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Thursday, June 6, 2024

Moers Festival 53rd Edition, May 17-24, 2024

By Eyal Hareuveni

A first time at one of the oldest festivals in Europe and one of the few ones whose program is focused on free and improvised music, in its most explicit political essence, courtesy of the International Visitors Program of North Rhine-Westphalia Cultural Initiative. This year’s program highlighted the festival's long-term connection with the Japanese free scene (that began already in 1974 with a performance of the legendary Yosuke Yamashita Trio, with reeds player Akira Sakata and drummer Takeo Moriyama) and features Namibian musicians (and Namibia was where Germany exercised genocide for the first time).

1st Day

London’s Cafe OTO scene was presented with the quartet of British pianist Alexander Hawkins and long-standing comrade, double bass player Neil Charles with young German violinist Julia Brüssel and cellist Emily Wittbrodt who performed last December at Cafe OTO and now reconvened at the Rodelberg open-air stage (all events were held around the large park of the Moers town). This free-improvised set featured the wise and subtle way Hawkins channeled the string players into a cohesive narrative, adding ornamented sparks of playful irony. But at the same time, it also stressed the strong-minded voices of the young Brüssel and Wittbrodt who enjoyed this emphatic challenge. 

Michiyo Yagi

Japanese hyper-koto player Michiyo Yagi first played at the Moers Festival in 1992 as an apprentice of the great koto player Kazue Sawai. Now she was back with her young pupil Hiroko Takahashi. Yagi’s first performance at the festival was at the Evangelical Stadtkirche with its unique acoustics and focused solely on her composed pieces. Yagi plays on 17 and 21-string kotos, with bows, drumsticks and many other effects. Already on her first piece, Yagi created a stormy and exciting texture, using a bow and effects to create a series of metallic, distorted overtones that filled and echoed throughout the space of the church and radiated an irreverent sense of sound that corresponded with drone aesthetics of Sunn O))). Later on she transformed the koto into a twisted organ and you could sense her attacking the koto in a way that Keith Emerson attacked his organ, Yagi finished this inspired set with the touching and beautiful piece “Remembrance” from her debut album (Shizuku, Tzadik, 1999), and ended it just as the bells in the nearby church began to ring. Talking about a divine intervention.

2nd Day

Loui Yoshigaki

The morning free improvised sessions were held at the local musical school courtyard. They featured ad-hoc outfits of musicians from different backgrounds, often with musicians who had never played before or most likely never heard of each other before playing together. It was a joy to discover in these sets young Japanese guitarist Loui Yoshigaki, son of great drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki (of Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Quintet, Altered States and ROVO), who first visited Moers as a roadie of Yoshihide ensemble. The young Yoshigaki adapts many of the sonic tricks of Fred Frith, attaching many objects to the strings of the electric guitar, but has an imaginative and genre-defying sound and language of his own, stressed in his solo performance, playing with fellow Japanese alto sax player Nonoko Yoshida, or improvising in one of these ad-hoc ensembles. 

The second set of this morning's session featured the young quartet of violinist Brüssel, Japanese alto sax player Masayo Koketsu and double bass player Takashi Sugawa (of Satoko Fujii Tokyo Trio) and German drummer local Max Andrzejewski. This quartet clicked fast thanks to the powerful playing of Koketsu and the propulsive rhythm section of Sugawa and Andrzejewski.

Later on this day at the main festival hall, a series of sets offered a sonic rollercoaster. German pianist Stefan Schultze introduced his visionary concept - HYPERPLEXIA: remapping the piano, with two prepared grand pianos, one of which is played in a conventional manner and the other is equipped with a self-playing mechanism that is triggered by Schultze via MIDI data (with software developed by Falk Grieffenhagen), plus laptop, sampler and virtual piano, and live visuals by Paul von Chamier. You can trace in this complex and thought-provoking project the iconoclastic ideas of modern composers Conlon Nancarrow and Iannis Xenakis but Schultze managed to offer a highly captivating and immersive audio-visual experience that blurs the lines between composer, performer and remixer; conductor and interpreter; improvisation and scripted performance. 

Zeena Parkins & Michiyo Yagi

The second set of Yagi matched her with a like-minded fearless and adventurous explorer of her string instrument, American harpist Zeena Parkins (who played before at the Moers festival with Frith and John Zorn). Parkins played before with American koto player Miya Masaoka (in the trio MZM with pianist Myra Melford) but this was her first performance with Yagi, and both employed preparations to their instruments and employed many effects. Yagi and Parkins stormed from the first second with ecstatic and powerful dynamics and never ceased to surprise with poetic sonic inventions and passionate energy, as they pushed each other to the most extreme sonic territories. 

