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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Unlimited 29 Festival: Charhizmatic Music

Carla Bozulich
By Eyal Hareuveni

Wels, Austria
Nov. 6-8, 2015

The Unlimited Festival in Wels, Austria is one of the best places to explore free and creative, genre-bending music. It is not the diverse and well-chosen performances and musicians -- 29 performance in three days -- since many festivals feature many more concerts,  but also its explorative atmosphere that balances wisely the experimental and the demanding with musicians and outfits that have already won over the audience, trusted by the many repeat visitors that for many years come from all parts of Europe. Adding to that, the festival has an intimate and close atmosphere that enables a constant and direct contact between the musicians and the audience, thus cultivating a strong, supportive and global community to the unique musical art.

The 29th edition of the Unlimited Festival had few headlines. The festival program was curated by Austrian electronics innovator and music theoretician Christof Kurzmann, and thus titled after his independent label Charhizmatic Music. The festival was dedicated to free jazz giant {{Ornette Coleman}}, who left this planet last June, and offered an impressive exhibition of Coleman's vinyl covers and its opening performance was an homage to the late master. And the festival performances were held under the projected and most relevant slogan throughout Europe: Refugees welcome.

Kurzmann devised a rich program that featured his interest in many aspects of improvisation, typical to the Unlimited Festival three decades legacy, ranging from free jazz to free improvisation, from minimalist and avant-garde to contemporary music and from art-rock to experimental-techno. The 29 performances were divided between the big hall of Alter Schlachthof, where the full sets were performed, and shorter solo ones, between the long ones, in the nearby new temporary hall, titled the Extra Room.

First Night

The opening performances of the Unlimited Festival are always unique and this year was no exception. A new ad-hoc quartet - Harmolodic Affection - offered a moving homage to the art of the late Coleman, featuring American master sax and trumpet player Joe McPhee and drummer Michael Zerang with French, Vienna-based clarinet player and vocalist Isabelle Duthoit and Christof Kurzmann, playing his electronics ppooll software. From the opening minimalist reimagination of Coleman’s “Sadness” (originally recorded on Town Hall, 1962, ESP-Disk, 1965), arranged for voice and electronics, it was clear that this quartet takes Coleman seminal ideas about free, creative music to new terrains.

McPhee introduced later his song-poem “Old Eyes”, written as a dedication to Coleman, saying that the sadness in the eyes of Coleman mirrored the wisdom of the ages. In a way, a similar wisdom characterized this quartet. The wisdom to create highly individual sounds that morphed into provocative but highly emotional music, and the freedom to challenge any musical convention, even Coleman ideas about free jazz. The passionate, irreverent arrangements of McPhee’s “The Loneliest Woman”, followed by the concluding, iconic “Lonely Woman”, with Kurzmann reciting the sad lyrics in a quiet, sober voice, stressed how Coleman art is still inspiring and relevant for today and coming ages. Hopefully, this excellent quartet will keep on performing.

As often happens in this festival, the spirit changed completely in the next set. The Naples-based Duo Marinare - vocalist and accordionist Cristina Vetrone and vocalist and percussionist Enza Alessandra Prestia - entertained the audience with a passionate set of Italian folk songs and colorful stories about them. The funny dialog with the surprised audience even included an offer to date these two charming ladies.

Irène Schweizer and Louis Moholo-Moholo
The next set introduced two legends of free jazz - Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer and South-African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo. Their collaborations date back to the mid-sixties when Moholo, then a member of the exiled Chris McGregor's Blue Notes, settled with his group in Switzerland for a while. The two recorded an acclaimed live duo album almost thirty years ago (released on Intakt, 1987), and their performance followed this album - free, rhythmic arrangements of South African songs and anthems, some even penned by the Blue Notes musicians. There was nothing spectacular in this performance, still, it was a very emotional ones. The powerful themes of these songs are still moving, as their optimistic and compassionate messages, and both Schweizer and Moholo-Moholo sounded intense and energetic.

