(Onderstaande is de vertaling van een festivalverslag dat ik schreef voor Enola – HIER)
Last week, I went to the Konfrontationen Festival (July 19-22) in Nickelsdorf, Austria. I had heard a lot about the festival before and even had vague plans to pay it a visit the past few years, but it never actually happened. But then I realized the time had come and I joined a few other people (thanks for the ride, T.!) on a trip that would become the single-most extraordinary festival experience I ever had.
I wrote a short piece before the concerts started on the first day (‘Introduction’ below) during Konono No1’s sound check, and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I walked from the hotel in Hungary to the Jazzgalerie, to sit in the shade with the laptop, drink coffee/beer and write some reviews of the concerts that were played the night before (waiting until I was home again was never an option, too many impressions would get lost). I finished the last batch (about the concerts that took place on Sunday) on Tuesday, after the 1200km ride home. I only missed the performances by Dafne Vicente–Sandoval/Klaus Filip and Sqid (sorry!). Those reviews were written in Dutch, but I promised organizer Hans Falb that I’d get him an English version as well. And since very few in the audience understand Dutch, why not throw this translation online as well?
About the text:
Even though I can write a half-decent sentence once in a while, English is not my mother tongue. It is therefore possible that you encounter grammatical/spelling (and other language) mistakes. I stuck as closely as possible to the original version. I also apologize in advance for the jarring repetition and sometimes clumsy language. I know some will consider reading this rambling 10 page text as exciting as reading a phonebook. On the other hand: several reports out there had to stick to a shorter format and often are as much about Neneh Cherry as they are about the rest of the festival. I thought it would be a pity to only mention the most anticipated concert. That’s why it became so long.
I can’t apologize for my opinions, however. I’m pretty sure some of those who were there will disagree about some opinions expressed below, and that’s fine. Even more than other kinds of music, free/improvised music allows the listener to create his/her own interpretation of a musical story. Sometimes they differ, sometimes they don’t. But if you see any factual errors, feel free to point them out and I will correct them.
My sincere thanks to Hans Falb and his many helpers to put this festival together (and for the cold beer, the coffee, the stangerl and unique atmosphere!). Thanks to all of the musicians for the wonderful concerts. See you next year.
For more than three decades, the tiny town of Nickelsdorf (which is seemingly as cliché-ridden as you can get in Smalltown Austria: blink and you’ve passed it, dead as a doornail between noon and 3PM, the type of place where you’re prone to encounter characters straight out of Twin Peaks), only three miles away from Hungary, is transformed into the home of one of the most legendary free jazz & improvisation festivals of Europe. After years of planning with no result, I could finally make it as well. And five hours before the first concert, I’m already glad I did.
Here’s something you can hardly imagine until you see it with your own eyes: a village with barely 1600 inhabitants in the so-called ‘Burgenland’ (die Sonnenseite Österreichs!), where temperatures are currently peaking well beyond the 30° mark (eat that, Flanders) and where the entire daily life is dominated by clanging music, with a program that resolutely plays out less accessible (usually non-jazz based) improvisation. Maybe it’s an idea for Koekelare, Brakel or Dilsen-Stokkem [all Flemish villages]?
A first observation: the public is as diverse as that of the Eurovision Song Contest. Artists, volunteers and early arrived audience members find each other in the cozy hustle and bustle of the Jazzgalerie, where a backyard – complete with plastic roofing, grapevines and wooden benches – is still being prepared and the African party orchestra Konono No 1 is doing its sound check. Everything has DIY written all over it, so Live Nation it ain’t, but I have rarely visited an event that is so unpretentious.
Each night, four or five concerts take place, and starting tomorrow, also a few in the afternoon, organized in a building nearby or in the Evangelische Kirche just around the corner. Except for a few well-known names – Saturday will undoubtedly be dominated by the presence of Neneh Cherry & The Thing – there aren’t that many crowd pullers, even though there will be a few heavyweights of jazz/improvised music (Vandermark, Butcher and Lovens, to name just a few), but also a few younger talents and exceptional artists, often in surprising combinations. One of those is for example the Belgian vibraphone player Els Vandeweyer, who will play the first concert with Aleks Kolkowski (stroh violin & old analog devices – which makes me very curious to see how this will play out) and Ute Wassermann (voice/whistle).
