Konfrontationen 2017 in Nickelsdorf

Konfrontationen 2017 in Nickelsdorf

Written By:

Andrew Choate

Published:

July 16, 2018

1. Day One: Smoking is Bathing

The 38th Festival for Free and Improvised Music in Nickelsdorf started with a duet between Han Bennink (drums) and Joris Roelofs (clarinets). Fortuitously, I was playing my own duet between a white wine gespritzer and a salzstangerl. The closer Roelofs got to playing beboppy, the more exuberantly Bennink responded, a boom-bappa-bappa-boom and a twirl for the dance floor. Exuberance being Bennink’s most personal contribution to a performance, anything that stirs it up and wilds it out fountains the inner and outer atmosphere with serendipitous presentiment. Like getting filled up with love because you know more is on the way.

During Bennink’s solos, he called out Roelofs’ name, standard jazz procedure given an enthusiastic reboot in an improvised context for payoff of enthusiastic appreciation from audience. They said something about Mahler from the stage, then played Dolphy; if only that was how every mention of Mahler could go from now on. A meandery, charcoal-dark ballad from Roelofs’ clarinet found Bennink walking around the outside of his kit, playing the bass drum with his hand on the backwards side and the cymbals with his brandished stool. He took place center stage with the snare, and transformed the brooding dusk into the very crux of swing. A percolating rumba with bubbly bass-clarinet sailed into harbor with careful brushwork, like the whiskers on your favorite cat calligraphing a love letter on your cheek as it purrs away. The moments when Bennink swung his leg back and forth over the snare––providing no additional sound but generating warm applause for the gymnastics––reminded me of the opening set of the festival in 2007, when Frank Gratkowski and Misha Mengelberg’s duet ended with Misha playing the air like it was a piano. He was in the air a lot this weekend.

The second set was some straight-for-the-jugular free jazz from Paal Nilssen-Love (drums), Jon Rune Strøm (doublebass), Steve Swell (trombone) and Ken Vandermark (reeds). Flagrant fireworks and explosions in diagonal directions. Chaos expressed, check. The rhythm section somehow found themselves playing a heavy funk sway in the midst of the pyrotechnics, a lumbering lull like a slowdown in heavy metal, something to put the rest of the body back into it after a bunch of head banging. It felt natural, or at least as natural as fucking a jelly donut, but it didn’t last, and the blast offs reburst.

The evening ended with the Clifford Thornton Memorial Quartet: Jean-Marc Foussat (analog synth), Daunik Lazro (saxophones), Joe McPhee (wind instruments), Makoto Sato (drums). This set went all over the place: joyous, confused, mournful and heartwarming. And maybe that’s appropriate when we remember someone important to us. Sato’s mallet work provided an essential heartbeat which I’m not sure Lazro’s sweet, rather sentimental tone complimented or contaminated. Foussat’s synth was mixed too loudly, so when he put all his weight into it the others couldn’t match the decibel range. At one point McPhee bent down to scream into his mic, an intense and cathartic rage simultaneously mourning and celebrating his friend’s life and music, while Foussat matched the volume of McPhee’s release with the touch of a button. I have no objection to electronics whatsoever, but the disparity in effort and intensity made Foussat’s contribution feel artificial. McPhee played a valve trombone given to him by Thornton, and it was McPhee’s dedication to echoes of Thornton’s music that kept this set together.

Sometime between the concerts I went to spend time in this year’s Sound Art exhibit, and as I was falling asleep that night I kept thinking about Angélica Castelló’s Magnetic Room. Five amorphous, organ-like shapes made of knit cassette-like tape hang from the ceiling to form one mass of vibrating energy. Even in a dim barn, light inevitably hits the curled tape in thousands of folds, so it glistens like a sweaty reptile just crawling out of a pleasant swamp. A pedestal rests just underneath the floating mass, so as the mass inevitably sways, its movements are amplified by the frame the pedestal provides. A small, red, house-shaped block also rests on the pedestal. Nearby is a cassette player and a pair of headphones. I don’t remember anything about the sounds on the cassette, but the images of the sculpted object presented to my mind an instruction manual for how worry works, how it can be contained, how it can be freed, how it can be darkened, how it can be productive, and maybe even how to think about consuming it.

