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Friday, March 1, 2019

No Idea Festival, Austin 2019

By Keith Prosk 

No Idea is an improvised music festival occurring annually (usually in February) in Austin, Texas since 2003, with more irregular iterations in other cities across Texas and Mexico. No Idea 2019 took place in Austin February 21-24, and in Mexico City February 28 through March 2. The festival is run by percussionist Chris Cogburn, who has collaborated with Damon Smith, Jaap Blonk, Henry Kaiser, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Jandek, and countless other names no doubt familiar to our readers, and released last year’s absolutely stellar (though perhaps too short) Y_y with Anáhuac on Astral Spirits.

The festival curation leans towards a more extreme though often subdued threshold between composition and improvisation where extensive use of extended techniques provides a path to explore sound, rather than traditional music, especially in relation to space. It has the explicit purpose of nurturing new collaborations amongst its performers, as well as advancing existing collaborations. This year’s festival included Toshimaru Nakamura, Sean Meehan, Werner Dafeldecker, Valerio Tricoli, Jaap Blonk, Damon Smith, Wendy Eisenberg, and several other excellent performers.

I highly recommend you attend, if able. Beyond the excellent bills it puts up annually, the nuts and bolts of the festival are solid. It’s beyond affordable, coming in at $45 this year for three nights and two afternoons of music, as well as an installation by Dafeldecker available for four afternoons. The musicians stacked the merch table with so much great material that I ended up spending twice as much there as I did for a ticket. The sound this year was among the best I’ve ever heard at any show anywhere, and in a city that prides itself on live music. The usual venue, The Museum of Human Achievement, is not air conditioned, but fortunately Texan winters are mild. For the first time since I’ve attended, the venue offered refreshments, and there was a delightful selection of infusions (pineapple & serrano, apple & fennel, orange & clove, lemon & earl grey, et al.) that you could add to your vodka. Most importantly, the festival is arranged in such a way that there are no schedule conflicts - you see every set. And there was an excellent DJ, Mutarrancho, creating dreamlike soundscapes from an eclectic array of sources (I recognized at least Asnakech Worku and Konono No. 1, but it was not all African sources) during the impressively brief periods between sets.

I missed out on Dafeldecker’s installation, MONOLITH, inspired by and created during a trip to the Antarctic peninsula, as well as an afternoon program with solo sets from guitarists Wendy Eisenberg and Tom Carter. Here are some brief notes on the rest of the festival, accompanied by some pictures that I took when my soft shutter click would not interfere with the performance.

Jaap Blonk, Damon Smith

Jaap Blonk (voice) and Damon Smith (bass) improvised on six sound poems by German Dadaist Hugo Ball. This duo recorded improvisations on these sound poems in 2014, linked below, and Blonk visited them at least once before with BABA-OEMF (Blonk, Bart van der Putten, Pieter Meurs) in 1989. Blonk is an enrapturing thespian. Posing his arms and contorting his face to produce caricatures of melodramatic personae. These often comedic contortions extend to his respiratory system, with Blonk pulling and slapping his cheeks, shaking and squeezing his throat, gurgling, hissing, grunting, and ululating in between the comparatively normal, though affected narratives. Smith matches the variety of Blonk, fluidly moving between consonance and dissonance, plucking and bowing, rubbing the strings with a plastic chain, threading two bows through the strings and hitting them with a mallet, bowing below the bridge, and slapping the strings.

Sean Meehan

This particular set from percussionist Sean Meehan (percussion) tread the line of performance art. There was a blurry beginning to the set, with “silence” gradually waving through the audience as it realized the performer was sitting behind them, cradling a cowbell as if in prayer. Meehan’s palm-muted bell made about as much noise as a wind chime on a still day, meaning most sound was coming from chairs creaking, boots shifting, people swallowing, talking outside, distant sirens, and the faint electric buzz of the venue. After about 15 minutes, Meehan abruptly shakes the bell, creating a mutating polyrhythm between the clapper hitting the casting and the spring at minutely different times. After a few minutes of high-volume ringing, Meehan returns to relative silence before signalling that the set is ended. No doubt an exercise in the body and mind reaction to abrupt volume changes, not to mention the commentaries on what an audience and performance is.

