REPORT: Konfrontationen, Day 2 - 35th Festival for Free & Improvised Music @ Nickelsdorf - Andrew Choate
DAY 2: Friday, July 18, 2014
Improvised music, for those of us that really love it and pursue it and listen to it regularly, is often, perhaps surprisingly, a very private music. We often listen to recordings privately, and we have private experiences with the music. But this festival provides the opportunity to experience it publicly, with a large enough amount of people (300-400) to provide the perfect framing of attention and grandeur that the music challenges itself to conjure. Not only that, but enthusiasts like myself are given the opportunity to thank the musicians who make this music and who have devoted so much of themselves to it. That opportunity to give thanks to the people who do things you really care about isn't necessarily bigger than the experience of the music, but it does perfume the air of the Jazzgalerie with another layer of love.
Speaking of love, I had duck for breakfast this day. Duck on noodles and vegetables. The fattiness and earthiness of duck has always made me think of it as a sultry meat, so it was a great way to start this day, which got hotter and hotter as the sun made its daily gambit. Performing in the grass and stone open-air arena of the Kleylehof to start the afternoon concert was D. D. Kern on drums, Michael Zerang on percussion, George Cremaschi on doublebass and electronics, Hans Falb on turntables and Petr Vrba on trumpet and vibrating speakers.
Kern started with a proper, easy-to-imbibe beat, which Zerang quickly colored in with spectacular hand drum funk reverberations. I wondered if the original percussion was skull percussion. Dreamlike, cloudy rhythmic patters appeared and disappeared in folds of coherence and dissipation throughout this set, highlighting the difference between the way clothes rumple and fold when discarded before sleep vs. before sex. The heat of the sun curdled the doublebass' tonality, so Cremaschi stuck primarily to electronics; this proved serendipitous as the wizardy sound palettes of Falb and Vrba were enriched with another layer of ballet.
Most folks I've seen that play vibrating speaker cones use several small ones and then balance a variety of objects in them, sending the vibrations through a contact mic to be mixed live. Vrba had at least one big one, probably 14 inches, and I swear the zest off ocean waves a thousand miles away squealed out of it. When Cremaschi did pick up the bass, he tried a big thrum to support Vrba's trumpety nakedness, but quickly realized that the tuneage was a problem as Vrba warbled a sympathetic response to the issue, more dangerous than a raisin.
Falb's turntables stayed primarily in the background as he chose to supportively ebb and flow with the tightening and loosening of the ensemble's dances from head-bobbing jam to melted grasping. Real friendly samples and electronics. Like knocking on the door for love and intimacy, Kern knocked a bunch of cymbals around, Zerang moved a heavy bass-y doorstop out of the way, your shoes squeaked to cover your nervousness, and then there you were, being combed by the wind.
When you've got wings, you lose your head.
Back at the Jazzgalerie, my friend of over 20 years, Michael Armstrong, who's been listening to me talk about this place for almost the entire duration of our friendship, and whose first trip to Nickelsdorf was being celebrated at this year's festival, had a nice family dinner with my 'adopted' lil' brother Toby, who runs all the backend stuff at the festival, and his dear friend James, in whose fake wedding in Las Vegas last year I posed as the officiant for in pictures. My other pal who joined in for the first two days of the festival this year, Jeffrey Joe Nelson, popped in for a moment but carried his schnitzel outside once the music started: the little tyke, cutely, didn't want a moment of music to go by without a chance to pull it inside.
Toby must have learned a lot from his mom and the other gals who helped run all the backend stuff that this festival requires for so long, because other than the expected protestations of musicians that want a ride "on the next shuttle!", everything went so smooth that he was able to take a small moment out and have a nice relaxed dinner with us.
I caught up to Grid Mesh (Johannes Bauer, trombone; Willi Kellers, drums; Andreas Willers, electric guitar; Frank Paul Schubert, alto and soprano saxophones) as they were charging full-steam into free jazz particle fever. All of next year's Der Spiegel headlines came syruping out of Bauer's trombone: news! Van Gogh's riotous, thick laugh echoed in the fine alto sax splutter from Schubert that sparked Kellers' vocal mimicry, just like tousling a friend's kid's hair.
