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Konfrontationen 2018 in Nickelsdorf, Austria

Konfrontationen 2018 in Nickelsdorf, Austria

Written by:

Andrew Choate

Published:

July 17, 2019

1. Dave Rempis and Tim Daisy

When I Want To Get Calm
I Think of Blue Whales
With Hearts The Size Of A Car
And They Are Singing

The 2018 Konfrontationen was most memorable for me because of the appearance of two dear friends in the opening and closing sets of the festival. And it was around this time that I realized that the American habit of beginning letters with “Dear ___” isn’t simply the proper form of how to begin a letter; it is a way of stating that the person you are writing to is “dear,” in your heart and mind: cherished, regarded with affection. Because that is certainly how I think about Dave Rempis (saxophones), whose duo with Tim Daisy (drums) kicked off the proceedings.

Rempis began with a hard and energetic tone, bristling with the announcement that he was ready to play and full of ideas; he took that exceptional level of energy and then kept rising as the set proceeded. Daisy was a little slower but perked up when Dave’s first solo sounded like two (or maybe three or four) whales mating; he added loose brushwork to his sticks like satisfying a spider-on-the-leg itch and topped it with a gang of bunched zip ties across the skins. No wonder his first name and “time” are so similar.

A hard squawk from Rempis into a cascade of running trills incited Daisy to swing the brushes and ties into the air and just barely rattle them across loose cymbals, like he was weighing his reluctance to strike a church bell. Daisy’s percussive flourishes have an ashiness about them: even after impact, the sounds echo in space, and continue to fall on the ear while still riding the air, like the way ash arcs up and down before hitting the ground.

Rempis melded his own harsh bark to the melodic dexterity of Rollins and Coltrane. He’s not afraid to play notes, traditionally intoned and precisely sculpted. The same way that a lot of vocal improvisors seem wary of actually using real words (Shelley Hirsch being a noted exception,) a lot of instrumental improvisors seem afraid to make a beautiful note. Rempis is an exception: his moves inside and outside traditional forms outline the variety of his intentions at any moment. He played ballad-like moments hard, as if survival was on the line, and free-jazz freak-outs soft, like the most important thing to always remember is compassion.

The form of what Daisy and Rempis played isn’t particularly new anymore, so the question of creativity comes down to the level of execution. So, if you like your Albert Ayler to come billowing through a straw constructed by Paul Desmond, this was the sound for you. Daisy had a quirkily Q*bert-like sense of movement: diagonal jumps and leaps that always pushed the momentum forward while quizzling the underside of any notion of progress. His swimmingly shimmery thrushes over the drumheads and sudden pow-ka-pow lunges like he just dropped a box of spring-loaded hammers down a flight of stairs made every nuance a gulpable moment. Gorgeous half-whispers of brushes and saxophone tones closed the set and I thought about the rare times when the music stops and you can hear a phone ringing at a strip club.

The music that happens in Nickelsdorf is made by people that take existential questions seriously. Their art is hard-fought for.

2. Eye Can Dance

Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate

Eye Can Dance, a group featuring Juun on pianoguts, Wolfgang Fuchs on turntables, Didi Bruckmayr on voice and Bernhard Breuer on drums was a perfect contrast to the first set: no echoes of jazz, just sound sculpting in extremis. It took Bruckmayr ten minutes to listen and see where things were going before he began contributing, and then, instead of setting the tone, he conscientiously amplified it with the smallest sounds you can make with an open mouth.

At first, I was inpatient with the lack of committal I felt coming from any of the instrumentalists, like they were too concerned about stepping on each other’s sonic toes, and it was influencing each decision down to the articulation of each sound on an individual level. But as it deepened, my listening blossomed and I remembered the subtlety that each grain of rice persists within, and thought of the paintings made thereupon, and the largesse of what was happening opened up to me. I heard music from trolls in a tunnel. I heard a bunch of palm trees with fronds at different heights massaging a conclave of bachelorettes. I heard a condor closing its eyes while it flies because it’s so high up it doesn’t have to worry about running into anything.

The action level was typically around three out of ten, but then it would jump to nine and back to two, and the fruitfulness of gardening that threshold kept me happily on the edge. The Bix-Beiderbecke-cornet-sculpting via Fuchs’ turntablism in particular sent a shiver across the furrow of my eyebrows, and I thought about getting blessed in a church with a fish stick tapped on my shoulder like a magic wand.