Toshimaru Nakamura, Tom Carter

This is a festival-curated first meeting between Japanese onkyo luminary Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board) and Texan psych stalwart Tom Carter (guitar), perhaps best known for his work with Charalambides alongside Heather Leigh. When I think of characteristically Texan music, I don’t first think of country or electric blues or even the free jazz of I.M. Terrell High School graduates, but rather our particular strain of psychedelia that so often dabbles in noise and improvisation, like The Red Krayola, Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Ed Hall, Cherubs, Mike Gunn, and Charalambides. This performance felt like a spiritual heir to that line, and was the standout performance of the night if not the entire festival. The performance began with Nakamura’s metallic squeals and mechanical sputterings met with light guitar feedback that Carter modulated by touching, tapping, and squeezing the body of his guitar. And the performance built into a heavy, heavily distorted, feedback-laden free form freakout from Carter and a multiphonic onslaught from Nakamura of a deep rumbling buzz, bellicose chirps, glitched-out bass pulses, and sputtering. The effect was physical, vibrating the body. Here’s to hoping this collaboration continues beyond the festival.

Bárbara Lázara, Virginity

Virginity, an Austin duo of Parham Daghighi (guitar, cornet) and Spencer Dobbs (voice, electronics), paired with Bárbara Lázara (voice) for a mostly performative set. Dobbs began with haunting, dirgelike moans that transitioned to unintelligible poetry while Daghighi matched the mood with eerie, spiderlike guitar and air notes from a cornet. Lázara was on the other side of the venue, putting up chairs from a previous set, scraping the legs along the wood floor, walking heavy-footed, abruptly running and abruptly halting, sitting down and talking to herself unintelligibly, skipping. Eventually she entered the same space as Dobbs (and Daghighi left) to perform similar behaviors, some extended vocal techniques, and recite a poem.


Werner Dafeldecker

Bassist Werner Dafeldecker performed short, discrete exercises in exploring and appreciating bass timbre during this solo set. He began with a small mallet tapping the bridge, then the tailpiece, then used a heavier mallet, eventually moving to the body, then the strings, before transitioning to a bow, tapping the strings, scraping below the bridge, then using his hands to flick the body, rub the body, and finally returning to the bow to violently saw for a short time. Each exercise had a significant pause before the next.

Toshimaru Nakamura, Sean Meehan

This set from the established duo saw Meehan mostly building resonance by rhythmically rubbing a stick perpendicular to a belly-up cymbal resting on a snare-head. Nakamura complimented Meehan’s metallic shimmers and glassy wails with rhythms comprised of electric purrs, low-end rumbling, and sputtering. A mighty, subtly dynamic drone performance.

Bárbara Lázara

Lázara’s solo set was another largely performative piece. She began before the audience was attentive. She started with tapping a bass left in the performance space and tapping her foot on the wood floor before stepping up to the mic to woosh, gurgle, breathe, chirp, and click before modulating some syllables like “heff” and “osh.” She then opened the garage door behind stage, wailing into the night. She walked into the night, away from the view of the audience, wailing at intervals to mark her growing distance from the venue and audience. Someone else had to announce the set was finished after she was inaudible.

Jaap Blonk, Sarah Ruth, Liz Tonne, Rebecca Novak, Wendy Eisenberg

Blonk performed two of his triangle compositions (visible on the projector behind him), twice each, with trios including Rebecca Novak (cornet, toy clarinet, objects) and Wendy Eisenberg (guitar) and then Liz Tonne (voice) and Sarah Ruth (voice). The compositions are enigmatic, and the only performer who even looked at the compositions was Blonk, but what rules were clear to me were clearly followed by the musicians. One piece was a narrative with protagonists labeled in the triangles; the other involved being able to repeat a previously improvised complex series of sound when the performers returned to a triangle with a certain symbol. The vocal and instrumental performances seemed unreconcilable, despite being the same compositions. The expert musicianship of everyone involved made for a great performance, if baffling how they got there.