THURSDAY JULY 19th
Berlin-based Els Vandeweyer (vibes, marimba), one of Belgium’s biggest improv talents, confronted two artists from an older generation. Classically trained performer/composer Ute Wassermann has been active for three decades with the most diverse ensembles and in a wide range of contexts (from solo pieces that were composed for her to abstract sound installations), while British veteran Aleks Kolkowski, who worked with Evan Parker, Phil Minton and Louis Moholo, is an expert of ‘mechanical-acoustic’ music, with mainly analogue instruments like the stroh violin/violophone (a kind of violin with a horn instead of the usual body, that’s often used in Balkan music), just like ancient phonographs and gramophone players.
For this performance, Kolkowski also brought his singing saw along which, in combination with Wassermann’s vocal acrobatics and whistles and the unconventionally played instruments of Vandeweyer (as usual toying with all kinds of percussive effects, unusual sticks and pimped gloves), led to a combination that was as remarkable as it was refreshing. Wassermann’s bag of tricks, allowing her to abruptly switch from hissing and growling to awkward sounds that made you suspect she was hiding a theremin somewhere, was already enough to attract attention, but with the timbrally similar sounds of Kolkowki on top of them, the sound palette even enriched.
Vandeweyer seemed less dominant than usual, which was a wise decision, considering this particular combination of textures. The concerts moved from spooky stubbornness and confusing abstraction to carnivalesque madness, but because of the limited length of the pieces you could never lose your focus. With these striking combinations and the ‘wrong’ use of instruments, Konfrontationen immediately stressed things can’t get crazy enough, something which was confirmed when Wassermann suddenly seemed to tear through the Chipmunks’ catalog. Crazy, but in a good way.
For a while, Black Top’s emergence made you think that a reunited Run DMC had come to Austria, but five seconds into the set, that impression had vaporized. Pianist Pat Thomas isn’t that well-known over here, but he’s been a part of the vibrant London scene for more than twenty years, appeared on a dozen Emanem-releases and worked with people like Derek Bailey, Lol Coxhill, Tony Oxley, and even with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Currently he’s working on a remarkable crossover with vibes player Orphy Robinson and tenor saxophonist Steve Williamson. The latter mainly gained credentials as a sideman for Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson at the start of his career. Their new exploits mainly swerve between free jazz, free improve and pulsating electronics.
Robinson played the vibes in a more traditional way than Vandeweyer and was usually the most conventional (perhaps predictable?) musician of the trio. Williamson also displayed a wayward style that sometimes reminded me of Steve Lehman’s crawling approach, but in the upper register also of the laments of David S. Ware, endlessly varying on volatile motives and introspective rounds. Thomas’ style on keyboards and piano could hardly be further apart. On the former he resolutely sought out sci-fi-like stubbornness and sometimes surprisingly accessible grooves (which never ran for long), while on the piano his style was much more obstinate, often full of brusque interval jumps.
One moment you could hear something best depicted as a cross between Monk and British colleague Veryan Weston, while the next bit was quite hypnotizing. Especially remarkable was the trio’s third piece, which eventually took up half of the concert – initially it seemed a bit uninspired and aimless, but suddenly you found yourself immersed in a forceful example of improvisation into infinity. The gig was finished off with a jokey encore (Fiddler on the Roof’s theme “If I Were A Rich Man” continues to be an irritating piece of music, despite the many quirks) that was eventually steered into a more angular direction with a dark beat, which was as groovy as it was cheesy.
The most renowned concert of the day was undeniably that of French quartet Qwat Neum Sixx. 67-year-old saxophone player Daunik Lazro has been a critics’ favorite for years, but it seems that only recently his name has been popping up more often outside of France. In any case, he had assembled a band that managed to create a highly intense marathon. To do this, he was supported by pianist Sophie Agnel, the somewhat androgynous figure of Michael Nick (violin) and Jérôme Noetinger, the man behind the Metamkine-label, who busies himself for the most part with his ‘dispositif électroacoustique’, a role that was as mysterious as it was essential within this context.
From the get go, the band veered through avant-garde terrain, with timbral explorations, attention to resonance and subtle tension arcs. Agnel mainly dove inside her piano with her hands, toying with cups and wires, which she used to fiercely floss the strings in the piano’s belly. The volume initially barely surpassed a whispered volume, until we got to the rustling air movements by Lazro and concealed haze of Noetinger, who created sputtering effects and recycled sounds by his partners that were seamlessly integrated into the whole. During its most extreme moments, it reminded me somewhat of the collaboration between Peter Evans, Mats Gustafsson and Agusti Fernandez on their album Kopros Lithos, though usually remaining a bit less radical than that.
However, this concert remained a tough listen, because an hour of stubbornness requires some audience involvement, that sometimes had too hard a time to get through this mental fitness session. Despite this, the concert was nothing less than a tour de force and a listening experience you had to endure. Lazro’s control over the baritone was simply impressive, even though it was chiefly a meeting with a quartet that profiled itself as a massive entity that united free improvisation with contemporary avant-garde tactics into an exorcizing trip for persistent listeners. It also proves once again that electro-acoustic experiment has become an increasingly prominent part of the world of free improvisation.