They made one long improv that ended artificially abruptly because one person in the audience was too eager to clap, but the short encore was outstanding, full of a vitally deranged logic that kept everyone moving swiftly while making only the subtlest of sounds. They were totally warmed up by this point and I wished they had had that confidence when they began; the short conclusion felt like the happiness you get when you look down and see that a grasshopper has inadvertently stained your shirt: you wish that you could have had one extra moment with the creature, no matter how small, to absorb and convey your gratitude for such an encounter with nature.

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3. What Would We Be Without Cecil

Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate

(? what would we be) WITHOUT CECIL was a supergroup tribute to one of the most iconic figures in all of improvised music, full of the requisite dramas and repercussions that Taylor’s life and music exemplified. The band: Joe McPhee (reeds & brass), Evan Parker (tenor saxophone), Peter Evans (trumpet), Pat Thomas (piano), Orphy Robinson (marimba), Tristan Honsinger (cello), Joe Williamson (double bass), Paul Lovens (drums & percussion). I’ve got to give huge credit to Robinson for providing the most Taylor-like contribution to this set; his vibes had that elegant edginess that Taylor balanced so well, and I often thought of the spot of oily light on bubbles that highlights their fragility and toxicity in equal measure while I was listening to the radiant tones coming from his marimba. Cecil-reminiscent without being Cecil-like.

It’s not easy to play piano in a set like this, but Pat Thomas let his own thing come through - which was clearly the only way to pay proper tribute - and he did so by reenacting a swarm of bees finding fresh flowers floating on a clear Arctic lagoon. Parker and Evans were deeply intrigued by his playing as well, and kept looking over at him, taking a combination of inspiration and cues from his decision-making. Evans got a nice super bass-y sound by jamming his trumpet into the microphone and playing intensely low-end frequencies. An abruption of feedback made the band change direction, but with improvisors this skilled, even that kind of distraction is no more than a minor twibble.

A lot of excellent little groups came and went over the course of the set: Parker/ McPhee/ Lovens/ Thomas/ Honsinger; a gorgeous ricochet between Williamson and Thomas against Honsinger and Lovens; a jaw-dropping ears-widening quartet with Robinson/ Williamson/ Lovens/ Thomas; Honsinger and Lovens etched out a beloved duo of pure frolic.

Like so many moths seeking so much light, the real question was how would it (could it?) end? A long slow lift-off that reminded me of James Tenney’s “For Ann (rising)” was the only way: something that appeared to always rise and go up that somehow came to an ineffable conclusion.

4. Friday

Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate

Friday began in the afternoon at the Kleylehof with a set that felt more like the performance of an installation. Gerard Lebik had set up fifteen air canisters dangling from strings at varying heights from the ceiling; over the course of the set he released each one to spin in space and blow off a cloud of cold air. Ryoko Akama had decorated the space with lots of wine glasses and bottles that reminded me of scientific vitrines, as well as lightbulbs and beachballs and an assortment of tiny objects. She walked around and activated various small mechanisms that put the objects in motion: a lightbulb spinning around a wine glass and occasionally clinking against it; a washer tapping a wine bottle; a wheel rotating around bark on the floor and squeaking and creaking.

The dynamic was strange: Akama was constantly moving and tweaking the myriad objects involved in her delicate machineries while Lebik was off to the side and came in at his chosen moments to activate a canister or two. A deep fragility imbued this set because some of Lebik’s cans were rather muted, and almost all of the processes Akama set up eventually stopped making any sound at all, even if there was still mechanical movement in effect. Sometimes she tried to fix it and move a wineglass back in place, but it often only helped for sixty seconds or so. I like a good exploration of fragility, but I didn’t get the sense that she had a strong sense of the agility required to work with these delicate objects and sounds.

It was certainly a visual spectacle, and entertaining in that regard. I also hadn’t considered the sound of raw air that was neither breath nor wind. But I couldn’t help thinking of performances I had seen by members of the Balloon & Needle collective, who also work via a practice of building functioning sound-making situations out of everyday objects and processes: fans, travel cd players with the tops removed, the rhythms of stairs, etc. What has elevated my experience of their performances compared to this one by Akama and Lebik was that even though all of the processes they engineer are basic, after twenty minutes or so my ears and brain click in to realize just how much is happening at any one time. Akama and Lebik, in contrast, focussed so closely on tiny things that inevitably dissolved that the music never got to a point where it became musical. Instead, it languished in the realm of demonstration-of-a-sound-art-practice. The discrepancy between the intricate visual display and the laissez-faire marginality of the actual sounds produced reminded me of the devastating hierarchy between visual and sonic culture. To cap it off, some middle-aged hippies from Switzerland cheated the line to get drinks in-between sets directly afterwards, and I thought “bad form can be anywhere.”

