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Improv 04

Review: mínim festival
(Centre Cívic Can Felipa, Barcelona. May 28-29, 2004)


Christopher Williams


Since I, an American, moved to Barcelona nine months ago, I’ve been searching for a Spanish or Catalan equivalent to the English “grassroots”. Though my quest continues, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the project is in vain: the word apparently has no place in the regional languages. After all, the “concept” is a part of daily life here, and as such, perhaps, needs no special articulation.


My notion of “grassroots” is a close relative of “DIY” (Do It Yourself), but it’s somewhat more specific than the notion we might encounter via punk rock or the Home Repair Channel. DIY implies to me that the “D” is a necessary expression of the “Y”, not simply its employment, the “I” being smudged by the heel of “Y”’s hand as “D” takes it from the page, all three letters becoming thusly present in execution or consumption. For example, when eating Serrano ham, one actually sticks a cleaver into the whole leg of a pig, leaving a fatty palimpsest for the next person to come along. (Contrary to the experience of horrified American tourists witnessing such a sculpture by the dozen in Barcelona bars and restaurants for the first time, many locals’ eating experience is enhanced by this food-event.)


I propose that a grassroots endeavor is a social extension of this aesthetic. Such is IBA. These Improvisadors de Barcelona, the city’s most active free-improvised music and dance entity, have since 1998 produced over 150 concerts, talks, collaborations, and other events pertaining to their practice, while also maintaining a house band with its own touring and recording schedule. The collective work of currently active members Ferran Fages, Ruth Barberán, and Alfredo Costa Monteiro figures directly in the artistic vision of the programming, but rarely in an exclusive way. Ideology is minimal, a way of getting from here to there, and music much; IBA’s community is strong, holistic, and unpreoccupied by self-promotion. (Let’s eat the ham!)  They rarely attract more people to events than can be invited to a glass of wine and a bit of Barberán’s earth-shattering tortilla de patatas, but they do provide a deep and much-needed current of creative-musical substance to Barcelona at large.


A recent instance of their activities, mínim, convened nine musicians from seven countries in five acts for two nights of concerts on May 28-29, 2004 at the Can Felipa Civic Center in the barrio of Poble Nou. Though most of the music made this weekend tended toward granular sounds, sustained textures, and an embrace of silence (as is common enough), it was uncommonly diverse. A variegated landscape of interactive models, media, and aesthetic strategies was represented, happily and unpretentiously.


The trio of Wade Matthews (bass clarinet and laptop), Diego Chamy (percussion), and Leonel Kaplan (trumpet) opened the festival with its longest performance, at 55 minutes nearly twice the length of any other. Kaplan’s low profile of vaguely pitched, cyclical spitty-noise; Matthews’ subtly lyrical keyclicks, multiphonics, and drones; and Chamy’s ritualistic percussion setup (a single bass drum laid flat atop a swivel that allowed him to spin the drum while applying pine cones, superballs, a jawharp, a handheld microtape recorder, and various brushes and cymbals to its head for minutes at a time) formed distinct voices which moved around each other nimbly, almost polyphonically. This tightness and internal energy provided a drive which belied the static nature of the group’s material, creating explosive changes of perspective from otherwise unspectacular circumstances. A few noteworthy moments included the beginning, when while sandwiched between his quiet, seated companions Chamy dove into his gyrating drum like cold water, Matthews and Kaplan nailing the imaginary downbeat to the millisecond; and a typical but refined silence in the middle of the set which was broken by another crisply attacked drum drone as if to subsume the gesture into drama – but was revisited by Matthews’ gentle repetitive computer chirps entering shortly thereafter.


Koberce/ Zaclony was the weekend’s only explicitly multimedia act, a video and guitar/ “dictaphone”(?) duo from the Czech Republic. Suitably, they performed in a large room separate from the concert hall used for other groups; at center stage loomed a giant video screen (though only the lower left quadrant was used for projection), Vera Lukasova working with images on his computer in obscurity to the left, and Ivan Palacky seated visibly at a small table with mixer, lamp, prone guitar, and dictaphone across the stage from his partner. The video material itself was sharp and hypnotic: an aquarium of fish (first in color, then black and white) moving by variably perceptible shifts in speed, sometimes superimposed with other frames of fish. It created a fractured line of potentially great interest for an (improvising?) partner, but Palacky’s ebow drones, repetitive body percussion, and familiar feedback were somewhat weak in this context. Jerks and turns of phrase in the video often corresponded literally to the music, putting the sound element in an uncomfortable foreground position that the physical and social arrangement could not support: the video commanded too much attention to be perceptible as an equal partner, yet Palacky, half-present as an active performer, appeared to bare the role of the leader much of the time. As a conventional soundtrack, the music might have succeeded, but the problem of the handcuffed, unrealized body – not maximally itself – remained throughout.


