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Thursday, August 2, 2018

A L'arme Festival VI, Day 1. Berlin. 8/1/2018

By Paul Acquaro

It was hot and still in Berlin. Even sitting outside Radialsystem V, alongside the Spree river there was little relief. This was about a half hour before the doors opened to the big event hall where the festival was about to kick off with a solo set by Norwegian vocalist and sound artist Maja S.K. Ratkje and Bill Laswell's 'doom raggae' outfit Method of Defiance with violinist Laurie Anderson. The groups were playing two sets each tonight.

We filed into the event hall, climbed the bleacher to some empty seats, and watched as the place filled up. It was SRO - sweating room only - as one of the event organizers, Louis Rastig, came out on the stage and invited the crowd to the first night of A L'arme! Festival, which was now in its 6th year. Outlining the next four days of music, the line-up indicated the maturation of the festival, solidifying its curation of avant-garde jazz with a very strong electronic element throughout, presenting a very edgy view of the state of play. In fact, my colleague with whom I was attending the festival, Martin Schray, had traced the tradition of forward thinking jazz festivals in Germany, linking A L'arme! with the famous Total Music Meetings of the 70s, 80s and 90s. A flip through the program underscored this with the featuring of Laswell's group, featuring a DJ and plenty of other electronics along with the other instruments, the Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit Rio presenting a modern take on the big band, Phillip Gropper's Philm representing the state of angular modern jazz in Berlin, among many others, culminating in the final night of all electronic based groups. It was going to be exciting, and really, really hot.

Set I:

Maja S.K. Ratkje. Photo by Martin Schray.
Maja S.K. Ratkje has a long list of collaborators, but for her opening set at A L'arme!, she was performing solo, armed with a table full of electronics sporting a messy array of patch cables, and a microphone. Cloaked in darkness, with a spotlight directly on her, Ratkje was like a poltergeist messing about with the aural environment. She sang single notes and short phrases into the microphone, and quickly processed them into something altogether different - adding distortion and delay - and a whole new meaning to 'vocal fry'. Over a small child-like melody, she wove a spooky sound tapestry with her voice and electronic manipulations. Ratjke built layer upon layer of sound, thoughtfully and deliberately adding new ones to flesh out her sculpture. As the music grew denser, its effect was more surreal and tense.

Reaching a climax, Ratkje then dropped all sound but her voice and a repetitious klang. Then, pulling out a Mbira, she began the layering anew. It was truly a unique sound experience, with a structure of the song being a folk like melody that she sang and then looped, twisted, and then looped and twisted again. Next, pulling out a sheet of plastic, she began assaulting the microphone. The sound was crushing, but at the same time, lithe and alien. 

Avant-garde music is meant to foster new experiences, introduce ideas that are far from the mainstream, and may - or may not - come to anything. However, Ratkje's performance achieved something special. I thought about how probably the first time Peter Brotzmann let out his reedy overblown cries, it pushed the boundaries of the avant-garde, but eventually became a tradition itself, and I could imagine this happening with something like what I had just hear. So, a highly unusual and successful start to an experimental music festival.

Method of Defiance. Photo by Martin Schray
A quick pause between acts, and then Method of Defiance came on. Slowly. They began with a percussive groove, then the deep throb of Bill Laswell's liquid bass kicked in, and Laurie Anderson joined. Locked into the throes of a sultry mid-tempo loop, when the sound of the electronically manipulated cornet burst through, it felt like an update of the swampy electronic jams from 1970's Miles Davis, updated to the 2000s. The group on stage was Laswell on electric bass, Dr. Israel on vocals and sampler, Graham Haynes on cornet (and electronics), DJ Logic on turntables, Laurie Anderson on violin, vocals (and a little sampling keyboard too), and a drummer Guy Licata. Laswell led the cyborg unit via deliberate note choices. His minimalist but extremely fluid bass lines signaled the mood and tempo changes almost tacitly.

