Festival Report

Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon
By Ken Waxman

Wood fabrication in many forms, from house renovation to cabinetry, is one of the industries in the area surrounding the small Austrian town of Ulrichberg. Appropriately enough this year’s 29th Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon May 1 to 3, featured a wood-based instrument in nearly every performance.

First among equals were French double bassist Joëlle Léandre, performing in a quartet with Swiss soprano and tenor saxophonist Urs Leimgruber, Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl and Rome-based, American composer Alvin Curran who played piano and electronics. An experienced improviser since his time with Musica Elettronica Viva in the ‘60s, Curran’s tapping on piano strings prepared with cymbals made a perfect percussive counterpoint to Leimgruber’s key slaps and Stangl’s vertical rubbing of a violin bow on guitar strings. Léandre’s typically disruptive response to this was semi-romantic bowing. Later on, when Curran’s wheezy harmonica and steady piano chording referenced “St. James Infirmary”, she reversed course to slap a bass line as Stangl strummed appropriately. When not showcasing high-velocity string sawing which complemented Leimgruber’s extended techniques, Léandre’s ascending, pseudo-operatic cries and throat gurgles kept the program constantly fascinating to the extent that the 45-minute performance seemed to flash by in an instant.

Another stalwart double bass player, known for his affiliation with John Zorn, Greg Cohen provided the thumping bottom for clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s animated trio. Drummer Kenny Wollesen ensured the pieces swung in a sophisticated fashion, while Goldberg’s woodwind command extended into that space where Klezmer-like sighs brush up against raunchy whistles; and improvisational smarts meld with classical organization. Besides his compositions which demonstrated how lilting melodies can have serious intent, Goldberg kept the proceedings upbeat with his sardonic song titles and comments.

German bassists, Stefan Scheib matched with Luxembourg-based junk percussionist Elisabeth Flunger; and Meinrad Kneer, working with Australian/British violinist Jon Rose plus British electronic manipulator Richard Barrett; did their respective best(s) utilizing four-string authority to solder together disparate portions of contrasting performances. With stentorian thumps that established his time-keeping, or alternately using spiccato delicacy for intricate explorations below the bridge, Scheib provided the anchor to Flunger’s sound-making, which involve stroking, smacking, scraping, scratching and vibrating everything placed on her literal table of elements. At points it appeared as if she was scrubbing pots; other times she seemed to be knitting. More organically her improvisations involved bell pealing and drum beating. Quixotically the collaboration was so perceptive that if any item on Flunger’s elevated platform inadvertently cascaded on the ground, the resulting timbre was quickly interpolated into the program. A day previously, as Kneer constantly stroked or pulled on his strings to maintain low-frequency consistency, and Barrett outputted crackling undertow or reinforced the others’ improvisations with live processing, a newly vigorous Rose pulled his four-strings in every imaginable direction. Past master of fiddle frolics, Rose as frequently whipped his bow in the air or bounced it off the strings as he carved expressive passages from his instrument. While technically perfect though, overall cohesion seemed to be somehow lacking.

Another masterful technician, Californian Mark Dresser’s solo concert demonstrated all that could be extracted from the double bass, with steadfast pizzicato and arco utilizing three different bows. A recital of mid-length pieces, Dresser’s facility extended from micro-minimal delicacy with a bow encompassing the strings, to violent, multi-string outbursts, plucked or scratched. While his sensuous sweeps may touch on notated music, Dresser’s pacing has a real jazz feeling. Assured effortlessness radiated throughout. However sporadically Dresser’s facial expression suggested that he too was baffled at a suddenly produced tone and is as equally delighted as the audience at how well the result sounds.

The double bass’s welterweight sibling, the cello, wasn’t neglected at the Kaleidophon either. Two ardent players expressed its virtuosity in dissimilar fashion. Part of the all-Ulrichberg-based Trio Now, cellist Uli Winter contributed to the band’s modus operandi by frequently assuming the time-keeping role usually taken by a bassist. Practising weekly or more frequently, the band members’ timbres snap together like Lego pieces, leading to high-quality free jazz. Resourceful drummer Fredi Pröll propels rhythmic power with the same skill that he brings to sawing a violin bow on cymbals or sliding plastic cups over drum tops to extend tranquil passages. Meanwhile alto saxophonist Tanja Feichtmair excels within three modes. In the midst of furious improvisation she deconstructs textures while fiercely reed biting. To bring a theme to its appropriate conclusion, her playing becomes descriptively tonal and cooperative. And infrequently she illuminates her solos with a familiar jazz lick.

Familiar anything is not the stock-in-trade of American expatriate cellist Tristan Honsinger, who now lives in Berlin. A long-time member of the anarchistic Dutch ICP Orchestra, throughout his duo set, the cellist kept up constant verbal chatter that was halfway between story-telling and shtick, mostly involving word play and odd phrase juxtaposition. Instrumentally Honsinger avoids the cello’s purported melancholy nature, substituting co-ordinated swing or string tapping and sliding. Notwithstanding that Honsinger isn’t averse to waltzing his cello around the stage he and Japanese pianist Shuichi Chino make an appealing team. Chino, who traded his rock-band roots for free improvisation, bonded impressively with the cellist as both stretched out on a pseudo blues-boogie line. Later he mocked Honsinger’s attempts at calm patterning with florid pianism; or contributed to mutual textural deconstruction, plucking and rattling his instrument’s internal string set as Honsinger attacked his strings. Perhaps to contrast with the cellist’s stage uniform of sports jacket and cap, or to demonstrate the intensity of improvisation, Chino gradually stripped off his jacket and dress shirt as he played, ending up in a t-shirt.

More formal in their music, but not attire was the six-member Swedish Skogen ensemble which performed a subdued notated piece by pianist Magnus Granberg. As much an environment as a composition, the narrative which includes directed improvisation, eventually inflated in intensity but not tempo. Overall the strings-percussion-and-electronic group performance was effective but not exciting. From the opposite side of the spectrum, British bass clarinetist Gareth Davis and Dutch rock trio Julie Mittens smashed out brief compositions by Austrian Peter Ablinger and their own set. The latter was typical heavy metal, complete with pogo-ing lead guitarist and posing bass guitarist; perhaps well-played but incongruous in this context. Based on how quickly the foursome could inflate tones to super-fortissimo and immediately pause, Ablinger’s multi-part concept quickly become tired.

Experiments such as these show how the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon annually reflects the many currents of improvisation. Throughout musicians are given the freedom to succeed (mostly) and fail (infrequently) according to their own standards. With a pedigree like this, next year’s 30th anniversary edition is a program worth anticipating.

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2014