Despite the occasional funny moment and a rare melodic hint, the first festival day was a rather cerebral affair, with music to prick up one’s ears, music that requires attention and concentration and waits for the listener to grab the hints out of the air and turn it into a personal story (or not). Something completely different arrived with Congo’s Konono No 1, who aimed at the belly and legs with rhythmically repetitive party music that wanted to turn the stage into a dance party. The improvisation they brought along was of a very different, more horizontal kind, full of rhythmic variations while the exciting encouragements were totally different from the thoughtful improvisations that had come before.
Essential to the sound of this six-piece band is the use of thumb piano (likembé), which ensures a sound that’s as festive as it is scruffy, with barely any room for subtlety, but with buckets full of cheerful soul and sunny ambiance. Under the guidance of Augustin Makuntima Mawangu, who took care of the solo parts, the band created a bunch of songs that could be stretched as long as they wanted. And it worked: the way in which the bodies moved could differ – while it’s nothing more than gently rocking back and forth for the first one, the next one will stick to bending the knees or throwing each and every limb in every possible direction (an often hilarious spectacle) – it actually became the extravagant party that was promised at the start of the concert.
If you’re on the lookout for an endless challenge of creative exchange of ideas, you’re out of luck, but of course you have to put this in its right context. Konono No 1 is about rhythm, rhythm and rhythm, even more so when drumming duo Tony Buck (The Necks) and DD Kern (BulBul) joined the band and the music became even more trance-like, recalling the vibes of Steve Reid, while the amazingly energetic dance moves of vocalist Pauline Mbuka Nsiaka almost made you fear for a severe hip injury.
FRIDAY JULY 20th
The first concert of the second day took place in a barnlike building, in an idyllic and rolling landscape a few miles away. It would prove to be the ideal location for the duo Ona – Viennese video- and sound artist Billy Roisz and Ilpo Väisänen of legendary electronica duo Pan Sonic – to play the concert that was at the most outer edge of the “free music” spectrum. In a completely darkened room, with sturdy speakers in each corner, they opted for a minimalist performance, both visually and sonically, with flickering red/blue visuals and sound waves that culminated somewhere in the zone between drone, soundscape and oppressive electronica.
Roisz used a bass guitar to conjure up thundering booming and was responsible for the projections, while Väisänen mostly messed around with throbbing and pulsating low frequencies, ideally suited to clear the ear channels and bring the heartbeat down to below 50 beats/minute. Once again a concert that disrupted the thinking process and overwhelmed the audience with hissing, grumbling and trembling sounds. For a short while, towards the end of the 35-minute performance, the conceptual was set aside in favor of some old school sounds reminiscent of Kraftwerk and BRT-legend Xenon [old sci-fi series], but still retaining that equally stubborn minimalism.
The evening program boasted several heavyweights, who could luckily live up to the high expectations of the audience. The trio BassDrumBone (Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway and Ray Anderson, respectively) only released a handful of albums, but their collaboration goes back to the late seventies, something you could definitely sense. Musical interaction and their own style were evident right from the start: these are musicians who have nothing left to prove to each other, are able to instinctively work with each other’s ideas and suggestions and have developed an immediately recognizable language, whether it’s in the groove- and swing-filled compositions like “Hence The Real Reason”, the dazzling solos of “Soft Shoe Mingle” or the seamlessly rendered end duo of “Space” and “Show Tuck”.
Just like their albums are nearly all interchangeable – because of their unique identity, not an absence of strong material – many of their compositions also follow a similar course, with individual intros and catchy melodies that often shortcut free passages. Despite some tougher sections and the often remarkably broken rhythms of Hemingway (few drummers succeed in playing an entire concert in an almost conventional style while never actually doing it), this concert remained an accessible performance that found a self-evident balance of structure and freedom, and tradition and renewal. Because of that, it found the perfect middle ground between Helias’ more thoughtful Open Loose en Anderson’s even breezier work with Marty Ehrlich.
There’s no weak link in this band, but Anderson is the ace in the hole. If you see this skinny broad-smiling guy, you’d just want to give him a flute to whistle on, but the sounds he manages to get out of a trombone – broad smears, razor-sharp eruptions and even intricate circular breathing full of variations – is proof of an immense imagination and control over his instrument. Seeing such a talented man give his all, while supported by colleagues who are willing and able to help him, is pure bliss.
