Angelo Manicone (tenor saxophone); Felice Furioso (drums) and (Carlo Mascolo (prepared trombone)

MIA 2019: 10th Encontro de Música Improvisada de Atouguia da Baleia
May 31 to June 2, 2019
Atouguia da Baleia, Portugal

By Ken Waxman
Photos by Susan O’Connor

Portugal’s Música Improvisada de Atouguia da Baleia (MIA) is like few other festivals. Part music camp, part improvisational showcase and part concert series, this year’s 10th anniversary edition brought together about 100 musicians for 14 official concerts, 24 Grupo Sorteados (GS), or randomly selected group sets, plus workshops, unique large ensembles, conduction finales and late-night jam sessions. Players from Brazil, Spain, France, the UK, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Turkey and Greece joined a chorizo-thick slice of the country’s most committed improvisers in Atouguia da Baleia, a hamlet about 98 km northwest of Lisbon.

Maria Radich (voice); Maria do Mar (violin) and Michel Stawicki (tenor saxophone)

On the third afternoon for instance, within the parish’s soft-seated Auditório de Sociedade Filarmónica (ASF), where most concerts took place, a GS featured tenor saxophonist Michel Stawicki, guitarist Lucas Pinheiro and bass guitarist Rui Sousa. As the saxophonist launched a gentle exposition, the guitarist twanged, crunched and stabbed his strings, resulting in a jangly POMO approximation of an amalgamation of Stan Getz and Sonny Sharrock. In contrast, when that trio was augmented by alto saxophonists Ayis Kelpekis and Pierre-Yves Baudin plus Rui Veiga’s electronics later on, the novel connection buzzed with near-psychedelic whizzes and crackling static locked into electronic loops and oscillations as the saxophonists constructed an agreeable narrative.

This sort of interaction was also expressed in other sets. On the first afternoon for instance, Kelpekis was involved in an improvisation whose theme variations appeared to relate strongly to contemporary notated styles. Pianist Paulo Pimente repeatedly clanked single-note patterns, and then joined with Nuno Morão’s drum splashes to underline fleet theme elaboration from flutist Paulo Curado, mixed with pinpointed resonations from the massive mounted gongs of Carlos Canão.

João Madeira (bass); Carlos Zíngaro (violin) and TS Hawk (alto saxophone)

Canão’s gongs and Tibetan bowls weren’t the only unconventional instruments put to original and expressive uses at MIA. Subtle accents created by Pedro Castello Lopes` collection of miscellaneous percussion instruments, including darabouka, djembe, hi-hat, bell and chains, was another colorful bonding feature of many of the GSs in which he participated. In other groups, Quinto Fabriziani was equally memorable playing either violin or ney, especially in a GS on the second day, where his violin joined by scratches from Uygur Vural’s cello and patterning from Manuel Guimarães’s piano suggested the creation of an avant-chamber trio. On the other hand, during a set in which Fabriziani’s ney vamped in sympathetic tandem with mellow soprano saxophone puffs from Yedo Gibson, enough space was still allocated for Noel Taylor’s high-pitched clarinet tones to soar over the sextet’s massed exposition. In other contexts, Marco Scarassatti’s home-made double bell trumpet tube added an unmistakable noise suggesting hippopotamus farts when he participated in both large and small ensembles.

João Pedro Viegas (bass clarinet); Adriano Orrù (bass) and Pedro Santo (drums)

MIA’s openness to many forms of improvisational expression also went beyond the instrumental. The most visual instance came from the contortions of dancer Elena Waclawiczek, who performed in various configurations throughout the festival, most notably as an equal with trombonist Fernando Simões, clarinetist AnnaMarie Ignarro, saxophonist Gibson and a rhythm section of bassist Alvaro Rosso and drummer Nuno Morão in a GS. As Gibson slurred an obbligato to Rosso’s string slaps, Waclawiczek moved arms akimbo and on tiptoe across the stage reflecting their timbres; later rolling her torso in sympathy with Simões’ tailgate-style smears. Sonically the piece climaxed with exhilarating Free Jazz polyphony mixed with call-and-response vamps.

A visual element in a less upfront fashion came those times when ad-hoc bands’ sets included fine artist São Matthias Nunes. Visible but unobtrusively situated with her canvas at the back of the ASF stage, she painted in in real-time, reflecting her impressions of the music being produced literally at her elbow. This was particularly evident in a GS set on the final afternoon when spots of color were combined on a vibrantly hued canvas, echoing the quietly intense upfront wordless vocalizing of Elisabetta Lanfredini, accentuated by solid pops and cymbal shakes from drummer Erwin Toul, thick timbres from Miguel Falcão`s bowed double bass, and echoing plucks from Fernando Guiomar`s guitar.

