End of an Avant-Festival Era in Victoriaville

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Outgoing FIMAV founding director Michel Levasseur speaks during a press conference at this year’s festival.

(Photo: Josef Woodard)

For nearly four decades, seekers of full-service avant-garde festivals in North America have been drawn to the deceptively quiet and humble city of Victoriaville in Quebec each May. There, the concentrated and diverse festival with the cryptic acronym of FIMAV (Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville) serves as in enticing smorgasbord of experimental and otherwise left-of-mainstream musics, from the jazz, rock, noise and other expressive avenues without easy categories.

Apart from two years off during the pandemic and a gap year after its 25th anniversary, FIMAV has held fast to its high and adventurous ideals and gone the distance. This year’s festival program, which ran May 18–21, was a cut above the usual artistic standard, but it went down with a certain wistful end-of-an-era atmosphere: This was officially the last hurrah for the doggedly committed founding director Michelle Levasseur, who recently announced his retirement.

By this point, Levasseur has earned a spot in the pantheon of important and influential jazz festival directors, avant-garde division. Partly due to the significance of the occasion, no doubt, the recent program of 20 concerts in four days included illustrious artists who have played the festival many times, including John Zorn — in a potent triple-play festival finale on May 21 — Fred Frith, Ikue Mori and more recent regular Colin Stetson. Elsewhere, the festival tapped adventurous types from Japan (e.g., the semi-ritualistic noise duo of former Naked City vocalist-shaman Eye and Fuji|​|​|​|​|​|​|​|​|​|​ta on his keyboardless 11-pipe organ), Europe, the U.S., Canada and other points global. It was business as usual, but tinged by a certain bittersweet atmosphere, given the festival’s turning-point moment.

In his brief introductory statement in the festival program, Levasseur reflected on defining qualities of the festival and the musical realm it represents, in contrast to the woes of the outside world: “Musique Actuelle is free, in person, alive, surprising, inclusive, creative, inspiring … ah yes … got it!”

For the final edition of the festival’s periodic morning press conferences, Levasseur called on the dryly witty Frith for a Friday morning confab. It was a logical choice, given that Frith has been appearing in Victoriaville since the very first edition — and even before, playing a club show produced by festival-maker Levasseur.

Paying tribute to the festival, Frith noted, “When we come here, I very often come to the whole festival. I see lots of musicians that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Your head grows, you get to meet people. Those people become colleagues in other situations. So the musicians are taking an enormous amount from playing at festivals like this. We as musicians are growing and learning when we come to festivals like this and making connections that we would not otherwise have made.”

Frith’s past FIMAV appearance have run the gamut of his spectrum, from scored guitar quartet music to heady art-rock parties and the kind of wholly improvisational settings he is uniquely gifted in. It was the latter mode this year, with Frith coaxing an artful palette of articulate and anarchic electric guitar sounds, alongside the spare, lyrical phrasings of Portuguese trumpeter Susanna Santos Silva and the tasteful rumble of electric bass-drum input from Jason Hoopes and Jordan Glenn (former students of Frith’s from his long tenure at Mills College in Oakland). True to the moniker “Drawing Sounds,” visual artist Heike Liss (also Frith’s wife) responded to the musical component with imagery prepared and drawn upon, an on-screen kinship in an alluring sight/sound equation.

Among other virtues in the program, a generous spotlight was given to women artists this year, amping up an inclusive attitude already well in place. Some of the finest music heard, in fact, was produced by women, including veteran Canadian clarinetist Lori Freedman’s subtly powerful quintet show “Being Five” (featuring masterful sound poet Axel Dörner on mutant trumpet) and ascendant New York drummer Kate Gentile’s alluring admix of subtle Paul Motian-ish poetry and expressive fluidity, as part of Canadian clarinetist François Houle’s trio (also with bedazzling British pianist Alexander Hawkins in tow). Ikue Mori, who has appeared here many times in collaborator and side person contexts, was making her first appearance as leader, with the free-meets-structure ensemble setting of her Tracing the Magic sextet, featuring pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, also a fairly frequent FIMAV alum.

Mori’s show arrived in the middle of a strong triumvirate of concerts on opening night, also with women in charge. The festival’s opening slot was seized by the post-prog-rocking fanfare of PoiL Ueda — with the potent, meter-mashing Lyon-based Poil fronted by special guest Junko Udea, tapping her ancient Japanese roots and modernist approach. Ending that night, the diminutive, 23-year-old powerhouse saxophonist Zoh Amba delivered a gripping, post-Ayler-esque intensity in a band featuring pianist Micah Thomas’ fury and bassist Thomas Morgan’s centering poise.

Another young discovery from the “happens to be a woman” category was guitarist Nina Garcia, who summons up a new visceral sonic reckoning force from a fairly standard electric guitar setup (Telecaster through Fender amp, a few FX, slide, e-Bow), creating a new abstract expressionist intensity and invention.

The comic relief prize this year goes to musicians/performance artists/women in fancy retro apparel Camille Brisson and Isabelle Clermont, hailing from the nearby Quebecois city of Trois Reviere. Serving as a refreshing deviation from the sometimes male-dominated free improvisation scene, the pair gamely deconstructed supposedly feminine tropes with a feminist prankster zeal. The sound sources of their improvised menu included close-miked necklace fondling, abstracted chatter and a cathartic crescendo of banged-upon pots and pans and broken dishes. As instrumentalists, they played tools often associated with women musicians — Clermont on a FX-altered harp and Brisson on flute — but with extended and exploded techniques pushing beyond standard practices. Their hour-long concoction was a memorable hoot, unequal parts witty audacity and their own brand of avant musicality.

Saturday night’s special was a groove-machined quartet called Void Patrol, with spidery guitarist Elliott Sharp, circular-breathing saxophonist Colin Stetson, bassist Payton MacDonald and drummer Billy Martin — he of stoner-jazz staple Medeski, Martin and Wood fame. In its way, Void Patrol can suggest a variation on the MMW theme, but with more “outside” venturing.

Grooves continued, in diverse forms, when Zorn took over the large Carre 150 stage on Sunday night. First up: his “New Music for Trios” program, in which he craftily maneuvers between traditions and Zorn-ified twists in the contexts of the classic piano trio (with pianist Brian Maselia, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ches Smith) and the organ trio format (organist John Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg and drummer Kenny Grohowski). These are the newest genre-splicing lab experiments from Zorn’s fertile mind, and enticing ones, at that.

Finally, Zorn — in customary camo pants/T-shirt and ready-to-go attitude — appeared as saxophonist, leader and in-the-moment choreographer with his New Masada Quartet. Here, the former trumpeter role now replaced by the ever-fascinating and sensitive guitarist Julian Lage. Along with bassist Roader and drummer Kenny Wolleson, a longtime Zorn ally, the quartet beautifully navigated the alternately flowing and intricate fresh goods from Zorn’s Masada mindset, in which Moorish, Jewish and Ornette Coleman-ish ideas are tossed into a stew of Zorn’s unique devising.

At the opening reception of this year’s FIMAV, following a series of speeches from local officials and other admiring parties, the soft-spoken Levasseur took the podium and basically deflected the heaped praises. He instead diverted gratitude to the many who have made FIMAV doable and durable — thanking “en familie,” in relation to both his own family members who work in the family business and family in the more expansive sense. He then roped everyone in the room to cram the stage area for a group picture.

Next year’s FIMAV? It’s in a suspended-chord state, awaiting the resolution of finding of a new director, who will have huge shoes to fill. DB



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