INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
All About Jazz SEPTEMBER 19, 2012 - by John Kelman
PUNKT 2012: KRISTIANSAND, NORWAY, SEPTEMBER 6-8, 2012
Punkt Festival: Kilden Performing Arts Centre
Another year, another Punkt. If that sounds flippant or dismissive, that's not the intention; instead, it's a reflection that a year simply isn't complete without visiting Kristiansand, Norway, for the Live Remix festival that continues to expand its network and garner attention from people around the world.
And it's not just fans of co-Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, and the vision they had when they launched the first Punkt festival in 2005. More and more musicians are hearing about this innovative festival, one which pairs live performances from across the broadest musical spectrum possible, with subsequent live remixes where invited guests reinterpret or use the previous performance as a jumping off point for music of their own - more often than not, in collaboration with other musicians.
Past years have seen performances ranging from classical composer Gavin Bryars and British folk traditionalist June Tabor and Quercus to more distinctly jazz-centric music from drummer Bill Bruford and pianist Michiel Borstlap. Pop groups like Sweet Billy Pilgrim have shared the festival stage with Norway's Trio Mediaeval; American trumpeter Jon Hassell has teamed up with Norway's Arve Henriksen for a remix that might have been a passing of the torch, were the American trumpeter not still so active; Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch has brought his ECM recording group Ronin; and groundbreaking singer Sidsel Endresen has teamed up for a double-bill with another intrepid vocal explorer, Maja Ratkje. And that's just scratching the surface.
Bang and Honoré have always kept their eyes on preventing the festival from repeating itself. From an initially Norwegian focus, the festival has adopted an increasingly international purview and has brought its moveable Live Remix concept to other countries and other festivals, including London, Mannheim, Paris and Tallinn. The 2011 edition broke the mould further by enlisting British avant-songsmith David Sylvian to curate a full evening, and it was tremendously successful - even allowing Henriksen to perform his most recent CD, Cartography, for the first time with close to its original instrumentation, and with Sylvian participating. 2011 was a particularly strong year, with Sylvian also bringing the first-ever live performance of his studio collaboration with keyboardist Holger Czukay, Plight & Premonition. It's shows like these - and there are always others, year-after-year - that not only make Punkt special, but make it a place where the audience is truly privileged, with opportunities to experience things that nobody else in the world has...or, in most cases, ever will.
2012 was a year of transition. While an overall success, Punkt had a few misses to go along with its predominant hits. After seven years in the Agder Theatre - where the main hall held approximately five hundred and fifty people, and the Alfaroom (Punkt's name for the Live Remix room) was able to accommodate about two hundred and fifty - the new Kilden Performing Arts Centre gave Punkt a much larger concert hall. With state-of-the-art technology in multiple performance spaces, including a main theater capacity of about 1250, it meant that Punkt (already a techno- savvy festival) could do far, far more when it came to staging, with lighting and set designer Tord Knutsen and video artist Jan Martin Vågen creating some of their best work to date.
While the Kilden Alfaroom could hold more people, it did lose some of the intimacy of previous years. At the Agder there was no stage, and bleacher seating meant that it felt less a performance than a public laboratory, where the audience was a collective fly on the wall of a creative process few get to experience outside the confines of recording studios. At Kilden, the remixers were on a raised stage, and the main floor of the room (there was a small balcony, but it was closed to the audience) was set up in standing room format. It didn't change the experimental nature of the remixes, but it did change the dynamic between audience and artist. Hopefully there will be a way to redesign the Alfaroom to more closely mirror Agder's design, albeit with its greater capacity and better sound, in future years.
On a very plus side, during previous years the programming was very dense, usually with four shows and four live remixes each evening. While it was always great to become immersed in so much music, from about 5:00 p.m. until 1:00 the next morning, Punkt 2012's schedule of just three shows and three remixes meant a little more relaxed program, with time to actually grab a drink, a snack and a chat between live remixes and main theater sets. The program also ended earlier (11:30 p.m.) and started later (6:00 p.m.), which meant - well, for some - more sleep, and a little more energy for Punkt Seminars with artists including American cornetist Butch Morris, SmallTown Supersound label head Joakim Haugland, designer Nick Robertson, classical composer/oboist Cathy Milliken and others. It also meant being able to see two afternoon performances, one by Estonia's Weekend Guitar Trio, and another by Honoré and vocalist Greta Aagre, celebrating the release of their first internationally released album together, Year Of The Bullet.
But the biggest change in 2012 was Bang and Honoré's decision to relinquish the programming chair - and not just for one night, as in 2011, but for the entire festival; it was a risky proposition, no matter who was chosen. Enlisting producer, ambient music forefather and general creative thinker Brian Eno seemed like a great idea - he is, after all, one of Bang and Honoré's seminal influences and, along with Hassell and Sylvian, amongst Punkt's most significant touchstones. And this wasn't Eno's first visit to Punkt - as an invited guest in 2008, he did an installation, 77 Million Paintings For Punkt, and participated in a "conversational remix" with Hassell, who was also in attendance that year.
Eno's programming, while it brought many positives to the festival - the most important being a far greater diversity in programming which stretched the live remixers and will hopefully be a model for future years - did introduced a few negatives as well.
In a press conference on the first day of the festival, when asked if (as Bang and Honoré have done in past years) there was any consideration, when choosing the main stage acts, as to how they would work as grist for live remix, his answer was a rather succinct, "no." This seemed odd, since Punkt's identity is based on live remix, and so to not be thinking about its core concept when programming meant, to some extent, placing what makes Punkt Punkt in a position of lesser importance. With the exception of J. Peter Schwalm's remix with members of the Nordic Live Electronics Network, and two by the Punkt "dream team" of Bang, Honoré, Henriksen and guitarist Eivind Aarset, most remixes were not collaborations between electronic artists and players of more conventional instruments. Still, at the press conference, Honoré made the point that not being as familiar with the artists and their potential for remix this year meant a more "dangerous and scary thing," and in the context of live remixes - in the moment, improvisational and without a safety net - neither of these words is anything but a good thing.