Dieb13 (turntables) and Phil Minton (voice) played the next set inside at the Kleylehof, and my favorite moment was when Minton started wheezing and rolling his head, making his voice sound like a spinning record. His screams are also getting more Disney-like the more I listen: aspirated quacking and cartoon playfulness. I love both of these improvisors, but something seemed to be missing from this set, possibly another player or two or three. They were so comfortable that it wasn’t engaging; it was probably the first time I’ve ever been disappointed by either of these two.

The first set at the Jazzgalerie for the evening concerts featured BZSS, a quartet of Thomas Berghammer (trumpet), Martin Zrost (reeds), Oliver Steger (double bass) and Paul Skrepek (drums). Jacob Gnigler was added in as a guest so perhaps the band is actually BZSS+K. The most bizarre facet of this set came before they even started playing. The traditional start to each set at the festival has been Grölli walking around and ringing a bell, indicating to all the patrons that the music will begin in a couple of minutes. But before this set, instead of the pleasant bell-ringing, some terrible feedback buzzing pervaded the space. I don’t know if this was some part of the sound art exhibit, but that would be odd because that exhibition is always done in such good taste, and this feedback noise was universally dissatisfactory, especially compared to the friendliness of Grölli walking around ringing a small bell.

The music by this quintet was mild. A graceful bounce here and there and some lightly wah-wahed guitar riptides reminded me of 1990s ECM records. At one point everyone in the band (besides the drummer) was making birdlike sounds. Good music to hopscotch to. Either the band announced that one of the themes they played was “Beauty and the Beast,” or that’s what I surmised; they could photograph purplelessly.

Next up was the Blue Reality Quartet: Joe McPhee (trumpet and reeds), Michael Marcus (reeds), Jay Rosen (drums) and Tollef Ostvang (drums). When half the quartet is drummers, it’s a good idea to start with a drum duo, which they did. It felt like starting in the middle of a Grateful Dead show, and then a free jazz concert broke out. McPhee began on a white alto saxophone with orange keys and switched to tenor pretty quickly when the gumption of the rhythms demanded it. A big, old, soft tenor ballad leaked out over the rollicking rhythms of the two drummers and it felt like the audience took a big breath that was both a sigh of relief and a need for a large quantity of oxygen to fill their bodies as they considered with anticipation the beauty they were about to absorb.

Two drummers playing behind McPhee is truly a gift because it emphasizes the amount of rhythms native to his playing. And I can’t commend enough the graceful entrance Markus made while playing octavin, a unique bassoon-meets-soprano-saxophone kind of reed instrument. Markus laid out a deeply soulful and slow groove on it, then switched to tenor saxophone for one of the rare instances during this set when both McPhee and Markus played reeds and both drums were in constant go.

The band found a solid fit that allowed McPhee on soprano saxophone and Markus on clarinet to take a duet to the far reaches of friendship and nuance. Licks from Coltrane’s “Naima” and “India” percolated through and the band really got together, riffing hard on the four-note theme from “India” and you could hear the blues-iness that Coltrane’s tune - and this band - are steeped in.

The performance by Möström (Susanna Gartmayer, bass clarinet; Elise Mory, keyboards; Tamara Wilhelm, DIY electronics) was the one I was most eagerly anticipating when I saw this year’s lineup. I love their debut album, “We Speak Whale,” and couldn’t wait to hear their music live. They started with keyboard pop plus the fizz of electronics, charting a simultaneity of abstract and concrete. They make abstraction playful while others make it overly serious, and they make pop serious where others make it candy. All of their sounds are both subtle and simple, lovingly simple. It’s right there in front of you, no hiding behind virtuosic technical displays - just fresh music that uses accessibility to underscore imagination.

They shied away from their more overtly rhythmic side a little bit for this performance but the encore featured the best of pure improvisation with gleeful risk-taking: complex clapping rhythms dissolving into pure noise baths and back-and-forths between the two soundworlds with deft aplomb. I was excited and energized by their sound, and the music they put in my ears translated to a deep glow in my heart.

