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Konfrontationen 2016 - First Physical Encounter, No Goodbyes

Written By:

Victor Stütz

Published:

September 15, 2016

1. First time

As the last summer days are unfolding, my editor is firing me up to finish my report on the 37th edition of Konfrontationen, a festival for free and improvised music he and I hold very dear. He wrote about it last year and now it’s my turn. It happened on the 21st to 24th of July in the Austrian countryside, where it always happens.

This year there were 68 musicians from five continents. It’s a festival with finely defined musical borders now on it’s third state of conscience, after the African-American avant-garde jazz of the seventies and the European wave of the eighties (which included the South African musicians living in Europe): the electronic era (started in the nineties), which merges with the previous two anyway and blends together ethnic stamina with borderless styles – through exquisite curatorial filters.

I left Bucharest for Nickelsdorf for the first time on a Friday at noon with a long-lasting-burning-desire to be there. I traveled mostly on the rails. I left Nickelsdorf for Bucharest the next Monday at noon with a strong conviction I will return the next year. I will now testify!

Ninety-nine point nine hundred and ninety nine-nine-nine and probably so on percent of what’s happening in the world is irrelevant to me, but somehow Nickelsdorf has always been relevant to my life’s story – since it’s first improbable editions in the seventies. That’s a passenger car conclusion I drew on my seat next to my friend Bog in the first quarter of a rather enjoyable twenty hour journey, as I contemplated some good old beer and wine. I was right I believe.

After those sleepless twenty or so hours by train and an hour of huckleberry-refugee style border crossing into Austria from Hungary by foot, I was there to catch a glorious morning, with friends waking up after a second tough festival night. Some of these friends are my direct connection to Nickel so I’ve been very closely related to it in spirit but somehow never got to actually attend. This year wasn’t a very good one so I had to go. I had to go. Seeing one of the few live appearances of Karkhana exhilarated me. Full force is required, these things are not negotiable.

You can start the day with your sunglasses on, some frugal breakfast at 1 PM, single malt and cold Austrian beer provided by friends. I could, and an hour later I was good to go and wait for the shuttle to take me to the unknown. It turned out to be the moon, and the moon is the perfect place to spend you afternoon.

2. Clinical

So after some active rest in the grass, meeting&greeting, administrative scanning and choreographic mapping we set out for church to listen to RDEĈA RAKETA (Maja Osojnik on live sampling, CDJ, lo fi electronics, Paetzold on bass recorder and Matija Schellander on modular synth, double bass)/ Jean-Luc Guionnet – church organ.

I should have slept. I chose to go to the evangelical church. Of course I didn’t come here to sleep but at the time I felt like dying. The lengths to which a music freak will go to get a fix are non-human. Everything seemed very odd, even my friends, and I felt supremely critical about everything. Reason told to go on and filter later. The moment I sat down that church bench far from my friends everything turned to a sociologic surrealism. I took notes: it happened that I found my Austrian heritage, I was an Austrian and proud of it although we are horrible and dubious middle class men and women. Luckily not a lot of people know that. We fake not caring we are in a church and we talk about whatever drinking beer and schnapps – we play an infinite game of hiding our true religious option, we are perverted peasants! I wasn’t quite sure if we were pious, Satanists or atheists and it didn’t even matter, it was all about hiding it from others and from ourselves in a sense. We were very cool may I say.

And then the music started and it all felt so familiar to me, so iconoclastic, so well calculated and evil in an ecstatic sense. The church context made it feel like attending a sacramental surgery, a liturgical resection… It was sublime and of course still very superficial (in a malformed and uncanny way). Reason made me filter everything and indeed the music was superbly computed… So clinical! I’m a devotee of that approach and delivery. I almost said deliverance. Reality kicked in at the suave silent parts where I oscillated between sleep and waking: I was in a hypnagogic state. The concert was over and the moment I went outside I was back to reality. I knew what happened to me in the last hours and fully acknowledged the value and technique of the performance. Really cool personnel and really cool music.

It was also really cool that the churchyard was now fitted with tap beer and other refreshments. I regret to this day I didn’t have a beer there and then but ten minutes later we went to a barn where I had everything I needed (sausages, beer and a taste of spritz). We then went to the Jazzgalerie – the main venue of the festival, the garden of a bar and restaurant.

