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Saturday, November 19, 2022

Music Unlimited Festival 36

Wels, Austria
November 4-6, 2022 

By Eyal Hareuveni

This year’s program of the Austrian, free - Unlimited - music festival was curated by Austrian, Oslo-based since 2008 vocal artist Agnes Hvizdalek, who, apparently, was born when the festival celebrated its first year. The program reflected Hvizdalek’s open, compassionate and somehow eccentric musical personality and interests, with a majority of female bandleaders and musicians, a great representation of Norwegian musicians, and music that encompassed chamber, contemporary music, free improvisation, techno, free jazz and metal. As, always, the festival had a photo exhibition, this time by Peter Gannushkin, NYC – The Future is the Present, and a sound installation, They Sound, designed by Heike Waldner-Kaltenbrunner, Thomas Grill and Hvizdalek.

Day 1, November 4

The opening act of the festival brought together the Viennese duo of recorder player Gobi Drab, who plays on the great double bass paetzold recorder as well as a much smaller and conventional recorder and sings, and electronics player Veronica Mayer, who has been working as a duo for several years now, for the first time on stage with Czech, New York-based accordionist and electronics player Lucie Vítková. This trio played intriguing and subtle electroacoustic textures that moved freely between minimalist and abstract textures to more sound-oriented textures that explored and investigated the sonic palettes of their respective instruments and their personal improvisation strategies. Vítková integrated organically into the suggestive dreamscapes of Drab and Mayer and her subtle interventions enriched the delicate tension.

The following two performances promised much but were quite disappointing. Pianist-trumpeter-percussionist Jalalu Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson, was described once by William Parker as an “unsung hero… on the same level as Ornette Coleman and Duke Ellington”. He, who lives now “in the middle of a national park some people call Switzerland,” was augmented by the 4Strings chamber quartet, and offered lighthearted, simple and playful songs, far from the experimental spirit of the festival and nowhere near the aforementioned giants. The next performance of the Norwegian trio Yawn promised a mix of brutal, metal guitar riffs with improvised and contemporary electroacoustic music, enhanced and synchronized by custom-made software. Yawn released this year its debut album Materialism (Mindsweeper Records), but sounded like a nerdy kind of prog-metal, that adopts some of the metal clichés but lacks the dangerous, intense energy or the gripping sound of metal. Still, the machine-gun, rhythmic precision of drummer Oskar Johnsen Rydh was impressive.

PNØ: Agnes Hvizdalek and Jakob Schneidewind. Photo (c) Eckhart Derschmidt

The last set featured the duo PNØ - Hvizdalek and electronics player Jakob Schneidewind (of the celebrated, local techno trio Elektro Guzzi), saved the night. Hvizdalek and Schneidewind have been working together since they studied music in Vienna. She sang, chanted and whispered her intuitive stream of songs of consciousness while he layered, sampled her voice and arranged techno-like beats around her vocal flights. Throughout this arresting set, both Hvizdalek and Schneidewind established a totally natural flow of the music but cleverly avoided reaching cathartic climaxes and chose to play and deconstruct and reconstruct the accumulated tension in inspiring ways, all emphasizing how techno music can appeal to high-brow, experimental music aficionados.

Day 2, November 5

The afternoon set of Norwegian, Copenhagen-based Aron Dahl (formerly known as Danielle Dahl), once a student of composer Michael Pisaro, focused on queer desire, loneliness, and a search for self-identity through gender fluidity and included a film showing Dahl pleasing themselves. But the music did not match Dahl’s bold personal journey and bordered with a bland version of new-age music.

Fortunately, the evening sets promised and delivered much more. The Berlin-based duo Beam Splitter of Taiwanese-American vocal artist Audrey Chen and Norwegian trombonist and electronics player Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø (also partners in life), already released two albums. Their set was staged within the audience, very close to the spectators. It stressed their deep and immediate affinity and the always inventive, unpredictable and poetic manner in which Chen’s highly emotional and virtuosic vocal utterances were intertwined with Nørstebø’s more reserved, single-note trombone scapes and electronic sounds.

Hanne De Backer and Signe Emmeluth. Photo (c) Eckhart Derschmidt 

The next set featured another duo - Belgian baritone sax player Hanne De Backer and Danish, Oslo-based alto sax player Signe Emmeluth first met in Kraków in 2019 when they played in Steve Swell's tentett, and since then performed with Paal Nilssen-Love's Large Unit and Terrie Ex, and as a duo. De Backer and Emmeluth have developed immediate, almost telepathic, tight and uncompromising dynamics. They often sounded like a two-headed, massive sax entity, constantly complementing and expanding each other ideas, triggering more nuances and sharing instantly composed themes and fragments of touching songs. Their intense and powerful set was one of the highlights of the festival and demonstrated their restless, searching tones but also joyful and uplifting energy, which enriches the great legacy of spiritual, free music.

