Spiritual Surrender: The 42nd Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf Brian Settles, Dudù Kouate. Photo: Andrew Choate

Spiritual Surrender: The 42nd Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf

July 15, 2023

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Andrew Choate

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The 42nd Festival for free and improvised music in Nickelsdorf started early in 2022. The night before if officially began, to be exact, when Brique (Bianca Iannuzzi, voice; Eve Risser, piano; Luc Ex; acoustic bass; Francesco Pastacaldi, drums) was soundchecking.

Bogdana was already dancing and I leaned back into the cat bushes as a joke but accidentally fell in. The laughter that erupted was quality coyote laughter, and it framed the festival. Bogdana, with significantly more grace, danced into and out of the same bushes.
Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate
By the time the actual festival started on Friday, July 22, we had all been so primed by Brique’s raucous soundcheck that we were ultra-ready for them to groove us. Mmmmm, they did. Operatic-poetic theatrics from Iannuzzi’s vocals were accented by punk rhythms and prepared piano textures. Their unique rhythms hint at, destabilize, and satisfy the inner groove monitor. Staccato-strummed thwaps from Luc Ex’s acoustic bass paused in irregular patterns for the POW! of Pastacaldi’s drums, while Risser’s prepared piano alternated between a percussive force inserted in and out of the rhythm matrix and a bearer of otherworldly harmonic presences invoked by sweeping across the piano strings with fingers, feathers, or foils.

Iannuzzi reminded me of Dennis Rudge’s role in Loos, the way both performers occupy the stage with a level of trustworthy theatricality – not in the sense of acting, but in the sense of completely inhabiting the vocal articulations demanded by the music. Iannuzzi isn’t afraid of lyrics, stories, and songs either; she combined écrit brut texts with bits from Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and others, free-flowing between French, English, and nonsense. When the band was wailing with high-pitched intensity and she was screaming “Je suis normal!” over and over again, it felt like the calm defiance of self-assurance: identity regained in the simple pleasance of a blade of grass.

Risser is capable of incredibly grand, wide, proclamatory music. I’ve loved it in her works with both the White and Red Desert Orchestras, but in this smaller format I realized just how much force she wields on her own, making powerful entrances that lay a groundwork of richly open spaces in which multiple dramas burst, play out, and encompass the audience. After the set ended, the stranger next to me, talking to the air, noted “moments where I could feel the music all over my back.”

Sestetto Internazionale introduced me to the soprano saxophone of Gianni Mimmo, and I am grateful to have his music in my life. It’s easy to see the connection to Steve Lacy, given the instrumental connection; he also wields the same dapper, sophisticated, totally focused sense of being in control of the very unwieldy soprano that Lacy did. But his dedication to spatializing his acoustic sound––to moving the weight of it around the stage and throwing it into different areas of the audience––adds another dimension to the rich Lacy legacy he so conscientiously extends. Mimmo uses his body to activate the spatializations he seeks, bending a held tone by moving the soprano like a heron moves its beak: staying fully centered with the body yet flashing the bell in outrageously labyrinthine yet effective patterns.
Photo: Andrew Choate
Photo: Andrew Choate
Festival stalwarts Harri Sjöström (soprano/ sopranino saxophones), Achim Kaufmann (piano), Phil Wachsmann (violin), and Ignaz Schick (turntables and electronics) filled out the ensemble along with Veli Kujala (quarter-tone accordion), another new voice for my ears. Kujala had come to Nickelsdorf after a series of gigs playing with New York’s Metropolitan Opera in a new staging of Hamlet, and he was ready to let loose with extended techniques: flicks across the buttons and keys, microtextural bellow exhales, cold chord fusion. The group stayed in a slow-developing melancholic haze for quite some time, and I found that environment to be a lovely and somber cleansing from the ambient heat of the Burgenland summer.

The first night ended with another large international group – Ziv Taubenfeld’s Full Sun, featuring seven musicians from five countries. Taubenfeld (bass clarinet and percussion) organized this fluctuating ensemble beginning with members from Amsterdam’s rich improvising scene (Luís Vicente, trumpet; Joost Buis, trombone; Nico Chientaroli, piano; Rozemarie Heggen, double bass; Onno Govaert, drums and percussion) and extended it for this performance to include Senegalese percussionist Dudù Kouate. Their first blast moved from solo to solo in splattering free jazz fashion, though they were following a graphic score of some kind. Dedicated to the spirit of Jimmy Lyons, I struggled to hear the urgency I always find in Lyons’ tone.