2. Day Two: Delightful Demons in Pursuit of Lullabies

Photo credits: Andrew Choate
Photo credits: Andrew Choate

Friday began with an afternoon concert in the Catholic church in the middle of town; this concert changed the tone of the festival from one of remembrance to one of salvation. Hamid Drake (drums, percussion), Isabelle Duthoit (clarinet, voice), Franz Hautzinger (trumpet) and Michael Zerang (drums, percussion) made music to question classic confrontations: good/evil; sex/love; war/peace; inner/outer; infinite/instantaneous. Each of the musicians in this set expressed a profound spiritual side and a radically human one as well, because each are both. They marched and growled into the jungle of the soul. Voices hissed from the belly below and within; seraphic tones glided diaphanously into the air; agony and funk came together. My friend Ingrid spoke for all of us when she said it was like “an orgasm in the middle of an exorcism.”

Life and Other Transient Storms, a quintet featuring Lotte Anker (tenor/soprano saxophones), Jon Fält (drums), Sten Sandell (piano), Susana Santos Silva (trumpet/flugelhorn) and Torbjörn Zetterberg (doublebass) rekindled the flames back at the Jazzgalerie. A fractured but distinctly-present swing vibe was subtly established early on in this set, and because it was so firmly––even if abstractly––built, the musicians played off of it throughout, even though it was just a memory. Fält’s playing was a thrill to discover as he peppered the set with wickedly-timed mallet thumps and gorgeously scattered percussive trills. Whether using his hand on his mouth to make wet pops or adding the gritty texture of a struck mbira, his playful sense of the possibilities of his instrument put a smile down my spine. A graceful sense of togetherness via appreciation for discontinuity tethered all the musicians into one ensemble.

The trio of Richard Scott (synth and electronics), Birgit Uhler (trumpet, radio, speaker, objects) and Ute Wasserman (voice, bird whistles) followed, and it reminded me of AMM’s classic trio formation. But instead of having three different types of instruments, the three sound sources were much closer together, and generated one compressed layer. It moved like a meditation until a little feedback broke the spell, and the improv ended shortly thereafter.

I had never heard sarcastic cheering from the audience at Nickelsdorf before, but the set by Klaus Filip (ppooll), Christian Kobi (reeds), Hans Koch (reeds), and Noid (ppooll) generated a couple of antagonistic and loudly yelled “Yah!”s during the middle of their performance. Or maybe they weren’t antagonistic, they were simply trying to be ironic. Or maybe that guy was just drunk and wanted something more ‘jazzy.’ In any case, it was an unnecessary intrusion but it certainly didn’t dampen my experience of this eerily focused set of long tones from the reeds––Kobi on tenor or soprano saxophone, Koch on bass clarinet––and long electronic waves from the laptops. Kobi also plays with a pick-up on his saxophone and deftly controls his multiphonics with austere precision, producing a wide range of nuance within a limited tonal palette. In fact, that is a gift that all of these musicians possess, and this ensemble seems designed to exploit and harness the richness to be found in extreme limitation. I loved this set and felt cleansed by it: reset, refreshed, remade, realigned with other minds.

There is no band like the ICP Orchestra and the pleasure of seeing them live is so large and wide-ranging that you can feel bountiful for days, weeks, months, even years afterwards. For multiple decades they have been taking traditional jazz classics by the likes of Duke Ellington, Herbie Nichols, Hoagy Carmichael and so many others and turning them on their head, and then turning them back to rightside-up and stuffing them with more new life than all the maternity wards on the globe. Not to mention all the originals penned by Mengelberg that pay homage to the big band format while infusing it with contemporary techniques and ideas. Inimitable dexterity and creativity as a ruling principle. It boggles my mind that there has never been an American big band in the last 50+ years that has even attempted to be as playful or as affectionate as these Dutch guys with the history of jazz.