Things would even get more eccentric, however. The new trio of John Butcher (tenor- and soprano saxophone), Mark Sanders (drums, percussion) and Georg Graewe (piano) has nothing left to prove. That Butcher and Sanders form a perfectly suited couple was already evident from their recently released album Daylight, but their collaboration with Graewe was equally fearless and adventurous. Maybe a bit too much so at first, because it didn’t take Butcher and Graewe very long before they started displaying their entire range of skills. In Graewe’s case that implied wild rage over the ivory, with hands that were constantly tumbling over each other, blasting the walls between free improvisation and modern classical, bombastically pushing the pedal to the metal.
In combination with Butcher’s antics, this caused some overkill. Even a world class musician like Ray Anderson, who, admittedly, plays an instrument that’s notoriously hard to tame, will have to acknowledge Butcher’s near super-human possibilities in terms of the most complete and uncompromising use of instrument possible. Butcher blows, squeezes, sucks and kisses the most eccentric sounds – from birdlike chirping and rumbling drones to inhuman screeching – from his saxes. Stunning to see and hear, but also turning into a musical freak show, all rolling muscles and full of Icarus ambition. Luckily the first marathon piece got its quieter moment after a while, after which it became more introverted and the musicians worked with a narrower, but sharper focus.
Mark Sanders, in the eye of the storm, proved himself as the most musically thinking musician on stage. What he did can only be described as painting with a drumkit, continuously varying with brushes and sticks, playing with mini toms and caressing with his bare hands. He came up with an impressively refined game of sounds that telepathically reacted to his surroundings and exuded coherence. Sanders sketched refined contours with confidence and gave this excellent concert a human face with a few ingenious interventions. Brilliant.
And the best was yet to come. Reed player Ken Vandermark had already introduced his new band Made To Break at last year’s Follow The Sound festival (Antwerp), but only with some degree of success. It was a fine concert, but felt somewhat stiff, the sound was below average and the band never really hit its stride. This time it took only about ten seconds before you had forgotten that Nickelsdorf was targeted by a few nasty rain showers. The quartet kicked off with imposing fieriness and an infectious energy, with hard swinging drum and bass parts by Tim Daisy and Devin Hoff and muscular riffs by Vandermark.
The main asset here was Christof Kurzmann, who delivered a crucial contribution from behind his laptop, by augmenting rhythmic patterns, adding bouncing sound waves and replaying Vandermark’s furious tenor playing. The result was a sparkling attack on mediocrity that never felt pompous or crude, yet seemed to combine the best of Vandermark’s most driven bands of the past. It felt like Spaceways Inc. (the soul, the funk), Powerhouse Sound (the groove) and The Vandermark 5 (the eclectic, genre-defying compositions) were turned into a new hybrid, an all overpowering bastard son.
You can hardly accuse Vandermark of laziness. He’s an artist who’s constantly on the lookout for new sounds and collaborations, which has recently often led to projects that veered closer to the worlds of chamber music, free improvisation and crossovers that felt like ways to satisfy his need for compositorial challenges. But it also felt great to see him head a well-oiled machine of a band that’s capable of subtle interplay, but also rough power. Whoever thought that Vandermark lost his flag ship after disbanding the Vandermark 5 is in for a treat now, because this sounded like the true beginning of a new, exciting chapter, one that after other recent highlights (both with the Resonance Ensemble and solo) strengthens the belief he’s on top of another one of his creative peaks. Fantastic stuff.
And then we were in for some confusion. Pianist Chris Abrahams of The Necks had apparently fallen on the stage while preparing for the concert and was driven to the hospital. What we got instead was a concert by remaining Necks members Tony Buck (drums) and Lloyd Swanton (bass) with Steve Williamson and Orphy Robinson from Black Top. It became clear very fast that, perhaps out convenience, they’d choose the route of fiery free jazz. Buck, Swanton and Robinson (on marimba) were soon hammering like lunatics, obliging Williamson to shed the coat of caution. Which happened.
All this related to the fire music of the sixties, with Buck attacking his drum kit with relentless ferociousness that referred to Keith Moon and Paal Nilssen-Love. After a first wild climax, there was a bit of a pudding effect with some directionless noodling, but the quartet was smart enough to streamline their approach into a new climax and top it off with a blast. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was well-received by an audience that thanked the band after such a night of delicacies with well-deserved, thunderous applause. A festival day like this, moving from highlight to highlight, is indeed a rare feat.
