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REPORT: Konfrontationen, Day 4 - 35th Festival for Free & Improvised Music @ Nickelsdorf - Andrew Choate

By Andrew Choate on Sep 16, 2014 04:53 PM EDT

DAY 4: Sunday, July 20, 2014 

As the title of Gérard Rouy's excellent new book of conversations with Peter Brötzmann, "We Thought We Could Change The World," attests, many people, artists often among them, express the desire to change the world. But if you change one person's experience of the world--through love, hate, camaraderie, acceptance, encouragement, whatever--you do change the world. Hans Falb and his incredible crew at the Jazzgalerie have not only changed the world for me and other fans, but also socially changed who we know, how we interact, and helped us strive toward more genuine living, for both ourselves and those we care about. I've met so many kids and even adults my age or older who grew up in the villages surrounding Nickelsdorf, and though they may not have been fans of this music, they have been inspired by what happens on this stage to lead their lives in a more thoughtful manner. And as far as the musicians that play on this stage are concerned, I can only imagine what it feels like to be so affectionately embraced. The music itself is born in our world, and travels completely beyond it, and that dual nature is probably why it's been such a powerful force for changing, rearranging and upgrading this world.

I noted in my writings about last year's festival that my dad died shortly before it took place. The last year has been filled with a lot of emotions about that fact for me, but the biggest, most tangible result of that death has been an experience of living with a significantly higher level of lucidity and purpose. Because I came to this festival last year so shortly after my dad's funeral, I credit my inspired lucidity to an intertwining of my ruminations about my dad and my passion for this music and everything that surrounds it.

One of the decisions I made, and have been acting upon, is the decision to spread my dad's ashes in many places: places important to him, places he loved visiting, places he never got a chance to see that I think he'd love, etc. So, with Falb's blessing, I woke up Sunday morning and spread some of my dad's ashes on the stage at the Jazzgalerie.

Then I went to the church next door for a concert featuring Dietmar Diesner on reeds and Simone Weissenfels on piano. I listened to this extraordinary concert as part eulogy, part wake-up call, part lullaby, and part anthem.

Diesner, dressed in crisp blue suit and tie, began with a long solo on soprano saxophone, holding it perpendicular to his face, and slowly walked from the front of the church, around the aisles and up the stairs, eventually coming to a stop in the middle of the upper balcony, facing the altar. All the while, he was playing one super-long bent note, filling it with tons of overtones. I felt like I could hear the primal howl of the wolf forming in earth's original protozoa, the memory of all of nature's potential.

This was not a short solo; I'd guess it lasted 12 to 15 minutes, all circular breathing, irresistible time lapse, and then he ended it with a giant splatter, like a rebel kid rejecting Sunday School inside the only place where it matters besides the heart. Extremely powerful.

Weissenfels followed with a solo of her own, which struck exactly the perfect tone for the time of the day and the situation. With bright sun outside knocking on the windows, she played very slow, very darkly, easing the audience back into music and the light it shines at its (and our) very darkest.

These two then played a few duets, and I imagined a naked body squeezing inside and lying within outdoor shadows.

Thankfully, just when you're at your most introspective, the social conviviality of the festival kicks in and you get a chance to talk and share and be with people you love. Michael and I sat down in the restaurant for an early dinner and soon enough were joined by the still-working-hard Toby. Have I mentioned what a great job he does (he must have learned it from his mom), or how beloved he is for organizing with such friendly precision? Then my great pal, amazing photographer and cook, Micke Keysendal, sat down with us as well.

As often happens, Micke and I got to talking about culinary matters, and I mentioned how I've wanted to drink dill schnapps. He gave me this recipe for approximating it via vodka:

  • Take a .75l bottle of vodka
  • Add 2 tablespoons dill seeds
  • 1 tablespoons cumin seed
  • 1 tablespoon anise seed
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 2 tablespoons sherry (px)
  • Let sit for one week, then strain--you can take the peppercorns out sooner if you want it with less bite.

Why stop there? Here's another:

  • .75l bottle of vodka
  • One piece of toasted Danish rye bread
  • Let sit for two days
  • Pour through coffee filter when done.

I've been told that Polwechsel is a kind of drink, so how about that for a transition? They were the first band on the Jazzgalerie stage on Sunday. I hadn't heard their new lineup, which now features Burkhard Beins on percussion and objects, Martin Brandlmayr on drums, as well as old Polwechsel stalwarts Michael Moser on cello and Werner Dafeldecker on doublebass, so I was excited to see what this traditionally percussion-less band would sound like with all the added force.

