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Saturday, May 20, 2023

Magnet Festival - Wiesbaden, Germany, May 12 - 14, 2023

Magnet Festival Poster

By Paul Acquaro

At the end of the first night of the Magnet Festival in Wiesbaden, the young Estonian pianist Kirke Karja was playing a grand piano in the middle of a graffiti adorned Skatehalle. The room, a large cinderblock and concrete warehouse space converted into a multi-leveled indoor skateboarding park, sounded surprisingly good. It was reverberant but not echoing, and supported her practical and powerful playing, in which she was transforming the 20th-century German composer Paul Hindemith's “Ludus Tonalis” through improvisation. The dancing melodic lines and crashing chords actually fit quite nicely into this incongruous setting. 

Kirke Karja  © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

The Skatehalle's location is part of the Kulturpark Wiesbaden, a park-area adjacent to the main train station whose transformation from the site of a former slaughterhouse began in the mid-1990s. First, the buildings of the slaughterhouse were converted into the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof's rock club and rehearsal studios, and later, in 2008, the area around the buildings was turned into a place for the city's youth to play sports, go to concerts, skateboard, and party. Along the road running parallel to the Kulturepark is the Kreativfabrik Wiesbaden, another former industrial building converted into a creative space, housing a network of offices and groups dedicated to creating and managing cultural events in the city. It is also home to the aformentioned Skatehalle, the basement rock club Krea and a relaxed outside lounge, the Vogeltränke. Located next door is the Murnau Stiftung, an institute dedicated to preserving early German movie heritage, restoring the delicate films and making them available to the public. So, the area provided the perfect location for the newly established festival, which itself was setting out to draw people across generations, interested in experimental music, together in new ways, like, for example, the older folks sitting on the half-pipes and grooving to variations on Hindemith.

The first edition of the Magnet festival is the result of three years of planning from father and son team of Raimund Knösche and Leo Wölfel. Architect and passionate music promoter, Knösche had for many years co-produced the city's Just Music festival. With a focus on jazz and avant-garde, he ran the festival with pianist Uwe Oberg from 2004 - 2021, then in 2021, Knösche and Wölfel, a musician experienced with festival production in Berlin, teamed up to create something different with a foot in free jazz and improvisation and the other in Wölfel's world of experimental pop and electronics. The decision to remain in Wiesbaden, they felt, offered open-eared audiences an opportunity that is rare in the city.

A quick glance of the program already revealed an exciting mix of genres and artists. In fact, it was only on the last night, Sunday, with the fiery improvisations of the Luis Vincente quartet and, well, fiery improvisations of Mette Rasmussen's Tiro North, that the old school free jazz fans would have their most urgent desires fulfilled. Yet, they came out on Friday and Saturday too, and what they - and everyone else - experienced was an ear and eye opening cross-section of experimental music reaching across genres and even the idea of what it means to make music. 

Jim Hart and Evi Filippo © Cristina Marx / Photomusix
Elvin Brandhi & Ludwig Wandinger © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

From the opening moments of the festival, the energy and diversity of acts was palpable. Under the low ceiling of the Krea, the acoustic percussion and vibraphone duo of Berlin based Evi Filippo and UK's Jim Hart lit the dark room. It was the duo's first meeting and it generated sparks of musical innovation - a desired result of the organizers who had created such "laboratory concerts." Prior to appearing on stage, the duo had quickly worked out versions of some of their own respective compositions but let their collaborative creativity drive their inspired improvisations (plus, one simply cannot beat the sound of two vibraphones shimmering together, seemingly with levitational powers). The next night, a similar set-up led to the eviscerating sounds of electronics, percussion, and experimental vocals from Berlin's Ludwig Wandinger and UK based Elvin Brandhi, which filled the larger Kesselhaus space.