A tune dedicated to a woman they used to see walking around the same block in Amsterdam, who had passed in the last year, followed; this number had a distinct tone of circumspect speculation that kept me itching at its melody. A little bit loungey, a little bit lugubrious. A downwind muted trumpet solo from Vicente ushered in a tight piano figure from Chientaroli that meshed gorgeously with Heggen’s promenading bassline. The full band entered, loping now with energy careening from side to side: chaos referenced with unspooling harmonics but contextualized and undergirded by the sustained beat of a miniature melody. The cacophony of sun-drenched malaise nurtured from nightmare to lullaby: dangerously consoling.
Photo: George Staicu
Photo: George Staicu

“Funny Just Not Jazz Funny”

Seeing MIMEO perform at the Konfrontationen for the second time in 25 years was bittersweet, most directly because Cor Fuhler and Peter Rehberg are no longer with us. But also because Keith Rowe was not invited to participate. When we arrived at the Kleylehof, a light drizzle was underway, so I was surprised that the concert was set up to take place outdoors, given the quantity of electricity in effect. But, as things that are meant to be are meant to be, the drizzle dissipated and the sun shone and the band played two pieces. The first was explicitly dedicated to Rehberg and Fuhler and dubbed “Le Silence et le Vide” and featured Phil Durrant (semi-modular synths), Thomas Lehn (analog synth), Kaffe Matthews (the Ripley, microbrute, ipad), Gert-Jan Prins (electronics, percussion, voice) and Rafael Toral (electronic instruments).

The quantity of abstracted electronic sound that this longstanding group emits feels almost predicated on the notion that you can’t watch them perform and distinguish who is making what sound. Shortly into the performance I felt a shiver of delight when, for a moment, I mistook a squeaky little birdsong above my head for a high-pitched synthesized squiggle. The overall timbre of MIMEO is excessively friendly to my ears: welcoming, relaxing, engaging, curiosity-inducing, frisky-palpitating, romantically-mesmerizing – where tranquilo + pura vida meet and unify. This performance fulfilled all of that, allowing us to sit in the grass and absorb light moving through leaves as circuits heated so sounds could pop. Prins was quite active during this quintet, thumping his chest to transform breath-generated eruptions into unsettled heartbeats, which is how the first piece quieted, and it was easy to hear how hard it was to end a dedication of music to friends with whom you used to play.

For their second piece, Peter van Bergen (computer) and Hans Falb (turntables)––two of the three organizers, along with Gerlinde Koschik, initially responsible for the conception of MIMEO––were added, and this duo got the second piece started with antagonistic aplomb: tinny digitalis from van Bergen and scratchy samplitis from Falb. Toral made his presence the most felt, as he circled the stone coliseum with portable gear (putting the Movement in the Music in Movement Electronic Orchestra) and gave audience members up-close access to both small and large wails, whines, and wriggles. As I mentioned above, I find their music radically pleasant: even when it becomes harsh and aggressive, it is coherent because of the context each member creates. So-called lulls are just as stimulating as overt excitement because the experience of one of their concerts is the experience of testing your own ability to pay attention to a practically infinite amount of stimulus. The concert continued on the shuttle back to the Jazzgalerie as breath, engine, windmill whirr, car clank, and choked hiccup continued to chug along for the six kilometer ride.

The all-important concert that ushers in the night from the day balanced intensity and calm on a knife-edge: Franz Hautzinger (quarter-tone trumpet), Magda Mayas (piano), and Burkhard Stangl (guitar). The assured determination of every move unleashed petal after petal of mellow sanctity. The piano and guitar blended into tender balladry, even if the overall sentiment felt dank and dark. Hautzinger added a little delay and echo with some pedals to his breathy trumpet into which Stangl’s harmonics dissolved as psychedelic-adjacent marbleized swirls.

The entire set held me in a deep layer of concentration, partly because it was so mysterious for so long. The wind was blowing Mayas’ hair, like it also wanted to be playing the piano, which it did, through the dowels she had placed upright in the strings. This largesse of life involved in the making of this music expanded as the reflections of Mayas’ hands––visible in the piano’s angled lid––amplified the sense that the music was much richer, much more voluminous, and many times denser than simply three people on a stage. Forget floating on clouds, the music conjured clouds sinking into water, melting like cotton candy on the tongue. Even when dropped utensils clattered from the kitchen, piano clangs meshed the outside source into a perfect percussive accompaniment. Hautzinger puckered up in front of his trumpet as Mayas tolled bells while rustling inside the piano and Stangl put his ear next to the hole in his guitar to listen even more carefully. “Imagine the lavender,” I heard myself saying silently in the future.

