There is a comforting ambience and routine awaiting the rush of visitors to Victoriaville, Quebec, for Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville each May. For an extended weekend, the small city somewhat removed from urban concerns transforms into a haven for freely improvised, experimental and boundary-bounding sounds. But the music heard around town, this year spanning 20 concerts May 17-20, is anything but routine.
Earlier FIMAV editions have revolved around bigger-name artists, regulars like John Zorn, Fred Frith, Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton, whose striking solo concert last year was recorded for the festival’s Victo label. But for the 2018 model, Michel Levasseur, who’s helmed the festival for 34 years, showcased important but not necessarily marquee-powering artists. Overall, the list of 2018 highlights included the Rova Saxophone Quartet; Swedish baritone sax/electronics blitzer Mats Gustafsson; pianist Dave Burrell, who performed in William Parker’s group; Japanese artists Phew, Saicobab and Afrirampo; fiery Danish free alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen; and Charlotte Hug. That latter Swiss performer deftly combined work as a vocalist and violist, while consistently reinventing instrumental and expressive possibilities.
The festival began in a Quebecois way, with the rock-flavored Montrealer improv blast of David and the Mountain Ensemble, a cross-cultural tapestry from Vancouver-based, Chinese erhu player Lan Tung, and a fascinating opening set by veteran composer/bandleader Walter Boudreau. Following a nostalgic prog opening, Boudreau turned to “Solaris (Incantations VIII-IXh),” a riveting chamber work with the crack Société de Musique Contemporaine du Quebec. With its tight—and tightly navigated—structures, serialist language and echoes of Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen, Boudreau’s work was a refreshing and perfectly complimentary bit of notated contemporary classical music amid a festival generally geared toward improvisation.
Gustafsson would appear in the festival finale, but also with his trio Fire!, alongside the rock-inclined rhythm section of drummer Andreas Werlin and bassist Johan Berthling (with one riff per song). As powerful as the trio is, it pales in comparison to Gustafsson’s ground-breaking trio The Thing, an inspired blender of free expression and rock impulses. In addition to Gustafsson’s theatrics, saxophonists-on-fire were well represented at FIMAV. The compelling young alto player Rasmussen blended free-blowing wallop with a beguiling sense of melodic form in a trio with rangy tuba player Martin Text and “mixing board” player Toshimaru Nakamura.
The festival’s centerpiece came from repeat visitor Rova, celebrating its milestone 40th year. Part of the concert’s charm was situational, taking place amid the resonant ambience of an inviting new festival venue, Église Saint-Christophe d’Arthabaska, an ornate 19th-century church. The San Francisco area-based troupe (Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, Jon Raskin and Bruce Ackley) is capable of wild, volcanic articulations, but it opted to play to the room here, favoring more delicate interplay. Much of the set showcased Rova’s most recent album, In Transverse Time (Victo). “Rova @ 40,” as heard live and on the new recording, bustles with ideas and creative purpose.
Later in the festival, music more tied to traditional strains of the jazz genre cropped up with a visit from another FIMAV regular, the thunderous and free-minded bassist William Parker. Parker’s band—which included saxophonist Rob Brown (also part of Parker’s first visit to the festival two decades ago) and drummer Hamid Drake—reserved the strongest spotlight for seasoned pianist Dave Burrell, whose muscular, minimal and post-Monkish keyboard approach commanded attention. The appearance came just before New York’s Vision Festival, which was set to bestow Burrell with a lifetime achievement honor.
FIMAV often has featured byways traversed by experimental vocalists, singers stretching into adventure zones with extended techniques, a healthy appreciation of absurdity and pan-global resonance. This year, exploratory voices included Berlin-based Audrey Chen, Moravian magician Julia Ulehla and Boredoms’ YoshimiO, with her hip Indo-Japanese rock act Saicobab. Afrirampo, a crazed Japanese avant-rock duo, closed out Saturday on a noisy note.
The festival concluded—climactically and cathartically—with a bracing wall of sound, noise and fury from the trio of Gustafsson, the mystical Japanese noise master Merzbow and impressive young Hungarian drummer Balázs Pándi. In between, the festival’s dense and varied program included the reworked Moravian folk project Dálava (with captivating vocalist Ulehla); gripping minimalist/math rock equations from Schnellertollermeier; and three early afternoon improvised sets in the 19th-century church by Hug, Breton Erwan Keravec on bagpipes and fine Canadian reedist Lori Freedman, here working and reworking various clarinets.
Considering the breadth of what FIMAV offered, the 34th installment of the festival brimmed with the inspiring bounty of this enlightened Quebecois town. DB