Peter Evans © Cristina Marx / Photomusix
Marlies Debacker

Farida Amadou © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

Another curatorial feature was a programming of solo performers who have more recently established themselves on the international improvisation scene. In addition to the aforementioned pianist Karja, there was American trumpeter Peter Evans, whose solo show was a tour-de-force of self-synergism. Playing inside the Skatehalle, atop a double sloping ramp, or what is known as a 'funbox' in Skatepark parlance, Evans evoked a M.C. Escher like displacement not of impossible staircases, but of musical planes. Using carefully interspersed notes, supported by circular breathing and a singular intensity, Evans created - with a single trumpet - layers of melody and harmony that suggested to the ear the range of an entire group. Another solo show in the Skatehalle on the last night by Cologne based pianist Marlies Debacker (who was actually a last minute replacement on the program) showcased virtuosic and imaginative new approaches to her instrument. Her performance was structured around a contrast of minimalism and maximalism, in which she created swelling waves of overtones by repetitive plucking of the strings inside the piano while playing neighboring notes on the keyboard. Concentrating on first the high end of the keyboard, when she then suddenly switched to the opposite, the contrast was jarring. The same happened when she moved to the middle of the keyboard and began playing sweeping melodic lines. The other solo performance was in the Krea, a short set of solo electric bass from Belgian musician Farida Amadou. Through rhythmic tapping and sparse melodic lines, her approach sounded like brutalist architecture, those imposing concrete shapes, startlingly arranged and unexpectedly transformed into objects of fascination and beauty.

Dan Nicholls and Lou Zon © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

Julian Sartorius with Nicholls and Zon © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

Y-OTIS © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

No festival is complete without a featured artist and at Magnet this was Dan Nicholls, a keyboardist from the UK and currently living in Berlin, performing with three very different projects showcasing his musical visions. The first was presented on Saturday early evening as a laboratory concert in the Kesselhaus following the Brandhi & Wandinger set. Here, the cavernous room was transformed via sound and video into Nicholls' living room. Or maybe it is better envisioned as a co-working space. Seated at a low table on cushions, Nicholls and Dutch video artist, Lou Zon, faced each other but were intent on their laptop screens. Typing, clicking, they programmed the environment around everyone, Nicholls with a serene mix of ambient sounds and relaxed, understated grooves, and Zon with austere imagery of nature, flowers, small waves in the sea, saturated in deep blue hues. Over the course of the set, they created a pulsating and evocative sensory environment, bound in tones and tempo. 

Later that evening, Nicholl's closed out the musical portion of the evening as the keyboardist with the group Y-Otis, led by Swedish (and also Berlin based) saxophonist Otis Sandsjo, and rounded out by Swedish bassist Petter Eldh and German drummer Tilo Weber. Combining swirling saxophone lines, fractional drum patterns, jagged basslines and expressive synth work, delivering a fluid mix of electronica, hip-hop and groove-oriented jazz, the group delivered the sold-out audience a musically sweeping and danceable experience from a promising beginning to a climatic end. Nicholl's third performance, on the last day, found him with Zon and Swiss drummer Julian Sartorius in the dark coziness of Krea. Nicholl's spacey Klaus Schulze approach from yesterday's laboratory concert was now replaced with a much edgier one, as Sartorius' sharp and propulsive drum work gave Nicholls and Zon a different set of impulses. The visuals, while still suffused in the restricted color pallets and natural imagery, were now split, flickering, and rapidly changing with the aggressive pulsations, while Nicholls' digital tones were more intense, dueting with Sartorius' precise beats.