The last set of the night was another bold large ensemble, Skein: Liz Allbee (trumpet), Frank Gratkowski (woodwinds), Achim Kaufmann (piano), Kazuhisa Uchihashi (guitar, daxophone), Richard Barrett (electronics), Wilbert de Joode (doublebass), and Tony Buck (drums). Surprisingly balanced for so many people of divergent sonic palettes onstage, but I was moody during this set and really missing my Romanian friends who didn’t make the festival this year. And while I love this kind of minimal improvisation, it felt tepidly abstruse for a closing late-night set.

Kaufmann pulled out a fourteen-inch woodblock to bang out some classic old-school tone clusters, but the set was basically a very pleasant big wash. A dog took a big part in the encore, largely because the band was so darn sensitive. Buck started playing like he was the drummer in a Count Basie big band for a minute and it worked intensely well with the combination of so much minimal abstraction, and then the set ended, evanescing away like one more night under the stars, and I still missed my friends, and wished I had something more raucous to distract me.

5. Saturday

Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate

Saturday’s shows all took place at the Jazzgalerie and were a little delayed due to an unexpectedly turbulent storm of rain that swept through Burgenland. It was a refreshing break from the heat, but the vehemence of diagonal jets of rain cruising toward the stage and the equipment made things quite difficult for the hardworking crew. We began with another large ensemble, the PIO (Prague Improvisation Orchestra) + four invited guests: Xavier Charles (clarinet), Didi Kern (percussion), Burkhand Stangl (electric guitar) and Tamara Wilhelm (DIY electronics) joined the group led by George Cremashi (doublebass, electronics) and Petr Vrba (trumpet, electronics) - Ken Ganfield (electronics), Jan Jirucha (trombone), Michael Matejka (electric guitar), Vojtech Prochazka (piano, keyboard), and Zdenek Zavodny (baritone saxophone).

They played structured improvisations, three pieces I think, and my favorite aspect was not being able to follow the logic of the pieces. A big blast of free jazz suddenly slowed down to sound like a record spinning at one RPM. A subtle micro-technical drum-and-trumpet-interplay bounced to Matejka’s guitar wriggling free of a chord like a snake shedding its skin. Throbbing waves of sound and then gliding stillness revealed how awesome sonic constructions can be when thoughtful improvisors get a chance to flesh them out.

The intricacy of how well-incorporated every individual was to the overall sound was also reflected in how the pieces of music came together: frenzies were built practically surreptitiously, to the point where I shook my head a number of times, not consciously aware of how the music got where it was, like the developments happened behind my back and was suddenly sitting right in my lap. The combination of Cremaschi’s electric bass and Kern’s rock drumming while the rest of the band wafted in the mist of slow-moving abstraction was gorgeous. When the entire ensemble eventually freaked out and everyone played fast and wild, you could feel that it meant something: every layer and every sequence had played a vital part so that the moment would be memorable. The set ended with all the wind instruments gently swooshing in the breeze while Kern played a slow march. Invigorating and calming, a head-scratching delight.

Up Umeå is the name of a quartet recording made by the Phil Minton Quartet at the Swedish National TV Studios in 1969, and this reunion set proved they’re still tight and that Minton wrote some beautiful compositions. Lars-Göran Ulander (alto saxophone), Sten Öberg (drums), Joe Williamson (not the original doublebassist, but hey) plus Minton (trumpet). Seriously swinging post-bop; it felt great to hear. No one took up too much space, and with so much air between the lines that each musician was playing, I could soak up the rich tones and limber melodies. Minton sometimes played the trumpet like he sings, with a little yowl, while also adding grace notes and accents to his cohorts choices that made each tune shine. Ulander’s alto saxophone had a sinuous arco and thump that I couldn’t get enough of, and the rhythm section sounded so cohesive that they exuded fun. A solid set from a confident band.

I missed a lot of the Peter Evans Quartet (Peter Evans, trumpet; Kaja Draksler, piano; Sofia Jernberg, voice; Tom Blancarte, doublebass) when I went to get dinner, but when I came back, I heard a really intense little theme being played, and it sounded like a great idea. Then they played it over and over and over again until I didn’t even like it anymore. It was uncomfortable, to hear a unique sequence and enjoy it, then to become bored it, then to lose patience with it and desperately want it to end. I can’t imagine how irritated I would have been if I had been present from the beginning.