The first night ended with the Dutch Tobias Delius Quartet - Delius on tenor sax, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Joe Williamson on double bass and Han Bennink on drums. This quartet of four experienced improvisers and eccentric individuals introduced another blend of free jazz, moving organically between tightly composed segments, to wild, erratic exchange of ideas and dynamics, spiced with generous doses of humor. Bennink played only on the snare drum, swinging with his typical shtick as banging the drum with his legs or drumming on the floor. He and the restless-talkative Honsinger pushed for spontaneous chaos while Delius expressive sax and Williamson solid reserved bass playing anchored this ecstatic playful interplay.

In the Extra Room: The format of this small space and the limited time allocated for each set - 15 to 20 minutes - forced the musicians to offer the essence of their art. The first day presented three female composer-performers. Austrian Pianist Katharina Klement offered her unique extended technique of the piano, playing inside the piano and on its strings, creating a series of arresting sounds. Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler played a brilliant set, full of imagination, humor and depth, alternating between melodic segments and experimental investigation of the piano full sonic spectrum inside-out. Last one was Austrian bass and contrabass clarinet player Susanna Gartmayer, member of the avant-rock group 'broken.hearts.collector', who played a powerful set that stressed her extended breathing techniques and clever sense of structuring her pieces, blending her searching tone with a commanding manner of structuring complex narratives.

Second Day

This day opened with two afternoon concerts, both offering demanding and provocative perspectives on the very essence of music and its basic elements - silence, space, audience and ultimately sounds. The first one was at the Medien Kultur Haus gallery and introduced the Berlin-based trombonist Hilary Jeffery and electronics generator Werner Dafeldecker, co-founder of the minimalist Viennese quartet Polwechsel, and stressed the minimalist process of sketching of sounds. The second one, held at the beautiful Im Pavillon, featured Argentinian trumpeter Leonel Kaplan and Viennese electronics player and programming expert Klaus Filip, playing sinus waves. This set featured a music that was so close to silence, disturbed only by elusive, fragments of minimalist sounds that outlined the possible articulations of this meeting - breathes, delicate electronic hums, the touches of the hands on the instruments and the contemplative, spare blows.

The first set in the evening, back in the Alter Schlachthof, continued the afternoon experimentalist vein. The quartet Scanning Grisey - Austrian double bass player Uli Fussenegger, bass sax player Gerald Preinfalk, Swiss contrabass clarinet player Ernesto Molinari and Kurzmann on ppooll - performed a reimagination of the composition "Anubis, Nout" (1983) by French composer Gérard Grisey (1946-1998). Grisley, known for his spectral compositional technique, was inspired by the mythological Egyptian god Anubis, who protected the dead, weighing their souls and deciding their fates, and the goddess, Nut, who, according to the myth, swallowed the sun every evening and gave birth to it every morning, in this composition Anubis represent the reversal laws of harmony while Nut resumes its normal laws. The quartet arranged the composition into a fascinating tone poem that investigated methodically the spectrum of deep, resonating and sustained tones and its overtones, with great attention to detail, leaving only the resourceful Fussenegger for free improvised solos.

The following set featured the Berlin-based quartet The Pitch - clarinet player Michael Thieke, harmonium player Boris Baltschun, double bass player Koen Nutters and vibes player Morten J. Olsen. Its set consisted of repetitive dark and long drone patterns, called by the quartet as “liquid music”, with an arresting focus and nuanced individual playing but with no solos, except few fleeting ones by Olsen.

Sidsel Endresen
The atmosphere changed again in the following set by Norwegian vocal artist and master improviser Sidsel Endresen. She has developed in recent years her own, highly idiosyncratic and expressive vocal language, deconstructing any conventional grammar, spoken and sung in an alien gibberish yet a very communicative one and delivered in a colorful story-like manner. Endresen improvised playfully on several vocal-stories themes with a sharp sense of invention and humor but concluded her set too fast, leaving the audience eager for more.