Wendy Eisenberg, Damon Smith, Stefan Gonzalez

This was a festival-curated first meeting that matched Eisenberg and Smith with percussionist Stefan Gonzalez to rock out. Smith complimented Gonzalez’ heavy-hitting forward drive by vamping and then either walking a fast line or bowing chaotically to compound the momentum. Eisenberg overlayed the propulsive rhythm section with superfast atonal blues, cold angular Duane Denison-like jazz, and licks befitting rock in opposition, all melted into her distinctive style. A very strong set and another collaboration I hope continues beyond the festival.

Valerio Tricoli, Werner Dafeldecker

Dafeldecker (laptop, synthesizer) joined Valerio Tricoli (reel-to-reel tape recorder) to create a rich, hypnotic set of clicks, pops, whirrs, crackles, and white noise cut through with sampled spoken word, chimes (both wood and metal), and (perhaps) biwa. So well communicated that it didn’t seem improvised at all. For fans of glitch, ambient dub, survival-horror scores. Another standout set of the festival.

Jaap Blonk

Blonk blasted through a variety of short songs in this solo set. He started with three pieces in a language invented by him, sounding like Dutch but without meaning. Continued on to Paul Hausmann’s sound poem, “Nightmare.” Repeated “what the president will say and do,” with each syllable disintegrating into extended sounds until the phrase was unintelliigable. He sung a narrative on electroshock therapy which became increasingly unhinged and out of order until he screamed zapping noises while acting out the process. Inspired by the phrase “stretch out the hour” and Javanese gamelan, he sung a piece that became increasingly slower and unrecognizable until it became nothing. He had a rock song that sounded like an even more restrained yet unhinged U.S. Maple. And finally ended with a cover of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in duet with his computer’s voice. All the while, he controlled odd, Lynchian lounge music through a videogame controller attached to his laptop. As stated before, his performances are utterly captivating.

Toshimaru Nakamura

Nakamura’s solo set featured many of the same methods as his previous festival appearances - sputters, rumbling, phasing, squealing, white noise - except he went loud right out of the gates for this one. The effect was physical and enveloping, like floating in the ocean between sand bars - you feel the waves but you’re always encapsulated by the water.

Iván Naranjo

Iván Naranjo’s set explored the resonance and effect of space on sound in a small art studio. His set up included several belly-up cymbals on the concrete floor with independently-controlled vibrators and several independently-controlled speakers through which he filtered some bleeps, bloops, ambient dub rumblings, and pulses, all connected to a laptop. The audience is encouraged to walk around the space to feel and hear how sound changes, for example, in the middle of the room or a corner of the room. The effect is impressive, and he explored some interesting delay or Doppler-like effects with the kind of surround sound system.

Valerio Tricoli

Tricoli’s solo set added a laptop and synthesizer to his setup, as well as six independently-controlled speakers stationed throughout the room that allowed him to have a surround sound effect. Again, he created a eerie, dreamy soundscape of tape whirr and screeches, percussive clicks and cuts, and samples of a hammered, delay-drenched piano, some soul violin, and unsettling spoken word. The content felt ghostly and gossamer but the physically vibrating sound coming from each speaker created a corporeal tether to the experience. An absolutely arresting performance and excellent cap to an excellent festival.


tom said...

Thanks for the review, but please note that Charalambides is first and foremost a collaboration between Tom and Christina Carter. Heather was involved in only a few years of the group's 27+ year history.

Keith said...

Thank you for pointing that out, Tom! It was poorly worded. I only intended to create a reference point for our readers and perhaps garner interest for Charalambides and the Carters by appealing to the recent popularity of Leigh.

John Smith said...

The No Idea Festival Austin was one the best music fest I have ever attended so far. Now, that the MEO Sudoeste is approaching, I cannot wait to visit Portugal again for it.