelle Clermont, presented a show that combined satirical theatre with avant-garde creativity. They wore ballroom gowns, and standing in front of mikes, put on necklaces that they jangled while pretending to enjoy a cup of tea, all the while making rustling noises and engaged in nonsense chatter. These theatrics set the stage for the next section in which Brisson on flute and effects and Clermont on harp, electronics and effects played with and off each other in a beautiful exchange, their instruments and devices piled atop two ironing boards! In the third section, they selected various sizes of pots and covers to create reverb sounds and then jostled and banged on tea cups and saucers, which at the end of the show, they piled in a frenzy and threw them off the table, some clattering and breaking. Off the wall, for sure, but at Victo, it fit right in.

Irwin Block

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