My wife sometimes likes to take a sojourn to the remote and enchanted Buddhist retreat outside of Big Sur known as Tassajara, to recharge, unplug and otherwise seek some spiritual balance in an unbalanced world. Myself, I get my juices revitalized, in part, through the escape route of Victoriaville, Quebec, a prime piece of spiritual-avant garde real estate in all of North America, for one long weekend each May. This unassuming small Quebecois town, the birthplace of the province’s hearty “delicacy” poutine, is also the home of FIMAV (Festival International Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville); it’s 29 editions deep now, and an important spot on the “jazz” festival circuit (although avant-rock, noise, free improvisation, contemporary classical, and other unclassifiables also find a happy, logical home here).
My wife is understandably suspicious of my mostly-annual return to Victoriaville for close to 20 years now. When I have floated that same idea past the festival’s soft-spoken and dogged founding director Michel Levasseur, he gives a dismissive French-accented chuckle. But it’s true: I always find something cathartic, surprising, and otherwise hard to find anywhere else on the continent, and the spiritual retreat-style pilgrimage was again worth the effort in May’s dense experimentalist pow wow.
Victoriaville is one of contemporary musical polymath John Zorn’s favorite places to go, too, and his many performances in this would-be quiet cow town over the years have helped keep it on the map of more casual contemporary music fans and avid Zornphiles. Zorn fever, in fact, seized partial control of the program this year: In honor of his 60 years on the planet, and his countless musical endeavors, he chose this festival — plus the loveably chance-y Moers Festival in Germany — to present a long day of Zorn concerts, showcasing many of his bands and wavering creative impulses.
So, over the course of several concerts in a 12-hour time frame in Victoriaville, we caught sonic wind of a concert of his classical works, including the bracing a cappella piece “The Alchemist” and the string quartet “The Holy Visions,” both from the last two years. Other recent Zorn business from the last few years has found the iconoclast channeling a mellower soul. This easier-does-it leaning is at the heart of the avant-lounge and arty jam time band The Dreamers — its lulling logic broken up by Marc Ribot’s angular guitar dervishing and a delicious three-minute solar plexus attack of “Osaka Bondage,” from Zorn’s infamously crazed and over-amped ‘80s band Naked City. “That’s what it was like to be inside my head in 1988,” he informed us after the short but action-packed tune.
Zorn’s head is, generally, a more cooled place now. Edges are soft and suavely melodious with Zorn’s new, sometimes Steely Dan-ish “The Song Project” (with singers Jesse “Come Away With Me” Harris, Sofia Rei, and wildly flexible and flexibly wild vocalist Mike Patton, who helped kick the mellow around at times). More raucous goods were to be found in the band Moonchild, pumped up with Patton’s punky howls, and Electric Masada, the only band which Zorn actually played with, otherwise playing the role of conductor and cheerleader — and, of course, ridiculously prolific composer and band-maker.
Thurston Moore, the lanky, noise-loving, mop-topped Sonic Youth brigadier has also shown up in Victoriaville numerous times, sometimes in projects which seemed a bit undercooked. But we got an impressive double encounter with what makes him special this year, first with his brainy boisterous new band Chelsea Light Moving. Reportedly, Victoriaville’s repurposed hockey rink venue, the Colisée, was treated to Moore’s debut as a singer, and he’s got the goods in that role, with traces of Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine in the pipes department. His songs rock sideways and with just enough blows to the sternum, while paying tribute in song to Roky Erickson, Peter Coyote, CBGB, Frank O’Hara, and John Donne, of whom Moore said “he’s the earliest dead poet we can think of that has anything to do with punk rock.”
Moore returned the next night with his feedback-painterly Fender Jazzmaster, sans microphone or song structures, as a special guest of the fantabulous Scandinavian headbanger free jazz entity known as The Thing. Here, Moore was interesting enough, but the real meat and heat of the action was the potent trio of Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love — one of the world’s greatest drummers, I kid you not — Swedish baritone (and more) saxist Mats Gustafson, and Swedish bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. Let it be said that The Thing, 14 years into it, is one of the more exciting and more uncharted bands on the planet, and they are expanding their reach and audience appeal by the year. Jazzers, punkers, noise seeker,s and collective energy admirers are roaring their approval. Won’t you join us?
Improvisation took a different and delectable turn with the large ensemble from Halifax known as Upstream Orchestra, a project in which the late, great Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ art of “conduction” — guiding a big band through the cues and established rulebook of a “conductionist” — steers the ensemble ship through waters both charted and otherwise. It can be dangerous, but this group fared beautifully, partly thanks to the leadership of reed player/composer Paul Cram and the impressive inside-outside flair of vocalist Tena Palmer.
There was lyricism and tenderness woven into the program, as well, starting at the beginning: famed Czech violinist-vocalist Iva Bittova is at the heart of a fascinating, culture-crossing trio, with New Music clarinetist Evan Ziporyn and nylon-string guitarist Gyan Riley (son of composer Terry Riley). In sensitive improvisational duo news, the clarinetist Michel Doneda engaged in soothing, riveting and sound-conscious conversation with Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, and the brilliant and playfully absurd singer and toy manipulator Anna Homler worked her special magic in cahoots with violinist and loopster Sylvia Hallett.
Artful noise, from circuitry and physical objects reached some exalted moments — including an orgasmic wall-of-sound piece — in the electro-acoustic interplay at midnight, by Montrealers Jean-François Laporte and Benjamin Thigpen.
Rock music of the left field sort is always welcome at FIMAV, too, and apart from the high profile set by Chelsea Light Moving, the rocker roster included a rare live performance by the cool art-prog rock band The Book of Knots — featuring the estimable neo-modernist Carla Kihlstedt, mostly in vocalist mode here. Haunted House wallowed nicely in half-ironic moody gothicness, while Oxbow plied its drudge metal-meets-primal-scream shtick. And then there was the description-defying lunacy of seasoned Japanese band Hikasu, which stirred up memorable trouble and genre confusion on Saturday at midnight.
From its very own place in the program and the world, the Russian project known as ZGA presented an hour-long suite celebrating the tradition of Futurism, called “Futurosis.” In suitably strange costumes, the quartet played primitive-futurist instruments built by founder Nick Sudnik, interspersed with futurist poetry, song fragments, and other transmissions from another time, place, and headspace.
In an odd way, the most distinctive and mind-opening moment of this year’s festival came at the very end, in a sneak attack denouement. To cap off a long day of things Zorn, the man himself slithered up into the belfry of the local cathedral, the Église Ste-Victoire, to improvise on the pipe organ by midnight, in a show he called The Hermetic Organ. It turns out that organ was Zorn’s first instrument, and his effectively hypnotic invention filled the church, full of listeners down below, without even a direct view of the musical madman up at the console. And this came around the same time that Keith Jarrett’s great organ improvisation recording from the ‘70s, Hymns/Spheres, was reissued. Could a new movement of pipe organ improv be afoot, and should we point to Zorn as being, again, ahead of a cultural curve?
Speculative peering into the future is one thing. The charm of the musical spirit in that place at that time, with those ideas rummaging around Zorn’s addled head, was its own specific reward. If that’s not the stuff of “have to be there” spiritual pilgrimage, give me another name for it.