Conny Bauer

Following this explosive set, German hero trombonist Conny Bauer, 81 years old, and of the first generation of German free improvisers, teamed with Japanese, Berlin-based pianist Rieko Okuda, for a completely different, free improvised set. This set focused on a contemplative and introspective dialog spiced with the playful abstraction of fleeting melodies and relied on patient dynamics that highlighted the beautiful sound of Bauer’s sound and the great respect that Okuda - as well as the audience - had for this great musician.

And again, the atmosphere in this hall changed drastically with a “world premiere” of German, New York-based drummer Joe Hertenstein's new project XCountry Bungalow, featuring Dafna Naphtali on live processing and voice, Eliad Wagner on modular synths, bassist Kellen Mills, and performer Daisy Payero locked in the so-called tiny bungalow (trumpeter and electronics player Liz Albeecould not make it). This hyper-active, hyper-sonic set rolled like a “headless snake that has no beginning and no end” and was meant to “cleanse our sick society from bigotry and trigotry, 45 minutes at a time”. In its wild and manic manner, it delivered what it promised with endless waves of nervous energy that demanded full surrender.

3rd Day

The morning sessions began with an energized set of three restless sonic artists - Belarusian, Cologne-based synth player Oxana Omelchuk, Israeli-American Dafna Naphtali on vocals and live processing and Japanese Elico Suzueri on a keyboard. They continued with an even wilder and powerful set of Yagi on the 21-string koto with German double bass player David Helm and drummer Joe Hertenstein. This ad-hoc trio served as an introduction for another new trio of Yagi with Japanese double bass player Takashi Sugawa and German drummer Christian Lillinger, which played in the afternoon at the Rodleberg stage. This performance began to explore the great potential of the trio as Yagi, Sugawa and Lillinger are opinionated improvisers with distinct vocabularies and improvisation tactics that worked brilliantly together but at the same time constantly challenged each other.

On the same stage performed another great trio, German local drummer hero Erwin Ditzner with double bass master Sebastian Gramss and pianist-synth player Philip Zoubek (Gramss and Zoubek play together in the Slowfox trio, this trio recorded Live At Enjoy Jazz Festival 2021, Fixcel, 2024). This free jazz set relied on the propulsive rhythmic drive of Ditzner but juggled wisely with tension building and release, rhythmic layers and hypnotic grooves, and stubborn and fascinating exploration of the sonic palette of the double bass and the piano, all in a powerful, telepathic interplay that exhausted the best from the three musicians and never subscribed to familiar routes.

Later in the afternoon, at the hall of the musical school, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and her partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura played an intimate and moving set. This most beautiful set sounded like a profound conversation between imaginative and like-minded artists who share secrets, insights, observations and ironic ideas with succinct, precise tones, all exploring the rich musical universes of Fujii and Tamura. 


Back at the festival’s main hall, the highlight of the festival and clearly the most audience-attracting performance was BRÖZZFRAU, a tribute to the late great German reeds player Brötzmann, who lived not far away from Moers, in Wuppertal, who performed for the last time in the festival in 2018. It was part of a series of homages to Brötzmann (with an earlier one in London’s Cafe OTO and later one in Warsaw’s Pardon To tu club, plus a planned photo book by Ziga Koritnik), with his son Caspar Brötzmann on bass, German trombonist Conny Bauer, drummer Achim Krämer, Belgian trumpeter Bart Maris, Japanese alto sax player Masayo Koketsu, Russian alto sax player Alexey Kruglov, and American bass player Kellen Mills and drummer Lesley Mok. Surprisingly, Yagi, who toured and recorded with Brötzmann, was not part of this performance. The subtitle of this performance was: Melancholie rechnet sich nicht! (Melancholia doesn‘t pay!), with a drawing of Brötzmann as an angel playing the sax and soaring above the stage, and, indeed, none of the musicians attempted to replicate the primal, raw sound of Brötzmann or the brutal, post-rock sound of Caspar Brötzmann’s Massaker. But the eight musicians, each in his own distinct way, showed how much the legacy of Brötzmann still feeds and motivates their art and how his total commitment shines on their art. This emotional performance reached a few cathartic climaxes but its strength lay in its communal spirit of music-making.

