Strolling down the one-mile stretch of tacky stores and overpriced restaurants offering generic international dishes in Downtown Victoriaville, Quebec — a small town with a population of roughly 40,000 people located 100 miles northeast of Montreal — you’d never suspect that one of the planet’s most celebrated experimental music festivals has been held there for 28 years. Most people normally equate the avant-garde with cosmopolitanism, (the myth of) sophistication, and the hyper-speed of the metropolis, but for one weekend each year, Victo (as both locals and festival-goers call it) becomes a mecca for musical experimentation.
Founded in 1983, Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV), has skipped only two years — 1993, when it was cancelled as a result of Victo’s mayor attempting to hijack the curatorial agenda and push it in a more poppy direction; and 2008, when the fatigued organizers decided to vacay. This year’s four-day avant-marathon — May 19-22 — featured 19 concerts that shuffled between two venues and three stages: a movie theatre and an ice rink divided into two black box theaters. With only a short stretch between the two venues such that audience members walked betwixt with ease, a temporary feeling of community emerged as interlocutors rapped about the previous concert.
With its healthy representation of experimental music’s many nooks — noise, avant-jazz, improv, turntabilism, avant-pop, sound poetry, and beyond — the lineup was sonically diverse, yet the transitions silky smooth. From the contemplative, new-age vibe of Stained Radiance (a duo of guitarist Nels Cline and painter Norton Wisdom, whose improvised paintings evolved alongside Cline’s guitar loops) to the slaughterous bedlam of Wolf Eyes-Merzbow-Richard Pinhas, and from Montreal’s 29-piece Ratchet Orchestra to a solo set by Viennese violinist Mia Zabelka, a sturdy aesthetic bridge somehow persisted. With artists zooming in from Japan (Koichi Makigami and Sato Masaharu of Tokyo Taiga), Sweden (Mats Gustafsson), the Netherlands (Ig Henneman, Ab Baars, The Ex, Jaap Blonk), the United States (Anthony Braxton, Ken Vandermark, Mary Halvorson), Australia (Anthony Pateras), Italy (Massimo Pupillo), Germany (FM Einheit, Peter Brötzmann, Axel Dörner), Norway (Paal Nilssen-Love), and elsewhere, FIMAV’s organizers made a strong effort to curate a truly international event.
Of the roughly 30 hours of live music I consumed, I can only confidently say that one show failed miserably: Kid Koala’s midnight solo set on the opening night. The Canadian turntabilist’s “12 Bit Blues Show” was supposed to be a new, conceptual cabaret-style performance: “no one except the artist knows what this will be like” so “expect the unexpected,” the festival brochure teased. What we got were apologies from Koala who admitted several times between songs that he hadn’t prepared for the performance. The fact that he was wearing a full-body koala bear costume was cute’n’all, but we were cheated. FIMAV’s a fest for which artists bring their A-games, and to watch Koala step on stage without a plan and fumble so terribly pissed in the face of that proud ethos.
Otherwise, FIMAV 2011 was a success. Rather than drag you unwillingly through an hour-by-hour chronological slog of the festivities, here’s a list of my five favorite sets in descending order. But, first, a round of applause for the production team. Experimental music ain’t typically coupled with fancy, stirring stage production, but the FIMAV squad nailed it. They didn’t implement Nine Inch Nails-scale interactive technologies or blast KISS-esque pyrotechnics to correspond with Brötzmann’s cage-rattlin’ skronks, but the lights and stage setups were visually stimulating and justly complemented the superb caliber of the music. Job well done!
05. The Ex + Brass Unbound
Dutch anarcho-punk band The Ex first teamed up with Brass Unbound for a few dates in 2010, but they made their North American debut on FIMAV’s main stage the opening night. The additional quartet of fierce international brassmen — saxophonist Mat Gustafsson (The Thing), saxophonist Ken Vandermark, trombonist Wolter Wierbos (ICP Orchestra), and trumpeter Roy Paci — created an explosive blast of copper-zinc dialogue that enhanced the already lively conversation between The Ex’s three guitarists, Andy Moor, Terrie Hessels, and Arnold de Boer.
The nontet delivered a high-voltage, sweat-soaked set of tunes from their boss 2010 LP, Catch My Shoe, The Ex’s first recording with guitarist-vocalist de Boer. Drummer Katherina Bornfield was a beast behind the kit, creating a hard-swinging polyrhythmic bed for the chatty, call-and-response guitars and horns. Right when the ensemble reached its most intense collective peak, all but the brass fell silent for a delightful moment of rage. Behind the solid rock wall was a skronk session waiting to cut loose — unbound, indeed — and the four hornsmen apocalyptically thrashed and stomped while blowing their fucking brains out.
04. ErikM / FM Einheit
The duo of turntabilist-electronicist ErikM (an accomplice of Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide) and junkyard percussionist FM Einheit (well known for his tenures with Einstürzende Neubauten and KMFDM) have performed on several occasions over the last few years. But like many acts to mount the FIMAV stages, this was their North American debut. Hitting at midnight, and following an ear-killing set by Merzbow, Wolf Eyes, and guitarist Richard Pinhas, the duo had a helluva task ahead of them.
They rose to the challenge and delivered with brutal force, both sonically and visually. Einheit first went to work on an amplified spring hanging from a wire, bashing it with his palm for low booms and delicately fingering it to juice its subtle percussive capacities. He eventually pulled out an electric drill and rammed its spinning bit into the coils while ErikM fumingly scratched and slashed vinyl to produce chopped fragments of torn, destroyed sound. Once he got bored with the drill, Einheit dumped a bucket of rocks on a flat, elevated metal sheet and began smashing them with his fists and angrily pushing them across the surface.