Charles Ives poems were arranged; Mengelberg’s “Picnic Suite” was played; group improvisations unfolded; “Quake,” dedicated to Dudu Pukwana, soared; an arrangement of Ellington’s “Solitude” appeared; Tristan Honsinger conducted a piece by dancing in front of the band. I loved seeing the musicians smoking and talking onstage while their bandmates soloed and improvised around them, everyone enjoying the moments. Mengelberg is no longer alive, but his music and spirit will be anywhere this band goes, and it will remain with the people who are there to hear it long after the band leaves town.

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3. Day Three: Breakin’ Glass

Mats Gustafsson @ Kleylehof. Photo credits: Andrew Choate
Mats Gustafsson @ Kleylehof. Photo credits: Andrew Choate

Sounds at the Kleylehof got started with Erwan Keravec’s bagpipes and Mats Gustafsson’s flageolet. I could listen to anything Keravec does for days, and by the time Gustafsson switched to bass saxophone, I was in an otherworldly heaven of throbbing and humming. The fact that the set was outside and I could see hundreds of thousands of green growths and wavering shadows only added to the psychedelic effect of the music’s waves.

Rather than take a pause before the duo between Gustfasson and Joe McPhee, McPhee entered playing a modified PVC pipe as a wind instrument, and Gustafsson backed away to allow for a Keravec/McPhee duo that shook many an insect into or out of a chrysalis. Keravec’s bagpipes faded away and Gustafsson came in extra-soft for a breezy lift off. I had actually been anticipating hearing a duo between Gustafsson and McPhee for fifteen years, as they had been scheduled to play in Chicago in May of 2002 at a space some friends ran, and I had written a poem called “Purred Air in Duo” to advertise the show. Alas, that show had to be refinagled at the last moment, but I was thinking about the fulfillment of what I had written as this duo purred off:

round round saxophone platter . spit merry wood breath far . howlstop . exhale exhale exhale . shake wind shimmy . melody jab memory . saxophone spray , saxophone sing . calligraphy energy minus cacophony – those instruments signing the air – plus heartbeats and heartcycles . immoderate jazz thirst gulped . let sound glisten . time will thank you . clustered tones snapped by butter . metric hives inflate . choreography of distances between hearing and wanting . tongue tracks imprint animals real and imagined . thrumped note belly laugh dance . solos and duos . feeling good , being good : together : with music . groove sweet syruplike . drip heavy . think funk appreciation . holes poked in rhythm , insinuation magnetic . chop cut scratch kick quick twirl and release the ostinato . tempo slide and shade . body leaning regularly into head nod – audience member / ear lover . when you look closely , you can see the air smiling as it comes from their instruments .

The flute with the right-angled saxophone mouthpiece sure was smiling as it got stuffed in the Kleylehof’s coliseum with Gustafsson’s warbling sonics. The depth of the dear feelings between these two musicians allows them to go as far as they individually need to go during an improvisation without fear of alienating each other. And when synchrony and sympathy are required, they appear instantly, symphonically. Everyone clapped and a dog barked and the leaves through which I watched the music curled upwards just a fraction more toward the music.

I went back to the Sound Art exhibit to spend more time with Angélica Castelló’s “Magnetic Room,” and this time got sucked into a long experience inside Noid’s banana box construction, “Displacement.” About two and a half meters high, the four-walled enclosure has one opening into which one or two people can slip inside and feel sounds emanate and vibrate from the boxes. Sometimes above your head, sometimes behind your back, sometimes right in front of you - which can be even more disorienting, because whatever is making the sound is still invisibly contained within the walls of each banana box. A small terror at the combination of claustrophobia and the possibility of collapse, plus a visual kaleidoscope of the variety of banana company logos from around the world, plus a query into the nature of the economy that depends on distant food production for the nourishment of the local populace, plus the fact that I am in a barn, you are in a barn, we are in a barn and enclosed by vibrating banana boxes and we don’t know what is in this barn for the rest of the year.