SATURDAY JULY 21st
Unfortunately, I had to miss the afternoon concert by Dafne Vicente-Sandoval (bassoon) and Klaus Filip (ppooll), but the well-filled evening program with its nice share of challenges well made up for that. It started on a high note with a performance by the “A” Trio of Sharif Sehnaoui, Mazen Kerbaj and Raed Yassine, three players of the Lebanese free improvisation scene who make highly unusual music with unconventional playing techniques that mainly create and vary on awkward sounds, resonating surfaces and mechanically messing around.
Sehnaoui’s handling of the acoustic guitar vaguely reminded me of the prepared guitar-approach of Paolo Angeli, using metal objects and squeaking and trembling effects that caused somewhat sitar-like effect. Bass player Yassine would never pluck his string the conventional way. Instead, he pressed cups and scales against his strings, making them sing, creak and roar with his bow, often creating results that had a middle-eastern vibe. Most remarkable, however, was Kerbaj (along with Sehnaoui also the founder of the Al Maslakh-label, another worthy discovery), who performed with nearly limitless creativity.
He not only messed around with trumpet, squeezing screeching and moaning sounds as he goes along, but also used all kinds of miscellaneous stuff – they often seemed like cheap toys – with which he brought the hypnotizing intensity to a boil. This all sounds artificial on paper, but the trio delivered some of the most mesmerizing pieces of the festival, a hypnotic feast of sounds that the first moment sounded like a transmission from outer space and the next like a clock workspace on the loose or a hysterical birdhouse. Apart from the guitar playing, which regularly delved into recurring rhythmic patterns, the concert offered not much in the way of melody or something else to hold on to, but that was compensated by the refreshing and playful inventiveness. You can hardly imagine a more original opening concert.
Next up: a few concerts by brand new bands that were put together especially for this festival. The first one was a quartet with Frank Gratkowksi (bass clarinet, saxes), Tanja Feichtmaier (alto saxophone), Peter Herbert (bass) and Christian Lillinger (drums), which boasted quite an energy, but never dissolved into directionless honking and hammering. The frontline with the two saxes worked excellently, Gratkowksi usually being a tad more aggressive than his counterpart Feichtmeier, who, with cramped left shoulder sounded as fiery, but also a bit more mellow, bending forward and backward like a female John Dikeman. The music threaded on punkjazz ground, but with a remarkable suppleness.
The quartet’s sound was to a large degree also dependent on the excessively dynamic drumming of Lillinger. He has a trio called Hyperactive Kid, and it soon became clear why. His hyper-flamboyant approach, in which he combines explosive beats with the use of shakers and manipulation of cymbal sounds, is the kind of support a reed player can only dream of. That hair lock of him keeps jumping up and down, as hectic as his sticks, which he nearly hit through his skins. His biggest asset, however, is his ability to create space. His bombastic style has a strong show-aspect that’s perhaps a bit too much for some, but you have to acknowledge that he’s a wonderfully catchy motor, perfectly able to slow down without losing his eccentricity.
Bass player Herbert is a generation older than his colleagues, but he gave his all with similar conviction and, along with Lillinger, even verged into a beautiful piece of quiet lyricism full of singing melodies (even on cymbals!). In short: a dream start (because this begs for a sequel!) by a new band, and a concert with nuance, swing and power, full of bleating and stomping parts of cajoling and horny, thrashing saxes, forceful drumming and varied bass work. To top it off, this infectious concert, during which I saw one talent confirm and another one emerge, was ended with a fragile encore, enhancing our enjoyment of it even more. Great when all the pieces of the puzzle seem to fall in the right place.
If the first quartet proved that a first meeting can lead to wonderful results, than the second one unfortunately showed the other side of the medal. Improvisation icon Paul Lovens had a meeting with pianist Albert Braida, cello player Frances-Marie Uitti and bass player Wilbert De Joode. It all started quite promising, with Lovens (as usual in his uniform of white shirt/black tie) who started messing with his trademark cups and broken rhythms, dreamy strings and well-dosed piano contributions. After that, the unpredictability and density only increased, but the ultimate goal – reaching a collective story with individual impulses – was rarely reached. The reason why? Not enough listening, too many ideas, a combination that didn’t work? No idea, perhaps all of that combined?
No one will doubt these musicians’ capacity to create remarkable music, but it seemed as if these four, despite the use of each other’s ideas and a non-stop trade-off, stuck to their own private directions. For a while, it almost resembled an intellectual game that withheld the key to the solution. Perhaps because there wasn’t any? Piano and drums shared a few rhythmic patterns, but it rarely led to anything new. The bass and cello sang and rasped, were caressed and plucked and created some repetitive figures, but the whole kept an awkward detachment, which made it hard to get carried away by the dizzying music and even harder to feel something.