The duo of Emilie Škrijelj (accordion, turntables, electronics) and Tom Malmendier (drums, objects) known as Les Marquises followed. Frenetic and fun, they traded scratches and bashes at a stop/start back-and-forth pace for their first number. Malmendier didn’t stop his attacks long enough for me to discern any rhythmic predilections, but his restrained use of cymbals kept the clashes congenial. Škrijelj’s technique on amplified accordion focused more on vibrating, shaking, and hitting the side of it than any traditional squeeze, producing blurred bass-y wheezes out of the boxed bellows. It was cool, it was fun, it was lightweight after the previous set. Their frenzy resulted in a little more sludge than I prefer to wallow in, but in its own way their mayhem cleaned the aural palette, and the rest of the audience was fervent in their applause, enough to instigate an encore.

Speaking of clapping, it had felt anxious and even aggressive at a few other moments during the festival, notably for MIMEO and Hautzinger/ Mayas/ Stangl, acts for which a little more breathing room was warranted. The applause as Black Top was taking the stage was initially energetic, and there was no way I going to let it falter before Pat Thomas (piano, electronics) was fully in place, as I consider his huge musical career heroic. Orphy Robinson (vibes), Hamid Drake (drums), and Luke Stewart (bass) rounded out the lineup for this iteration of the ever-expanding Black Top project by Thomas and Robinson. William Parker was originally scheduled to perform, and is fine now, but he had just recently had a health scare while on tour with Drake, who spoke about him and beseeched healing energy in his direction before the set started. I didn’t expect a digital sound to be the first one heard after Drake’s words, but Thomas is an apropos trickster, and the one-step-removedness of a thin electronic sample actually invoked Parker’s presence in a snugly fitting way.

As it happened, I sat behind a pole that completely blocked Stewart from my view, and his music fused so seamlessly into the ever-abounding rhythms that it felt like Parker was there, and that Parker’s contributions to the legacy of the music––ably embodied by Stewart––will be burning with us longly. I could also see Bogdana dancing out of the right corner of my field of vision, always a blessing to an ambience. Another heart-charmingly visual element was a young girl nervously approaching the stage with her digital camera to get a picture of Drake, clearly a hero.

Musically, the whole set was achingly exalted. Mind-meltingly subtle changes were instantly recognized by each member of the quartet, fueling flows from solo to chorus to transitional electronics to a drum roll from Drake and then…boom!: they’re all hitting the sweet side of a gargantuan beat and teasing out exquisite filigrees of harmonic texture. Stewart initiated one passage of sultry funk and another of delicate softness, helping demonstrate just how deftly these musicians connect. With so much sound to absorb on so many levels, I had to sit back and be thankful that the whole immensity of the music was passing through us all, grateful that aspects we will never consciously understand will be in our cells forevermore. They ended as a light rain started to fall, just like how the day began.
Rasha Ragab and Christoph Nicolaus of The Rahma Quartet. Photo: Andrew Choate
Rasha Ragab and Christoph Nicolaus of The Rahma Quartet. Photo: Andrew Choate

“The Omen Knows”

I woke up on the last day of the festival hungry for the dance floor. Luke Stewart ended up dexterously DJing for us with the available records and, O, we danced and saw the light. We also had four sets of music to hear, starting with the duo of Dieter Glawischnig (piano) and Tanja Feichtmair (alto saxophone and flute). Imagine Henry Cowell playing slowed-down Keith Tippett melodies while a hawk buzzes around your head. Glawischnig has a supremely nimble touch on the keys, white glove service for complex and dense patterns. His adroit alacrity provided an extremely welcoming and supportive foundation that allowed Feichtmair to go wherever she wanted. I loved the quality of her long tones, but she often snapped them off, with the abruptness of a mousetrap snapping prematurely. The less overtly she interacted with Glawischnig’s weaves and runs, the better to my ears; otherwise Feichtmair sounded a little desperate for the cultivation of common ground, whether in terms of intensity, spacing, or pitch. Once she abandoned that strategy, and settled for juxtaposition, the music became exponentially richer and she gave herself more room to use more colors.

As the set continued I become more and more enamored with the quality of Feichtmair’s sound, especially when she played longer, clearer lines rather than explosions of notes or partially-articulated bursts. Glawischnig Ceciled a little bit, but mostly Hancocked, Byarded, and Jarretted along. Direct references to the jazz tradition somehow made the music feel Christmassy, which was nice in the hot weather, and I softened into content appreciation.