Luckily the next set was completely revivifying, one of my favorite sets of the festival in fact: J77D13X442 (Jérôme Noetinger, Revox, radios, electronics; Dieb13, turntables; Xavier Charles, clarinet). This was super-dynamic music: slow, fast, dense, spacious, cruel, charming, light, heavy, hungry, satiated, troubling, welcoming, sharp, soft, drowning, flying. Charles used three microphones to achieve hard channel separation between right and left with one in the middle equally centered. So when he moved his clarinet in a circle - or a zig-zag, or a loop de loop - you heard the music form in your head in that shape. He made horizontal waves and vertical waves and mini tornadoes with his clarinet.

Despite radically different types of instrumentation, it was difficult to tell where any individual sounds came from. The trio also used deep pauses to powerful effect, underscoring moments of ravenous energy with eerie reluctance and doubt. Totalist silences. I think the set was a favorite of mine and several others that I talked to because the music felt like an accurate representation of what real life feels like: a week condensed into an hour, or a ten-day stretch expanded into six years. No real measurements to sensations, no control of what lingers, no needs for desperate preservation.

The final set of the night saw Kaja Draksler (piano) return to the stage for a trio with Ab Baars (clarinet, tenor sax, shakuhachi) and Terrie Ex (electric guitar). Despite a major contrast between Draksler’s elegant piano and Terrie scraping his guitar neck on the monitor, the set began with a lullaby-licious feel, perhaps aided by Baars’ ability to assuage all difficulties, this time on tenor saxophone. The music felt fragile, but not in a fussy way; it was more like it was genuinely ready to stop existing, breaking without going anywhere. Draksler likes to ricochet sequences of notes and as the set progressed she even got a little violent with her attacks on the keys. At first I was disappointed because I liked the music better when the contrast between her and Terrie was more extreme, but then something gradually changed, and he starting playing in a delicate, tender manner. It felt like he was lured over to the dark side of pleasantness. The set ended on a very gentle finish that was a nice way to lead us all to bedtime.

6. Sunday

Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate

I saw a ladybug sitting still on some freshly carved wood outside the Protestant church next to the Jazzgalerie before Sunday’s concerts, and that bug made me stop. Radu Malfatti played a bass harmonica solo to begin the afternoon concerts in the church and it felt like it completely reset and refreshed my mind. He used a variety of attacks on the harmonica, sometimes blowing into it from three inches away, but the overall effect was one of minimal playing and maximal attention. There are no extraneous sounds when Malfatti is performing: bodies shifting positions on the right-angled benches, or rain beginning to drizzle shortly after he began were equal sonic activities to this music. This isn’t to say that all sounds are equal, but that all are given equal attention.

Non-musical sounds, per se, were both part of the performance and an interruption. I could hear the stomach of the woman next to me growling and burbling, but what I was paying attention to was the emergence of each sound that Malfatti chose to make. I experienced the music as a dramatization of the emergence from nothing to something, and also the drama of disappearance from something to nothing. A couple claps of thunder during the set held the void firmly in place, placing the audience directly inside the experience of emergence and retreat. It became less about decision-making than choreographing. I was enjoying this set, then I was REALLY enjoying it. After all of the music absorbed over the last several days, it took time to sink into the space of this kind of listening, but I did, and as time within the music wore on, I realized that my levels of attention were growing exponentially. A very peaceful way to let the chaos of life’s flowerings and decays find musical form.

I can’t imagine a starker contrast to the way Malfatti used the space of the church to make his music and how Peter Evans (trumpet) played his solo. All the space that Malfatti created was filled up in a hyper hurry. Evans has an extremely wide range of technical ability, and he made a whole bunch of sounds I’ve never heard before, but I wasn’t ever sure it was actually musical. Somehow he got a Tuvan throat-singing-like bass rumble out of the trumpet, and he did another thing where it sounded like two, three and four trumpets talking among themselves. (Later in the set he actually picked up another trumpet and played them back and forth.) I was astonished by the virtuosity and engaged by individual sounds, but they dissipated so quickly that it began to feel more like a demonstration than a musical performance.