Free jazz rarely reaches a wider audience, but the collaboration of Neneh Cherry and Scandinavian power trio The Thing – Mats Gustafsson (saxes, electronics), Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums, percussion), each of them a Vin Diesel of their respective instruments – caused quite a stir, also outside of the world of free jazz. The Jazzgalerie’s garden was by consequence filled to the brim for a concert that was a game that was already won before it had started. It was immediately clear that the trio’s approach is more raucous, but also a bit more shabby than on the record, with a lot of direct power play and an absence of subtlety. Of course, that’s not the main concern to start with. Even Neneh Cherry started jumping, headbanging and singing like a maniac right from “Too Tough To Die’s noisy start.
At first, Cherry’s voice didn’t sound that good: it seemed as if she’d been mistreating her voice for too long (tour fatigue?) and she regularly sounded quite off. “Dream Baby Dream” was a bit more controlled, just like the exorcism of “Golden Heart”, which Cherry used to start freewheeling enthusiastically, but with a sloppy timing. However, the quartet steadily got more focus into the set: “Dirt” was twice as wild (and powerful) as its studio counterpart and during a strong version of “Accordion”, you could only applaud Cherry for doing THIS after having been off radar for fifteen years, while it would’ve been much easier to come up with a useless comeback record and a tour of the has beens-circuit.
So, mainly mixed feelings up till then, but they gradually left because the band came up with a forceful finale, featuring a swinging take on zydeco song “Call The Police”, a convincing rant in Archie Shepp’s “Blasé” and a ferocious encore that glued the primitive violence of “Viking” and The Ex’s “Hidegen Fujnak a Szelek” together. It was perhaps not the expected triumph – it lacked the sharpness of the very best Thing-concerts for that – but that was compensated for by the colossal finale that nearly set the place on fire.
The laidback atmosphere and approach of the festival also has one disadvantage (or perhaps an advantage for those who get enough sleep): there’s a starting hour for the first band that’s usually respected, but you never know what time the next bands will play. Nobody can predict anything when it comes to the Konfrontationen time schedules. When Austrian Radian started its set, it was already half past two, yet a large part of the audience was still there. With good reason, because bass player John Norman, drummer Martin Brandlmayr and brand new band member and guitar player Martin Siewert (like Brandlmayr a member of Trapist, and also to be heard on the recently released (Fake) The Facts, with Dieb13 and Gustafsson) played an intense night concert.
To do that they delved into a broad array of influences that can also be heard on their albums (all of their Thrill Jockey-releases are worth checking out), ranging from Tortoise-styled postrock and the krautgrooves of Can to skittering electro-experiment (working best of all in the beautifully treated and ultra-tight drumming payterns of Brandlmayr, full of echoes, clicks and rattling effects), with hints of industrial and searing noise. Siewert had a battery of pedals in front of his feet and on his table and winked to soundscape and shoegaze, while Norman’s sturdy bass grooves made for a strong foundation. Vital was often Brandlmayr’s bass drum, mixed up to monumental proportions and giving their music a metropolitan, vibe and danceable beats.
They played with clear outlines, unlike many of their colleagues on the festival, but also here there was room for improvisation and the three of them created music that sounded entirely contemporary, mesmerizing and irresistibly cool, as if this farmer’s village was temporarily transported to some underground location in Vienna or Berlin. As appropriate as the opener was, so good was it also to have Radian as final act on the menu of this uneven, but intriguing third festival day.
SUNDAY JULY 22nd
Such volume and such roaring inspiration! When Ab Baars presses that tenor saxophone to his lips, deeply rumbling and bleating expressively, the blues of Frank Wright and Albert Ayler still simmering in those outer regions, it suddenly gets very quiet on the benches of the Evangelische Kirche of Nickelsdorf. He varies on staccato elements and hyper-intense screaming, only to switch to a softer, almost creamy tone later on, one that’s more aligned with the Zen-calm he exudes. Together with Dutch-based bass playter Meinrad Kneer and veteran drummer Bill Elgart (Paul Blery, Lee Konitz, etc), he only plays sporadically, but it sounds as if they’re doing nothing else.
The bass player and drummer are constantly in touch with each other, using each other’s hints and suggestions, which leads to mesmerizing combinations of bowed strings and gently treated toms and sizzling cymbals, with now and then an abrupt, rumbling explosion. Baars created a more meditative atmosphere on his shakuhachi (which he’s been playing regularly since he bought it on a trip to Japan several years ago) and finally switches to clarinet, with sustained notes and hysterical peaks in which the ghost of John Carter is a fixed presence. And then I’m suddenly reminded of the influence Baars must’ve had on Vandermark’s clarinet playing as well.