Eno also introduced the conference with the statement that, as a working musician, he rarely has the chance to listen to music beyond the scope of what he's working on, and so being asked to curate Punkt gave him a welcome opportunity to connect with what is happening now. While there may be some truth to this for some, it was also a tad suspect, given how his own past was often predicated on an awareness of the music going on around him, such as during the 1970s when he was clearly connected with the emerging electronic/electronic scene in Germany, which had significant impact on his Berlin Trilogy collaborations with singer David Bowie - 1977's Low and "Heroes", and 1979's Lodger.
Eno absolutely brought acts that Punkt would never have considered - perhaps the most obvious being American musical comedian Reggie Watts, who put on a tremendous show that was funny, insightful and musically deep - and if Punkt learns anything from their experience with Eno, it's that as much as the festival has always been disinterested in musical boundaries, it still reflected certain predilections of its Artistic Directors. How, after all, could it not? But if comedy and the Afro-centric music of Malian guitarist Guimba Kouyaté proved that truly anything could be fodder for live remix (even if not intended as such by the curator), not all of the acts lined up with another statement from Eno. Claiming to be disinterested in nostalgia and, instead, wanting to build a program of international focus, music that the predominantly Norwegian audience would likely have not heard before, he stated that he wanted to focus not on where music has been, but where it's going; a fair statement from an artist whose career has been largely predicated on looking forward, not backward.
Acts like Britain's Three Trapped Tigers, Canada's Owen Pallett, Australia-born/Iceland- based Ben Frost and Iceland's müm absolutely demonstrated a forward-thinking mindset. Even Watts' set was built on tremendous use of contemporary technology in creating his one-man band, and his comedy was contemporary and topical. But the festival's opener, S.C.U.M., for example, was as retro as could be, with hints of early Roxy Music and a number of other obvious touchstones. And as good as Kouyaté was - a young Malian player for whom this was his first band as a leader and his first gig with that group - there might have been better choices that Eno could have made, since the music itself was nothing beyond the ordinary, albeit well-played. While Kouyaté was clearly a talent deserving broader recognition, his music was absolutely steeped in tradition.
One of the more interesting statements Eno made at the press conference was in response to the question, "Why did you choose music?" Given that Eno studied fine arts in school, his reply was both understandable and, sadly, practical. "One of the main reasons," he said, "was because the distribution system in music seems fairer than in the fine arts. The bottleneck, in the world of painting - and the audience - is so very small." He also explained how, when he began playing music, rock was fifteen years old and people were thinking, for the first time, that it might actually stick around, that the music might be durable and that its history to that point could be the palette. It was around the time when Eno became involved in music that "rock music became self- conscious," and that Roxy Music "effectively repackaged the short history of rock music to date. It has probably been a more interesting journey than had I been a painter."
And so, Eno's participation brought new ideas to the festival - ones that will hopefully be considered for future years - but by placing less emphasis on live remix, he didn't completely capture what Punkt is all about, given its existing track record. On the other hand, while longtime Punkt attendees had some concerns about moving to the larger, more modern Kilden Performing Arts Centre, by the end of the first night all fears were allayed; and even if the Alfaroom wasn't quite right, it was, after all, the first year, and that meant there were bound to be some missteps. The good news - and what Punkt fans have come to justifiably count on - is that with Bang and Honoré at the helm, and with the festival's beyond-outstanding volunteer staff, who made everything easy and everyone feel at home, there's no doubt that Punkt 2012's mistakes will not be repeated, and its successful differences will be taken onboard and expanded upon when the ninth edition takes place in 2013. If it was altered a tad too much this year, future Punkts will most assuredly return to honouring its primary raison d'être, live remix, and reinstate its essential position of greater importance and value.
As ever, BBC Radio 3's host of Late Junction, Fiona Talkington, was the MC for the festival, introducing the groups and acting as the heart of Punkt. A warmer, more appreciative host would be hard to imagine. As she made clear during the entire festival, its success was as much a function of the equally warm, equally appreciative and absolutely engaged audience that came this year to Kilden for the first time, to find out just how Punkt would transition into a bigger space, and with a different creative spirit at the helm.
SEPTEMBER 4 CONCERT: S.C.U.M.
From the opening notes of England's S.C.U.M. - named after radical feminist Valerie Solanas' Society for Cutting Up Men Manifesto - it was certainly clear that something different was going on at Punkt. It's not that Punkt hasn't booked pop bands before, with everyone from Anja Garbarek and Hanne Hukkleburg to Jarle Bernhoft and festival favorite, Sweet Billy Pilgrim. But as the droning sound that introduced the band turned into a propulsive rock beat with the entry of drummer Melissa Rigby and bassist Huw Webb, it became clear just how different Punkt 2012 was going to be, at least in part.
S.C.U.M.'s origins were more in goth territory, but following its 2008 debut single, "Visions Arise," as the group evolved it morphed into something more art rock/post-punk, with plenty of atmospherics to swirl around singer/occasional guitarist Thomas Cohen (soon to be married to Peaches Geldoff, daughter of rock star Bob Geldoff), whose delivery blended early Roxy Music with more contemporary fare like Throbbing Gristle. When Cohen entered the stage, it became clear that the performance was to be as much about attitude as it was anything overtly musical - Cohen adopting a multitude of poses, while Rigby, Webb, guitarist/keyboardist Samuel Kilcoyne and keyboardist Bradley Baker played with seeming indifference. While the first couple of tunes were engaging in a retro kind of way, by the third tune things were becoming a tad monotonous, with similar tempos, similar rhythms and, from Cohen, the kind of disinterested delivery that made for a set which was, sadly, not a particularly good opener for the festival, at least from a musical perspective.