The wine of people. It's that heady sense of being together in the existential fight against futility. Despite the inevitable. Relentless, scouring free jazz captures it best.
The trio improv of Axel Dörner (trumpet), Okkyung Lee (cello) and Achim Kaufmann (piano) was the first, and one of the only, sets of minimal free improv that the festival featured this year. As one of the members of the always-critical but always-attentive JADD contingent said after this band played, "now the festival has begun." That's just Sorin's way of expressing how much he liked a set, but I did think it was a perfect constellation of sounds to accompany the slow transition between sunset, dusk and darkness.
I heard the sound of a frog's bubbling throat, all the tension and color and friendly stretching skin. I heard a bird that went the wrong way, knows it, and refuses to turn around until night, so the conch shell doesn't know. I saw a conch shell that plays only music from the stage at the Jazzgalerie. I heard a really quiet popsicle, on all fours, surrounded by candles that burn based on the momentum of Douglas Fir growth. I saw a chance earring, something sharp falling from the sky and attaching itself to your face in the friendliest possible place, and in a manner that says "regal and rare."
At one point in this set, a small moment of silence appeared, and an overeager fan began clapping. But the rest of the audience's silence, and our patience, and our refusal to admit first silence as endpoint won out, and he stopped, and the ensemble continued.
Free Improvisation. I really thought about the power of those two words together after this set.
The longstanding working trio of Georg Gräwe (piano), Ernst Reijseger (cello) and Gerry Hemingway (drums) followed, and the level of extreme virtuosity that these three musicians displayed was nothing short of breathtaking. In fact, they stole some tears from my eyes during this set, I just couldn't believe how beautiful and assured and yet also how relaxed and human their music was.
Even though I've seen him play at least two dozen times before, Gräwe's ultrasoft touch on the piano keys utterly enthralled me. They were pillowtime caresses, so erotic, even when abrupt changes of tone or velocity were involved. The smallest wrinkles of expression or tonality set off developments in the trio's music, not reactions. A subtle change then pounce pounce pounce wade quiver shave shine. Phenomenal listening and decision-making, reminding me that the highest caliber musicians in the world play this kind of music, and they play it here.
I could really see these musicians testing themselves in front of us, confronting their medium and themselves and each other in real time. Nothing else provides the opportunity to look so directly into the face of creation as this music, and this trio responded with the most fruitful possible alacrity, even while sometimes evoking the shadow of melancholy that haunts even the most celebratory of moments.
Shimmering upper-register glissando from Gräwe poised along a hairclip-and-octopus-finger sequence of both top and bottom string-striking from Reijseger, Hemingway blowing into a glass tube for the bass that only breath provides. And that's what provoked some light tears from me, feeling so lucky to hear such music and to have found such an incredible home to hear it in.
They didn't need to play an encore, but they did, and it was wonderfully gritty, wafting in jugular sentiments. Death is so foretold it's ancient and welcome because of that.
The final set of the night was Paed Conca (clarinet, bass and electronics) and Raed Yassin's (keys, vocals, electronics) PRAED PLUS project, which features Johannes Bauer (trombone), Axel Dörner (trumpet), Hans Koch (clarinet and bass clarinet) and Stéphane Rives (soprano saxophone) in addition. Basically, this band uses samples and electronics to replicate and summon the big beats of Arabic popular music (think Oum Kalthoum or Fairuz's rhythm sections reduced to their strongest beats, amplified and looped), and then adds five of the most extreme wind instrumentalists in the world on top, playing composed charts that blend melody with a million wildly resonant overtones, multiphonics and natural feedback. The filigreed lines of these reeds and trombone were amazing.
During the set and afterwards, a lot of people discussed how they wished Michael Zerang and any of the more-than-capable bassists had been onstage instead of the sampled drums and electronics, but if you stopped thinking about what it needed and got up and danced like a bunch of us did, you understood everything. You had to swirl and swerve and put your ass in the air and your hands toward a stranger and then your bones and blood felt exactly what the music was trying to do: the insistent beats ground you, and the multiphonic cacophony lifts you up, just slightly, off the surface of the earth, totally mesmerized.
A perfect end to a long day of music, and I felt perfectly in tune with just how mystical this place is, especially at night, as it turned into day.