After every piece of gravel turned to dust, he spilt a bucket of bricks and punished ‘em with a hammer. It was a gorgeous, terrifyingly nihilistic spectacle, and perhaps one workers the world over could learn something from. I ran into FM Einheit at a (strange cowboy) pub the next day and told him how much I dug watching him bang those bricks to bits. “I had fun,” he said.
03. Peter Brötzmann Trio
German sax-murderer Peter Brötzmann threw down the gauntlet with 1968’s sea-changing Machine Gun LP, and he’s still waiting for someone to come along to huff and puff and blow his house down. Like Brötzmann’s mission for the past 40-plus years, this afternoon set with bassist Massimo Pupillo (Zu) and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (The Thing, Atomic) was all about power and endurance, with the three musicians making their instruments scream as loud and long and brilliantly as possible.
Brötzmann’s blasts were only interrupted when he changed his shattered reeds, a process that includes him whittling down the soon-to-be-splintered piece of wood with his pocketknife, as if to show the fucker whose boss right outta the gates. Screeches, flames, choppy yelps, and traces of the most hell-bent blues ensued. Flirting with doom drones and grindcore precision, Pupillo’s electric bass work added an unexpected metal element to the trio’s fire, and watching Nilssen-Love pummel his kit with carefully evolving patterns was spellbinding and exhausting.
“Thanks for showing up,” Brötzmann joked as they returned for an encore following the blistering hour-long rampage. Before we even had a chance to laugh, they slammed once more into the glorious heights of battle. Brötzmann returned early the next morning for a solo set and did it all over again.
02. Zeena Parkins and The Adorables
Electroacoustic harpist Zeena Parkins, who has collaborated with folks like Anthony Braxton and Yoko Ono and released a beautiful but overlooked LP last year called Between The Whiles, debuted compositions with her new trio, The Adorables. During her stint teaching at Mills College, she met young percussionist Shayna Dunkelman and electronicist Preshish Moments. The Adorables? Preshish Moments? I know what you’re thinking, and, no, this is not an avant-twee trio fusing Belle and Sebastian with AMM. However, like Björk, another one of Parkins’ past accomplices, The Adorables cleverly coupled pop and experimentation.
They’d be comfortable on a bill with indie acts like Skeletons, tUnE-YarDs, and Gang Gang Dance, as Dunkelman’s propulsive percussive work adds a sophisticated momentum to the ethereal, highly-detailed pieces. Her dialogue on vibes — which at one point she played by dropping plastic coat-hangers on the keys — with Parkin’s EBow’d and processed, bird-like harp scribbles was a particularly sparkly, lovely, and spiraling exchange. Space was emphasized, with Moments’ hi-frequency zones transitioning between soft beds of texture and evolving tones whose volumes gradually, sometimes punishingly, increased. While the first stage of sleep was sometimes tickled by the tranquil layers of sound, there were noisy interludes that made the Merzbow-Wolf Eyes-Pinhas set from the previous night seem mellow in comparison.
This project stands a chance at breaking through to fans of both “serious music” and pop, maybe. But, unfortunately, The Adorables most likely will not be packing their rucksacks and trekking the club circuit. They’ll be playing in New York City on June 25 as part of the Undead Jazz Fest, though hopefully they won’t limit themselves to just the jazz and high-brow crowds for long. As my friend said after the set, “That was everything I want music to be right now.” I agreed.
01. Anthony Braxton <<Echo Echo Mirror House>>
First generation AACM member and current Wesleyan prof Anthony Braxton — if you need an introduction, his recently revitalized Tri-Centric Foundation website is a good place to start — has been a regular performer at FIMAV, releasing eight CDs on the fest’s Victo imprint. He returned this year with a vengeance. Following a confounding hour-long set by <<Echo Echo Mirror House>> — a septet with guitarist Mary Halvorson, violinist Jessica Pavone, percussionist Aaron Siegel, bassist Carl Testa, tubist Jay Rozen, and cornetist-trumpeter-trombonist Taylor Ho Bynum — every performance that came before and after sounded like avant-business as usual.
The concept itself was overwhelming. Each ensemble member controlled an iPod packed with previous recordings by Braxton, and, at their leader’s command, they shuffled between tracks such that seven different recordings were playing at all times. Also guiding them were visual scores, which consisted of subway maps of Paris and New York City, and Braxton would sometimes signal the ensemble to switch to a score from one of his hundreds of previous compositions. At times, there were up to 14 different pieces of music played simultaneously.
For the first 10 minutes, which felt like my brain had been ripped out of my head and was spinning in one hundred different directions, I kept telling myself, “Okay, soon this life-threatening dizziness will subside, you’ll get acclimated, and this will start making sense, just hang in there, buddy.” That never happened. I remained perplexed, gripping the corners of my chair in terror. Even the musicians looked confused at times, as if they were trapped beneath an unexpected swirling lunacy and wanted desperately to find a way out. Only Bynum remained calm and confident throughout, sometimes revealing a cool smile, as if he had a direct line into the mad genius of his mentor.
Braxton’s concept realizes a communicative channel between all his past work, including the musicians he’s recorded with, and his current work. Though, he’s not just randomly juxtaposing pieces in some trite attempt at pomo-collage, but he seems to genuinely think that all these tunes share an underlying connection justifying their presentation as an organic totality. The adventurousness of <<Echo Echo Mirror House>>’s concept and performance, in my mind, is what makes experimental music valuable, engaging, and relevant, if always untimely. It pushes forward and isn’t afraid to fail, and often asks questions more so than provide answers. While the dozens of performers who shared the FIMAV stage this year made gripping music, nothing came remotely close to this hot and lovely mess.
[Photos: Martin Morissette]