The Rahma Quartet (Rasha Ragab: voice, performance, text selection; Lucio Capece: bass clarinet, instrumental composition; Werner Dafeldecker: double bass; Christoph Nicolaus: stone harp) played a hauntingly soothing set. Within a minimal range of activity, they unleashed a voracious energy. Using a selection of 8th-century texts, Ragab alternated between speaking and singing, her voice always simultaneously narrating the music and being pulled into delicate, adjacent expressivity by it. Overtone blur and crumble between the instrumentalists amplified raw awe.

Unlike traditional lithophones, Nicolaus plays his stone harp by wetting his hands and rubbing it to cause vibrations. The pure waves of sound it transmits phase and curdle in the ear, a stunning aural experience. The ringing hum is higher-pitched than I would have guessed looking at the hefty block, but once he establishes a general palette, it’s stunning how much depth of vibration can be coaxed out it. The waves reminded me of singing saw sounds, but breathing honey. Music poised on the air of so much serenity verges on hyperanxiety; I was so deeply beguiled into existential peace that the violence in Ukraine entered my consciousness: soothing tranquility, haunted and haunting.

The Silt Trio’s regular drummer, Chad Taylor, couldn’t make this gig, so Dudù Kouate (percussion) subbed in with Luke Stewart (double bass) and Brian Settles (tenor saxophone). Their music made me swirl in wonder, especially Settles’ saxophone. He played gigantic, booming lines with no stress, all elegance, even when harsh and aggressive. The deep bass register of his tenor was so low and so in sync with Stewart that I couldn’t believe that sounds that wholly robust could emerge from a tenor saxophone. The most fascinating saxophonist I’ve heard in years, the absolute stillness of his posture belied the radical shifts in tonality and stylization materializing from his instrument. I thought of Konitz and Giuffre warming into Brötzmann’s balladry as Settles veered into placidly heartbreaking plaintiveness. And still that stillness: it’s at the heart of his music, not just his physical stage presence. Penetrating calm amidst the most raucous of maelstroms, within and without, internal and external, a simultaneous assurance and challenge, Lester Young’s smooth complexity, Sonny Rollins’ sturdy rhythmic force.

Settles’ performance was something I won’t ever forget. I could feel him believing in each note: tone above all else. Whether long-held or part of a long run, he asked each note to work––to do something.

All of this beauty was possible because Stewart and Kouate were in this music just as profoundly. The latter, however, was at times so busy utilizing so many different pieces from his vast percussive selection that he bordered on visually distracting – trying this, then that. In one way I kind of loved Kouate’s wild all-over-the-placeness, because it inadvertently emphasized the ballast of versatility Stewart was plugging so strongly into this set. Everything Kouate and Settles got into was incorporated by Stewart with profound poise and subtle aplomb, turning an ad hoc improvisation into momentously electrifying music. Stewart’s humanity-forward confidence to embrace and lead others at one and the same time is a quality that goes beyond musical greatness, even when it results in great music.

This was a wow.

The intensity of the previous sets was going to be hard to match for the festival finale, but no one thought the quartet of Luís Vicente (trumpet), John Dikeman (saxophones), Rozemarie Heggen (double bass) and Hamid Drake (drums) wouldn’t deliver. The first special moment arrived when Vicente played a muted trumpet accompanied by Heggen’s arco delicato and Drake’s frothy brushes. Heggen continued with precise pointillist harmonics while the wind section picked up steam and began blowing fiery fumes. Heggen and Drake eventually played an exquisite duo full of encouraging provocation and jubilative camaraderie, into which the winds softly entered with supple balance. A Vicente solo bloomed like a dear old dog howling for a little love; I would pet that sound if I could, and I did.

Their second tune led with a Conference of the Birds-y melodic counterpoint, which ended with Dikeman playing an astonishingly pleasant flute-like sequence – James Newtonesque from a different family of instruments. They ended the festival with a tiny encore highlighting Vicente’s slurred trumpet over a funky funky rumpus of optimistic rhythmic action. Of course, the festival really doesn’t end there, as a lot of dancing and such awaits, but then again, the festival never really ends if you take it with you everywhere you go, as I definitely do.
About the Author

Andrew Choate

Andrew Choate is the author of author of several books including "Stingray Clapping" and "Learning". He is the curator of The Unwrinkled Ear concert series in Los Angeles and "the world's foremost bollard photographer", according to Slate.

@Unwrinkled_Ear andrewchoate.us
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