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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Potentiale Festival: Shhh ... It's a Secret

Der Kulturhof

By Paul Acquaro

I am wondering if it would be better if I did not write anything about the Potentiale Festival. It feels like I'm exposing a precious secret. It's not that I think I have any great influence on the course of events, but rather, when something seems so perfectly done, do we really want anyone else to know about it? Well here goes: the Potentiale Festival, a small improvisational music festival situated in the middle of Germany, strikes a wonderful balance between the medieval charm of the canal encircled alt-stadt Kalbe, the entropic aesthetic of old barns and former storehouses, and the connection of people though improvised music, folk-art, and hob-nobbing.

Kuenstlerstadt Kalbe is the vision and sweat of town resident Corinna Köbele. The organization has taken many old, decaying buildings and converted them into the shabby-chic creative spaces that now host varoius festivals, in addition to Potentiale, of New Music and dance and theater, as well as offering a range of art and music workshops and camps for students. An aura of creativity and freedom was in the air during the weekend in June that Potentiale nestled into the village - the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, bees buzzing (standing under some of the trees, one could hear an incredible drone), and the mood was high.

This was the fourth edition of the festival. Curated by Leipzig based drummer Steffen Roth, the festival brings together improvising musicians for four days of collaboration and spontaneous configurations. The premise is that each artist has a solo set, then a "plus ..." set for which they pick others from the pool of musicians to play. Being that many of the musicians do not know each other, the 'hanging out' component of the festival is an important aspect, and so every set was full with the small audience and all of the musicians at the festival. Everyone was listening intently, whether it was to hear familiar sounds in new settings, see new faces making unfamiliar sounds, or just to take copious notes (actually, that was just me). There was even a space that offered people a place to play who were not on the program, where is where some exciing and unexpected configurations popped up.


The festival began on Friday at 5 p.m. with the dedication of the 2022 Landmusikort award. Local and state dignitaries were on hand to recognize the importance of efforts like Kunstlerdorf Kalbe. Intriguingly, throughout the chairs set up in the large barn space (where most of the concerts took place) were hand drums, percussion fish, and various bells. After the opening, Peter Grunwald, director of the Kloster Michaelstein warmed up the audience by directing them in a percussion 'circle' - albeit not really in a circle (he told me later that the circle shape does work better, but it seemed not to faze any of the newly minted percussionists).

Chris Corsano, Hanne de Backer, Yuko Oshima

With the audience loose and rhythmically ready, the first performance of the night kicked off with American percussionist Chris Corsano and his selection of Japanese, France-based percussionist Yuko Oshima and Belgian baritone saxophonist Hanne de Backer. The percussion heavy trio began as the church bells from the nearby Dorf Kirche chimed for 6 p.m. The trio began slowly, extracting sounds from their instruments, Oshima with a violin bow against her cymbals, Corsano gently striking his drums with padded mallets, and De Backer biting down on her reed and blowing. Then, vocalizing through her sax, De Backer began ramping up the tension, with the two drummers lending an eager hand. Soon overblowing the instrument and playing short repetitive riffs, DeBacker dove deeper and deeper into the rich tonality of her instrument. Corsano and Oshima gave each other space but also left no beat untouched. It was an invigorating opening set.

Jasper Stadhouders

This was followed by a dinner pause. In the Kulturhof, a lovely tree festooned, courtyard surrounded by buildings dating from the middle ages (but luckily, modern toilets), a caterer was serving chili con- and sin- carne. Beer, wine and various soft-drinks were available, and picnic and high tables with umbrellas and leafy shade offered relief from the bright sun and clear blue skies. Slowly, as there was no real rush, the satiated small audience wandered back to the barn for the next set, where the Dutch guitarist Jasper Stadhouders had strapped on a electric guitar and was fiddling with his amps. For the next 45 minutes, Stadhouders showed just how much sound could be made by not playing the guitar but rather playing with it. Hardly touching the fretboard, he let the magnetic fields reverberate forming and shaping the sounds in the space between the instrument and the amplifiers. Modulating the vibrations with the pickup switches and by applying slight touches to the strings, his used a minimalist approach to create a big sound. Still vibrting the barn with feedback, Stadhouders picked up the guitar and began smearing the sound-palette with light touches to the fretboard, applying a slide, and detuning the strings, letting the overtones pile high.

