Avant-Garde Artists Thrive Annually at Victoriaville
Finding John Zorn in Victoriaville, Quebec, is nothing new. The Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, one of the premier North American festivals, with a decided avant-garde tilt, is one his favorite venues. Last year, he performed in multiple ensembles. This year’s fete had a different, denser spin, courtesy of “Zorn @ 60,” in which the composer presented five concerts on May 19 honoring his six decades on the planet.
Just two days earlier, Zorn had pulled off a similar feat at one of his favorite European festivals, the Moers festival in Germany. Victoriaville is a lovely country town two hours from Montreal, where English is only spoken spottily. Here, Zorn opened in classical mode, with a rigorous, captivating string quartet and vocal quintet. He ended the program at midnight, in the local cathedral, Église Ste-Victoire Minuit, playing a hauntingly beautiful improvisation on organ (his first instrument).
New musical ideas never sleep for this New York-based composer. Recently, Zorn has been in the music news spin for supplying Pat Metheny with material for Tap: The Book of Angels, Volume 20 (Nonesuch/Tzadik). Zorn was even toasted on Friday at Victoriaville in a special song by Thurston Moore, singing with his band Chelsea Light Moving about Zorn’s “Sunday Stage.”
“Zorn @ 60” offered up a compacted survey of what Zorn has been up to, but actually focused more on his recent period—his “late 50s work”—with the mellowed sounds of The Dreamers, Moonchild, Electric Masada and the new “Song Project,” a surprisingly easy-does-it art pop song enterprise featuring a trio of singers: crooner-to-a-screamer master Mike Patton, Michael Franks-y sounding Jesse Harris, and sultry, freshly inventive Sofia Rei. The program is toned-down compared to Zorn’s edgier sounds and strategies of yore, and one of the more riveting moments of the day came in a bracing three-minute chunk, with the electrified, genre-hopping slice-and-dice of a Naked City song, “Osaka Bondage.” “That’s what it was like to be inside my brain in the ’80s,” he quipped. “Zorn @ 60” at Victo gave a hearty glimpse of his brain in the 21st century, still a busy place, but now more given to the relaxation impulse.
The festival—bravely founded and directed for 29 editions by Michel Levasseur—was a programmatic success that covered a healthy, diverse swath of musical styles while somehow making coherent sense as an integrated whole. The operation is also enhanced by an expanding fringe festival of sound art installations in town, an encouraging and relevant cross-medium development.
The festival commenced with graceful muscularity, with the fascinating, art folk-ish trio of Czech violinist-vocalist bedazzler Iva Bittová, in empathetic cahoots with nimble clarinetist Evan Ziporyn and nylon-stringed guitarist Gavin Riley (son of Terry, for those keeping genetic track). Another memorable, deliciously uncategorizable vocal set this year came from Anna Homler, who has created her own language via playful-cryptic singing and toy-boxing, here heard in a fruitful duet with violinist-looper Sylvia Hallett.
With an instrumental toolshed all their own, the Russian group ZGA played on leader Nick Sudnick’s self-made instruments, mixing voices on the hour-long suite Futurosis. This tribute to the influential Russian Futurist movement of the early 20th century teemed with a strange industrial-primitive charisma.
Experimental and eccentric rock music was well accounted for at Victoriaville. The high point was Moore’s visceral, juiced-up post-Sonic Youth sound in Chelsea Light Moving. The wonderfully crazed Japanese band Hikashu and the cathartic gothic sludge metal band Oxbow were also notable. The impressive violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt led a rare live performance of the art-prog-rock band The Book Of Knots with her husband, drummer Matthias Bossi.
Two impressive and large-scale works from Canadian artists also captured the audience’s attention. Guitarist-composer Tim Brady presented his ambitious, if sometimes a bit fussy, “Atacama: Symphonie #3,” with his large Bradyworks joined by the choral forces of Vivavoce. From Eastern Canada, the Upstream Orchestra basked in the fine and intentionally coarse art of “conduction” (with respects paid to the recently belated master Lawrence “Butch” Morris, nicely showcasing artful inside-outside singer Tena Palmer).
Improvisation, which is part of the cultural credo of this festival, came in various forms and intensities, from the wonderfully delicate and well-paced encounter of clarinetist Michel Doneda and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani to the hour-long adventure by the increasingly important Scandinavian power trio known as the The Thing. Moore, in free Fender guitarist mode, joined the ranks of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, drummer Paal Nilssen Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. That freely improvised encounter with The Thing may have been the most powerhouse hour of the four-day festival, cooked up fresh and steamy on the spot.
As with much bold “free” music, you had to be there—a truism which leads some of us annually back to this fest in rural Quebec.
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