Victoriaville festival: Musical adventurers and explorers meet

Montreal’s Ratchet Orchestra performs on opening night at the Victoriaville fest. (Courtesy of Victoriaville fest)
Montreal’s Ratchet Orchestra performs on opening night at the Victoriaville fest. (Courtesy of Victoriaville fest)

Montreal’s Ratchet Orchestra performs on opening night at the Victoriaville fest. (Courtesy of Victoriaville fest)

If you want to explore music that is unexpected, unique, challenging and varied, the place to be May 15-18 is Victoriaville.

That is where the Festival de musique actuelle de Victoriaville will present a remarkable series of 20 concerts for its 30th edition.

Over the many years that I have attended, the common denominator is the lack thereof: the music is experimental and free in sprit, improvised, composed, or both. It can include electro-acoustic, electronic, acoustic, avant-jazz, free jazz, avant-rock, folk and music beyond labelling.

The major concert opening night, Montreal’s Ratchet Orchestra, led by bassist/composer Nicola Caloia, fits the bill. It plays at 10 pm at the city’s hockey arena, The Coliseum.

Caloia brought together musicians in the early 1990s in the spirit of Sun Ra, the legendary leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, who died in 1993. His concerts were visual as well as musical celebrations—fun-filled and richly creative. He claimed to have come to Earth on a goodwill mission from outer space. He is known for using Walt Disney themes as vehicles for expansive musical excursions.

“I wanted to make a large band that improvised and also could interpret pieces that were not limited by musical genres,” Caloia says. “I like Sun Ra because he didn’t seem to respect any type of boundaries whatsoever.

“When he found himself in an unacceptable environment, he created a new one without limiting his imagination in any way.”

To celebrate the Sun Ra centenary, Marshall Allen, the saxophonist who took over the Arkestra after the leader died, is coming to Victoriaville to join the orchestra. Allen turns 90 at the end of May, and the show will be “a very sincere and humble offering” to him.

With 19 musicians, including Montreal’s most experienced improvisational artists, the orchestra will perform what Caloia calls “one giant piece, a kaleidoscope of material.”

Caloia says he’s been working on the structure since 1998. “It will be flowing, moving from area to area gradually, with reflections of things we’ve seen. … I hesitate to sound arrogant, but this is going to be really nice.”

Another highlight is the return of British saxophonist Evan Parker, 70, an expert in circular breathing, the technique that allows wind players to produce a continuous and uninterrupted tone.

Parker performs May 17 at 8 pm with British electric guitarist Fred Frith and May 18 at 3 pm when Parker presents his version of the Electro Acoustic Septet. Veteran improvisers George Lewis (trombone), Ikue Mori (electronica) and Ned Rothenberg (clarinet) will perform with him.

Ken Vandermark, 49, a hard-blowing saxophonist and composer, performs with his new tentet May 17 at 10 pm. It’s the group’s first gig outside hometown Chicago and energetic and kinetic music is in the cards.

At midnight May 17, there will be no need for coffee. Listening to Japanese Noise master Keiji Haino will wake up the ghosts. He appears with Oren Ambarchi, Australian electronic guitarist and percussionist, and guitarist Stephen O’Malley, master of death drone. Bring earplugs.

The scene is male-dominated, but some remarkable women are in the lineup, including the wordless vocals of Meredith Monk, with Katie Geissinger May 15 at 8 pm, Brooklyn-based avant-rock electric guitarist Ava Mendoza May 15 at midnight, Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld May 18 at 1 pm, and Paris-based sound sculptress Maja Ratkje May 18 at 5 pm.

Two other larger ensembles stand out: May 17 at 3 pm, Gordon Grdina’s 10-member Haram orchestra has its Victo debut with Arabic-based melodies and rhythms in an avant context. May 18 at 10 pm, guitarist Fred Frith presents his 11-member Gravity Band, based in San Francisco.

Tickets are $22 to $38 with discounts for purchasing a group of concerts. A two-concert package (8 and 10 pm), with a room (double occupancy) and breakfast at Hotel Victorin costs $106 plus taxes. 819-752-7912.

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