That said, it did become clear from the outset that Punkt's move to Kilden was going to allow it even greater potential in the realm of staging and visuals. With a series of projection screens behind the group, Knutsen and Martin Vågen created a constantly shifting backdrop and, with the multiple banks of lighting above, evoked everything from red light-drenched silhouettes to starker clarities. If there was any saving grace to the set, it was the visuals, which made it fascinating to watch, if not a particularly engaging listen.
SEPTEMBER 4 LIVE REMIX: MARCONI UNION
For the first live remix of Punkt 2012, Britain's Marconi Union was invited to reinterpret S.C.U.M.'s set and, unfortunately, it was not particularly daring, though a number of factors at play may have explained why the trio - electronics artists Richard Talbot and Jamie Crossley, plus relative newcomer/pianist Duncan Meadows - delivered a less- than-inspiring set. Due to travel delays, the trio arrived very late to Kristiansand and, without much in the way of a sound check, was thrown deep into waters with which longtime Punkt attendees were already intimately familiar. It wasn't that the remix was bad, but there was the sense that the group could have gone much further than it did - a feeling borne out when, the following day, the trio returned for a remix of Cyclobe that, by all accounts, was much more engaged and engaging.
As a performing group in its own right, Marconi Union has actually been around for some time. First formed by Talbot and Crossley in 2002, with its independent debut Under Wires And Searchlights, the group scored the the interest of All Saints Records (an early Eno connection), which released the duo's sophomore effort, the darker Distance, in 2005. Becoming a trio in 2010 with the addition of Meadows, the group's Different Colours reflects ongoing evolution in the group's sound, with a largely gentle ambience that combines ethereal soundscapes with soft pulses and spare, atmospheric melodies.
In some ways, while Marconi Union redeemed itself with its second remix, it would have been better to see the trio as a main stage act. Its own music certainly fits within the Punkt continuum; as much as the trio ultimately proved a good remix choice - even with a less-than-successful first attempt, which may well have been the result of not realising just how far it was possible/allowable to go - its own music would have surely provided some fine fodder for another group of musicians to remix/rebuild.
SEPTEMBER 4 CONCERT: THREE TRAPPED TIGERS
If S.C.U.M. and the Marconi Union provided an inauspicious start to Punkt 2012 and Eno's curation, then Three Trapped Tigers redeemed both, with a set that was edgy, complex without being overly considered, and absolutely exhilarating. A trio featuring guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Rob Calvert, keyboardist/vocalist Tom Rogerson and drummer Adam Betts, Three Trapped Tigers was an early Punkt hit, playing songs from its first full-length CD, Route One Or Die and Numbers 1-13 - which collects its first three EPs into one disc - as well as some newer music.
Like Route One Or Die, Cramm opened the set, the group quickly establishing a modus operandi that included serpentine lines, thundering, odd-metered rhythms and no shortage of improvisational élan. Betts was a force of nature, thundering through the set with near-relentless energy. Calvert avoided self- promotional pyrotechnics while, at the same time, making it clear that he was another force with which to be reckoned. Rogerson's role appeared to be more textural, until it became clear that he was carrying plenty of responsibility, delivering gut-punching bass lines, soaring, otherworldly electronic sonics and, at times, wordless vocals (doubled by Calvert) that were simply another instrument in the trio's vast aural toolkit.
And just as it seemed that the group's energy and power would be unrelenting, passages of calming beauty emerged, creating a dynamic flow to the songs - and the set - that made its Punkt appearance one that was still being talked about days after the festival was over. If Eno, in his press conference earlier in the day, professed to not liking progressive rock because "it sounded like a lot of people counting," then he clearly wasn't concerned that Three Trapped Tigers' music was as metrically challenging as any legacy band (more, even, than some). At a time when some of those legacy bands continue to trade on their past, Three Trapped Tigers is surely making progressive rock music for the future; predicated, to be sure, on things that have come before, but with the sharp teeth and vigorous energy of youth.
Not unlike Sweet Billy Pilgrim, which has appeared at two Punkts in Kristiansand and one in Mannheim, Germany in 2009, the between-song patter was down to earth and self-effacing, with Rogerson thanking the festival for the opportunity to play in such a terrific venue and, as the trio moved into its last number, saying, "hopefully next time we'll be back in the more familiar surroundings of an empty pub." It revealed how Three Trapped Tigers' music may have been challenging and seriously conceived, but the group did not take itself too seriously.
SEPTEMBER 4 LIVE REMIX: BANG / HONORÉ / HENRIKSEN / AARSET
If Marconi Union's first remix was a tad on the safe side, the Three Trapped Tigers remix, from Punkt Co-Artistic Directors Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, plus guitarist Eivind Aarset and trumpeter Arve Henriksen, made clear just what Punkt and Live Remix was about. With Bang and Honoré celebrating the release of Uncommon Deities - which uses music from past Punkts, as well as Sylvian's Sørlander Museum installation from last year, as the primary reference points and inspiration - the duo, along with Aaret and Henriksen, demonstrated the kind of language which they've been honing over the past eight years.
Live Remix is fraught with risk; there's no safety net, and if mistakes are made, then there's no opportunity to go back and fix them. It's a fundamental difference that has made Punkt such a thrilling place to be. There's never any idea where a remix will go (the artists only considering what they might use while the show on the main stage is going on... beyond that, nothing), but even when it's less than completely successful, the journey can be just as important - or, even, more - as the destination. Here, this quartet of Norwegian improvisers - all leaders in their own right, with Henriksen preparing a seven-LP box set of his Rune Grammofon recordings (plus bonus material) for later this fall, and Aarset's ECM debut, Dream Logic, also set for release in the next couple months - somehow managed to ratchet down Three Trapped Tigers' crunching energy, for a remix with a strong sense of purpose and clear development. Bang took drummer Betts and staggered his rhythms, twisting and turning his visceral pulses and turning them on their side, while Henriksen's harmonised trumpet layered an intrinsic melodicism over Aarset's washes.
