Et maintenant la musiqueJuly 26, 2007
And so to the music at the NPAI festival. (I still have no idea what NPAI stands for by the way, if any French readers should happen to know please tell). The music was a mixed bag. It was always going to be that way simply as so many styles of improvised music could be found on one bill. I made my way by bus-train from Nantes down to the town of Pathenay. The “bus-train” is essentially a bus service put on by the SNCF railway service to replace the trains that no longer run as they closed that part of the line. I guess it must just be cheaper to run a bus back and forth than maintain the line. As a result however the journey took about two and a half hours, and as there was only the one service a day this meant I arrived in Parthenay too late to see Tony Buck’s solo (which is a shame) and a few other acts that I’m not so worried about missing.
The main reason for going on the Thursday was to see the Sound Like Water quartet made up of Burkhard Beins, Lucio Capece, Rhodri Davies and Toshi Nakamura. As the bus was running late and I was cutting it fine anyway I feared I would miss their performance as I had no idea where the venue was situated. However when I arrived at Parthenay’s beautifully derelict railway station I was personally met by one of the festival’s organisers with a car who drove me first to my hotel to deposit my bag before taking me to the venue in time for the performance. Its this kind of example of considerate generosity that made the festival a really enjoyable event irrespective of the music. I never did discover that guy’s name, but thanks all the same.
The Salle Diff’Art venue, where much of the music took place is actually just a large graffiti smothered corregated iron barn situated on an industrial estate on the outskirts of the historic town. My initial thoughts were just how far removed the place was from any UK Festival venue I’ve ever attended, but with a mobile kitchen cooking food and a bar selling a range of drinks set up outside the facilities were actually in advance of most events over here. Every set I saw at the festival was well attended, with maybe 200 people seated in the barn for the SLW performance.
I was a little brain frazzled from my bus ride and the following mad rush to get to the venue so I sat through the SLW performance in a slight daze, but enjoyed the music quite a bit. The PA was a little blurry to my ears which made the detail of the music a little hard to pick out, and the musicians seemed to compensate for this by playing very loud in places. These four musicians are possibly the best out there right now on their respective instruments and this quality did shine through into a varied set made up of occasionally textured drones, intimate little sections of interplay within which some of the group would drop out and allow smaller secnarios to develop and on a couple of occasions some full on testing of the PA’s ability. Near the end during a quiet passage Capece made a series of sounds remarkably close to the sound of water dripping giving literal meaning to the (slightly naff!) group name. This group clearly has a lot of promise and I very much look forward to their forthcoming disc on the Formed. label.
I didn’t stay in the hall for the last two sets of the night. I forget what they were, but when I saw Toshi Nakamura running from the venue, beer in hand crying “Argh Prog Jazz!” I figured it would be better to follow him to the beer tent.:)
The next day a full size bus turned up outside the only hotel big enough to handle the large influx of people into Parthenay and we all headed out into the countryside for a half an hour or so drive to the tiny village of Le Retail (an intriguing name for a place that didn’t even have a village shop) where we unloaded at a disused, beautiful old farm where the next three sets were due to take place in one of the animal sheds. The first performance came from the saxophone / double bass duo of Eric Brochard and Eric Vagnon. This pairing played very much in the traditional free improv style, all bold gestural blood and thunder that was nice to see, especially in such an environment, but to be honest bored me from a musical perspective right from the off.
There then followed a wait of an hour and a half before the Cranc trio played. These long, lazy waits in the sun proved to be a theme to the festival, symptomatic of the laid back French way of life and providing ample opportunity to get myself a rare suntan with which to goad the rain drenched people back home.
Cranc, the trio of Rhodri Davies, (Harp) Angharad Davies (Violin) and Nikos Veliotis (Cello) make the most beautifully simple acoustic music. Veliotis plays his cello with a specially made bow that allows all strings to be played at once, and his carefully refined and highly skilled action results in a warm, low drone that sounds quite unlike a traditional cello note.. Rhodri played his harp with a single eBow, picking out single tones carefully and slowly to pair with Veliotis’ hum, and Angharad flicked and scraped her bow across the violin to produce minute details in the group’s music. Every so often Veliotis would break off and silences would sit in the music for a minute or so before beginning again with a slightly shifted cello chord. The affect of this music in low light and in such a beautiful venue was stunning, refined acoustic playing of the highest order. My only problem with Cranc’s set was its length. At under half an hour I would love to have heard more, the soft drones lending themselves better to an extended performance and the silent intervals possibly more impactful if they had been allowed two or three minutes in length. This feeling was made stronger by the hour long wait in the courtyard before the final set of the afternoon, but who am I to complain? Lovely music.