The wind quartet Mataga Ili (Thomas Berghammer, trumpet; Tobias Delius, reeds; Frank Gratkowski, reeds; Wolter Wierbos, trombone) played the twilight set at the Jazzgalerie, and just as the light stretched as long as it could into the night, the tones stretched like taffy across the stage. Klaus Peham, in relation to wind music, wrote that “almost nothing is strange,” and I would agree. The challenge, if nothing could be strange, is how the familiar can remain engaging. A lot of relationships struggle with this quandary, and it’s an issue for this band as well. I really enjoyed the listen, but I almost never felt any tension.

The performance by the “B” Quartet of Tony Buck (drums), Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet), Mike Majkowski (doublebass) and Magda Mayas (piano), however, didn’t require tension to make hauntingly unique music. The players instead seemed so comfortable rewriting the roles of their instruments that every idea got heard, developed and transformed. The melody was coming from the drums, the percussion from the trumpet, the rhythm from the piano, and harmony from the bass. And then in the act of listening the roles would shift again. It was spooky how unique their sound was, and how revitalizing it felt to be swimming in the river of their intonations.

The duet between Oliver Lake on reeds/flute and Donald Robinson on drums contained a lot of solos for a duo. Lake held the saxophone like a gift, so that’s how I heard it too. Robinson focused on mallets and brushes, like tissue paper around Lake’s sound. Toward the end of the set Lake recited his poem “Breakin’ Glass,” and it felt simultaneously like it sprang out of nowhere and yet tied the whole set, even the whole day, together. Me and the friends I was listening to this set with suddenly felt extra-elevated, wide-eyed and bliss-connected after that poem.

It had already been a full day of listening, but it concluded with a well-timed set by Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Matthew Wright (turntable, live sampling), Adam Linson (doublebass, electronics) and Spring Heel Jack (John Coxon and Ashley Wales on electronics). It wasn’t as dense as you might think; it was perfectly balanced with the kind of music you want in the middle of the night: bird and insect sounds mingling with saxophone harmonics in carapace formation; marimba records manipulated with chanting and chamber ensembles; silent lightning.

If you haven’t heard the Trance Map CD Parker and Wright put out on psi, you should know that the basis for this ensemble is layered studio compositions and sampling rather than free improvisation. Of course, the performance was an improvisation, but in the style of a studio composition, if you can wrap your toboggan around that. The music was gentle even when scattered, enlightening even when obscure, organic when electric, abundant when scarce, modern when ancient, kind when cruel, vast when tiny, zipped when unzipped, goodnight.

4. Day Four: The Longest a Piece of Glitter Has Ever Lasted

Photo credits: Andrew Choate
Photo credits: Andrew Choate

Sunday began with a screening of the documentary Step Across by Lisbeth Kovacic about the history of the Kleylehof as a refuge for refugees in the 1950s and how it evolved into what became a social and artistic collective from 2000-2015, before an abrupt eviction in the midst of international border crises, and how the collective responded. The film balanced intimate moments with collective members performing their works with footage of the collective working with refugees coming in from the Hungarian border––a border which is visible from where they lived––and documentation of the final days in the space they were forced to relocate from. The long scene that plays out behind the end credits, where Jean-Luc Guionnet plays alto saxophone on the street while Syrian refugees wrestle with Konfrontationen maestro Hans Falb and each other, sums up so much about the relationship of art to survival that it should be required viewing for anyone in any elected office, anywhere.

The four sets at the Jazzgalerie on Sunday that closed the festival were so immaculately well-played and well-placed in relation to each other that it is no wonder that the night ended in the riotous laughter of musicians and friends outside the club and on the dance floor.