Gentle landscapes juxtaposed with greater dissonances, dovetailing perfectly with the diversity of the source material, also demonstrating another important quality of a good remix: knowing when to stop, with the quartet ending after a scant twenty minutes. But it was the perfect length; anything less would not have been enough, while anything more would have been too much.
SEPTEMBER 4 CONCERT: REGGIE WATTS
The idea of bringing a comedian to Punkt may have been Eno's most radical decision. After all, how can standup comedy be - even, as in the case with American comedian Reggie Watts, combined with no shortage of musical content - used for a live remix? The answer would come soon after, when Eno would take to the stage in the Alfaroom for an extremely rare live appearance and remix with J. Peter Schwalm. But in the meantime, Watts delivered another Punkt 2012 highlight, with a set that had the audience in stitches, yet proved to be far more than just a giggle.
As for the audience? One of the festival's big concerns was how it could come close to filling the 1250-seat main stage in Kilden, after seven years in the five hundred and fifty-seat Agder Theatre, especially when advance sales didn't seem to suggest any larger attendance. They needn't have worried. If S.C.U.M.'s show was reasonably well-attended, by the closing show of Punkt 2012's first night, the main floor of the hall was easily seventy-five percent full, and there were people up on the first level balcony as well. Word had clearly gotten out, and the idea of bringing a comedian to Punkt clearly drew a crowd that might not otherwise have given the festival a try but, based on attendance for the rest of the festival, clearly stuck around and got into the Punkt spirit.
Entering the stage speaking with a Russian accent that soon morphed into Jamaican, which then changed to French and others, Watts made clear that he was not just delivering a prearranged set; instead, he was an improviser, just drawing from a different palette. There were plenty of Scandinavian references throughout the set, delivered with a kind of comfortable ease that made lines like "a lot of you have come from some place... and not a lot of people can say that," or, as he moved to his table of electronics for the first musical piece, "this piece was written in 1776; thank you for listening to what it's trying to be" - or, "if we are just holographic projections, we might was well have a good time doing it' - enough to reduce the audience to tears (of laughter, of course).
Watts is already garnering significant attention in the US for his performances as part of Conan O'Brien's tour, and for his live CD/DVD, Why S#!+ SO Crazy?, but the comedian - who started out as a musical arranger - proved to be even broader than his existing list of accolades would suggest. Musically, Watts possesses a tremendous voice, capable of just about anything - were he to choose to be a "serious" singer he could, no doubt, do just as well (though this is even better) - and combined with his intimate comfort with a variety of processing devices, including looping, echo, reverb and harmonising, he suggested how Bobby McFerrin might sound, had he an outrageous sense of humor.
From conversations with himself, panned to the left and right of the stage, to creating songs built from beatbox, layered vocal harmonies and occasional keyboards, Watts' performance ultimately embodied something that has long been a part of the Punkt festival - an intimate and organic blend of acoustic instrumentation with electronics that goes beyond gimmickry and shtick, and into the realm of a new kind of music where technology is as much an extension of the artist as the voice or conventional musical instrumentation. And with topical discussions about how great Norway is ("The next song is a Norwegian folk song I've taken and remixed a bit; it's about fish") turned into a deep rap that mixed Yo, Yo with a piss-pull and scarily accurate impersonation of Icelandic pop star Björk, it became clear just how little of Watts' set was scripted. At one point emulating musical instruments à la McFerrin, at another slowing himself down as the stage lighting magically followed, it was a closing performance for the first night of Punkt 2012 that few will soon forget.
SEPTEMBER 4 LIVE REMIX: BRIAN ENO / J. PETER SCHWALM
If Eno's participation as Punkt curator was a coup for the festival, then his agreeing to participate in a live remix was an even bigger win. Eno rarely performs onstage - and, in the context of live remix, there was much to live up to. A masterful producer and music- maker in the studio, going on stage and performing in a completely improvised context where there was no going back on decisions made, following the Bang/Honoré/Henriksen/Aarset remix created an even greater expectation: how would Eno fare, following a live remix from the people who'd been doing this for eight years and more than a dozen Punkts?
Fortunately, extremely well, with the participation of J.Peter Schwalm. Introducing the remix by saying "How do you remix the self-remixing Reggie?... but we'll give it a try," the remix demonstrated all that's still innovative about Eno as a maker of music and as a producer, all blended into an in-the-moment piece that began with harmonious ambient soundscapes, over which Watts' voice was layered, grabbing a particular repetitive pattern that blended perfectly with Eno and Schwalm.
The remix did not stay consonant, however, as the duo gradually introduced harsher extremes - edgier, and more about sound than melody or harmony - and a denser sonic pattern emerged out of a repeated electronic pulse. The duo grabbed snippets of Watts, like the repeated "try to make some sense," and used them as rhythmic motifs that fostered its gradually evolving sound world. But it was as the remix moved into even sharper territory, with the repeated "We wanna know" leading into a loud, jagged collage of colliding sounds and pulses, that the remix morphed into something completely different from what the Norwegian contingent might have done. As Eno began to also chant "We want to know something more," the remix reached its peak... and then stopped, to massive applause from the filled-to-the-rafters Alfaroom.
