FIMAV 2012: The Wondrous, the Worthwhile and the Walkouts

The 28th annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville presented 19 shows over 4 days, running May 17 to 20. About 4000 tickets were sold, meaning an average of just over 200 per spectacle, down from early century highs of close to 7000 tickets. Although total attendance was announced as “similar to last year” by festival organizer Michel Levasseur, many perceived a slight drop from the 2011 edition. Speculation as to the reasons for the decrease fueled conversations, with the consensus being the economy and competition from other festivals around the world.

Musically it was a typical year at FIMAV, with dizzying peaks at some shows dropping to deep valleys at others, and the rest falling in between. Equally predictable was that everyone had their own opinion as to which shows fell into which categories. Below are some personal opinions.

Phil Minton’s Feral Choir project led off Thursday evening at the Cinema Laurier with a solid hit. Managing roughly 35 singers from Quebec, Minton divided the choir into sections. Popping excitedly around the stage, Minton provided each section with supporting and contrasting parts, transmitted via back-to-audience mouthed demonstrations that choir members imitated until the next instructions were received. A longer first piece featuring the choir was followed by a second in which the group played a back-up role to Minton’s solo vocalizations. Minton sounds as much like a synthesizer as he does a singer, hissing and growling, not unlike the field cats for which the choir is aptly named. Throughout, extensive use was made of these extended vocal techniques, pasting smiles on the faces of singers and listeners.

Next up was the first of two concerts written and directed (but not played) by John Zorn. The first, “Nova Express,” was inspired by the novels of William Burroughs and featured the quartet of John Mendeski on piano, Kenny Wollenson on vibes, Trevor Dunn on bass, and the insanely grinning Joey Baron on traps. The quartet was tightly controlled by a series of hand signals from Zorn, dictating not just the usual conductor’s role of tempo and section marking, but also indicating who solos when and the overall feel of each part. These parameters would all change frequently, mimicking Burroughs’ cut up style and paranoid tendencies. Despite the source of the material, the music remained rhythmically and texturally friendly, and melodically bouncy. A masterful set of catchy material expertly played and controlled, filled with enough quick changes and smooth dissonances.

That high point was followed by another, as day 1 closed with the Mary Halvorson Quintet’s midnight set. Guitarist Halvorson’s frenzied use of delay pedal for swooping pitch change effects was balanced by her increasingly mature compositional sense and solid band, with Jon Irabagon’s condensed sax lines making everyone’s highlight reel.

Friday’s 1 PM “morning” show (first shows feel like morning given the late starts of the last sets each night) was promising. It featured a rare glimpse at a collection of maïkotrons, hybrid wind instruments constructed from parts of other instruments, including mismatched mouthpieces, valves, keys and slides. Invented by Michel Côté, the sounds were indeed intriguing, but there was a feeling of lost opportunity, as the compositions and improvisations fell short of the innovation and inspiration that went into the instrument making. Still, a reasonably nice start to the day, with guest trumpet player Stephen Hayes augmenting the trio of Michel and Pierre Côté and Michel Lambert.

A noise and video set with music and video artists Jean-Pierre Gauthier and Marc Sabatini followed. There have been many sets at Victo that have included visual accompaniment, the majority consisting of a series of fast images flying by with tenuous connection to the music at best, and few films standing on their own. A notable exception was a match of the music of the Shalabi effect and the films of Stan Brakhage a few years ago, and here was a second example. The theme was a west to east bike ride around Montreal, with scenes from Mount Royal to downtown to Lafontaine Park and ending at the Olympic Stadium. Viewpoint shifted from a watcher of the cyclist to placing a camera on the bike itself, pointing forward, backwards and sideways, and a few loop-de-loop shots attached to the wheels. Despite the occasional epileptics-beware moments, there was a trajectory and coherence to the film, not unlike a real tour-de-ville, filled with the joys and hazards of city riding. The duo were improvising noise but were constantly glancing up at the screen and adjusting their racket to the action. Even without the visual match the music was captivating, created by tiny air nozzles hissing at microphone grills, iphone apps and other gadgetry.

Friday evening featured three shows, beginning with “The Spanish Donkey,” named after a medieval torture device and featuring a trio of Joe Morris on guitar, Jamie Saft on organ and synths and drummer Mike Pride. While Morris is best known as a free jazz guitarist and bassist specializing in rapid effect-free flowing atonal lines, here his sound was distorted into an undistinguished howl, matching Saft’s low buzzy room filling (or room emptying) standing waves. If they were trying to recreate the torture experience, they were successful.

Zorn’s second show of the festival followed, adding the strings of Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander to the previous evening’s quartet. Although an ancient Jewish theme replaced the Burroughs, similar methodology and music resulted, albeit a bit smoother without the cut-up approach.

Friday ended with a beautiful quartet set led by violist Jean René, with Nicolas Caloia (bass), Pierre Tangauy (drums) and Joshua Zubot (violin). Playing from the now considerable repetoire of Quebec’s musique actuelle tradition, the set included pieces from René Lussier, Jean Derome and René himself. This set proved that modern Quebec music can now be viewed nostalgically, and that we not only have created a beautiful genre unique to the province, but have home grown players to realize the challenging works with aplomb.

Saturday was the busiest day with six concerts, although my load was lightened by walking out of three of the last four. The first two, however, were excellent, starting with bassist Miles Perkin’s quartet. It featured pieces from a just out CD, one the year’s best to date. Although self-released it sounds like it could be an ECM recording, perhaps reflective of Perkin’s current European base in Berlin. A perfect “morning” concert, it was quiet but filled with restless tension. Thom Gossage must be one of the most patient drummers around, waiting to place just the right sound at the right place, never rushing to fill the air with unnecessary beats. Benoît Delbeq’s often prepared piano meshed with the percussion providing Cage-like gamelan sounds, while trumpeter Tom Arthurs filled the upper register with floating tones.