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3. Hot heads

Next on were Also (Martin Siewert – guitars, electronics and Katharina Ernst - drums), a duo I didn’t fully resonate with because mildly dissonant electronic fused guitar and strong kraut drumming don’t quite go together for me. The drumming kept me there but I would have preferred my dissonance to go all the way in this scenario. Not bad (maybe a bit easy) and not boring either, I just found it incompatible. The public enjoyed it though.

They were followed by Trio Now! (Tanja Feichtmair – alto sax, Uli Winter – cello, Fredi Pröl – drums), an enjoyable jazz group who really own their territory. Inspired flow on the sax, sweet, to the point drumming and cool improvisation on the cello are just the thing to wash away the exhaustion so they got me in the mood and kept me there from start to finish. It seems they had the same effect on the crowd who deservingly cheered them for a good while.

I decided to get up and away from the Georg Graewe piano solo because I knew deep meditation improv would be a recoil for my new found strength. I kept my ears opened from a safe distance and watched a very focused attendance getting into it. I also found people to talk to so it seems I wasn’t the only cat to desert.

I don’t know why I was really excited that The Red Trio (Rodrigo Pinheiro - piano, Hernâni Faustino - double bass, Gabriel Ferrandini – drums) were coming up, I’m not a fan unfortunately. They were playing beside John Butcher so that must have had something to do with it. I don’t dig The Red Trio because they’re too detached even when violent, too sharp, they have a crystal clear vision and no transcendence. Good old clean modern jazz. Adding John Butcher to that didn’t do much for me, I mean what could he have done? He played his complex sax language and they stayed in control of their style, too fixed I think. Some immersion was needed but they kept afloat. Wrong affiliation. The crowd and I were certainly not on the same page as they cheered heavily. Some of my friends said it was brilliant, on point, maybe The Performance of the festival. Not even taken separately I’d say.

Karkhana came to end the night in oriental fashion and I was already blown away by this. Ever since their first recording surfaced on Sharif Sehnaoui’s soundcloud a year and a few months ago I wanted more. At first I didn’t even know the ensemble’s personnel. Later when they created their own soundcloud and added a few more tracks I read about the Beirut – Cairo – Istanbul junction (Mazen Kerbaj - trumpet, mezmar, Umut Çağlar - reeds, flutes, Sam Shalabi - oud, electric guitar, Sharif Sehnaoui - electric guitar, Maurice Louca - synthesizer, electronics, Tony Elieh - electric bass). For Nickelsdorf they added Chicago (Michael Zerang - drums, percussion) to their map.

A change was in order so I instinctively opted to see this one from a different angle, I changed full frontal for a more peripheral point of view. It was the thing I was interested in most so I needed perspective. This was no ordinary concert, you don’t hear that blend of free jazz and psychedelic with various shades and traces of shaabi, tarab, sufi and much more every day. It was actually a premiere. Could this be the new era? I had to distance myself somehow and observe.

They played two long pieces. The first one was ruined for me by Michael Zerrang’s excessive jazz drumming. It was like the man was coming of age and really seemed to enjoy himself. I don’t know if this was designed to please the Konfrontationen ideal audience (idea of an audience as in model) or not but this was the way it sounded, as an adaptation. I like Zerrang’s work but this is the second time I see him in a big ensemble and it doesn’t work. I saw him years ago in Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet + 2 and he certainly felt like a plus there. His style doesn’t fit probably.

The second was way better, much more spacey, deep and reflexive so I could really immerse into it and almost get into a trance like state but I resisted going there… I wanted to see the way a western crowd reacts to such an occasion. It’s not like they would have been exposed to these kind of musical experience before. Coming from the Balkans makes it easy to take in because those sounds are a great influence on local sounds so for me it was the coolest thing. But what do you do if this is not your music, not familiar, what would the first contact be like? I saw that first hand and it was not pretty. Like most first contacts, it was hesitant. Whether or not there was a feeling of disquiet the crowd played it stiff. The reaction was brief and cold, the coldest of the night. There were some hot heads cheering but a good part of them must have been the 17 Romanians at the festival. Altered as I was I activated myself in arguments about the public and it’s openness. Have some ţuică, one more beer, smoke a lemon, go to bed.