Left, a trio of Isabelle Duthoit (clarinet and voice), Katharina Klement (piano and electronics) and Matija Schellander (doublebass), slithered into my unconscious, went fishing for soup, and found it. As usual, close listening from audience and performers alike was required, as sounds like the waft of the bow in front of a mic were de rigueur. Duthoit’s achingly physical body of sounds can transform a rope of tears into a lifeline. When she puts her clarinet anywhere near her, it becomes an extension of herself, a continuation of her creative and critical presence, the cat of the mind ringing the doorbell on a past and answering it with your next meal. I went so far into listening to this set that I barely perceived what was actually happening.

The following set by The Ames Room (Jean-Luc Guionnet, alto saxophone; Will Guthrie, drums; Clayton Thomas, doublebass) was the one I remember most vividly from the festival. Before they played, I expected glossy textural improv. Then they started and I was like, damn, this is free jazz! The thing is, over the last ten years or so, I have begun to think that free jazz is dead. Not because it isn’t being played (that’s for sure––there are more players now than ever,) but because nothing new is happening when it is played, rather like the announcement of going nowhere loudly. This trio radically changed my mind by taking the form and completely transforming it according to their own needs as musicians. First, they use repetition. The repetition of complex, fast patterns and the repetition of simple, slow patterns, sometimes at the same time by different musicians. As those frenetic patterns repeat and repeat, they get deeper and deeper until the sudden appearance of a variation is a startling development. Speaking of development, the band also take staggeringly wild turns–why not 170°?–in the very middle of cohesive development. Guthrie also has a way of playing in this band where it sounds like he is constantly rolling, committing to a fundamental circularity that allows him to have five wheels spinning in either one direction or seven, I don’t even want to be able to tell which. Thomas’ playing is the most deceptively complex: it seems like he’s just playing one note at sporadic intervals, until after he has played for four minutes you realize that his intervals are at the heart of the warped rotation driving the band. I’m still astonished by what I heard.

I had the good fortune to live in Chicago for many years and be able to see Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang play many times, so their duo in Nickelsdorf felt like a homecoming for me. The set started with a beautiful speech by Hamid thanking all the artists involved in not only the performances at the festival, but also in the maintenance of the festival, and in the artistry involved in being an audience member here. He also invoked his friend William Parker when he told us to remain strong and inspired, since we’re all working on something. Their set was two long pieces, one on hand drums, and one on trap kits. The music was feverishly spellbinding, and many around me were moved to tears by their devotion to bringing such uncompromising beauty into our world. All I could do was soak it in, be thankful, resolve again to carry the music with me, and try do something with the light it has shown me.

The festival finale––for those that weren’t so moved by Drake and Zerang that they had to take a walk and recalibrate––was Sten Sandell (piano) and Paul Lovens (drums, percussion). They took their places behind their respective instruments, looked at each other, then a cymbal crashed and a string reverberated in perfect sync. The timing was on. Lovens’ trademark gallop was in full saddle and Sandell rode with him for every step, sometimes deliberately taking things askew, but always in absolute concert. The music of these two musicians has been so personally affecting for my life over the last twenty years that seeing them perform in a duet for the first time felt…natural. Natural, simpatico, playful, all the ways you want to feel when around the people that really get you. This festival makes that possible for me: through the combination of the music and the atmosphere and the food and the people and, oh! maybe the drinks help too! The Konfrontationen nurtures the kind of relationships among new and old friends that make a bond feel infinite, inevitable, indissoluble.

The 39th Konfrontationen: Festival for Free and Improvised Music in Nickelsdorf, Austria runs July 19-22, 2018.

About the Author

Andrew Choate

Andrew Choate is an artist and writer, born and raised in South Carolina. Author of works such as "Stingray Clapping", "Language Makes Plastic of the Body", and, most recently, "Learning", a self-help/mystery collage.

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