I have to admit I was concerned before the performance by Diego Chamy and Tamara Ben-Artzi. The programme seemed to list one of this pair of Argentinian cousins as performing “dance” and the other “movements”. This kind of event would usually have me running for the nearest pub before it could begin, but as we had all been effectively just dropped into the middle of the countryside with nowhere to go until the bus reappeared later there was little to do but sit and watch…
I really have no idea what the resulting performance was all about, but it kept me gripped throughout, although I must admit that this was often due to confused amusement as much as anything. Chamy spent much of the set reading aloud odd lines of poetry in French (I think… could have been Spanish) in a stuttered manner, often “jamming” on the first syllable of the line and repeating it over and over. Whilst this was going on Ben-Artzi danced quietly to herself in a cheesy “teenager in a disco” manner whilst listening to something on an mp3 player around her neck. She would occasionally strike up odd postures around Chamy and hold them as he did similar things, and they would both occasionally run off stage and sit in the wings for a few moments. Later in the set Chamy stood on a chair and feigned a striptease in slow motion standing for a while reading aloud as his fingers were slipped into the top of his underpants before Ben-Artzi handed him a laptop computer and he held it high to the audience as an old film of Brigitte Bardot singing played…
The performance ended in a fitting manner when one of the lights fixed high above the performance area broke away from its cable with a bang and swung violently for a few moments before coming to a rest. This accidental but opportune moment brought an amusing end to a humorous set. I have absolutely no idea if there was anything to take from the performance beyond mild bemusement, but it was a fun thing to see.
Late that evening back at the Salle Diff’Art there followed three more concerts of music that I doubt I would have attended had they not been part of a festival and I enjoyed to varying degrees. First of all we were herded (a careful choice of word) into a building opposite the main hall, which turned out to be a storage barn for goats and chickens before being sold on to markets. As we sat in this massive metal shell of a building awaiting the performance of Eric Cordier and Denis Tricot the occasional sound of chickens could be heard coming disconcertingly from a pile of seemingly discarded metal cages on the far side of the building.
The performance soon diverted attention away from this however. Cordier stood at a mixing desk behind the audience undertaking a “diffusion” of a pre-recorded piece. The music had an industrial feel, the sound of metal and wood crashing about empty spaces with various clouded field recordings thrown in. The music in itself wasn’t so interesting, but Tricot’s performance on stage was quite an eye-opener. He began by bending large planks of wood into arc shapes and tying them at each end with a piece of string, effectively creating a number of very large bow shapes, more Robin Hood than Violin bow in form. As he made these, he lined them up towrds the audience in formation, until after he had a dozen or so he began to cermonially push them towards the crowd, one at a time, in a careful, considered manner as if playing a strange oversized boardgame.The thing is, he didn’t stop at the crowd, he kept going, pushing these constructions into and over the audience and out the other side, causing a few moments of mayhem as the onlookers found themselves part of his elegant sculpture.
After this Tricot turned to a further pile of these bow-like creations that he had made in advance of the show and began to dance with them about the space, taking first one, and then bundles of these large and probably quite heavy objects into spiralling, dancing patters that created quite beautiful Calder-like shapes, with massive shadows cast upon the metal wall behind. At times this dance became quite violent, on one occasion only quick reflexes kept a watching JÃ©rÃ´me Noetinger from a nasty bump as a flying plank swung at his head. Tricot built haphazard sculptures from piles of these pieces as they fell into heaps, and he also ran around them at quite incredible speed considering he was a man probably in his fifties dragging large planks of wood behind him. I found this performance rather nice. Separated from Tricot’s exploits the music would probably have bored me to tears but here it worked well as a driver for his energies. Another intriguing show anyway the like of which I’m not likely to see again soon and I’m glad I witnessed.
After this we moved back to the main shed for a trio performance by Gunda Gottschalk (Violin), Peter Jacquemyn (Contrabass) and Ute Voelker (Accordion) I’ve little to say about this set beyond the fact it was a proficiently executed further example of the older free jazz related styles of improv I’ve witnessed any times since the late eighties.I have no problem with this music, and in fact I quite enjoyed the opportunity to hear something I usually would never have made the trip to see, but the enjoyment was short lived. The best of the three musicians was Jacquemyn who showed a real mastery of his instrument, but even he lost my interest when he took a small squeaky rubber ball from his pocket late in the set and used it to add to his input.
The final set of the day came from the intriguing Qway Neum Sixx group made up of Daunik Lazro’s saxophone, Michael Nick’s violin, Sophi Agnel’s piano and the electronics of JÃ©rÃ´me Noetinger. This performance provided something of a metaphor for the festival in general, a clash of older and younger instrumentation and musical styles. Without Noetinger’s rough, rumbling textures the remaining trio may have sounded closer to the preceeding set, but the mix of electronics into the sound gave the group an interesting palette to work with. Nick was particularly impressive, weaving angular idiosyncratic notes between the sax and Agnel’s well chosen piano sounds, mostly coming from playing keys whilst addressing the strings with an assortment of objects. Noetinger was the glue holding this performance together however, steadfastly maintaining an even pace to the music, keeping it from running away into a velocity driven skronk-out but also bringing his own brand of electronic danger to the set. A nice way to end a day of musical overload.
Another amusing drinking session followed and then back to bed again. I’ll write more about the final (and best) day of the festival a little later as this post is getting a little long.