Axel Dörner (slide trumpet and electronics)

Neither were formal performances kept to standard combo configurations. For instance the quartet Unknown Shores, which played the second day at the ASF, owed much of its appeal to the textures created by Marco Scarassatti, who played the hammered dulcimer alongside the subtle inside piano sequences from Silvia Corda, solid double bass narrative from Adriano Orrù and droning advances from bass clarinetist João Pedro Viegas, who was another ubiquitous presence throughout the festival. With banjo-like fills from Scarassatti keeping the program elliptical, the bassist’s string shakes and the pianist’s key clipping built the improvisation to a staccato climax that eventually throbbed with repressed power.

Sonic power could also be applied to the sound of the Kerlox Dynamic 4et, which played on the final afternoon and consisted of tenor saxophonist/flutist Angelo Manicone, drummer Felice Furioso, Domenico Saccente moving between piano and accordion, and Carlo Mascolo, who prepared his trombone textures with a plastic hose and megaphone. Using a combination of slaps, smears, slurs and sweeps, the group’s fanfare resembled a concentrated buzz that was soon deconstructed with bullhorn-amplified brass growls, an ascending tremolo accordion-button ballet and consistent bangs, rolls and claps from the drummer. Finally with Saccente switching to piano key-clicking, the music scaled down to sweeping waves of circular-breathed saxophone licks and breathy trombone burps.

Lucas Pinheiro (guitar)

Another band that highlighted percussion strength, but tempered it with understated brass elaborations appeared during MIA’s final official band set when Castello Lopes hooked up his percussion collection with the low-pitched double bass stretches from João Madeira. Together the two sought to enliven insouciant micro-pitches from trumpeter Sei Miguel and trombonist Fala Mariam. Seated, both brass players created broken-octave narratives from brief bursts of sound, with the trumpeter sometimes injecting lyrical asides, but with diminished energy seemingly affecting both Miguel and Mariam. Despite Castello Lopes’ barrage of pops, bangs and echoes on small drums and claves, the band’s general listlessness was never shaken.

Unfortunately, the full power of PREC which juddered with instrumental energy from some of the country’s most accomplished improvisers, couldn’t be fully appreciated by a non-Portuguese speaker. That’s because the instrumental energy during its ASF set the previous evening was partially subordinated to the Portuguese-language poetry of Paulo Ramos. Restrained and almost matter-of-fact in his delivery, Ramos only roused himself from his chair for brief pronouncements read from selected volumes, then seated himself again. It was therefore left to the musicians to supply the needed emotional nuance. Over a backdrop of tough clip-clops from drummer Pedro Santo and string strokes from bassist Miguel Falcão, Paulo Chagas either burbled multiphonics from his oboe alongside Paulo Duarte’s ringing guitar licks, or added pressurized flute phrasing to equal Santo’s sizzling cymbal power. Meanwhile, Simões’ tone-shattering took the form of sly trombone slurs, or more jocular air noises escaping from a balloon he had initially and laboriously blown up.

Yedo Gibson (soprano saxophone) and Paulo Chagas (oboe)

Santo, who also performed yeoman service organizing the late-night jams and helping with the sound, was also involved with one of MIA’s most uncharacteristic sets. The Danes who made up The Way Out – TS Hawk (alto saxophone), Mads Egetoft (tenor saxophone) and Jonathan Aardestrup (bass) – had already contributed to the rhythmic thrust (double bass) or jerking storytelling affiliations (the saxophones) during earlier GSs and large ensemble programs. However, on their own on MIA’s final afternoon, the trio seemed to operate in a separate universe that called for brief, nightclub-style tunes that were jazzy and slick, but rarely dug deeply into the music. At points though, dialoguing saxophone narratives or reed bites, and key percussion jarred more than they soothed, but it was double bass strokes that knit the three into ragged harmonies. Later on, one blues and pseudo-calypso called when Santo joined the trio. These tunes showcased Aardestrup’s slap skills and stinging blasts from Hawk, but they didn’t really jell. Subsequent numbers when accordionist Saccente and drummer Furioso replaced Santo were most in sync when the five achieved a left-field mixture of skronk and swing as jumbled accordion splatters brushed up straight-ahead note construction from Hawk, and later on when Egetoft’s melodic flutters led the ad hoc quintet in a simple, jaunty finale.

