March 3-5, 2023
St. Johann in Tirol, Austria
Review by Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor
Gradually and now decisively, people are shaking themselves out of the torpor and fear that restricted their movements during the Covid-19 pandemic to fully participate in live events. There could be no better indication of this than the large and convivial crowds that packed St. Johann in Tirol’s Alte Gerberei (AG) and its satellite venues in early March for the 2023 Artacts festival. The spirit wasn’t misplaced. While not every performance scored a direct hit – uncertainty in creation is part of the appeal of improvised music – every group attained its goals; some performances were particularly dazzling.
One group which seemed to appropriately channel the pent-up emotion and excitement expressed by post-Covid improvised music was the 10-piece Norwegian Ensemble led by Andreas Røysum, which opened the AG’s second night of concerts. It consisted of two drummers, two bassists, two brass players, two saxophonists, two string players (cello and violin) plus Røysum, who himself is taller than a double bass, playing clarinet and bass clarinet.
Starting with a fanfare, the tentet conducted by the clarinetist as he swayed back and forth, and twisted down to a squat then back up to his full height, ran through a collection of vamping foot-tappers, played with the exuberance of a Dixieland combo, but with solos shared among sophisticated sound explorers.
As drummers Andreas Wildhagen and Ivar Myrset Asheim reverberated a concentrated backbeat, the shifting timbral landscape was pierced by super spiccato slices from cellist Joel Ring and violinist Hans P. Kjorstad, nephritic plunger blasts from Øyvind Brække’s muted trombone, and jagged bites from Erik Kimestad Pedersen’s trumpet, while saxophonists Marthe Lea (tenor) and Signe Emmeluth (alto) honked and riffed with Basie-band-like authority. There was room for lyricism as well as liveliness in the performance when Røysum and Emmeluth, who was featured with her own quartet the previous night, slowed down the pace at midpoint with a harmonized Arcadian counter-melody from their dual flutes.
Another ensemble that expressed its polyphony with a side order of stridency was Vienna’s Sugar 6TTT. Playing compositions by bass clarinetist Susanna Gartmayer, the group included clarinetist Jake Mann, drummer Mariá Portugal, guitarist Kenji Herbert and two bassists: British veteran John Edwards and the younger Brazilian Vinicius Cajado. The 6TTT also took advantage of instrument duality within a nonstop program that climaxed with a polyphonic crescendo. Interludes highlighted differences between tongued buzzing, multiphonic vibrations and altissimo squeaks from the bass clarinetist, with horizontal stirrings from the clarinet as well as unison blowing by the two.
Meanwhile, Edwards jabbed spiccato slivers onto his clenched strings or vibrated small sticks placed among them, as Cajado slapped out thickened, low-pitched pizzicato thumps.
Herbert remained unobtrusive with ghostly flanges and slides, until moving forward with buzzing shakes and banjo-like picking in a duet with Gartmayer’s chalumeau smears.
With reeds and basses intermittently connecting to create rhythmic swing, Portugal’s contributions to the linear groove were shuffles and backbeats, while breaking up the continuum with bare-palm pounding and frame-drum-like echoes.
It wasn’t only younger drummers who demonstrated their skills during Artacts ’23. Veteran percussionists contributed cadenced pulses to at least two memorable concerts. Slovenian Zlatko Kaučič’s collection of drums, percussion and rhythmic add-ons was cunningly displayed as he created new textures with Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik and French bassist Joëlle Léandre when they closed Friday’s concerts.Meanwhile, German Martin Blume brought a table full of percussion instruments and a regular drum kit to balance the contributions of the unusually constituted Soundbridges quartet of Germans: trombonist Matthias Muche and analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn plus American Ken Vandermark’s clarinet and tenor saxophone. Soundbridges’ Sunday set was the festival’s final one.
Producing a rich, flowing pulse and rhythmic asides, Kaučič created a jazz-like continuum of cross-handed pops, smacks and ruffs, while matching or challenging the others’ string-buzzing and sweeps by pivoting to rolling wooden boxes on drum tops, vibrating hand cymbals, shaking bells and smacking together two metal pots.
