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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Unlimited 30 Festival, Wels, Austria, Nov. 11-13, 2016

By Eyal Hareuveni

There is nothing obvious in having a music festival that focuses on genre-defying music for thirty years now. But the Music Unlimited Festival in the small town of Wels, Austria, is unlike any other festival. For many years it is the place to experience some of the most adventurous, experimental and provocative music, to examine different strategies of improvisations, guaranteeing some of the best and most arresting music one can find today. The festival's 30th-anniversary edition brought back many of the singular legends who shaped the festival open, inclusive identity, some of them even curated the festival programs, and others who accompanied the festival throughout its history. All under the most relevant mottos: Peace & Fire and Refugees are Welcome, there in Austria and everywhere, especially, as many were still shocked and troubled after the American election.  

Day 1

The festival began with a duet of Japanese guitarist-sound sculptor Otomo Yoshihide and drummer Hiroshi Yamazaki. This duet marks a kind of closure for Yoshihide with his early mentor, legendary experimental guitarist Takayanagi Masayuki (1932-1991), with whom Yamazaki played since the sixties and through the eighties. Yoshihide and Yamazaki joined forces in recent years and this performance was one of the first ones outside Japan. This was an intense and muscular set that highlighted the immediate, inventive interplay that these resourceful improvisers have established. This set also offered a perfect opportunity to know how great improviser Yamazaki is, full of passion, endless energy and a total master of time and texture. He balanced wisely the free-associative sonic attacks of Yoshihide.

Mats Gustafsson and his Nu Ensemble were supposed to perform the program Hidros 6 - Knockin’ (released as a box-set and later as a disc by Not Two, 2014, 2015), dedicated to songs Little Richard. But Gustafsson decided in the last minute to perform a newer program, Hidros 7 - Zap, dedicated to Frank Zappa (after earlier Hidros programs with the Nu ensemble were dedicated to Patti Smith, György Ligeti and architecture at large), explaining that we all are meant now to “fight global stupidities”. This 11-musicians ensemble deconstructed brilliantly Zappa classic songs, including a spectacular version of “Any Way The Wind Blow” (from the debut album of Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!), and assembled them again in a typical absurdist and provocative manner. Gustafsson conducted the orchestrated improvisations, employing the whole ensemble infectious, massive power only for short segments and playing himself only fewer, brief solos. This set stressed the unique, charismatic vocal delivery of Mariam Wallentin, as well the imaginative contributions of Joe McPhee, trumpeter Anders Nyqvist, vibes player Kjell Nordeson, pianist Agustí Fernández, turntables master Dieb13 and a heroic performance of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love with a strained leg.    

After these intense, explosive sets the performance of the Berlin-based Barcelona Series trio - percussionist Sven-Åke Johansson (who played on Peter Brötzmann self-released debut, For Adolphe Sax, 1967,  and on his seminal Machine Gun, 1968) , and electronics and piano strings player Andrea Neumann and trumpeter Axel Dörner, titled after its debut album (hatOLOGY, 2001) - changed the atmosphere to more introspective one. Johansson described the minimalistic music of this trio as “peeling, certain nudity," The trio explored the sounds of surfaces, strings, breaths and subtle electronics as friendly, alien noises, articulating these abstract, almost transparent sounds and textures with great imagination, letting the sounds flow according to their own intriguing rational.

The Ex + Fendika
This evening concluded with a 3-hours Ethiopian celebration, conducted by the Dutch dissidents, The Ex, great ambassadors of Ethiopian culture for the last two decades now. The Ex bagan with a short set augmented by Ken Vandermark, with drummer-vocalist Katherina Bornefeld reminding all that such musical events keep us from the “crazy world outside”. This short set was followed by the funny, acrobatics and juggling of the Circus Debre Berhan and an hypnotic solo performance of Zerfu Demissie, singing and playing on the ancient, huge begena, the “King David harp” (believed to be 3,000 years old). The Fendika group followed with another short set, featuring songs from its recently-released, debut album Birabiro (Terp Records, 2016), before they joined forces with The Ex and Vandermark. Then this joyful celebration of traditional ethiopian songs reached its cathartic climax. By this time the excited audiences was already dancing. This ecstatic celebration was concluded with “Lale Guma”, originally a traditional war cry, and a wild, spirited version of the classic Ethiopian song “Tezeta”, with Vandermark playing masterfully the role of the late, great Ethiopian sax player Gétatchèw Mèkurya, a close and beloved comrade of The Ex.

