Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon

Ulrichsberg, Austria
April 30 –May 2, 2009

A site-specific performance that took into account the dimensions and machinery of a still-functioning 1853 linen factory; resounding interface between pulsating electronic and acoustic instruments; and a full-force finale involving a mid-sized band were among the notable performances at 2009’s Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon.

Remarkable as well as the consistently high quality of the 11 concerts that took place during the 23rd edition of this three-day festival, is the location: a farming and small manufacturing village of fewer than 7,000 people about 60 kilometres west of Linz, Austria.

Two years in the planning and the most spectacular – as well as demanding the most from the audience – performance, was Six Plus One’s “Weaving Sounds”. Utilizing the main space of Ulrichsberg’s linen mill, with machinery protected by yellow danger tape, but with enough looms, electrical cables, bobbins and bolts of cloth present to confirm this was a working environment, in many ways the setting was as important as the sonic result.

Yet the clutch of top-flight improvisers participating made sure the constant timbral pulsations were as riveting as the location and the players’ physical strategies. Swiss pianist Jacques Demierre was stationed on one side of the space, abutting an electronic set up encompassing mixing boards and computers, and manned by technicians. On the opposite side of the factory floor was German synthesizer player Thomas Lehn with his instrument connected to the electrical source for one of the largest machines. On identical raised platforms nearby were French clarinetist/vocalist Isabelle Duthoit and Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber; while Swiss violinist Charlotte Hug and singer and hand saw manipulator Dorothea Schürch created undulating tones and sul ponticello squeaks from positions on the cat walk above the factory floor.

With visual cues difficult, 60 miniature speakers placed strategically around the room enabled players to react to one another’s initiatives. If the warp and woof of their concentrated and jagged tones wasn’t stimulating enough, at points Demierre climbed on the piano bench to cue operation of one loom. Shuddering and screeching as the colorful cloth was stretched and sliced, the resulting mechanized clamor meshed seamlessly with fortissimo reed split tones, cascading synthesizer oscillations, strangled throat spewing and catgut gashing from the instrumentalists. Perception of particular passages whether banged out on a keyboard or sputtered from a reed player’s bell – as well as of the piece itself – was dependent on proximity, since most audience members changed positions several times throughout the concert.

Spatial issues didn’t figure into another electro-acoustic showcase by the French Qwart quartet two days previously. With tones bouncing off the stone walls of the Jazz Atelier, a former pig barn sturdily constructed in the 16th century, baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro’s circular-breathed growls and tongue stops vibrated so powerfully that he had to change reeds mid-set. Meanwhile violinist Michael Nick bowed abrasive spiccato, while Sophie Agnel’s timbre extension involved stopped piano keys plus strings weighted by Styrofoam cups and scraped with looped fishing lines. Providing both crackling and blurry ostinato plus broken octave expansions of the others’ textures with electronics including an e-bow and a camera flash was Jerome Noetinger. A percussive finale was created by Agnel repeatedly slamming the piano lid.

Despite concentrated electro-acoustic performances – including the slow build up of glissandi and looped drones from the Behavior Pattern trio of Austrians, cellist Noid and electronics whiz Ivan Palacky plus Japanese zitherist Taku Unami or the ambient Heavy Metal of extended and fortissimo thudding drones and whooshes from Americans, guitarist Alan Licht and cassette sampler Akli Onda – acoustic sets were often more satisfying. That is if performances were properly harnessed. New York trumpeter Pete Evans, for instance, dazzled with techniques that included brayed triplets, tremolo fluffs and excavated plunger tones. But his quartet showcase appeared never to climax – or end.

More down-to-earth were “Can You Ear Me”, a festival-commissioned tentet composition by French bassist Joëlle Léandre for a mixed Austrian strings-and-horns ensemble plus American percussionist Kevin Norton; and a hushed interpretation of Moron Feldman”s “For John Cage” by British pianist John Tlibury and Irish violinist Darragh Morgan

Equally proficient maintaining a jazz pulse with his standard kit, plus exposing pointillist coloration from struck marimba and vibraphone keys plus unattached sticks, gongs, rattles and cymbals, Norton’s rebounds and strokes sewed together some of the Léandre piece’s fissures, which strained in sections between the notated music orientation of some string players and the improv impulses of the horns. Alongside Léandre’s absorbing command of her instrument – which encompassed pumping straight time, sul ponticello string brushes and vocalized nonsense syllables – the most musically rewarding moments came when guitarist Burkhard Stangl re-directed whammy-bar-aided friction into staccato pulsations; and a section where every musician joyously shook bolo-bat versions of American Indian gourd rattles.

Ironically contrasting with the baroque gold-encrusted sculptures and pictures of saints on the wall of Ulrichsberg’s Pfarrkirche on the fest’s final day, Tilbury and Morgan’s reading of Feldman’s austere score appeared perhaps more coldly minimalist than it was. Certainly the pianist’s clanking single notes plus the violinist’s strangled split tones suggested two parallel courses that hardly intersected. Unrolling at a leisurely pace the result was almost mesmerizing, although it seemed as if the composition took a long time to get to an intermediate point.

More relaxed was a first-time improvisational meeting among Tilbury, Léandre and Norton the previous day. The pianist’s left-handed chord tinkles, which distinguish his contributions to AMM, were in evidence, as were the bassist’s col legno tones and the percussionist’s multi-directional strategies. When Léandre plucked pizzicato, Norton’s vibe strokes doubled her timbres. And when kinetic piano sonorities and string jabs in cello-range were prominent, the percussionist responded by stroking a collection of unattached cymbals, organized in size order. Other times Norton sounded a small gong or used a bow to saw on a small cymbal without ever making the gestures precious.

Precious was an adjective that would never be applied to Norwegian reedist Frode Gjerstad’s 12-piece Circulasione Totale Orchestra, whose sounds blasted the Atelier’s rafters as the Kaleidophon’s finale.

Besides Norton on vibes, the Scandinavian players were spelled by such long-time Gjerstad associates as American Hamid Drake and South African Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums, British bassist Nick Stephens, plus Americans reedist Sabir Mateen and cornetist Bobby Bradford in the front line. Each helped direct the intense Energy Music away from self-indulgence towards group cohesion.

Adding their strokes and paradiddles to a bottom further solidified by Morten Olsen’s percussion and Lasse Marhaug’s electronics, the non-European drummers built a backdrop impermeable enough to serve equally as foundation for chicken-scratch guitar licks and percussive hand-tapping from the electric bassist as well as the jagged, reed-twisting of Gjerstad and Mateen. Harmonized or alone – and often buoyed contrapuntally by Børre Molstad tuba burps or Stevens’ steadying strokes – the reedists zoomed from split tones to multiphonics, advancing improvisations in different pitches. As uncompromisingly atonal as Gjerstad on saxophone, Mateen distinguished himself with pastoral flute passages and stress-less clarinet trills. More iconoclastic still, Bradford maintained his modest and melodic composure even when the rest of the band played fortissimo.

Bradford’s molten creativity was cast in boldest relief however when the cornetist joined with a clarinet-playing Gjerstad for a demanded encore. With harmonies soaring so that they approached pure song, the unaccompanied duo also batted broken octaves back and forth. These timbres, simultaneously challenging and classic, neatly summed up the sort of unexpected sounds exposed at the annual Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon – and the festival’s abiding appeal.

— Ken Waxman

— For MusicWorks Issue #105