The highlight takes place in the second extended piece, when a serene clarinet solo only gains expression and emotion, painfully beautiful and intensely howling and cuts to the bone with carving smears. That you can accomplish this without any form of preparation takes openness, a willingness to listen carefully and baggage, which these three display with class. Baars, Kneer and Elgart won over the entirely filled church with perhaps the most intensely concentrated concert of these four days. Mightily beautiful. So beautiful even, that we didn’t want to interrupt its reverberating beauty with the performance of Sqid, later in that same church.
The Necks’ concert, which didn’t take place because of Chris Abrahams’ fall, was rescheduled to Sunday. Together with drummer Tony Buck and bass player Lloyd Swanton, pianist Abrahams has been using one of the most recognizable approaches to live concerts in the world of jazz and improvised music. The Necks favors marathon performances that excel in coherence, fluent movements and trancelike-ambiance. No swing, no sudden rhythmic shifts or conventional solos, but a group performance that’s closer to minimalism, drone and majestic laments.
Sometimes, it leads to fierce arcs of throbbing tension (there’s a reason why The Necks opened for apocalyptic rock band Swans), something that also worked out nicely on the stage of Konfrontationen. Abrahams started off with simple repetitions of seemingly lost notes he let resonate with his sustain pedal. Buck added barely audible, metallic percussion, while Swanton’s pulsating stringpulling and pressing kept everything under control. The machine slowly got on its way and turned out a ritualistic performance that lasted nearly fifty minutes.
You’d think it’s all about that unavoidable climax at the end, that increasing intensity until the whole thing blows up in a miasma of torn shards that allows the band to start all over again, but that’s not exactly what happens. There were peaks, of course, mainly because of the unrelentless play of density and volume, but they caused a slow transformation into a new segment and not the sudden tabula rasa. As such, you were confronted with gradual, very natural waves following the tactics of continued tension and coherence and not the course of impressive, but easy violence. This was a bit of a breather after all those concerts doing the unpredictable thing.
Playing with teeth, tongue, lips, breath, saliva, valves and (sometimes) a mouthpiece, is the beloved trademark of Christine Abdelnour, who’s been augmenting the altsax vocabulary with stubborn perseverance for years now. For as long, she’s been a mainstay in improvisation circles, working with colleagues from the most diverse areas of experimental music, while that obsession for sound in its purest form remains a recurring phenomenon. By consequence, lovers of traditional jazz better steer away from her avant-garde tactics. Together with Andrea Neuman (inside piano) and Bonnie Jones (electronics), with whom she recently released an album under the name As : Is (recorded at the Q-O2 in Brussels), she provided Nickelsdorf with a remarkable concert.
Neumann’s task should be taken quite literally: on her table effectively lay the inner bowels of a piano, which she treated, groped and caressed with all kinds of objects, most frequently with a bow. Jones worked with crackling, whistling and rustling sounds (or the nagging sound your cell phone might make right before it starts ringing) and field recordings that she extracted from her laptop, which in combination with the mouth experiments of Abdelnour led to an intricate coming and going of shuffling sounds.
Sure, it was something else, and even uncanny sometimes, because of the strikingly low volume, but whether it was enough probably depends on personal preference. I found this an intriguing, but not very captivating performance that hinted at possibilities without fully exploring them. Seeing a musician play a saxophone without a mouthpiece can be unusual, but what if nothing much happens? To really make an impression, the concert could’ve used a bit more dynamics. Now it was a bit meager, certainly when compared to what was still to come.
The concert by Keith Tippett (paino), Julie Tippetts (voice/toys) and Willi Kellers (drums) was definitely among the most striking concerts of the festival. Since the sixties, Tippett has been playing an unusual role within the realm of free music, because of his many links to the world of rock & roll (King Crimson, Brian Eno, etc) and his love for large ensembles, but also because of his fondness of the solo performance. This time around, he played a concert with his wife (formerly Julie Driscoll), with whom he developed an original bond on stage.
It’s hard to label their music – initially akin to pop and folk music, while the next development is definitely more robust and unpredictable – but the ease with which they create their own strand of improvised music is remarkable. Tippett knows how to create dynamics, juggling with jangling apreggio’s and dreamy chords, often ending up in the wasteland between spooky and fairytale-like ambiance due to Tippetts’ sirene wails. Via all kinds of toys, ranging from petite percussive stuff to shakers, thumb piano, tambourine and mini xylophone, it also had a childlike naiveté, with an emphasis on rhythmic patterns. Hovering between lyrical and forceful support, Willi Kellers was equally as creative with often explosive accents. What he did with an enormous aluminum scale was nifty as well, patiently rattling and rotating around Tippett’s piano stories.