Unfortunately, Brandlmayr seemed to add very little to this ensemble, and I usually love his playing. But here he seemed constrained, adding nothing but small accents, when what the music really needed was the blunt smack of attack he brings to Radian. (Radian played the next weekend at the popfest in Vienna, and he was as crisp and powerful there as ever.) Beins brought a continuous rattle of objects into the mix, the whole clatter of the attic, but the result was a kind of formless wash that I would never have expected from a band with as rich a catalog of thoughtful, focused music as Polwechsel.

Moser's light cello zings, like lightning slowed down, impressed me the most in this set. It was interesting to see him look directly at Dafeldecker for long stretches of improvising, since the standard decorum of improvisors seems to be to only look at one another when someone else is soloing, or to make eye contact near the end of a piece, to visually agree on a termination point. But he was concentrated on what Dafeldecker was doing, even while playing his cello, and, to my ears, it paid off in the quality of his contributions to the group sound.

During the set, a woman near me took her attention away from the stage and stared at a pile of leaves rustling on the ground for several minutes.

Michael and I made our way over to the barn down the back alley to look at this year's sound art exhibit after this set. Curated, as always, by the polystylistic Noid, this version featured several collaborative pieces, and also pieces whose specific authorship I found it difficult to ascertain, so I'll just tell you all the folks who contributed: Thomas Grill, Agnes Hvizdalek, Heike Kaltenbrunner, Patrick K. H., Dieter Kovacic, Oleg Makarov, Noid, Ulla Rauter, Billy Roisz and Julia Tazreiter.

The barn was dark, and when you walked into the curtained room on the left, you couldn't see very well, but suddenly a tiny siren sound would be coming from a corner, and as you approached it to investigate (your eyes were still adjusting to the darkness), another wimpered ding would come from behind you, so you'd turn around quickly, and then you'd hear something rattle from high on a shelf, and soon enough there was a small symphony of impeccably timed and wildly divergent and discrete sounds coming at you from every direction. It was unsettling, fascinating and awesome. All the more so because the objects that all the speakers were invisibly embedded within inside this small room were so quotidian and seemingly innocuous: tires, piles of fertilizer, garden tools, shelves of sod, sacks of grain, etc.

Michael lives and works on a farm in Western Illinois, and he found it frighteningly similar to going in the chicken house in the morning, while it's still dark, since you never know what you're going to find in there--raccoon, possum, coyote, snake, dead chicken? The deeply cramped space made it inevitable that you'd run into someone or something else while inside, adding to the nerved sensations.

The larger room was also dark, but the addition of striated, strobing lines of projected color added some light--albeit light that paradoxically made it harder to see. Large farm equipment and more sacks of grain and random tools were spread out across this room while different kinds of sounds again emanated from seemingly everywhere. There was an element of funhouse immersion to the intensity of the stimuli, yet each individual sound--zippers, whispers, screws, wheels, etc.--was diminutive on its own. I loved it, and came back again after the next set to experience it again, but it was being disassembled, so I'm very glad I went when I did.

Konstrukt (Korhan Futaci, reeds; Umut Çaglar, electric guitar and keys; Özün Usta, doublebass; Korhan Argüden, drums) led us into the night with a wayward and forlorn sense of what it means to sacrifice for music. They played gasping free jazz interspersed with Turkish folk melodies. Usta played a solo on doublebass that was like Poseidon's entreaty to the rest of the gods: come, come, I promise you can learn to breathe underwater.

These guys also played a variety of small instruments (slide whistles, tambourines, double reed things, bells), and everyone sang at some point, alternating the focus from voracious energy to communal toast, like they're just a heartbeat away. In other words: accurately and realistically.

Çaglar played electric guitar like a contemporary R&B rhythm warrior. And his keyboard had that carnivalesque Wurlitzer sound that makes me want to act silly every time I hear it. They ended on a wave of guttural Archie Shepp-like bellows from Futaci, a raft of mellow guitar tremolo reverb from Caglar, a walking bass buoy from Usta, and swinging crests from Argüden. The tide was going out, and you know it's never coming back, but you can be thankful it tickled your toes.

Horst Semler sat down next to me during this set and proceeded to make this drawing of Konstrukt (I have no idea why he called it Brötzmann, though they do have a record with him). I had never met him before, and when I asked if I could take a photo of his drawing, he told me he was from Klagenfurt, and then, with no instigation from me, told me that this is the best festival in the world, and showcases the most advanced music anywhere on the planet. I totally agree, and have been saying the same thing from Chicago and Los Angeles and South Carolina and wherever I go for two decades.