Haynes' cornet helped push the music along harmonically and Dr. Isreal occasional raps spiced up the mix. His cadence drew seductively on Reggae, but unfortunately I could not catch the lyrics. Anderson's violin added texture and contrast, and her stray telling added a twist of sardonic humor. Mid-set she told the story of the November 2016 US election. Waking up in New York on the gray November day, slowly coming to the realization that something had gone terribly awry, and wondering why it as so quiet, why no one was saying anything. Then, she said, Yoko Ono posted a one minute scream to Facebook. It was not an avant-garde scream, she explained, it was not laced with deeper meaning and multiple contexts, rather it was true terror. She then invited the audience to make their own ten seconds of scream, which segued neatly into a a new vibrant groove.

Some of the set's music felt a little wandering, and in sitting in the audience, dripping sweat, it felt like it could move a little faster. However, the moments when the band really fired up, it was sublime. Laswell and Haynes were a duo that I'd like to hear to more from, as they connected deeply but moved in intriguing counter motion. In the final moments of the piece, Hayne's introduced a long coda, that along with Anderson's violin work, and DJ Logics' choice of samples, gave Anderson a chance for a second story, delivered though a voice modulator deepening her tone, she expounded on the human condition and praised the stars for being something we could not destroy, yet always reach for. It brought the set to a rousing finale, and we were ready to see if the evening outside had cooled down at all.

Set II:

By Martin Schray

Maja S.K. Ratkje’s first set had a strong focus on noise - and she put that aspect even more to the front in her second set. Her performance was more percussive than the first one, noise was used as a some kind of pulse, for example with the help of the sheet of plastic from the first set. Again Ratkje pulled up layer after layer of sound, her vocals were crassly overdriven, in general it was brutally loud (the floor was vibrating), the music was like an accumulation of sound waves that seemed to drag you under water. There were less vocals in the second part, it was the electronics that dominated. If there was voice it was processed and sometimes sounded like a high-pitched machine gun or a manic beat box. However, she also deployed more subtle elements. When she put in little bells or her thumb piano, she created a lot of tinkling, which was interesting to follow. But these silent and fragile parts seemed to drown in this ocean of noise. Like before Ratkje used Norwegian folk songs and children songs, which she alienated with all kinds of electronics. Sometimes she sounded like an absolutely loony Björk. Like in the first set the light show was minimal, yet perfectly fitting. The searchlights were flooding the room, like the flak during a bombing - the atmosphere in the brutally cooking venue was very apocalyptic. Only at the end Ratkje seemed to let go and whistled tiny melodies supported by little bells. Even if the set was a very good one would have wished that it had more of these fragile moments.

Method of Defiance’s second set was organized like the first one, Anderson’s same two spoken words passages were embedded in similar musical surroundings (the scream she invited the audience to was even more impressive than the previous one). Again the dub-reggae parts were the structural pattern of the piece, the different musical excursions developed on their basis. There was a beautiful moment when Anderson played a classical music theme on her violin, which was processed by electronics and enriched by samples, a cool trumpet and free drumming. This part reminded of Anderson’s earlier work, the instruments were able to breathe here. Unfortunately, there were weaker moments as well. Graham Haynes’ trumpet was not as well integrated as before, he obviously had sound problems. His duos with Bill Laswell were a highlight of the first set, now they were hardly present. In general the music lacked coherence here and there, at the beginning Anderson’s violin was almost drowned especially by Laswell’s booming bass and Dr. Israel’s vocals were hardly understandable again. It seemed that the piece was a conglomeration of separate musical ideas, rather being a patchwork than a successful whole. Then again, both Laswell’s typical harmonics, his glissandi and his distorted sound and Anderson’s lyrics were worth the trouble to spend the evening in the Radialsystem sauna.

Summing up the first day of this year’s festival one could say that it was the last festivals in a nutshell: a smorgasbord of human voice, electronics, live processing, improvised music, avant-garde pop elements (in this case dub reggae) and sheer volume. All in all, it was a promising start but there’s room for improvement. Today there’ll be Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit Rio as the headliner. We’re looking forward to it.