Sounding internal piano strings as frequently as the external keyboard, Harnik varied her key clips, strained tinkles and hard pumps with key-stopping, which further juddered implements placed on the internal strings.
In contrast, her contribution to the fourth improvisation consisted of repeated single notes that worked into a melody as Léandre sliced bass notes back and forth to join her exposition. The bassist of course, is a show in herself, varying her spicatto bowing and thick pizzicato resonations with vocal mumblings, whispers, hums, tongue raspberries and nonsense song snatches. Even as she ferociously grabbed her bass’s strings with seemingly ceaseless rubs, a sense of dynamic association to the improvisation and the other players’ contributions remained. No matter how many vibrating bass strings, powerful piano glissandi or unexpected drum rhythms demanded attention, the basic architecture of the trio remained firm.
It was the same with Soundbridges, each member of which has a history as a bandleader. Uncommon in that Lehn’s synthesizer filled the role of a chordal instrument, the quartet’s emphasis on multiphonics as well as melodicism meant that spirited sound explorations overcame any shift towards the expected. Blume for instance, provided a patterning pulse throughout, but took time to animate the proceedings with careful interjections of vibrating hand cymbals, small gong and temple-bell resonations, slaps on a miniature wooden box or shaking flax stalks.
Lehn’s sequenced voltage forays included comping and linear extensions. But the signal-processing and organ-like tremolos his instrument produced were also used as unexpected sound torquing. Sometimes, in fact, the synth’s inflated pulsations could even be confused with either of the horn players’ irregular vibrations. Expressive as well as explosive, Muche melded speedy vibrated triplets with sliding plunger tones that expressed half-valve emotionalism, or used languid smears to dovetail with the clarinet’s continuous clarion trills. On tenor saxophone, Vandermark often built up motifs from understated gentle trills to spetrofluctuation, sharp bites or strained glissandi. Yet it was those expected if unconventional reed sounds that encouraged Lehn to later turn to piano-like comping, and Muche to propel his most expansive note-slides upwards.
Designated percussion of both macro and micro configurations also had its place at the festival. The former was utilized to great effect by Ches Smith as part of the concluding set on Artacts second night as he moved among vibraphone, drum kits and also manipulated pre-recorded percussion samples.
Smith was part of an all-American trio featuring cellist Tomeka Reid and led by pianist Craig Taborn, who added subtle electronic processing to his piano notes. Meanwhile, drum minimalism was part of the workings of the Köln-based C/W|N trio which played before the Soundbridges set on the last night. Etienne Nillesen coaxed unusual tones from his percussion set up, which consisted of little more than an extended snare drum mounted horizontally. Dušica Cajlan played extended piano, and Georg Wissel augmented alto saxophone.
Ambidexterity as well as the others’ shifting emphasis meant that the Taborn/Reid/Smith selections roamed among pure improvisation, Jazz rhythms, minimalism and a touch of notated music. Cellist Reid for instance, at points plucked out what would be the double bass part in a standard Jazz trio. Other times she vibrated formal arco sweeps which intersected with similar straightforward expressions from the pianist; or joined the others in creating a hypnotic, almost ceaseless tone blend, that was only resolved when Taborn let loose with swinging glissandi, backed by drum rustles. Positioning motifs like Reid’s bent-note string slices or the pianist’s repeated keyboard patterning within a persuasive rhythmic continuum in his role as drummer, Smith created his own sonic dislocation as vibist.
Periodically adding processed sound samples as a backing chorus, Smith’s mallet strokes varied the sustain of individual bars to dampen them or let them ring freely. He also created unique timbral detours by stroking the metal with wet fingertips or sawing a violin bow against the instrument’s frame. Throughout, Taborn joined the others in duo or trio formations, expressing ballad elaborations or staccato key clips with the same facility. He also confirmed in-the-moment mastery during the trio’s encore with a piano solo based around pedal-point pushes and understated accompaniment.