SEPTEMBER 5 AFTERNOON CONCERT: WEEKEND GUITAR TRIO
While Punkt has been conducting seminars during the afternoons each year - including the present edition, with its series of fine participants - it decided to do something a little different on the second and third days this year, by including free early afternoon performances in the Alfaroom. First up, on the Friday, was Estonia's Weekend Guitar Trio, no strangers to the Punkt world after performing at the 2011 Jazzkaar festival with Jan Bang as part of Punkt in Tallinn - which was, in fact, not the trio's first encounter; that happened earlier in the year at King's Place in London, as part of the Eesti Fest, curated by Fiona Talkington.
Here, without Bang's live samples and treatments, it became much clearer just what the members of Weekend Guitar Trio, all with different backgrounds - Robert Jürjdendal's exposure to King Crimson co-founding guitarist Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft seminars, meshing with Tõnis Leemets' IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) and electronic music interests, and Mart Soo's background in jazz and free improvisation - brought to the table, in a fifty-minute set that was culled from some of the group's earliest music, right through to new material that's as yet untitled.
Roads, the first piece the group ever played together back in 1993, opened the set and gradually evolved from relatively simple melodic motifs. Likewise, the more buoyant and folk-inflected The Bird Market, with a more complex inner core, began to reveal itself as the trio's arrangement assumed greater shape, and Leemets took a curiously staccato solo of tremendous unpredictability.
What became clear, throughout the set, was just how different each guitarist was, despite all of them employing plenty of processing - even Jürjdendal, playing an Ovation electro-acoustic guitar. Aura was based on another spare context, with its simple, two-chord motif; but with Jürjdendal's slide guitar processed to create otherworldly sounds built around the ostinato, it was both ambient and commanding. Minimalistically tinged, Under The Magnifying Glass was aptly titled, with a variety of detailed, interlocking parts coming together in a myriad of ways as it took on its ultimate form of pulse and texture. Traversing more jagged landscapes , it suddenly cut into a riff-driven opportunity for Leemets to build a volume pedal-driven solo which soon submerged into the mix as Soo took over, his chorded rhythm running seemingly at cross-purpose with Jürjdendal. As the piece built to greater cacophony, its innate sense of construction became clear only when the trio, unexpectedly, came together for an abrupt conclusion.
It was a strong performance from a trio whose star continues to rise, and with plenty to which to look forward: a live recording with Bang, from King's Place, is forthcoming, as will be a new studio collaboration from Jürjdendal and Bang.
SEPTEMBER 5 CONCERT: CYCLOBE
Cyclobe was another of Eno's choices to come from the UK. At the previous day's press conference, Eno explained that his original plan was to bring nine artists from nine different countries, but it didn't quite work out that way, with three from the UK, two from the US, one from Canada, one from Australia (albeit living in Iceland), one from Iceland, and one from Mali.
Cyclobe has been around for some time - thirteen years, in fact - but its Punkt performance represented only its third ever live date, though it has released six albums and five singles since its 1999 inception. It's no surprise that the group rarely plays live; with the myriad of instruments its six members employ - ranging from keyboards and electronics to bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, percussion, duduk, tulum, didgeridoo and more - the group must have one heckuva rider. Formed by Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown (aka Simon Norris), both members of the experimental avant-rock group Coil, Cyclobe's distinct electro-acoustic mélange of acoustic instrumentation and modern technology was another clear fit for the Punkt sound world.
Its set was heavily based on drones, with little in the way of clear melody, though lines would periodically emerge from the mire - most often from duduk/pipes player Michael J. York (another Coil alum), but also from Thrower and invited guest, electronics artist Ivan Pavlov. A highlight of the set as a brief interlude following the first piece, when Thrower, Brown, York and percussionist Dave Smith (a member of Rock In Opposition-affiliated group Guapo) moved front and center stage for a brief but unexpected, and ultimately beautiful, recorder quartet. It was an indication of greater possibilities that permeated a set which could easily have been the soundtrack to an imaginary film. The construction of Cyclobe's set was considerably different from the duo's normal approach, which is to compose its work over long periods of time, taking breaks during the process - sometimes for months, sometimes years - in order to let ideas germinate and clarify.
It was a set that unfolded with the kind of slow, at times almost imperceptible evolution that made it a bit of a challenge, but when taken together with recordings like the recent Wounded Galaxies Tap At The Window, it's clear that Cyclobe travels to the rhythm of its own very different drummer. Punkt is a festival defined by artists following roads less traveled, and Cyclobe's uncompromising approach to sonic manipulation was, indeed, unique.
SEPTEMBER 5 CONCERT: EBE OKE
While his presentation appeared to be British, it turned out that Ebe Oke was, in fact, an American, born in the Deep South, although he now makes London his home. Eno's enigmatic description of OKE as someone who'd "heard of pop music but never actually heard it and so had to invent it for himself" was born out, to some extent, by a set heavy on a gentle kind of minor-keyed melancholy, and equally weighed down by a stage presentation that was, at times, perhaps a little too precious for its own good.
As the group took to the stage, performance artist Nissa Nishikawa wandered the stage, dropping what might have been flower petals on the floor. OKE's band, which included a violinist, cellist and electronics artist, evoked soft, otherworldly landscapes, while OKE split his time between a piano, stage right, and center stage, where he delivered his lyrics with, at times, a little too much theatrical consideration. A soft, androgynous voice, a curious predilection for specific imagery and ideas (birds being a big one), and a set that was heavy on presentation and a little lighter on substance, OKE's group did, however, create a curious and strangely comforting kind of floating stasis that somehow took the large Kilden Theatre and made it feel almost painfully intimate.
But if OKE and his group were a little too serious for their own good - Nishikawa, at one point, painting concentric circles on a small gong - there was still something strangely compelling about the set; reason, perhaps, why not one, but two ex-Roxy Music alums - Eno and guitarist Phil Manzanera - have taken interest in OKE.