Sylvan Schmidt

Outside of the barn, opposite the entrance to the courtyard, were old, stately willowy and leafy trees along the side of the canal that surrounded the alt-stadt. Each house lining the banks of the canal had a small, flat bridge leading to the gravel road on the other side. However, this is a detour, as the next set was happening through the courtyard and across the street in the Saint Nicholas Church, an old stone church in the middle of idyllic green patch with a few Yurts set up to house the craft events happening the next day. Here, Swiss trumpeter Sylvan Schmidt played a solo show from the resonate middle of the cross shaped chamber. The straight wooden pews did not invite relaxation but did help focus the listener on the austere tones from the trumpet. Schmidt began with a stuttering set of tones with much air surrounding them, which eventually led to long modulating streams of sound. The stone walls and high ceiling provided a split-second delay, reflecting the sound with in a dry, rapidly decaying wave. Listening to both was hypnotic.
Olaf Rupp, Georg Wissel, Harald Kimmig, and Yuko Oshima 

Returning to the barn, we were greeted by the newly formed group of German saxophonist Georg Wissel, guitarist Olaf Rupp and violinist Harald Kimmig, along with Oshima on percussion.  They began tentatively, putting out musical feelers, but a quick musical camaraderie soon manifested. A patchwork of ideas, leaning toward the quieter side but with focused energy, quilted the performance together. Towards the end, it grew so quiet that the effervescent birds outside the barn almost out-chirped the performers, but then not to be outdone, Rupp began played a repeated figured that pushed the others to a musical high point.

Ulrike Brand, Simon Rummel, Harald Kimmig, and Georg Wissel
The evening ended back at the church. The mood, set by cushions for the audience to sit along side the performers, the light of candles from the pulpit, and the gentle darkness, was given an appropriate soundtrack by German cellist Ulrike Brand, Kimmig, and Colonge based micro-tonal harmonic player Simon Rummel. The set began with Brand and Kimmig playing quietly and then soon joined by Rummel who was playing his own creation, a microtonal reed-organ (which simply needs to be seen). Sticking to three or four notes, the overall impact was a meditative dissonant drone that brought the evening of music to a gentle close.


Free Jazz Installation at the Gericht

By the camper van and tenting spot, next to the "Gericht" and "SPA - Spielplatz Anarchie", two of the Kuenstlerstadt's other big locations on the other side of the town from the Kulturehof and church (which sounds far, but is actually just around a corner) there was a coffee cart. Though I had picked up a to-go cappuccino at a bakery on my way into town, there is never enough coffee. It was a good cup, which I drank while making small talk with some of the attendees. I then entered the "Gericht" building, a grand decrepit turn of the 20th century stone building that gave name to the street it was on (Gerichtstrasse) that the organization used for art installations. A movie was being set up, the remnants of workshop on furthering the work of the Kuenstlerstadt, and a display exploring Free Jazz were among the finds in the various rooms. The latter featured large blown-up quotes from Derek Bailey's book Improvisation and a display of the book Fred Van Hove at 80 from Dropa Disc (sorry, sold out).

Across the street at the SPA, a lovely, smaller room set up with a drumkit, seats for an audience, and a chalkboard for musicians to use to sign up for ad-hoc concerts, Roth and Wissels were playing an ad-hoc set of music. In the backyard was an old Trabi showing off how to do entropy right and people, sipping their coffees, dotted the spaces in-between. Around the corner, at the church, the day's events were beginning. Ulrike Brand was about to lead a workshop and crafts folk were setting up.

Ulrike Brand

I missed the opening moments of Brand's performance and when I arrived, she was eliciting a myriad of tones from the cello, from slight brushes against the strings to violent sawing. Her playing grew more animated as she continued, mixing extended techniques along with more traditional musical motions. From the wings of the church, Wissels and Kimmig were slowly advancing, emitting soft tones from their respective instruments. Soon, Brand pulled the end pin from her cello out, which was long enough that when she attached a wheel to it, she could play standing up. The musicians crossed paths, then continued in their separate directions, Brand eventually walked out through the open door ... and that's about where the set ended.