By contrast, the opening performance of the second night by David Stackenäs, a Swedish guitarist, was fully present, exploring a similar but more elaborated tabletop setup with ebows, handheld fans with various attachments, preparations of sticks and knives, and other Unidentified Found Objects. Their approaches to the unadorned steel-string acoustic guitar were graceful, executed with precise, musical pacing (no small feat considering the practical need at some points to control three or more gadgets humming along independently). The variety of sustained textures achieved – fans whirling behind, near, and at the nut and bridge; ebows along all parts of the strings, buzzing against frets and singing; simple rattling preparations of silverware and a guitar slide standing near the soundhole – required a theatrical technique of constantly moving and removing the setup. Wide quasi-tantric gestures thus emerged and disintegrated despite themselves. (Expert lighting by Oriol Blanch amplified this intimacy, as it did for all performances except Koberce/ Zaclony, who chose darkness for obvious practical reasons.) Unfortunately, when Stackenäs attempted more overt physical efforts, they came across as unthoughful and out of context. His short foray into sawing the corner of the guitar top with a ridged, wooden Rhythm Stick, for example, seemed particularly crude and ill-prepared, though thankfully it was abandoned in favor of less blatant material before long.


Angharad Davies (violin) and Margarida García (electric contrabass) presented the least “polished” performance of the festival; the rawness was most welcome. That this was only their third musical meeting (and only second in public) contributed to an unstable, playful dynamic whose actors’ disparity was born out by their physical appearance onstage: Davies, a tall, stately, seated violinist with readied bow beside García, a small, demurely-dressed bassist who rarely raised her face while negotiating the alien-looking instrument leaned up against her. Unlike the two other multiple-person acts of the weekend, Davies and García were relatively unbuckled. However, their modesty and mutual patience charmed the distance: both proposed independent musical worlds, but provided ample room for each other and the audience. Davies worked primarily with sustained arco sounds (sometimes incorporating styrofoam and/ or clothespin preparations) and stuttering schmeared pizzicati, whereas García played mostly isolated  percussive figures, tapping or briefly bowing her hotly amplified bass on its neck, body, pickups, and bridge, or pecking pointillistic bits on the strings. The musicians intersected in their use of silence, abundant but not obligatory, and amplification; the latter not only magnified ordinarily elusive details from both instruments, it also strengthened their physical, and thus formal, resonances amidst frequent pauses in the reverberant hall.


The weekend’s final performance was a true finale, loud (if sometimes only in spirit) and virtuosic, by the French soprano saxophonist Stephane Rives, who managed the rarity of combining an introverted, serene, even fragile musical sensibility with totally playing the shit out of his horn. His three-section solo was the only act of the festival to stray from the one-piece model. Each section was circular-breathed from beginning to end and involved a different, highly restricted set of sound objects; the first, a relentless, blistering altissimo squeal with microtonal alterations, was worth the price of admission alone. With the bell of the saxophone closed on the back of his calf, Rives coaxed acoustical interferences and guttural noises  beneath a high drone which bounced around the room like a psychedelic light show. The second bit required him to change position, occasionally removing the instrument from his leg, and used little pitch. Instead Rives threw around mostly quiet, morphing wind sounds and percussion, which created a curious mediant between the first piece – of which we wouldn’t have suspected any particular “large-scale” formal significance (while instead immersed in the microparticles of the sounds) – and the third. This last section, which followed a slug of water after the second, was played entirely with the horn aimed at the far corner of the hall and with said mouthful of water. It returned to the compressed melodic strategy of the first movement, and given completion of the instrument’s physical movement from floor to ceiling over the course of the three sections, two distinct, simultaneous structures thus emerged: one, the cycle, two, the line. In itself, this would not have been remarkable, of course, but the sudden appearance of familiar favorites, superimposed no less, sat poignantly at the end of the festival.

And like the festival itself, it benefited from this familiarity. Its sensitivity to a restricted context was clear, and its response of maximal “Y”ness left a delicious consequence of, at least for your author, a provocation to more and maximal “D”.