Day 2

The second day opened in the picturesque building of Im Pavillon with the Austrian quintet Zimt headed by composer-guitarist Gunther Schneider and featuring Barbara Roman on hammered dulcimer, Kai Fagaschinski (the three recorded together the beautiful Here Comes The Sun, Mikroton, 2012), Burkhard Stangl on guitars and Angélica Castelló on devices and electronics. This quintet explored delicate and dreamlike soundscapes that sounded as bridging organically archaic traditions and sounds, songs-forms with futuristic sonic explorations, all performed with an impressive sense of detail and emotional lyricism. Immediately afterward at the old church building of Minoriten, German sax player and actor Dietmar Diesner demonstrated his commanding mastery of minimalist, circular breathing techniques on the sax. In an intense, highly disciplined and with an impressive sense of timing and tension building, together with few theatrical tricks, he created short, repetitive staccato-like rich loops, almost as if in techno music, were the basis for further improvisations.   

Fred Frith + Lotte Anker
The evening began with two working duos that formed an ad-hoc quartet. Danish sax player Lotte Anker and guitarist Fred Frith opened with an inventive set that balanced the fast-shifting sonic inventions and game-like plays of Frith with the more structured eruptions of Anker. The duo of Vandermark and trumpeter Nate Wooley continued with a soulful reading of John Carter “And She Speaks” (covered on their album, East by Northwest, Audiographic, 2015). Then all four improvised together a short set. Anker and Vandermark connected immediately and formed a strong core of this freely moving improvisation, while Frith pushed for more eccentric articulations and Wooley balanced him with beautiful melodic lines.

The trio of electronics pioneer Bob Ostertag, violinist Jon Rose and drummer Gerry Hemingway continued with a hyperactive, free-improvised set fueled by the possessed-powerful drumming of Hemingway, the inventive and provocative games of Rose, and the weird sonic flights of Ostertag. These experienced improvisers have been playing together in different formats in the last decades and already formed such a telepathic understanding that enabled them to shift the atmosphere and the sonic palette in a matter of milliseconds, moving from nuanced, structured textures to loose soundscapes and theatrical games.

The trio of cellist Okkyung Lee, Norwegian noise master Lasse Marhaug and violinist and electronics player C. Spencer Yeh (this trio released the LP Wake Up Awesome, Software, 2013) continued the intense, experimental vein but pushed it into noisier terrains. This trio of sonic shamans transformed all sound sources - strings, bows, vinyl, electronic devices - into a string of raw, suggestive noises. Lee and Yeh struggled with their instruments - in the most physical sense of it, producing weird yet arresting sounds while Marhaug injected even weirder noises, including from a tortured turntable and broken vinyl. Together they created a tortured, apocalyptic soundtrack that ended surprisingly with a comforting, lyrical tone.

Ingrid Laubrock
After this stormy opening the set of sax player Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House Quartet (without original member, double bass player John Hébert) suggested a completely different atmosphere. This group has been working closely since 2010, has released already three albums (the last, as a sextet with clarinet player Oscar Noriega, Roulette of the Cradle, Intakt, 2015) and has perfected its complex dynamics. Together with partner-drummer Tom Rainey, pianist Kris Davis, and guitarist Mary Halvorson, this quartet played Laubrock intricate, expansive compositions. The fiery playing of Laubrock and explosive drumming of Rainey were contrasted by clever, contemplative piano solos of Davis and nuanced, minimalist solos of Halvorson. All four musicians were  all interacting intuitively, emphasizing rapid dissonances and nuanced tension building and the unpredictable turns of Laubrock complex compositions.

The second night ended with a loud, uncompromising set that united the Italian Jooklo duo - Virginia Genta on saxophones and keyboards, and drummer David Vanzan - with Danish sax player Mette Rasmussen and Norwegian bass player Guro Skumsnes Moe. This powerful set moved from one extreme eruption to another, with all pushing the intense, wild interplay to its limits - Moe with blood-freezing screams, Vanzan with frenetic drumming, Genta alternating restlessly between many instruments, and Rasmussen leading this sonic mayhem, setting its unwinding, nervous course with a natural command.