The performance dragged on a bit too long at the end, but during its best moments, this trio turned in a theatrical, remarkably fluent performance – intensely intimate and majestic at the same time, with tribal, semi-kitschy and powerful impulses that were seamlessly combined into something unique. If there are more musicians doing this kind of stuff, please let me know, because I can’t think of any right now.
The concert by the Bauer 4 is something you’d love to hear more often at improvisation festivals. You have to admit: the Dutch know how to use humor and the absurd to great effect, but improvised music often also tends to be a bit on the dry and navel-gazing side, the kind of intellectual debate that doesn’t allow many light, breeziness and humor, but that’s hardly something you can accuse these guys of. The German Bauer-clan has acquired a noble standing in the meantime. The most well-known two of them, trombone players Connie and Johannes, were joined by third brother Matthias (on bass) and Connie’s son Louis Rastig (piano), one of the forerunners of a new generation and organizer of the brand new A L’Arme! Festival, which took place in Berlin at the same time.
The Bauers seemed to realize that the crowd could use something digestible after more than twenty concerts and their reaction was appropriate. They played an energetic set with mainly shorter pieces that run the entire gamut, from hyper-nervous sizzling and bleating (with, as usual, a key role for the clownish birthday boy, Johannes) to thwacking interplay that led to a bold wall of sound that made you realize that Rastig could hold his own between those heavyweight players with a physical intensity (hook him up with Lillinger and it’ll be satisfaction guaranteed for fans of musical action painting) and thundering piano parts. The men also realized the importance of space and often played in smaller combos.
There was, for instance, a solo piece by Connie that started quite breezily and predictably, but created a nice moment of variation in a set that in the hands of lesser musicians could have turned into a massive, corpulent whole. Or the expressive discussion between Rastig and Matthias, who even started yelling and moaning to comic effect. The result: a diverse and sparkling performance that veered towards the work of Carl Stalling and the Keystone Cops at times, but also had its moments of introspective finesse. It’s always great to watch a band with such virtuosity having fun on stage.
The fifth and last concert of the evening perhaps was one too many, but with the guys of Papajo – drummer Paul Lovens (same uniform, but with a haircut and a shave), bass player John Edwards and trombone player Paul Hubweber – you get to see a few guys that both individually and collectively make a difference, which was also the case in Nickelsdorf. It seemed obvious that these guys have often played together before, because the flowing traffic of suggestions, as well as the telepathic interplay, during which the creative style of Lovens was countered by the sheer endless techniques of Hubweber (rarely have I seen a musician with all kinds of aids that agile) and the brilliant control of Edwards.
It’s quite impressive that the bass player, even while facing colleagues with such an idiosyncratic style, was still the most striking figure on stage, churning out lightning fast runs, pizzicato playing and a whole bag of percussive tricks. Now and then you could even discern some aspects of the groove-oriented play he gave away alongside Mulatu Astatke a while ago. What it perhaps lacked, to a certain degree, was a narrowly focused arc or more of a climax, but at a festival like this, where everything usually comes as a surprise, that’s hardly a severe critique. The adventure and freedom were a magnificent tribute to the festival’s unique character.
And finally I get to a kind of conclusion. One of them is that the claim that “you only realize what it means once you’ve experienced it” is actually correct. It has nothing to do with elitism or teasing, but with the observation that this festival has its own set of rules and only follows its own course, one of unconditional love for music. The program is composed with knowledge and an eye for tradition and renewal, the sound is always good and musicians and audience share the same space for four days and share a glass (or more) together. Because it’s natural. There’s none of that irritating applause after each solo, either. The only applause I heard came AFTER a piece. Food and drinks are affordable. And good. The reception is warm, the atmosphere laidback.
In short: it’s a festival with a lot of heart, which is to a large degree the result of the dedication, vision and madness of organizer Hans Falb, who’s been running this event since 1980 and can count on a small and equally dedicated army of volunteers. After a few days, it becomes clear why Nickelsdorf has become a Mekka for fans of improvised music from all over Europe, why a lot of musicians (from Mats Gustafsson and Georg Graewe to Roscoe Mitchell, Christof Kurzmann and Evan Parker) consider it a second home, and why this was for me perhaps the best festival experience in more than two decades of going to concerts. The purpose of this rambling monologue is therefore not to stress that you perhaps weren’t there, but to make sure it is documented, in some form. Even if it’s by a Belgian. Valuable experiences need to be treasured. And next year you’ll come along and experience it for yourself.
More impressions/articles/photos, etc – HERE