The spirit intensified towards midnight when a new super-group, Hope, in one of its first performances, began its set. The group featured German, Seoul-based reeds and electronics player Alfred 23 Harth, British drummer-percussionist Chris Cutler, known as a member of the legendary British art-rock Henry Cow, Japanese innovative guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi and electric bass player Mitsuru Nasuno, a frequent collaborator of the free-minded Japanese musicians as Otomo Yoshihide, Keiji Haino and Tatsuya Yoshida and a member in Uchihashi’s Altered States group. Harth and Cutler collaborated in the eighties in the avant-rock Cassiber, and Hope sounded at times as an updated version of the musical ideas explored with this seminal group. Hope's fantastic set offered a kaleidoscopic, frantic ride of intense, wild ideas, virtuoso solos and group improvisation, drawing elements from free jazz, prog rock, spoken word, noise and electronics. The hyperactive Harth alternated between tenor sax, pocket trumpet, poetry reciting, bass clarinet and noisy electronics. Uchihashi added spectacular electric guitar and daxphons solos. Cutler massive drumming and Nasuno rock-solid pulse held these intense, volcanic eruptions, locking this set in a driving, explosive pulse.

The second night ended with a late-night, invigorating set by the Viennese quartet Ventil, consisting of guitarists end electronics players Peter Kutin and Florian Kindlinger, vintage analog synthesizers and electronics player Michael Lahner and drummer Katharina Ernst, augmented with light structures by Conny Zenk. This group just released its self-produced, self-titled debut vinyl on its own independent label. Ventil merged industrial sounds with minimalist techno and ambient. Its dramatic set sounded like an inspiring, multi-layered blend of a disciplined, late incarnation of King Crimson, spiced with nuanced walls of noise and driven by dramatic, hypnotic pulse of techno, dictated by the charismatic Ernst. This promising group that deserve a wider recognition.

In the Extra Room: This small space hosted two brilliant Austrian pianists - Elisabeth Harnik and Manon Liu-Winter. Both suggested two different, highly inventive and personal approaches to the piano as an infinite sound generator, playing simultaneously on the keyboard and inside the piano while attaching various. objects to its strings, creating an intriguing spectrum of sounds. Austrian Drummer Didi Kerm set was explosive, full of humorous and inventive ideas, charged with infectious, driving energy. Slovenian vocal artist Irena Tomažin presented her unique, highly expressive vocal language, composed of broken syllables dressed as emotional cries.

Third Day

The last day of the festival opened with an afternoon screening of the French film “Les grandes répétitions: Cecil Taylor ou la découverte du free jazz” (1968), directed by composer Luc Ferrari & Gérard Patris. This film highlights the era when European intellectual elite began to appreciate the Afro-American free jazz and its political and subversive ideas. The film presented Taylor in his Parisian stay, rehashing with his group and talking in short cryptic sentences about his upbringing, his inspiration and his personal rejection of Western culture, including European And American music and composers, saying: "they do not come from our community".

Soon after, in the picturesque Im Pavillon, the only afternoon concert began, suggesting another, altogether different interpretation to the concept of free music. The Berlin-based duo The International Nothing - clarinet players Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke, who played with The Pitch the night before, played minimalist, delicate compositions. Both sounded most of the times times as one, rich sonic entity, mirroring and multiplying the fragile, timbral spectrum of the clarinets, but at times extended the musical ideas of the other in a highly poetic manner. This beautiful set stressed the duo somehow distant emotional approach and dry sense of humor, perfectly captured in its albums titles, Less Action, Less Excitement, Less Everything and The Dark Side of Success (both on Ftarri, 2010 and 2014).