SEPTEMBER 5 LIVE REMIX: NLE STUDENTS / J. PETER SCHWALM
In 2011, J. Peter Schwalm participated in a weeklong workshop with members of the Nordic Live Electronics Network, culminating in a Punkt Live Remix. This year he was back doing the same thing, but when it came to the actual live remix, there was a difference. Speaking with Schwalm before the evening began, he spoke of being more active as a director in the 2011 live remix, and that this year he was going to assume more of a background role, playing some piano and letting the students take the reins - no shortage of trust, then, in this group of seven students, including, from Denmark, Stig Sylvest Hansen (drums, laptop) and Sofie Christiansen (vocals, electronics); from Sweden, David Sabel (electronics) and Niklas Sjösvärd (electronics and monotribe drone test); and, from Norway, Martin Skrebergene (bass, electronics) and Sindre Gjærum Hansen (vocals, drums, laptop). "It's about instincts," he said, "not about style."
And Schwalm did, indeed, leave the group of students largely on its own to direct the remix of Ebe Oke. If the results were a tad overzealous and considerably longer than necessary, it was still exactly this opportunity to participate in Punkt's laboratory-like live remix that allowed the students to attempt things that sometimes failed and sometimes succeeded. Christiansen adopted greater extremes as the set progressed, the beginnings of an emergent voice that was much freer and more abstract than might be expected from such a young singer. As the remix intensified, she moved into near- primal yells, with Gjærum Hansen finally joining in, initially with some call-and-response, but ultimately taking the lead.
Barring Three Trapped Tigers' show the previous night, this was certainly the most aggressive performance of the festival so far, driven hard by drummer Sylvest Hansen. There were times when, as the remix dissolved into the amorphous, it seemed like it might be the right moment to end, but as Hansen then kicked in with another rock pulse, the entire group rallied. Not necessarily the right decision, but the purpose of this remix was to give the students a live opportunity to try things and see what worked and what didn't. And with more hits than misses, this year's NLE certainly proved to include a number of promising young students.
SEPTEMBER 5 CONCERT: MÜM
A little bit of Björk, a tad more of Sigur Rós and a whole lot more of something else more direct and melodic is the easiest way to describe Iceland's müm. That the band has been together for fifteen years in some form or another is a little hard to believe, given its youthful appearance. While its first full-length record, 2000's Yesterday Was Dramatic - Today Is OK, was a largely instrumental excursion informed by groups like Aphex Twin, the group that performed at Punkt was more song- and lyric-based, and if the septet's tendency was towards slow tempos, it was as self- effacing as Three Trapped Tigers when, after the first song, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Gunnar Örn Tynes introduced the set, quipping, "We're going to play all our songs extra fast."
Instrumentally diverse - along with various acoustic and electric guitars, piano, keyboards and electronics, the group featured cello, ukulele and melodica - müm, in the most unassuming way possible, delivered one of the festival's most idiosyncratic sets. With a combination of dry humor, tempos that ran from a virtual crawl to medium, and pulse-driven without ever being too obvious, müm's combination of quirky vocals, folk- driven instrumentation and contemporary sonics was a real winner.
SEPTEMBER 5 LIVE REMIX: VLADISLAV DELAY
For the final remix of the day, Finland's Vladislav Delay (AKA Sasu Ripatti) did a terrific job reinterpreting elements of m&uul;m's set, in a manner both denser and considerably more foreboding. If there were any complaints, it was the lack of interaction with anyone else, and a remix that, at nearly forty minutes, went on a little bit too long.
Still, beyond Bang, Honoré and Schwalm, it's clear that Delay - one of a number of musical noms de plume Ripatti uses, depending on the musical emphasis - represented less rhythmic, more experimental territory than his more dance floor-ready efforts as Uusitalo or Luomo. One of the earmarks of the electronic musicians performing at Punkt 2012 was Eno's undeniable seminal influence, but what was equally clear was how each of them had moved on to create personal spaces. There were trace elements of Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, but largely subsumed into Delay's harsher, more brooding sonics.
While the lighting in the Alfaroom was intentionally minimal - the point was, after all, not to consider this as a performance - there was still very effective use of spare lighting throughout the weekend, in Delay's case a bar of soft light that started below his table and rose, gradually, to face level, only to drop and begin the rise again. It was spare but effective in an unobtrusive, almost subconscious fashion.
If Delay's other work is more rhythm-based, that didn't mean there weren't occasional pulses to be found here - albeit staggered and jagged. A low-end pulse emerged towards the end of the remix, which Delay slowly began to spread out with unpredictable rests, until the Björk-like voice of müm's cellist, Serena Tideman, was brought in to move this episodic remix to its conclusion.
SEPTEMBER 6 AFTERNOON CONCERT: AAGRE / HONORÉ: YEAR OF THE BULLET
A morning boat ride to the home of a local baker, who put on a terrific spread of seafood soup, smoked salmon, macaroons and muffins - and, of course, the prerequisite beer and wine - was the premise for the annual Saturday morning hang that has always helped to foster the transparency of Punkt, with musicians, media and others getting the chance to see a bit of the surrounding area, relaxing and getting to know each other better. The only prerequisite for many attending was, however, that it would be possible to return to Kilden for the 1:00 p.m. concert by Erik Honoré and his partner, singer Greta Aagre, celebrating the release of Year Of The Bullet. With two of the album's primary participants in tow - guitarist Bjørn Charles Dreyer and bassist Snorre Kiil Saga, the quartet also took advantage of the presence of Arve Henriksen (who guests on the recording as well), to flesh things out to a quintet, which faithfully delivered a good chunk of the recording to an appreciative crowd in the Alfaroom.