Rui Sousa (bass guitar) and Marco Scarassatti (hammered dulcimer)

In sharp contrast, two string-oriented Lisbon-based combos demonstrated what could be accomplished without percussion input. They were Lantana with violinist Maria do Mar, cellists Helena Espvall and Joana Guerra, the electronics of Carla Santana and the vocals of Maria Radich, which opened the first ASF concert; and StringChamberPot with violinists Carlos Zíngaro and David Alves, cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff and bassist Rosso at the one concert in front of the altar of the nearby Gothic Igreja S. Leonardo.

Without resorting to artifice, and in spite of occasional theatrical hand gestures, Radich wordlessly conveyed emotion and strength in tandem with the sometimes-sweetened Lantana string section. Besides that, the oblique electronic processing was there to mock her if vocalizing appeared too sentimental. Meanwhile, the string parts swirled from smooth harmonies to staccato jumps, with one cellist plucking guitar-like shards alongside clattering electronic loops; the other creating a multifold arco overlay before they reversed roles.

Ayis Kelpekis (bagpipe); Marco Scarassatti (double bell trumpet tube) and Noel Taylor (clarinet)

Featuring Zíngaro, a pioneer of free music in Portugal, StringChamberPot was one of the few ensembles to divide its set into many separate tunes. Cleanly connected in all facets of a performance, the established quartet’s balance meant that sonorous double bass notes were as prominent throughout as trebly sweeps from the others. By midpoint, blazing staccato upsurges were bursting from Zíngaro’s and Mitzlaff’s string sets, while Rosso prepared his strings with clothespins placed just above the bridge to create thumping strokes that were then decorated with rococo pulses from the violins. Later with Alves’ output more tonal and Zingaro’s more dissonant, the two fiddlers tossed the theme back and forth without losing its lilt, with all four contributing to a savory pitch-sliding finale.

If other players moved among the past, present and future of improvised music during MIA, then trumpeter Axel Dörner’s ASF solo recital on the second day of concerts was fully committed to exploration. Using a slide trumpet connected to electronics, Dörner, who earlier in the week participated in an astute, pointed jam-sessions duo with Mascolo; and like Zingaro, added his instrument to random groups and conductions, used electronics to propel sound signals from amplifiers situated on various parts of the stage. Accelerating his strategy from near-noiseless air to strained growls that reflected back onto the initial exposition, there were times when Dörner created audible oscillations without using the mouthpiece, but instead manipulated the slide or merely held the trumpet to reflect previously processed intonations. When shrill crackles or basso lows reverberated back into hearing space, he was also able to duet with himself.

Sei Miguel (pocket trumpet) and Fala Mariam (trombone)

Such experimentation in many forms and ensemble sizes is a strong element in the MIA experience and a key component of improvised music. By not playing pre-conceived or standard timbres, each musician has permission to fail as well as succeed. Fascination intensifies when something never attempted before works, usually in a group setting. At the same time, in spite of its overriding interest in serious innovation, MIA wasn’t without broad humor. As well as those burlesquing timbres played by jocular improvisers that appeared during the course of multiple sets, the most extended variant of this humor was an unannounced set on the final night. Clarinetist Ignarro, cellist Espvall and pianist Manuel Guimarães combined to work through composer Nuno Rebelo’s “Imaginary Piece for Improvisers Trio”. Loosely based on John Cage’s (in)famous “4’33”, the silent performance was presented with a printed sheet in English and Portuguese, providing detailed instructions on how the audience and players should act and think during the recital. This included imagining the incursion into the set of a fanciful guitarist, and other music to ponder while the silent set was being performed. Rebelo and Espvall mimed their parts of the score with proper notated music styled aplomb, while Ignarro really got into the spirit of the moment, arching her instrument in the air, emphasizing extended blowing with exaggerated body language. At the conclusion, both players and audience enthusiastically applauded one other.

Elena Waclawiczek conducts Uygur Vural (cello); Pierre-Yves Baudin (alto saxophone); Michel Stawicki (tenor saxophone); Ayis Kelpekis (alto saxophone) and António Ramos (alto saxophone)

With so many other innovative sets, including one that combined field-recording, stones-and-implement move­ment and percussion slams from Stephen Shiell with tree-branch shaking and vocalization from Hannah White, plus a concert of punk-ambient sounds from a drums-guitar-cello trio at the hamlet’s outdoor Fonte Gótica in the fading afternoon light of MIA’s final day, one can only mention a few of this year’s highlights. The commitment and cooperation displayed among organizers, musicians and Atouguia da Baleia guarantees that the tradition of musical excellence will enliven this aldeia fantástica for years to come.