It’s possible that I had been so calmed by Malfatti’s set that there was no way I could keep up with Evans’ stylings, but this performance made me exhausted, and it didn’t seem like he could stop without going through a checklist of eighteen more methods that needed to be displayed. His musical philosophy seems to be about taking a space and filling it with a seemingly impossibly large mass, almost like a physics problem. And the thing is, he does it extremely successfully. My preference, however, would be to hear what any one of his innumerably original techniques would sound like in slow motion, with less frenetic assertion.

Another large ensemble filled the stage at the Jazzgalerie to begin the evening concerts, the Castello Tentet: Angelica Castello (electronics, Paetzold, tapes), Billy Roisz (electronics, electric bass), Isabelle Duthoit (clarinet, voice), Liz Allbee (trumpet, devices), Jérôme Noetinger (Revox, radios, electronics), Marta Zapparoli (tape recorders, reel-to-reel tape machine), Noid (cello), Rozemarie Heggen (doublebass), Steve Heather (drums), and Martin Brandlmayr (drums). It began with a dark wet sound from the bottom of the ocean, and when the set ended I felt like like I had just heard a story of a bird coming to life and singing for the first time.

The one piece they played, directed and conceived by Castello, felt like a really moody lounge act and a medieval body experience. Percussion erupted from the initial drifting, followed by Noetinger blurps of fishtail waggles and shimmery scales. The rapport between Duthoit’s clarinet and Allbee’s trumpet was so good-natured that it could have only been produced by giggles bubbling between them. A rooster crowed loud - sustained and assured from a nearby farm - and even the musicians smiled. Heggen, Duthoit, and Noetinger crafted a superb trio that mixed tiny and galvanizing sound clusters to stretched-out and rubbery pendulums.

Confident darkness, Zapparoli and Brandlmayr’s duo made a cosmic harbinger brigade from another solar system glide unwaveringly through space, and Roisz gave the whole spectrum depth. Heather entered to make it two drum funks plus Roisz’ depth-charging bass and the whole ensemble lifted off. Castello’s construction and direction of this delicate whirlwind was impressive and endearing, breathtaking and breath-giving, a deeply gladdening performance.

I finally went down to the barn to see the sound art exhibit, which has become one of my favorite parts of the festival. “Sit On My Heart And Tell Me You Love Me” is a chair by Billy Roisz with a heart-shaped carving on the seat which thumps when you sit on it, giving little rumbles in the butt - heart beating, butt rumbling - and to access it you have to move aside long filigrees of soft, red string that encircle it. Liz Racz and Jérôme Noetinger’s “Creep” used two tape recorders strung together to quietly build a pile of curved and threaded tape between the two machines as they spun in effortless quiet, quite soothing. Klaus Filip’s “Sonic Dust” used a corner of the barn to install some lasers that made the sound of falling dust audible. As he said, “dust can’t be counted,” but we can see it and hear it. I enjoyed trying to think of a sonic equivalent of dust beyond static or sixty cycle hum, which brought me back to the heart/ass beat in Roisz’s chair, since it’s probably something internal. “Air in Air” by Gerard Lebik was an assortment of bags of air on the ground outside the barn, and when I arrived a pair of orange and black slugs with bold, black antennas were crawling on the bags. He’s developed a philosophy around the use of air in his work, and I think there might have been some sound being emitted inside the bags of air, but I couldn’t help focussing on the feral slugs and why they might be attracted to such a thing. Ryoko Akama’s “Plows and Harrows” didn’t seem much different than what she did in performance: a small construction that moved a small washer so that it reflected projected light near the floor. It was pretty, and I thought that this is more of her forte than performance. Noid’s “Space Probe” was a funky metal object floating above our heads. It was having some technical difficulties when I arrived, but eventually spat out some phonemes and fluttered around a bit near the ceiling. At least that’s what I remember, because I moved around all of these pieces a number of times, to the point where I felt like my breathing was a stranger knocking on the door and trying to come in.

Disquiet, a new quartet of Sofia Jernberg (voice), Christof Kurzmann (lloopp, voice), Joe Williamson (doublebass), and Martin Brandlmayr (drums) played one of the more unique sets of the festival, directly addressing the global refugee crisis using a variety of texts in English and German and perhaps languages I couldn’t recognize. The music was sparse and tight, with a rhythm section so familiar with each other that at times their intertwining became counterintuitively inextricable. The quartet displayed a variety of styles from recitation to song, improv to pop, jazz to drone and everything was done so softly - even harshness - that it all just worked, fluidly capturing multiple contradictions that determine contemporary life. A whisper-thin bass and a request for madness can go hand in hand with the blues and an electronic percussive pattern. Lyrics regarding how “the flesh of millions will die from lack of water” “like life is nothing at all” might not sound like appropriate content for the closing night of a festival, but Jernberg and Kurzmann have a way of singing together onstage that not only invites close attention, their voices also honor the content of what they say with beguiling attraction, and the listener is left thankful for the benefit of both their sound and the message; it’s a genuine alchemy.