This busy day was concluded with a solo performance of Zeena Parkins at the Evangelical Stadtkirche dedicated to her compositions or compositions written for her, all expanding the sonic possibilities of the acoustic harp with effects and objects. One of the most fascinating compositions was the conceptual “Lace” (Chiakin, 2023) which imagines graphic notations of figures of lace and alternates cleverly between minimalist, slow-shifting moves to discordant chaos, stressing Parkins’ commanding and rich language of the hyper harp.

4th (and last) Day

The morning sessions featured another unconventional Japanese koto player and another disciple of the great Kazue Sawai, Miyama McQueen-Tokita, with fellow Japanese alto sax player Nonoko Yoshida, American bassist Kellen Mills and German drummer Simon Camatta, for a set that adopted the default option of pushing forward with full power.

One of the slogans of this year's edition of the festival was “...Nix Berauschendes (Nothing mind-blowing). It was also the name of the ad-hoc female quartet Japanese alto sax player Masayo Kotetsu, French explorer of the vintage keyboard ondes martenot, Russian pianist-vocalist Karina Koshevnikova and Brazilian drummer Bruna Cabral that performed at the Rodelberg open-air stage and highlighted, again, the commanding and charismatic presence of Kotetsu.

Next, on the same stage, Satoko Fujii Tokyo Trio with double bass player Takashi Sugawa and drummer Ittetsu Takemura, who just landed, at the beginning of a short European tour, and performed pieces from its last album Jet Balck (Libra, 2024). The wise and subtle compositions of Fujii as well as the clever dynamics of this trio do not surrender easily and are delivered as surreal or labyrinthian textures that only in their conclusions you can fully appreciate its elaborate architectures, the deep listening, freedom and the profound trust of these gifted musicians. A masterful and stimulating performance of a great trio, led by Fujii who keeps challenging herself and her devout listeners.

The following set at the same stage was by the local trio Carpool Kino with double bass player Sebastian Gramss, New York-based violinist Carolin Pook, and drummer (with a mask) Daniel Schröteler. Its playful set showed how free improvisation corresponds with contemporary music and demonstrated again the commanding extended techniques of Gramss on the double bass.

Back at the festival’s main hall for the final performances, but before these performances, the festival’s artistic director Tim Isfort read a long statement denouncing any form of violence and hatred, and repeating the festival's mission to be a “safe environment” that would encourage music and culture as communal, universal vision.

The first one was of French bagpipe player Erwan Keravec (who plays with Mats Gustafsson in the duo Luft) and his ensemble of eight pipers (Gaël Chauvin, Mickaël Cozien, Erwan Hamon, Gweltaz Hervé, Guénolé Keravec, Vincent Marin and Enora Morice) in a program dedicated to the early and classic compositions of Philip Glass (“Two Pages”, “Music in Fifths”, “Music in Fifths” and “Music in Similar Motion”). The performance began when two pipers were on the farthest sides of the main stage, two pipers behind the audience, and four pipers on the main stage, letting the infinite and simple repetitive tones and overtones unfold and occupy the whole space. But even when all eight pipers convened on the main stage and explored nuanced timbral layers, the hypnotic effect of the ethereal drones only intensified and filled the space with reverberant, almost meditative vibrations, similar to the effect of North African Gnawa music or spiritual, classic Indian Music. 

Arto Lindsay

The last performance was of the American no-wave hero Arto Lindsay (of DNA, Ambitious Lovers and Golden Palominos fame), accompanied by Austrian sound designer Stefan Brunner (credited with “space”). Lindsay keeps perfecting his unique art of Tropicália skronk, singing brief, openly emotional songs in a soft and sensual voice while producing noisy blasts with his 12-string guitar and effects. The naked and raw yet totally passionate delivery of Lindsay, with subtle sonic layers of Brunner, only intensified the suggestive power of his songs, and Lindsay sounded and looked in top form, enjoying the enthusiastic audience who seemed that would have listened to Lindsay performing all night long, maybe until the next edition of Moers Festival.


Unknown said...

Great article Eyal. A lot of artists new to me - it's just amazing how multi-faceted and multi-cultural free and experimental music is today. Looking forward to exploring the various artists mentioned in your piece. Thanks!


Flake said...

Great review! Really informed and thoughtful feedback over a number of days, as any good festival review should be. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Agree with Unknown—these artists sound amazing and I can’t wait to listen to them. Definitely want to check out this festival.