Bruno Angeloni, Stefan Deller and Steffen Roth
After a bit of downtime, the next event was at the SPA where Roth had teamed up with Leipzig colleagues saxophonist Bruno Angeloni and bassist Stefan Deller. As they began playing, more and more musicians and audience entered, likely attracted by the energy that the trio was transmitting. Angeloni, on alto sax, dazzled with an unending array of fractured lines and Deller was a dynamic instigator. Roth added a concentrated energy that guided the group through this unexpected highlight.


Harald Kimmig

The afternoon was busy in the Kunstlerhof. One could play the Digeradoo, try screen screen printing, learn civil disobedience, and more. In the barn, Kimmig was getting ready for his solo set. The crowd settled in - a little larger in number than the previous night - as Kimmig began plucking a series of single notes and double stops, then segueing into a mix of classical runs, integrating them with textural sounds and dynamic tempos. The result was that while the techniques were extended, the overall effect was very organic and flowing. 

Chris Corsano

Corsano began his solo set by blowing a piccolo clarinet into a vibrating plastic lid. It was a squeaky affair, which the percussionist followed up with by continuing to blow the clarinet into a floor tom while striking another with a mallet. Then the clarinet became a mallet. Finally, both the mallet and acting mallet were replaced by drumsticks and Corsano leaned into a heavy and powerful beat. As the volume cooled off, the pulse began to break into fractions and accents appeared in unexpected places, effectively pulling the listener along in a tumble of rhythmic ideas. Corsano is an expressive player both physically and musically and his set cast a hypnotic spell.

Sylvan Schmidt, Hanne de Backer, Artum, and Steffen Roth

After a dinner pause, trumpeter Silvan Schmidt had assembled a quartet for his "plus ..." set. Performing with him was de Backer, Roth, and an 'outside the program' musician, Artum, playing electronics. The group began slowly with the trumpet and sax playing a modulating buzz, the drums energetically pulsating, and the electronics filling the center with unusual aural textures. The restraint finally broke after a extended electronics section, de Backer began playing animatedly, expressing her notes physically. Roth's playing grew louder and more aggressive, while Schmidt continued playing long, legato tones, heading towards an ecstatic peak that suddenly dissolved.

Olaf Rupp

Olaf Rupp was up next with is solo set. Switching to his signature Day-Glo green Stratocaster from the nylon string classical guitar that he played the previous night, he still approached the instrument in a classical manner - propped up on his left leg, neck upright, using his fingernails to pick the strings precisely and freely. He often juxtaposes dense, packed phrases with simple reverberating lines, which is how this set unfolded. In addition to the fingerpicking, Rupp used a violin bow to pull tones and sonic textures from the guitar, and at one point used two slides to produce a startling descending sound. 

Reiko Okuda, Olaf Rupp, Jasper Stadhouders, and Chris Corsano

In a sense, Rupp's solo approach was the opposite of Stadhouders set on the previous night, which was interesting for the next ensemble put together by the Dutch guitarist and included Rupp, pianist Reiko Okuda and Corsano. After a short quiet intro, Corsano picked up the pace and Okuda began playing arpeggiated runs, to which Stadhouders responded with rapid scales. Meanwhile, Rupp hung back, dropping little tone bombs from time to time. The group got into noisy jazz/rock territory for a stretch before things got a bit stranger. Some implements I've seen with guitars include a screw driver ala Joe Sachse, or a bedspring that Nels Cline keeps in his back-pocket, but this was the first time I've seen spoon. Stadhouders used it, along with a slide, to create a wild array of new sounds.

Hanne de Backer

As the night was winding down, we all made our way back across the street to the church for de Backer's solo set. Enshrouded in the quiet darkness, de Backer was lit up in the pulpit. She began with a soft melody and the light glinted off her baritone sax as she gently swayed in her seat. Her melody was tinged with a bit of blues and then some vocalizations, her tone grew rawer, sometimes agonized. As the gurgling, polyphonic blasts bounced off the walls of the church and the yellow light reflected off the bell, the concert felt quite spiritual.


There was still one more act this evening, vibraphonist Els Vandeweyer and Okuda's METAL ILLUSION, but unfortunately other responsibilities pulled me away from Kalbe. It was only halfway through the festival, but the creativity flowing through this intimate festival had, so far, been nothing short of inspiring.