Kurzmann has made Joe McPhee’s “A Song for Beggars” a staple of his repertoire, to the point where his variations on the song and how it can be used have taken on a life of their own in his oeuvre. Closing the set with this number sent chills down my legs and up my arms and through my chest: the band is so precise and the song is so powerful that when it ended on a dime, I was completely taken aback. Gentle, difficult, sincere, wow.

Frisque Concordance is a quartet of improvising luminaries: Georg Graewe (piano), John Butcher (reeds), Wilbert de Joode (doublebass), and Mark Sanders (drums). I had a hard time paying close attention to this set when it began. Butcher started out playing in his jazzier vein, which is not my preference, though he did get into some bird-gurgling later on which I soaked up. A literally striking bass and drum duo perked me up. Graewe joined in with catlike paw swipes on the keys, somehow perfectly calibrating soft tonal colors with jaggedly torn rhythms. A moment of drum softness was disappointingly interrupted by anxious clapping from the audience. The third piece made me think of the Tilt-A-Whirl ride - similar to the Waltzer in Europe - that was common at the fairs where I grew up.

“The Tilt-A-Whirl consists of seven freely-spinning cars that hold three or four riders each, which are attached at fixed pivot points on a rotating platform. As the platform rotates, parts of the platform are raised and lowered, with the resulting centrifugal and gravitational forces on the cars causing them to spin in different directions and at variable speeds. The weight of passengers in these cars (as well as the weight distribution) may intensify or dampen the spinning motion of the cars, adding to the unpredictable nature of the motion.”

Uneven rates of spin and velocity all whirring at the same time onstage gave off a destabilizing air that I gratefully assimilated: so much was happening at such variable speeds that I was appreciative of the impossibility to form a totalizing understanding of the music. The encore - for another contrast - was all grace and pace, heft with depth; I pictured the sun going grey as oceans turn yellow.

Just as the opening set featured my dear friend Dave Rempis, the closing set featured another close comrade, Szilárd Mezei (viola), who was also making his Konfrontationen debut. He joined the comedy-improv duo of Joel Grip (doublebass, voice) and Tristan Honsinger (cello, voice). Mezei is a rather serious musician, so this pairing looked a little odd on paper, but he is also such an agile musician that he had no trouble acclimating to the very particular environment that Honsinger and Grip established. Bouts of culinary-based spoken-word shenanigans abounded back-and-forth from Grip and Honsinger: “Is time a tomato?,” “The smell of roses, the taste of bacon and delicate sauces,” “The fish sauce here is extraordinary George,” prompting the response, “It’s good that I brought the fish.” Amid all the theatricality, Honsinger kept his eyes closely on Mezei’s playing, seemingly using the direction of the viola to inform his decisions on cello. A bizarre but beloved pairing of extended techniques with comedy and the art of interruption; the audience gleefully laughed and clapped and hooted. The extended encore added another layer of boundary-pushing as Honsinger danced and mimed giving a haircut while Grip moved to cello, and then again to viola, leaving the bass to Mezei. The band was smiling, the audience was smiling, everyone was having fun; any confusion about stylistic exigencies could be discarded in favor of embracing a fuller concept of performance.

With the music of this year’s festival having passed through us, it was time to celebrate and talk with friends. While sitting outside, I noticed that the tree near the stage has been growing towards the stage over time, leaning closer to the music. I lean towards this place in my inner life as well, because the music that happens here is made possible by an alchemy of friendships and relationships. The music that happens in Nickelsdorf is made by people that take existential questions seriously. Their art is hard-fought for. I’m grateful for the Jazzgalerie for giving people like me a home to come home to, both in space and time, as well as in our hearts.

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Konfrontationen 40 will take place this year between July 25-28 in Jazzgalerie, Kleylehof and Protestant church of Nickelsdorf, Austria.

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.

@Unwrinkled_Ear
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