Luís Vicente Quartet © Cristina Marx / Photomusix
Mette Rasmussen Trio North © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

The last day of the Festival was bookended by the two aforementioned free jazz sets. Portuguese trumpeter Luís Vicente, American (and current Brussels resident) saxophonist John Dikeman, American bassist Luke Stewart and Dutch drummer Onno Govaert, have come together as a conduit to the fire music of the 60s and 70s. Drawing compositional inspiration from Ornette Coleman, Ayler and others, Vicente's songs with their bifurcated melody lines served as springboards for the intense solos from himself and Dikeman. Stewart and the bass blend as one, his powerful, assured bass lines and Govaert active drumming ensured that there was never an unsupported moment. Later that night, Trondheim based saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and her Trio North, with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Olaf Moses Olsen, quickly rekindled the free jazz fire still smouldering from the first set. The set featured Rasmussen's own compositions which often contained knotty melodies with many syncopated stops and starts, and of course featured the improvisational prowess of herself and Håker Flaten. As the songs opened up, so did the improvisation, and Olsen's years as a rock drummer lent an extra umph when the trio settled into a more straight ahead groove and entered into The Thing's musical territory.

Skylla © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

The Great Harry Hillman © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

Over the three days, there was quite a range of events. In addition listening sessions with some of artists, which proved to be a popular draw, there were also avant-pop and rock acts and, on Satuday night, DJ sets. On Friday, Skylla featured the unusual line up of UK's Ruth Goller on bass and vocals, along with Lauren Kinsell and Alice Grant both also adding vocals. Their sound was a mix of whimsical folk bound by crunchy bass solos. Friday night also featured the Swiss math rock/free improvisation/absurdist humor band, The Great Harry Hillman. At the band's core is bass clarinetist Nils Fischer whose melodic sensibilities drive bassist Samuel Huwyle and drummer Dominik Mahnig playing - or maybe that's vice-versus. David Koch's guitar provides texture and a purposely off-key solo, accompanied by a huge grin from Huwyle, underscored a mischievous undercurrent in the band's intricate music.

Still House Plants © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

Astrid Sonne & Vanessa Bedoret © Cristina Marx / Photomusix

On Saturday, also from the UK was the group Still House Plants, whose combination of Jessica Hickie-Kallenbach's anguished vocals, Finlay Clark's subversively de-tuned guitar and David Kennedy's solid drumming was able to summon some surprisingly interesting moments. Later that evening, a set presented by the Danish artist Astrid Sonne, featured her singing, electronics and violin work in a duo with violinist and guitarist Vanessa Bedoret. The combination of electronic backgrounds with Sonne's hearty vocals was often quite lovely. Saturday's concerts wrapped up at midnight and were then followed by a club night with DJ's spinning into the wee hours.

The festival also offered those who were either visiting the city for the weekend, or even the day, a chance to explore the capital city of the state of Hesse. The very walkable city features a dynamic combination of museums and galleries, a thriving network of shopping streets closed to traffic and festooned with cafes, restaurants and stores, and an impressive number of green spaces. Walking past the state museum and another now under construction (to house the postwar abstract art collection of businessman Reinhard Ernst), there is a sculpture park with the Hessian State Theatre at the end. This leads quickly to the Kurpark - a stunning English garden with the former Kurhaus. Built around 1910, the monumental building, a mixture of neo-classical architectural styles, housed the popular thermal spas. It is now home to a casino and convention center. Just a quick shuffle away is the public Kochbrunnen Platz. Here, the mineral rich, hot steaming water pours out over a volcanic shape painted by the minerals, as well as through a covered fountain. Of course, you haven't really had a taste of Wiesbaden until you take a drink of it - by the third sip it really starts opening up. There is more to discover too, like the Roman ruins and the well-stocked Plattebox record store, but for now, back to the festival.

After Mette Rasmussen Trio North's triumphant closing show on Sunday night, the audience trickled out the Kesselhaus and slowly into the mild evening weather. As the weekend had progressed, the size of the audience had grown and the average age had dropped, and now, they were all finally having a moment to reflect on the music from the evening, or maybe even all three nights. Perhaps they were thinking about the expanding definitions of improvisation and feeling excitement over new and developing forms of musical expression, or perhaps were just happy to have had enjoyed some good music. Regardless, there is now next year's edition to look forward to.