The ultimate distinction of Norway’s Punkt Festival is its devotion to the “instant live remix.” A band’s set can be highly impressive, but when a DJ re-configures that raw matter—speedily improvising with audio samples collected during the prior performance—the results can be staggering.
This three-day Norwegian festival has been taking place every year since 2005, in the south coast town of Kristiansand, guided by electronics maestros Jan Bang and Erik Honoré. Over the weekend of Aug. 31–Sept. 2, Punkt presented its accustomed blend of indigenous Norwegian artists and guests from overseas. Visiting this year were The Necks (Australia), David Toop (U.K.) and 2017 Punkt Artist-in-Residence Daniel Lanois (Canada).
The Necks customarily enter an intense zone of pure improvisation, most often inclined toward steady evolution and rhythmic pulse. This time, their set was shorter than usual and featured a particularly spacious lyricism. Drummer Tony Buck concentrated on the constrained sound of handbell-shakers, deployed around his skins, setting up a compulsive repetition.
Backdrop imagery focused on snow globes, and it was hard not to imagine this as a seasonal Necks number, Santa’s hipster beard glowing on the horizon. Lloyd Swanton bowed his bass with great subtlety, as Chris Abrahams developed a measured pulse on the piano. An insistent bass figure developed, but the trio began to ease off halfway through their 45 minutes. This was fairly single-minded compared to most Necks improvisations, with no massive changes in store, until the final dispersion, piano becoming frontal, trilling and frilling, bass groaning conclusively.
A shock was in store for the remix, tackled by Lanois. Seemingly, neither the guitarist/producer nor anyone in his team had bothered to sample The Necks’ set, and the Lanois quartet elected to play a brief, riffing number that evoked the autobahn-riding style of the 1970s German duo Neu!, bearing no audible relation to the music that The Necks had just created. Hiding behind a screen, and mumbling something about problems with the drum kit, Lanois perhaps seemed embarrassed by his own inability to grasp Punkt’s core concept. This wasn’t a remix, or even, at best, a response. The main similarity was a continuance of snowfall imagery on the stage-screens.
Continuing the devotion to absolute improvisation, Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen and English multi-instrumentalist Toop had decided to opt for zero discussion prior to their set. Their approach was one of studied quietude, Endresen making controlled squeals, clicks and stutters, Toop issuing skittish flutters on bamboo flute. Endresen made tonal segues, gliding from one extreme to another, gabbling in tongues, whilst Toop moved to table-guitar, which sounded almost Vietnamese in its vocal-natured string-bending.
Again, the lighting (by Tord Knudsen) was sympathetic, with flickering shadows cast about the stage from below. Endresen made phonetic explorations as Toop discovered suction sounds on flute.
The remix by a quintet that included Bang, Honoré and guitarist Eivind Aarset snatched a sparse, crystalline sound, illustrating the heights that a remix can scale. It moved towards a contorted South East Asian experience, as Endresen’s glottal matter and Toop’s looped bamboo shimmered together in a newly melodicized fashion, seductively languid.
The next day, trumpeter Arve Henriksen presented his recent Towards Language album, creating a sympathetic suite of its contents, alongside Bang, Honoré and Aarset. Glutinous whorls circulated, the players making an unhurried development, Henriksen’s vocalizing pinched and finely-controlled. The sheer sonics were inclined towards the East, with a glugging gamelan quality allied to a magnified mbira thumb-piano sound. The slow treading developed a chiming guitar figure, entering a turbulent zone, free-jazz scrabbling ensuing, with a churning metallic twist. Henriksen chose his choirboy voice, a targeted spotlight bestowing a halo around his trumpet bell, which he wafted around, creating radically shifting sound-shadows.
Toop and fellow Englishman Jez Riley French’s remix uprooted an insectoid chitter, bubbling with additional live flute and probing bass ripples, making windy, susurrus sounds. A brooding rumble developed, possibly created by French’s close-miked discoveries of the venue’s ambient surroundings. It actually looked like he’d left the stage, but he was supposedly scurrying around at the edges, while vestiges of Henriksen’s voice also flitted around the perimeter.
Most of the performances and live remixes take place in the Kick Club, but there is also a smaller late-night scene in the Vaktbua bar, close to the seafront. The hotel across the street from Kick housed a series of three talks on Sept. 2, given by Honoré, Toop and French. Honoré’s approach was to host an immersive listening session, while Toop elected to speak extremely slowly, choosing his words with a painful precision. Ultimately, he barely got to the point that he’d intended, but still retained the interest, despite these obstacles.
The best and most communicative speed-talk was given by French, who revealed his secret world of extreme zoom-recording, using contact microphones and hydrophones. The planet’s natural sounds took on an almost electronic quality, as French prompted much merriment with his intimate recordings of burning hazelnuts and ant-munched apricots.
Lanois redeemed himself on the last day, with his climactic performance. Initially, though, it seemed like he was playing a joke, the first of two opening rock trotters sounding suspiciously like his “remix” from the previous day. But then, by the third number, Lanois moved to keyboards and delivered a deep and dub-heavy onslaught, quaking the entire club. Again, he switched, this time to his old instrument, the pedal steel guitar. Video of his fingers, enlarged on the screens behind, him illustrated the immense scale of strummed mass, resulting from the subtlest of strokes. The audience was reminded of the crucial Lanois legacy as a producer and ambient painter, despite having initially marveled at the bizarre Punkt incongruity of his trucker-rock persona.
The remix by Bang, Honoré, Aarset, Henriksen and drummer Audun Kleive produced some of the weekend’s most compulsively aggressive sounds, with the trumpeter not immediately identifiable as the source for what at first sounded like a recording of Lanois, intoning his own lyrics. Henriksen was revealing yet another of his many voices, complete with an authentic American accent and a devilish aura, as he hunched over his microphone, emitting a chilling intensity. DB