Long-standing FIMAV contributors and originators of the musique actuelle scene in Montreal, the Supermusique crew seemed to have fun playing their improvised games. Montreal scene stalwarts Joane Hetu, Jean Derome, Danielle P. Roger, Michel F. Côté and Martin Tetrault shared the stage with several newer members, showing that there is a fresh generation of like-minded musicians who will keep the scene going for some time. Pieces were included from five different composers, with those by Martin Tetrault particularly noteworthy.

FIMAV has featured some outstanding spoken word pieces over the years (Les Filles Electriques last year, as one example), but this year’s choice of poets, Lucien Francoeur and Copernicus were not to be among them. How many times can we hear the same themes revolving around blue jeans, rockers and bikers? Francoeur has not changed much since the 70′s, and the act is wearing thin. It was helped somewhat by being placed within a new musical setting, with guitarist and l’Oblique record store manager Michel Meunier on guitar and electronics from Mario Girard, but I would have much preferred a musical duo without the words. Even less interesting was the midnight show featuring the dull-edged madness of Copernicus, who pretentiously crouched around the stage mouthing semi-scientific drivel like a drunken high school physics professor, as one attendee from North Carolina astutely noted while walking out with many others. The entire first piece consisted of naming various small physical particles such as muons and quarks, going through the list many times without adding much new each round. We also learned that our mothers, our fathers, our houses, etc., were made up of (surprise) muons and quarks. After 15 minutes of non-stop dumbness it finally ended, and the audience waited for what quackery would be next. When the second piece started with a screamed “muons” (or was it “quarks”?), many decided that they had seen enough for the day. Kooks can make for fascinating and even highly thought-provoking entertainment, shaking ones preconceptions even if one is not necessarily convinced that the arguments are water-tight, but they need to have more to say than Copernicus. I must admit that his show did fuel many lighthearted conversations the next day.

Equally disappointing was the much-anticipated 8 PM Saturday show, which was billed as a power trio featuring bassist/producer Bill Laswell, along with guitarist Raoul Bjorkenheim and drummer Morgan Agren. Laswell did now show, however, for the usual non-specific “personal reasons,” which created disgruntled ripples about him being disturbed by FIMAV ads in Wire magazine not giving him top billing. Whatever the reason, the other two bravely trooped on, but to my ears the show fell flat with a dull metal thud. In a much welcomed move (except maybe by hard-core Laswell fans), Henry Grimes, attending the festival as a listener, was recruited as an opening act. His 30 minute set on bass and violin provided yet another of the weekend’s highlights. Contrasting his FIMAV set to that played in a quartet at l’Envers the week before showed Grimes’ lightening runs as a soloist can be quite different from his playing as an accompanist. A delightful surprise.

The other Saturday set was a superb albeit mini version of Wadada Leo Smith’s “Ten Freedom Summers” opus, with Smith’s complex free jazz arrangements set to a backdrop of photos from the US civil rights movement between 1954 and 1964. Featuring the double percussion unit of Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan Aklaff, pianist Anthony Davis and bassist John Lindberg, the group stuck to the script and only rarely broke out with some higher energy, but Smith’s concept captivated despite, or perhaps becasue of, the restraint showed by all.

Sunday was the day to celebrate Montreal’s Constellation label, with two Montreal based rock units and a jazzier extravaganza. Esmerine mixed post-rock with the Glass/Reich school of minimalism, cellist Rebecca Foon playing simple melodies above marimba, violin and drums backing. Miles Perkin came out for a few tunes on bass, which considerably added to the sensitivity of the interplay. It was highly effective and enjoyable, although I might have preferred a bit more variety in the textures and melodies. Like Esmerine, Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra have developed a signature sound, although the Zion’s stick closer to a blues rock aesthetic. This show drew the largest and youngest crowd of all shows at the cinema, reminding the old avant crowd that rock still rules when it comes to commercial appeal.

For many, Matana Robert’s Coin Coin project was the highlight of the entire festival, a tribute not only to the leaders considerable vocal, sax, writing and arranging skills, but also to the strong backing from the younger set of Montreal jazz and free improvisers. Based on Robert’s family history, the work alternates between instrumental jazz numbers covering the history of the music from ragtime to no time, and spoken and sung vocal pieces. The orchestration often settles into small subgroups, providing just the right accompaniment to each touching anecdote or instrumental solo. Particularly noteworthy was the piano of David Rhyshpan, but the entire band deserved the lengthy applause and multiple curtain calls. An accessible yet original tour de force that left many in the audience in tears.

That leaves us with two shows, one more walkout and one more highlight for me. The duo of Sylvain Pohu and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay has enough computers and electronic gadgetry hooked up to their guitar and bass, respectively, to either whip up interest or get lost in the fascination with their toys. Unfortunately it was the latter. I found the set lacking in communication, interplay or even interesting sonorities, although others seemed to enjoy it. I would not resist another chance to hear them, as sometimes new music takes some time to understand, and perhaps fatigue sets in after several days of non-stop shows.

A superb demonstration of the use of the interface between computers and acoustic instruments, the festival ended with the trio of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell on woodwinds, and George Lewis on trombone and laptop. Lewis live sampled the musicians and added pre-existing sounds to the mix, his translucent manipulations controlled enough to add mystery and depth to the already powerful mix. Mitchell’s circular breathing on soprano sax added layer upon layer of transcendent magic to Abrams dark piano drones and faster trills. With Lewis’ trombone adding a more traditional jazzy element, the set explored and reset the boundaries of jazz and creative music possibilities. A fitting end to a festival whose main purpose is exactly that.

Lawrence Joseph