FESTIVAL ROUND-UP: 2015 Punkt Festival in Norway

Nguyen Le's A Page of Madness.
Photo credit: Ruben Olsen Lærk/ courtesy of Festival

Punkt Festival 2015
Kristiansand, Norway. 3rd - 5th September 2015. Review by Jon Turney)

You go to the gig. You talk about it after: His great solo; Her cunning phrasing; The way they all meshed together so well in those final passages. One of the pleasures of live music-making.

But so old school. Modern, compact studio technology means that fleet-footed producers can make the whole gig available to another set of musicians right away. To sample. To react to, sonically. To discuss in their own way.

For ten years now, this has been the approach developed at Punkt. The core of the festival is a series of concerts which are stored on hard drives as they unfold and immediately followed by a live remix. This year, the eleventh gathering convened in Southern Norway by remixers extraordinaire Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, they went one better. A new home in Kistiansand’s comfy cinema multiplex gave them more spaces to work with. And listeners could follow three live remixes for each main concert.

Result? Like all good festivals, a danger of musical overload. Fiona Talkington, who presides benignly over Punkt as one of her many services to Anglo-Norwegian musical exchange, encouraged us to move between remixes. In practice, if the one they were in sounded good most people stayed put.

With sessions on the two main days of the festival beginning at five in the afternoon and running through ‘til round midnight, there is still more than enough to take in – the more so because the mainly left-field music in the programmed concerts is enormously varied.

Electronics wizards feature heavily – the typical Punkt stage carries enough computing power to fly the plane that brought you here back home without aid from the pilot. Many of the best Norwegian jazz musicians are Punkt regulars, too. They appear to share what is described in a soon-to-be-released documentary about the festival as a distinctively Norwegian attitude that musicians and technicians work on the same level, in contrast to a more hierarchical assumption – musicians on top, technicians on tap - that Bang and Honoré perceive operating in the US and UK. But pretty much anyone else can turn up at Punkt, depending on who has caught the curators’ ear. This year the newcomers ranged from a trio from a flourishing electronic music scene in Hanoi to French trance bricoleurs Vegan Dallas. The remixes feature a revolving cast of Punkt regulars, with new players dropped in to keep things fresh.

The whole programme is quite an experience. On this year’s offering, there’s a lot to like, but only an unfeasibly eclectic listener would like everything. Some things left me unmoved. Some I actively disliked. More of the latter were concerts – sometimes the remix redeemed what went before. But the distinction soon ceased to matter.

Saskia Lankhoorn. Photo credit: Ruben Olsen Lærk/ courtesy of Festival

That’s partly because “remix” doesn’t quite convey what is happening. Take the opening concert on Friday. Dutch pianist Saskia Lankhoorn performed the immensely taxing sequence of Dances and Canons by Anglo-Australian composer Kate Moore, recently recorded by ECM. It’s a mesmerising and beautiful sequence, rooted partly in minimalism but richer than that suggests. And as well as repetition there is at times multiplication, with the live piano heard along with several pre-recorded piano tracks, monitored by Lankhoorn’s own engineer. They aren’t processed, but as they build they nevertheless produce effects you never heard from a piano before.

Come the remix – the one I heard was by a young Norwegian Stian Balducci, one of a venturesome band of Jan Bang’s students - and that gorgeous piano sound had more or less evaporated. Only percussive fragments and remnants of rhythm remained. Alongside Balducci, Nils Petter Molvaer played trumpet with them, and against them, and the two sped off into a new musical space for half an hour or so.

Every remix is different. That’s the point. But this was typical in one respect. It was about making new music using some of the same materials, often sliced very thin, to stimulate an extemporisation. It is a translation into a new context, an appropriation. An older word than remix also serves. The duo were jamming. Using the sounds just conjured up in the adjoining room as a jumping off point imposes an interesting set of constraints: the succeeding set is neither entirely freely improvised nor bound by old-style “what standards do we all know the changes for?” jamming conventions. It is intensely collaborative and, on the whole, rather refreshing.

