VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – The Festival International de musique actuelle wrapped up its 25-concert series here last month following four days of music that covered a broad range, from free jazz to electronica and post-rock, and delighted fans from across North America.
For regulars who stay for the whole series, it’s the variety, the unexpected, the exploration – as much as the destination – that intrigues and brings us back yearly.
Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq captured hearts and minds with her Friday night gig. Backed by a 40-member choir, Tagaq improvised a 75-minute set with a mix of guttural utterances, chants, and the game-like gestures she learned from her mom in the Far North.
Gesticulating as if in a trance, Tagaq meandered into an imaginary world, imitating the sounds of nature and depicting a universe that is not without its tragic side. Her vocalizing was punctuated by bursts from the choir.
The biggest draw was the John Zorn marathon Saturday night. The New York composer and leader brought 20 members of his musical family for a nine-concert marathon in three separate shows – 320 minutes of challenging music, with two half-hour breaks.
Zorn didn’t play a note, but sitting in the wings, he smiled and moved his head with the beat as the musicians played brilliantly and with gusto from the 300-piece songbook, bagatelles, that Zorn composed over three months – short pieces that the musicians developed.
Several hundred Zorn aficionados were enthralled by what they heard, and remained in their seats until the last note sounded at 1:20 a.m.
Violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier opened the series, sounding most inspired by the atonal legacy of Anton Webern, whose Six Bagatelles for String Quartet sparked Zorn’s compositional zeal. Courvoisier roamed over the keys in Don-Pullen like flourishes as Feldman delivered concentrated and rapid-fire multi-octave bowing.
The math-metal power trio called Trigger – Will Greene (electric guitar), Simon Hanes (electric bass), Aaron Edgcomb (drums) – changed the vibe with their high-energy attack.
Pianist Kris Davis, with Mary Halvorson (electric guitar), Drew Gress (bass), and Tyhsawn Sorey (drums) played an intense, free-flowing, melodic and exploratory set.
Pianist Craig Taiborn led the second show, roaming over the keyboard with intense percussiveness and melodic invention.
In another power trio, John Medeski took over on the Hammond B-3 organ in an avant-rock outing with the brazen electric guitarist David Fiuczynski and drummer Calvin Weston. The music sang to us, even as it could be felt viscerally.
Guitarist Mary Halvorson led a quartet of Miles Okazaki (electric guitar), bassist Drew Gress and drummer Thomas Fujiwara, but it was past midnight, and the marathon was having a numbing effect.
It was overcome by Pianist Uri Cain and Medeski on Hammond B-3, playing together like children with new toys. Combining heart and mind, passion and skill, it was a total thrill.
For the finale, Zorn emerged from the wings to direct guitarist Marc Ribot as he and Trevor Dunn (electric bass) and the propulsive Tyshawn Sorey (drums) worked out a high-energy and at times frenzied attack on bagatelles charts.
On Sunday afternoon, trombonist/composer George Lewis and four percussionists offered Calder, named for module sculptor Alexander Calder. Like a Calder mobile, the piece was light and airy, balanced with the varied and unconventional sounds of a creative orchestra going beyond the linear.
Walking around the stage from one instrument to another and taking turns playing them were percussionists Thurman Barker, Eli Fountain, Tyshawn Sorey, who also played piano, and chamber musician Aiyun Huang, a McGill percussion prof.
From the tingle of the triangle to the reverberations of big drums, the musicians covered a broad sonic and emotional range – an hour-long exploration both unique and captivating, from Lewis, a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Of great interest was the reunion of three American improvised music pioneers in Musica Elettronica Viva: composers Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, both 77, and pianist Frederick Rzewski, 78. Mixing the satirical and the serious, Curran at one point began playing notes from a ram’s horn, and picked up a few harmonicas to add sonic variety. Rzewski told the story of his grandfather being kidnapped by Cossacks in Galicia in 1914, never to be heard from again.
“Now it’s 100 years later and the same thing is happening,” he intoned, without elaborating.