The opening set of the evening performances featured another duo of sonic explorers - British sax master John Butcher and French pianist Sophie Agnel. This set was an urgent, provocative journey in otherworldly and inventive sonic textures, surprising in its weird sounds, even for those who already know the art of both Butcher and Agnel. Both investigated the sonic possibilities of their instruments - Agnel hammering the strings of the prepared piano and creating series of resonating overtones while Butcher kept exploring the tenor and soprano saxophones as wind generators, creating gentle feedback sounds by bringing the tenor sax bell close to the mikes and using his inventive extended breathing techniques. But. as true masters of their instruments, Butcher and Agnel knew how to inject humor and sense of drama to their dense textures.

Next played Swedish sax player Anna Högberg’s all-female group Attack!, featuring tenor sax player Malin Wättring and Elin Larsson, pianist Lisa Ullén, double bass player Elsa Bergman and drummer Anna Lund. This group won the audience from its first notes. Högberg, member of Mats Gustafsson's Fire! Orchestra and leader of the power trio Dog Life, presented her and Bergman’s well-crafted compositions that encompass free and modern jazz sensibilities, fusing intensity and warmth, imagination and flowing energy, rich, expansive sound with beautiful melodies. These compositions left enough room for the individual musicians personalities to contribute their own personal interpretations. Attack! presents a new generation of gifted musicians. Soon it will release its debut album, one of the promising ones of 2016.

The next set was titled as “Songs about Love and other Relationship”, and featured Michael Zerang, known as a free-spirited drummer, this time as a singer-songwriter-guitarist. Zerang surprised all as a great storyteller who knows how to entertain the listeners with funny tales about impossible loves, delivered by his rich, warm voice and effective bluesy guitar playing. His songs sounded as drawing inspiration from the sensuality of folk singer Greg Brown, the humor of Texan songwriter Terry Allen, but rooted in domestic, urban hallucinations. One day Zerang should do justice to these great songs and record them. Experimental Singer-songwriter-guitarist Carla Bozulich completed this set with a short string of sad, heartbreaking songs, bearing her most vulnerable side. Bozulich fragile, emotionally intense delivery reached its climax in a solo vocal interpretation of a traditional Celtic love ballad about a woman crying the loss of a dead soldier, her lover.

Again, the next set changed the course completely, this time with two Austrian sonic conceptualists and long-time collaborators - guitarists and electronic players Christian Fennesz and Burkhard Stangl. Both weaved an intense, multifaceted loud electric storms where the manipulated and the effects-laden sounds of the guitars fed the electronics set and vice versa. Fennesz and Burkhard alternated between dense, noisy textures and atmospheric segments characterized with peaceful, cinematic qualities, all with a great sense of drama and structure.

The festival final concert was an energetic, uplifting set of the DKV Trio - drummer Hamid Drake, double bass player Kent Kessler and tenor sax and clarinet player Ken Vandermark -its last concert of a short European tour. The trio showed its deep rhythmic interplay, as all three explored and fed the hard driving dynamics. DKV Trio set highlighted the trio telepathic understanding and passionate energy, perfected by countless performances, tours and recordings, spanning now 21 years of playing together. The trio kept gaining more and more momentum and power throughout this joyful set.

Mats Gustafsson
In the Extra Room: German Thomas Lehn opened this evening with his innovative exploration of the sonic spectrum of a vintage analog synthesizer and electronics, creating dense textures, disturbed by surprising noises. Mats Gustafsson, clearly the most popular solo set throughout this festival, played a highly commanding set with the baritone and slide saxes pushing himself to wild, muscular wails and cries, but also offering moving and gentle blows. Vocal artist Agnes Hvizdalek suggested another approach for free improvising voice, using her vocal to create abstract, almost silent language, Turntables master Dieb13 improvised playfully on 3 turntables, mixing rare Sun Ra vinyls with dance and electronics sounds. Last was trumpeter Franz Hautzinger who played a wise and humorous set that highlighted his minimalist technique.

Next year will be the festival 30th anniversary. Highly recommended for all.


Stef said...

Wow! I wish I could have been there. Thanks Eyal - great overview