The abstract electronic improv played by Cilantro (Angelica Castello on recorders, electronics, ukulele; Billy Roisz on bass and electronics) in the next set was the perfect sonority to match the ear's needs for the moment. If organic electronics is a thing, this was it. They each play with an array of pedals and plugged-in items on a table in front of them, though their primary sources are indeed the bass for Roisz and the square bass recorder from Paetzold by Kunath for Castello.

This recorder is a strange thing. It has a tiny black mouthpiece; it's about two meters tall and looks like a bunch of just-slightly unevenly stacked rectangles on top of each other, and then on the very top it gets twice as wide and flares. Flaps like little doors open up and down it to emit sound, and its tone is like an oboe made from nothing but compacted and pulverized teenage love letters. Castello held it like a lover, pushing herself into it, moving her hands up and down the backside of it, closing her eyes and swinging with it, kissing it. There was something intensely sensual about the way she moved with it, but more than that it was about the devotion she showed to this instrument, a devotion that came through in the sounds she was coaxing out of it, which were at once warm and tender, liquid and mellifluous, bouncy and bold.

This set grew slowly, with deliberate actions and layers that enriched each previous moment. I'm glad that the history of music has gotten to the point that this kind of loose and contemplative music is possible because it opens up so many new possibilities for thinking and feeling. Loose, laminal indirect improv like this feels like a survival guide for thriving on thin oxygen.

There was a great moment when Castello played a very simple melody, like an overpercolating teardrop beat over a quiet chime: bells trembling on an air conditioner. Roisz had her electric bass upside down, generating superfuzz, while a weird resonant frequency caramelized between the two, then bounded away. It literally started drizzling on the audience as these two made music that tied knots of heat together with cold slaps. Like an echo falling on a field from out of nowhere, and spreading out in infinite horizontality. I thought of all the drama of tiny touches and playful adjustments that add up to the sensory overload that is sex. And good music.

Somewhere in the middle of the last set of the night, and of the festival, I thought I might be listening to the best live music I've ever witnessed. Ultimately, comparisons and rankings and notions of "the best" in art are fatuous, but the trio of Hailu Mergia on accordion, keyboards and vocals; Mike Majkowski on doublebass and Tony Buck on drums absolutely shook every part of my being.

Vitality, actualized in the form of music, and transferred into bodies.

Mergia is best known as the keyboard player from the Wallias Band; Buck is best known as the drummer for The Necks. Fine bands, but this group goes significantly beyond all that work, in one important way: this band is personal. Each musician is playing his music, and in such a way that it all adds up to something powerfully new, powerfully other, and powerfully cohesive.

Dressed in a sharp suit, with a white shirt and bright yellow tie, Mergia ascended the stage wearing the Ethiopian flag around his shoulders. His pride and his professionalism were matched only by his musical instincts. On keys, he stuck mostly to a Fender Rhodes, all fireplace warm and flower petal bright. He also used a Yamaha DX-7 for outrageous forays into the outer dimensions of bubbling effects-laden riffs. His singing and accordion playing transformed what was an intensely amazing concert into a profound event, as the sound of a round spectral waltz pervaded the night and imbued the air with majestic melancholy.

It was almost childlike how simple and beautiful--and thereby complex and sublime--his playing was. Swirling Ethiopian melodies put face to face with a jazz rhythm section that demanded no compromise from anyone. I heard Booker T. and the MGs in the mix, along with South African Township swing, the hardest bop, Brazilian vocal surges, and even 1960s teenybopper pop. Then a chord change would turn toward the dark, and a shared awareness and experience of melancholy would emerge, but in jubilatory form. As if the very fact of the sharing somehow made it not just OK, but worth celebrating, as one more facet of an honest life. Yeah, melancholic jubilation.

One image I won't forget is of Buck hitting both cymbals on a big beat--he played an ultra-traditional kit by the way, no extraneous percussion at all--then held the sticks against the cymbals so that the cymbals were stuck in the air, diagonally. I thought, that's exactly the angle at which this music strikes you. Diagonally, the head and the heart at the same time.

Nickelsdorf is the opposite of Las Vegas. What happens here--who you meet, what you experience, think, feel, do, say--you take with you everywhere you go for the rest of your life. And it goes around with everyone else you interacted with, too, to all their corners of the globe and the mind and the artistic universe.

And then you've had so much, you lie down in the grass in front of the Jazzgalerie and go to sleep, until your friends find you, make merriment with your exhaustion, and then lead you to a more proper place to sleep.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, REVIEW, Andrew Choate, Konfrontationen, Nickelsdorf