The Norwegian chamber quartet Tøyen Fil og Klafferi (named after an imaginary sound factory in the Tøyen neighborhood in Oslo) - flutist Hanne Rekdal, clarinetist Kristine Tjøgersen, violinist Eira Bjørnstad Foss and cellist Tove Margrethe Erikstad, released its debut album, Botanisk hage (botanic garden), two years ago (Aurora Records), that featured their choice of unconventional, surprising repertoire, all by contemporary composers, two of them were present at the performance - Carola Bauckholt and Lars Skoglund. These composers know how to compose intriguing but also ironic and humorous music, with animation, sound samples and field recordings and films. Tøyen Fil og Klafferi captured the attention of the audience with their imaginative and inventive playing and the commanding elegance of their challenging repertoire. The last piece of this engaging and thoughtful set was by Tjøgersen, who was commissioned to compose a piece for Beethoven’s 250 birthday anniversary that referenced his last piano sonata, no. 111, once described as the “first boogie-woogie composition”. This clever piece was accompanied by a seventies film instructing middle-aged audience disco dance moves and somehow this matching of Beethoven-inspired music, disco, and swinging boogie-woogie made perfect sense.

The American, New York-baed free improvising Borderlands Trio - double bass player Stephan Crump, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Eric McPherson, the only American outfit in this year’s festival, already released two acclaimed albums (the last one, Wandersphere, Intakt, 2021). The trio played one long free improvisation that emphasized that on this night it was not a balanced collective, as on its albums. Davis and McPherson played precise, delicate and often poetic gestures, always feeding the interplay with minimalist ideas and always in as perfect timing, but both sounded like if any of their reserved harmonic and rhythmic idea would omit the whole balance of this trio would immediately crumble. During most of this set, Crump’s powerful playing, all over the double bass, sounded as if insisting to intensify the subtle interplay of Davis and McPherson but rarely attached himself to the delicate rhythmic sensibility of Davis and McPherson.

The last set was of the Norwegian, all-female black metal trio Witch Club Satan - drummer Johanna Holt Kleive, guitarist Nikoline Spjelkavik and bassist Victoria Fredrikke Schou Røising, which released so far one single, earlier this year. Their theatrical, ritualist "transformative séance" referenced ancient Viking sorcerers' legends, focused on feminine empowerment and included spraying incense on the audience, frightening facial make-up, and changing a few tribal costumes. Mid-performance, the trio even played topless, and later, dressed a bit more, the three musicians walked among the audience and chanted spells to the female spectators. Witch Club Satan brings some refreshing spirit to the way the too-masculine metal universe and knows how to deliver a spectacular performance, sonically and visually.

Day 3, Nov. 6

The last day of the festival began with the afternoon screening of the recent work of Viennese experimental audio-visual artist Billy Roisz, mostly with her partner dieb13 (aka Dieter Kovačič). The videos were made for the Norwegian band MoE and with the festival curator Agnes Hvizdalek, and focused on the enigmatic matching of electronic sounds, field recordings and samples with abstract and suggestive images.

The evening program began with a solo set of Swedish pianist Lisa Ullén, a bandleader and the Disorder label owner. The free improvised set weaved carefully elements that refer to Ullén’s background as a classically-trained pianist and experimental, contemporary music with ideas from the free jazz school associated with Cecil Taylor. This instantly composed piece flowed naturally, but in a totally free and unpredictable manner, often employing the piano as a highly resonant percussive instrument, and kept adding more and more nuances to the reserved dramatic narrative.

SPUNK. Photo (c) Eckhart Derschmidt 

The next performance was by the long-standing outfit in this year’s program. The Norwegian quartet SPUNK (the name comes from Astrid Lindgren's character Pippi Longstocking who invented the word "spunk" and then spent the day looking for a meaning for the word) - electronics player and vocalist Maja S. K. Ratkje, trumpeter and flutist Kristin Andersen Høvin, French horn and electronics player Hild Sofie Tafjord and cellist Lene Grenager - was founded in 1995 as a free improvising unit where each member's individual expression matters equally, and as an ensemble that sees the concert space almost as a fifth member. The extensive experience of playing and improvising together as a collective, with the highly idiosyncratic voices of these four musicians led to a magnificent, inventive and exciting set. The chaotic, weird, noisy and nonsensical ideas were structured playfully and made perfect sense. The urgent dynamics gently shifted into almost refined chamber electroacoustic ones, still sounding strange but totally captivating with its free, wild imagination, and Rarkje’s whistling at the end of the set added a chilling Ennio Morricone-tinged touch. The attentive, appreciative audience clearly played its part in the best set of the festival.

Swedish vocal artist Sofia Jernberg followed with a short solo set. This set moved freely and organically between traditional and highly emotional Ethiopian hymns and laments, and Jernberg’s personal and experimental vocal artistry, often sounding quite otherworldly. Jernberg left the audience hungry for more of this right and expressive stuff.

The festival ended with the ad-hoc Future Orchestra, Hvizdalek with 25 of the performing musicians in the festival - Beam Splitter, SPUNK, PNØ, Tøyen Fil og Klafferi, Ullén, Drab, Mayer and Vítková, Roisz, Nelson, 4Srings, Yawn, Dahl, augmented by Austrian electronics player Daniel Lercher and double bass player Nina Polaschegg, in a free improvised finale. With no conductor or an organizing structure, this playful improvisation was dominated by the expressive vocals of Ratkje, Chen and Hvizdalek but also left enough space for the ripple-like movement of the string and woodwind instruments, Ullén’s delicate piano and the subtle electronics.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Eyal. I really wanted to attend this. I’m a huge fan of Agnes.