As the days unfold, these procedural considerations fall away. Arve Henriksen’s duo with Fenesz, for instance - one on trumpets augmented by electronics, one on electronics and guitar - moved in the same space as many remixes but was a free-standing concert. The pealing beauties of Henriksen’s horn against a shimmering electronic backdrop made their own moment. This was just marvellous music.

Marilyn Mazur. Photo credit: Ruben Olsen Lærk/ courtesy of Festival


Overall, highlights emerged more or less evenly over the two sides of the programme. Mine included Lankhoorn’s focussed intensity in the recital already mentioned. The same evening, Seb Rochford, Jan Bang at his remix console and Eivind Aarset on guitar conjured trio magic from the rather more slender promptings of Polish electroacoustic exponent Jacazsek. Two of them – Bang and Aarset - reconvened at the very end of the day, with Nils Petter Molvaer and the astonishing percussionist Marilyn Mazur, in the quartet Spirit Cave. This was Mazur’s band, as seen in London in 2014, reconfigured as a remix supergroup, and they had infectious fun building new soundscapes from the deconstructed elements of Vegan Dallas’s concert, and casually reinventing jazz fusion while they were at it.

Saturday began on a high just as Friday had ended on one, with a rewardingly detailed new extended work from French-resident vietnamese guitarist Nyugen Le. This piece, for a 9-piece ensemble including a string quartet, koto and the ubiquitious Molvaer and Bang, accompanied the remarkable 1926 Japanese silent movie A Page of Madness, a story of love and separation set in an asylum. It was a tour de force of programmatic composition and at many festivals would be the main event. The remixes here didn’t do justice to the piece - mainly latching on to some of its simpler elements - probably because there was just too much to respond to. They felt more like extended codas to music which deserved further consideration as it stood.

In contrast, two later remixes on Saturday scaled heights their associated concerts didn’t achieve. Endlessly inventive vocalist Sidsel Endresen – think Sheila Jordan brought up in Norwegian woods - worked with regular cohorts Bang and Honoré to build a richly complex half hour from a handful of cues from pianist Morten Qvenild’s concert. Endreson’s extended vocal technique works superbly with electronics, and the two remixers’ styles complement each other: Bang is deeply rhythmic, and moves constantly with the music he makes; Honoré cultivates stillness and manipulation of textures. The three together packed what felt like several three-act plays into half an hour of improvisation.

Bang was still on his feet at the end of the day, as at the start, now part of a duo with kindred computing spirit Audun Kleive. They had to deal with the music of the German electronic poineer Ulwe Schmidt (AKA Atom™). He stood alone on stage with a laptop and delivered a brutal onslaught of hardcore beats-and-visuals-laden electronica straight from the dancefloor of your favourite science fictional dystopia – not a concert to stay in if you valued your hearing.

Bang and Kleive’s response to this humourless, deoxygenated effort was endearingly playful, witty, and light – the two gleefully batting beats back and forth to ripples of laughter. There was perhaps a little sarcasm, too, from these rather more agile performers, but maybe that was just my fancy. It was, in any case, a good ending for a festival built on the Punkt concept. Approach it the right way and you can remix anything and make music that, in the moment, is vital and enjoyable, even if the source may not be.

Jon Turney is a Bristol-based writer. He travelled to Kristiansand as a guest of the Punkt festival.

LINK: Nguyen Le's A Page of Madness  in Dortmund
2014 Punkt Round-up

4 comments:

  1. Thank you to a friendly remote editor for two name-corrections

    ReplyDelete
  2. What about the concert of Hilde Marie Holsen?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Was interesting but not one my personal highlights - though I was pretty weary by then. Were you there? What did you think?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What a pity not to be able to acknowledge her performance for reasons of personal weariness - that speaks volumes on a critic's focus on the male artists in the programme - what about Mieko Miyazaki, Mey Yi Foo, Luong Hue Trinh, Greta Aagre, Frida Annevik?

      Delete