Oftentimes dark, the performance was, as on record, a reflection of Aagre's warm, soft- spoken voice - fragile but, at times, capable of greater power, and a welcome, mature contrast to the younger singers that dominate the market. Honoré's electronic landscapes combined with folkloric elements, in particular when Dreyer moved to acoustic guitar. Henriksen's painfully lyrical horn was another constant throughout the set, but what was perhaps most impressive was how the group managed to evoke the album's gentle quietude in a live context. All too often the nervous energy of live performance means more physical energy, and what Year Of The Bullet - an Italian expression describing the years of violence and terrorism in the 1970s, and the title of a film by German director Magarethe von Trotta, dealing with those times - needed was to be as atmospheric, unhurried and calm as the recording. Aagre and Honoré accomplished this to perfection, for an afternoon performance that was like a soft oasis in the darkened Alfaroom, as more hustle and bustle took place around it in the rest of the Kilden Performing Arts Centre.
SEPTEMBER 6 CONCERT: BEN FROST
The final evening for Punkt 2012 opened with what was certainly the loudest show of the festival - and likely the loudest Kilden has seen in the few short months since opening earlier this year. Ben Frost has made a name for himself as an artist of extremes: harsh, Trent Reznor-like guitar noise mixed with dulcimers and softer electronic textures as informed by classical minimalism - and even Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's tintinnabulation - as he is more industrial sounds and noise improv. For his Punkt performance, Frost collaborated with müm's Serena Tideman - though, in truth, his overwhelming walls of sound largely overpowered the cellist, whose harmonics and occasional extreme bowing was often lost in the mix.
Frost's use of natural sounds - orcas singing, wolves howling, walruses gruffing and glaciers breaking - mirrored environmental music that's been issued under the banner of New Age music for decades, but what Frost did was the antithesis of that easy-on-the- ears wallpaper music, though occasional moments of beauty did surface, only to blend back into the denser audioscapes. Even as he periodically strapped on a guitar to create massive sounds that were hard to identify as coming from the instrument, were it not for the four large amplifiers through which he was feeding it, the fifty-minute set was a strange confluence of contrasts. Performing music from By The Throat but to far greater extremes, Frost's music built to nearly ear-shattering volumes, with massive bass beats thundering from Kilden's huge PA system. It was a bold and dramatic set that may have left some of the audience gasping for air, but was powerful, effective and the first of two festival highlights on its final evening.
It was also a case of technology working to great advantage. Beyond the laptop situated on a table stage center - and with the sound reflectors on the roof of the stage brought down to just a couple feet above Frost's head, creating an almost claustrophobic stage design which was barely lit - Frost used an iPad, when he moved over to an upright piano, to control the other soundscapes, making it a largely one-man show, with only the occasional audible interjections from Tideland.
SEPTEMBER 6 LIVE REMIX: J. PETER SCHWALM
J. Peter Schwalm's final remix - his participation on each night changing the dynamic of a festival which, in past years, was dominated by Bang and Honoré (who, with just two remixes and the Year Of The Bullet afternoon performance, could actually go to shows, hang out in the halls and experience Punkt the way their audiences have) - was clearly a challenge. Beyond the sheer amount of information coming at him from Frost's performance, he only received a two-channel stereo mix - quite uncharacteristic, given that performances are usually fed to the Alfaroom in greater multi- track form, allowing the remixer to more selectively pick and choose what's to be used for the remix.
Still, it's a testament of Schwalm's own ears and creative mindset that he managed to expand upon aspects of Frost's thumping, low-end frequencies, adding his own acoustic piano samples and chordal washes. The most visible non-Norwegian at Punkt over the last couple years - also invited to Tallinn in 2011 and Mannheim in 2009 - there's a reason why Bang and Honoré continue to enlist the German producer and remixer, who is currently readying an album for release in the coming months. Like his Norwegian counterparts, Schwalm knows how to build stories out of the raw materials he's given; he also knows when enough is enough, ending his Frost live remix after a scant twenty minutes. It was absolutely enough, and for all the best possible reasons.
SEPTEMBER 6 CONCERT: OWEN PALLETT
Toronto, Canada-based Owen Pallett is, perhaps, better known for what he called his "day job" at the Punkt after-party at K-35 - the hangout for musicians and guests of the festival, where food and drink is on tap from early afternoon to well into the wee hours of the morning - playing violin on albums by everyone from R.E.M. and The Pet Shop Boys to Taylor Swift and the reunited Duran Duran, as well as ongoing membership in Canada's Arcade Fire. But it's the classically trained musician's own music that, no surprise, matters the most, even though he rarely gets to play it, these days, outside the context of impromptu shows in the Toronto area. His only self-released recording, Heartland, leverages a greater instrumental, well, palette, than his trio-driven Punkt performance, with Pallett playing various keyboards in addition to the strings, and inviting a variety of guests to add everything from electric guitar, cello and marimba to electric piano and timpani.
For his Punkt performance, he brought two longtime friends and musical collaborators, drummer Rob Gordon and low guitarist Matt Smith. Performing songs from Heartland and others, what Pallett lacked in orchestration he made up for in energy and sheer virtuosity. And while he may not have had quite the instrumental arsenal at his disposal, between his keyboard and almost mind-boggling looping with his violin, he managed to create some seriously joyous noise.
Not at all like Sweet Billy Pilgrim - but not completely unlike the British band either - Pallett makes a similar kind of intelligent person's pop music, filled with detail and complexity, while remaining effervescently catchy and lyrically curious. There was even one song that, after announcing the group was going to "give it a go," required a second kick-start, as Pallett's frighteningly fast keyboard line got out of synch with Gordon's drumming (or was it the other way around?); still, it was to Pallett's credit as an affable stage presence - even if not exactly relaxed (he was too energetic) - that he felt comfortable enough to not only try something he wasn't sure they'd managed, but try it a second time, to see if they could get it right. They did.