4. An outlandish landscape

Sunday morning in Nickelsdorf can be a thing of spiritual enlightenment. You can start the day with your sunglasses on, some frugal breakfast at 1 PM, single malt and cold Austrian beer provided by friends. I could, and an hour later I was good to go and wait for the shuttle to take me to the unknown. It turned out to be the moon, and the moon is the perfect place to spend you afternoon. Especially if you have your umbrella with you. I did. The shuttle stopped at the edge of the forest. There were refreshments there. I heard cheers. I picked up some supplies, opened my umbrella and went about for a moonwalk under the fiery sun at Hesser Gstettn…

An outlandish landscape and a fantastic choice for the performance of Michel Doneda (reeds) and Lê Quan Ninh (percussion). It was like an ancestral meeting, a mysterious combination of stardust, arid weeds, pastoral life, early humanity and sound. There was even a dog. The air had a high acoustic conductivity – every crack of stone made sounded like a gravel avalanche, every breath had a biography. Field recording must have been sublime. I could call such a recording “a shepherd’s afternoon. So peaceful and primitive!” The two wandered the terrain for their sonic investigations and it all felt like home: communion and transcendence. The performance ended with them playing as they strolled away into the sun. I followed like a hypnotised rat being drifted into the sea. I caught up with them later in the night for a talk.

Next up for my warm summer evening I took my seat at the Jazzgalerie to see the german-american trio Keir Neuringer (alto sax), Simone Weißenfels (piano), Willi Kellers (dums, percussion). My peacefulness seemed to fade away as Neuringer started the show with a poem I found cheesy. I was then immediately blown back to impression by their splendid, accomplished music. My reverie went on for the full concert as my mind raved about the perfection of their free, their commercial beauty, the American musicians’ work ethic and technical superiority: Neuringer was the embodiment of all the important American sax players before him, and the trio was up there with the greatest. Still is and I won’t question my experience. An absolute highlight sending endless vibrations.

There’s a very funky language being used to write about avant-garde and improvised music and though it doesn’t mean much or come easy to me, it seems inescapable with the mighty Talibam! (Matt Mottel - keyboard, electronics and Kevin Shea - drums) and their encounter with Alan Wilkinson (tenor sax and baritone sax). They were up next and I took a little distance ‘cause the last time I saw them in Bucharest in 2010 I went full mental. You can’t go into a paroxystic trance sitting on a chair surrounded by coolness, now, can you? They went full throttle monkey business impetuously exulting my brain to the point of sublime dementia. This time I didn’t go bananas, it was all intellectual fruity power. This outfit is as powerful as any acidic ecstasy (whatever that may be), going straight to the core – blowing it up and sinuously coming back for the climax. Oh heavenly electronics! Sweeter than a baby cat, roaring like a genius, hurting physicist’s deepest thoughts, crying like a diamond! Oh badass-haunting drums! At what speed you come to feed my imbecile fantasies! Oh that sax attack, oh that sax! So voraciously intelligent! So painfully historic, so sensitive and kind! So intense, so perfect together! E Pericoloso Sporgersi is the album they released then and there - It Is Dangerous To Lean Out! Hi five, aloha and salaam aleikum you twats! Ciao!

Still had beer. There was no need nor desire to move. So I stayed there for the third trio of the night, the peculiar rendezvous between John Butcher (tenor sax, baritone sax), Thomas Lehn (analogue synthesizer) and Matthew Shipp (piano). Some called it “the problematic one” since it was never done before. So I stayed there with my eyes closed for the whole performance relishing every sound and every silence. John Butcher later told us that “the group wasn’t really trapped by the history of its instruments. If it had been a bass player or a drummer, it would have been a very different kind of music… so, it took it somewhere where there isn’t really a sonic history for that combination”. But it didn’t feel that way to me - it sounded organic in all it’s calmness and natural nervousness. Matthew Shipp: “I feel very comfortable with him [Thomas Lehn]. I mean, electronics could be very intrusive if it was the wrong person, but he seems to really understand a lot about the piano, both the touch and the whole sensibility of the instrument, and he also knows a lot about rhythm […] and that — makes all the difference in the world. Because there’s nothing worse in a situation like that where somebody has the potential to cover that much sonic space and they don’t understand that.” So yeah, It was one of the coolest things ever.

The grande finale (FIRE! TRIO + Oren Ambarchi) followed and having seen FIRE! a few months earlier in Control, I was looking forward to Oren Ambarchi’s input. So I went with Bog to the bar to grab a beer. As we were waiting they started playing and Alan Wilkinson invitingly started singing Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun so we ended up singing Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun loudly, as if that was being played onstage. We felt too exotic to go back to the concert so we hooked up with Talibam! for a talk and some distillation. I heard Oren Ambarchi was pretty silent, not that I had too many regrets. Later on me and Bog played some African stuff for a lovely after party.

In the morning I ate a strudel and passed out for a splendid Monday.

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*Photo credits: Peter Gannushkin



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