Cajlan’s piano contributions to C/W|N didn’t approach those of Taborn’s in his trio. But they weren’t designed that way. With Nillesen’s fixation on sourcing unexpected pulsations from a single drum, and Wissel physically deconstructing and preparing his saxophone body as he played, emphasis was on group communication, not virtuosity. Projecting brief plucks and vibrating objects upon the piano’s internal string set, the pianist’s textures were cadenced and chromatic. Meanwhile, Nillesen rubbed narrow sticks in circles on the drum top, bounced tiny balls and pebbles on the same spot for rhythmic contrasts, or whumped a drumstick on the instrument’s top and sides to speed up the tempo.
As this was going on, Wissel extracted an assemblage of particular sonances from the saxophone by blowing tones while screwing a plastic water bottle into his horn’s bell, replacing the bottle with a plastic cup, or removing the mouthpiece and sucking on the ligature and cork as he tongued shrills and vibrations from the horn. Finally he continued squeaking and scooping variations after he unscrewed the neck and s-curve and attached the mouthpiece directly onto the saxophone body. While some of these movements may have seemed distracting, the trio maintained interaction at all times. Repeating motions such as positioned mallet strokes on the drum top, reinsertion of items into the horn’s bell, and extending piano clips to connect with what the others were playing, C/W|N’s conclusion was as sonically cohesive as that from a more conventional trio.
Creativity was also displayed during Artacts by players in duo formations. One that matched Léandre, the doyenne of double bass creativity with tyro bassist Cajado, took place Saturday afternoon in a specially set-up stage on the second floor of BG/Borg St. Johann, a local school. The other duo, which matched the violin and vocalizing of Bulgarian Biliana Voutchkova with Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, was presented during the opening night program at the Alte Gerberi (AG), the city’s cultural centre and Artacts main venue.
Mutual appreciation obliterated the age gap when Léandre/Cajado performed. Although there were as many aggressive string scrapes as conjoined harmonies, the idea was to amplify string tones and techniques. While Cajado seemed to emphasize more bass notes and pizzicato changes as Léandre strayed to high pitches and arco extensions, cohesion was always there. It was maintained whether the end product was mellow pulsations or col legno stopping as the tempos increased in speed, often to prestissimo. The younger bassist frequently introduced circular motion with his bow work. He often also inserted a short, straight stick or a mallet among his strings and used one or the other to vibrate staccato resonations from that setup. With his output more methodical, Léandre’s seemed more spontaneous, since among the intensity of her long-lined sweeps and strident wood digs, she kept up a continuous singsong dialogue of French phrases and nonsense syllables.
Experience also seemed to bring out more overt humor since instrumental snatches of “London Bridge is Falling Down” and “Frère Jacques” could be heard from Léandre. On the other hand, showing that he was cognizant of more contemporary genres, Cajado sprinkled his solos with steel-guitar-like string twangs and a boogie bass line suitable for a rock band. By the finale however, differences were muted and the two completed the duet with a calm glide into lyrical single plucks.
During her duet with Silva, and with a mic mounted on her violin, Voutchkova too vocalized sounds. The trumpeter’s expression however, tended more towards mouthpiece French-kissing, microtonal buzzes and speedy brass triplets. At the same time the violinist’s motions weren’t all sympathetic glissandi. Sometimes in tandem with vocalized gurgles, whistles and aviary cries, Voutchkova pushed her string affiliations past the melodic formalism she also added to her solos. She squeaked single strings, emphasized pressurized sul ponticello runs and scratched low-pitched drones from animated strings. For balance, the trumpeter accompanied these technical expositions with straight portamento smears. By the finale, sliding brass notes and string glissandi melded sympathetically.
In all, 15 performances took place during this year’s Artacts. Other sets were more appealing as concepts than when they were put into musical practice. For instance, Austrian quarter tone trumpeter Franz Hautzinger – who participated in an improvisation with vocalist Guylaine Cosseron and bassist Benjamin Duboc on the final night – performed earlier for an audience of distracted toddlers at a local children’s centre.
A similar separation between idea and execution resulted as the Rube Goldberg-like setup in a car dealership of a MIDI-controlled orchestra playing alongside an avant-rock trio of guitar, drums and theremin. Still, as the musical world returns to something approaching post-virus normalcy, Artacts continues as a necessary stop for those interested in well-presented, innovative music.
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