Day 3

Fred Frith + Christof Kurzmann
The afternoon program began at Medien Kultur Haus with an ad-hoc duo of Fred Frith on guitar and devices and Christof Kurzmann on the ppooll software. The musical interests of these innovative, creative musicians cover an impressive conceptual range, from free improvisations, orchestral works to experimental song formats. The short set began with as a free-improvised dialogue of two mad scientists - Frith attaching assorted objects the guitar strings and hammering the strings in many creative-playful ways while Kurzmann played with rubber bands and cork on his laptop. But as Kurzmann began to recite Robert Wyatt “Alifib” in his fragile, unassuming voice the set suddenly offered a fresh, sober perspective on the experimental British scene of the late sixties and early seventies, a time when Frith was a founding member of the legendary group Henry Cow. This feeling intensified as Kurzmann continued to interpret folk songs, accompanied by a moving, lyrical guitar playing of Frith and comforting sounds of the ppooll software. The second afternoon set teamed French double bass master Joëlle Léandre with local pianist Elisabeth Harnik at the Minoriten. The two have been performing constantly in the last year and about to release their debut album soon. Their set was restrained, serene and poetic in its spirit. Léandre offered some of her funny operatic vocal acrobatic and Harnik harnessed Léandre free-flowing sonic ideas into reasoned structures as if she was composing in real-time.

The evening program began with a rare performance of the Amsterdam String Trio - viola player Maurice Horsthuis, cellist Ernst Reijseger and double bass player Ernst Glerum - that played in the first edition of the Unlimited festival. The trio set feature compositions that bridge contemporary music with chamber jazz, sparked by healthy doses of eccentric Dutch humor, with Reijseger setting the playful tone of this trio.

Carla Kihlstedt + Zeena Parkins
The next set feature an ad-hoc quartet - vocalist-violinist Carla Kihlstedt, harp and electronics player Zeena Parkins, keyboards player Magda Mayas and last-minute addition, Bob Ostertag on electronics. Kihlstedt led the set with a heart-breaking, vocal-only reading of W.H. Auden famous poem “After The Funeral” (that begins with the line: “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…” and concludes with the lines “Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood / For nothing now can ever come to any good”). Her bewitching, emotional cry was abstracted into one of the most moving moments of this festival, as Parkins, Mayas and Ostertag and later also Kihlstedt herself on the violin ornamented painful, wordless whispers, screams and claps into an apocalyptic soundscape. Ostertag processed in real-time and deconstructed Kihlstedt vocalizations into a string of intelligible sounds that intensified the already charged emotional atmosphere.

Peter Brotzmann + Heather Leigh
The working duo of reeds titan Peter Brötzmann and pedal-steel guitarist Heather Leigh (who released their debut album this year, Ears Filled With Wonder, Not Two/Trost) added to this apocalyptic vein with an aggressive and uncompromising set of their own. Leigh set the tone with a series of psychedelic-metallic drones that grew louder and tougher to the sheer delight of Brötzmann, He stuck most of the time to his tenor sax, and kept intensifying the tension with powerful, brutal cries, except for a while where both he and Leigh created a fleeting, subtle melodic texture.

Sarah Gail Brand, Maggiie Nichols, John Edwards, Mark Sanders
The festival artistic director Wolfgang Hermann sensed the dark atmosphere tried to ease it before the last set with a quote of Patti Smith, insisting that “everything is good at the end; if it is not good, it is not the end …”. And then the set of the British quartet of trombonist Sarah Gail Brand, vocalist Maggie Nicols and the magical rhythm section of double bass player John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders (Sanders collaborates with Brand in a long-standing duo that released so far only one album, Instinct & The Body, 2009) performed a fascinating set that cemented the festival atmosphere and its message: Peace & Fire. This free-improvised set was based on the fast instincts of all four musicians, full of eccentric inventions and healthy humor. Nicols, who did not stop dancing, framed the importance of this kind of improvised music by quoting the late British drummer John Stevens, founding member of the influential Spontaneous Music Ensemble, who said: “we are practicing freedom, practicing for a better society”, and concluded by reminded all that “fascists do not improvise”.  

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