SEPTEMBER 6 LIVE REMIX: BANG / HONORÉ / HENRIKSEN / AARSET
For the second remix by the Norwegian contingent, Bang, Honoré, Henriksen and Aarset took Pallett's music to an overall darker place. But that shouldn't suggest a lack of levity amongst these longtime musical and otherwise friends - especially with the puckish trumpeter onstage. Partway through the relatively brief remix, a cell-phone went off in the audience, prompting Henriksen to bend down and speak gently into his microphone, "Owen? Owen? Is that you? " With so many artists becoming increasingly sensitive to this kind of occurrence, Henriksen demonstrated an alternative approach: rather than be annoyed, make something out of it; use it.
In addition to his standard trumpet, Henriksen also brought out his saxophone mouthpiece to convert it into trumpophone - one of a number of odd Norwegian hybrids that also include Håkon Kornstad's flutonette (flute with a clarinet mouthpiece), and Trygve Seim's clarophone (a saxophone with a clarinet mouthpiece). Aarset, who has been leaning more towards guitar-like sounds recently, as opposed to the often unrecognisable sonics of years past, worked in concert with Henriksen to bring melodic space to the remix. Honoré was his usual statue-like self, while Bang moved to an internal rhythm when there wasn't an overt one to be found. It was a short but perfect remix that demonstrated the vernacular these players have built, and why it was essential to have them participating in at least some of this year's events.
SEPTEMBER 6 CONCERT: GUIMBA KOUYATÉ
Before Malian guitarist Guimba Kouyaté took the main theater stage for the last performance of Punkt 2012, Fiona Talkington came onstage (complete with unexpected and artificially reddened trousers, thanks to some surgically precise lighting by the ever- mischievous Tord Knutsen) to do her usual (but never perfunctory) round of thanks - to the festival volunteers; to, in this case, Brian Eno; to the sound and lighting engineers; and, perhaps most importantly, to the audience, which truly makes Punkt a special place that encourages people to return year after year, even from distant places like Canada, the United States, Germany, England, Italy and Estonia. A festival like this could only happen in a town like Kristiansand, and beyond the international attendees, there's local and regional support - moral and financial - that's particularly significant for a festival as left-of-center as Punkt.
But, as ever, special thanks were due to Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, without whom Punkt would never have come to be, and could not continue to take place. The two Artistic Directors always receive a healthy round of applause, but what happened in Kilden was unprecedented: a spontaneous, instantaneous standing ovation that went on for a long, long time. Too bad Bang was in the Green Room and Honoré somewhere else, entering the hall just seconds after everyone had taken their seats; still, with much of the festival being filmed this year, there'll be some footage they can view afterwards, in order to see just how much their ongoing work is appreciated.
Eno first saw Kouyaté in a London club backing up the guitarist's mother, a more famous Malian singer. The guitarist played a brief solo spot which so captivated Eno that, when he was putting together the program for Punkt, as the story goes, he reached out to Kouyaté, asking him to perform. Humble as ever, the guitarist thought Eno meant he wanted his mother to appear, and when it became clear he wanted otherwise, he put together his first group, for its first-ever gig. While there might have been better, more seasoned acts to bring from the West African country, Kouyaté delivered a performance heavy on groove, entertainment, and some undeniably fine guitar fireworks. Playing a nylon-string electric - fed through wah wah pedal and distortion at times - as well as the four-string Djele N'Goni and, for one tune, talking drum, Kouyaté's music was easy on the ears and eminently danceable; at one point, with much of the audience on its feet, even the generally reserved Eno could be seen clapping his hands and swaying to Kouyaté's propulsive rhythms.
And it was a show, though his balafonist/percussionist's call-and-response - first with Kouyaté and then the audience - was terrific the first time but a little worn the second go 'round. But these are things Kouyaté will, no doubt, hone over time, if the group - which also featured an electric bassist (the son, apparently, of well-known bassist Etienne M'Bappe, currently a member of guitarist John McLaughlin's Fourth Dimension), kit drummer and keyboardist/flautist - gets the chance to stay together and put a few more gigs under its belt. Clearly Kouyaté has something special to offer, but he needs a little more time to find out how to best deliver it. In the meantime, he still managed to captivate the Punkt audience - and, if his show proved anything, it was that this year's festival stretched its stylistic purview further than ever before. If Bang and Honoré can carry some of that forward into Punkt 2013, then the festival's continued growth and evolution will be more than safely assured.
And so, another year, another Punkt. Three days after it began, there were a number of conclusions. Eno's curation may have been a mixed bag, but of his nine main theater shows, five were exceptional, two were plenty fine, and only two were, perhaps, less than successful. The live remixes were equally inconsistent, and could have used the touch of additional musicians thrown in to the mix. And if there were any fears that Punkt's move to the Kilden Performing Arts Centre would compromise its intimacy, they were allayed quickly in the larger but still somehow warm and comfy main hall, while the Alfaroom, despite being in need of some adjustments, still managed to work fine as well.
The importance of Kristiansand cannot be overstated in the success of any year's Punkt festival. Punkt has become a moveable feast that can be taken anywhere but, as good as its occasional road trips have been, there's something special about its annual home base edition. With roughly eighty thousand people in the area, Kristiansand is not a big place, but it has the cultural awareness of a much larger city - the building of Kilden, and the municipality's Kultiva - a funding program for the arts that would be unheard of in a large North American city, let alone a town that, across the ocean, might be lucky to have a cinema - being two significant examples. That Punkt has managed to engage local sponsors to the extent it has only speaks to awareness, amongst the town's population, of the importance of the arts in the daily fabric of life; quite simply, the degree of support that this experimental festival garners speaks volumes about the town itself.
As the days begin to get shorter in Norway and the weather turns a little cooler, this picturesque town at the southernmost tip of Norway is a particularly beautiful place to hold a festival like Punkt. Where, exactly, the festival will go next year is anybody's guess; but despite the somewhat mixed nature of this year's edition, it cannot be considered anything but a success.