When in Nickelsdorf - Konfrontationen 2015

When in Nickelsdorf - Konfrontationen 2015

August 6, 2015

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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A free mind

What happens when you lose the preset forms of music? You start off with a free mind.

How to start… how to start… There’s always this big pressure upon the ‘keeper of the words’, when you have to smash and completely destroy the boundaries of hesitation and indecision, and finally start writing the very first words that come out from your sweaty fingers; so you keep on writing those words until later, when they will serve as a story about the Konfrontationen festival, that I just experienced for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It’s been happening for 36 years in the picturesque Nickelsdorf, a small Austrian village located near the Hungarian border.

The hesitation mentioned above is no excuse for what you’ll read in the following; since I still find the free jazz and improvised music as being very esoteric and since I’m a total newbie in the Nickelsdorf festival traditions, don’t expect to read that kind of elaborated review that I would wish to read, if I would be the reader. But I am not hopeless; as Moondog would say it, ‘’I am never quite educated, never quite so, but I am ever in the painful process of becoming so’’. With no more wandering of anticipation, I take a sip from the cool glass of spritzer (getting in the mood), play the ‘’Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy’’ album of Sun Ra and jump in the pool.

4 days. 22 concerts. About 70 musicians playing all kinds of instruments live. I look at the program. I soon realize I don’t know shit about this music, so I will have to take it the other way - a more sensorial approach would probably fit, rather than a cognitive one. And I was part of a great team of companions who kindly guided me, offered some clues and introduced me to the history of this festival and to some important free jazz musicians.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but if one looks at it from the outside, from the point of view of a regular music enthusiast, they most probably have never heard of this festival, despite the fact that it’s happening for almost four decades now. Konfrontationen never aimed to grow in quantity, but in quality; and it did flourish brilliantly. The festival still keeps this ‘’in-famous’’ quality, as my friend B. would say. Of course, throughout the years it developed into an annual - traditional - and very special event focused mainly on the community of free jazz and improvised music. And it’s still happening in a very closed circuit of people who come here from all around the world; all kinds of people of different ages - from (more recently) youngsters coming from the Internet era, up to middle age persons and seniors. Yes, you often get to see really cool grandpas and grandmas tripping out on the weirdest noise, experimental, haunting saxophone solos or electronics. You could see some of them closing their eyes and moving their heads slowly, back and forth. People come here from different corners of Europe (including Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Greece, etc.) but also from the United States. Some of them are travelers; some of them are normal people with normal lives, who gather here to celebrate the freedom of music.

*photo credits: Eduard Alexandru
It’s always hard to start talking about music, when listenin’ to music is much more important! - Hans Falb

First contact

After almost 12 hours of car ride, we arrive in Nickelsdorf, one day before the festival, as planned. Wednesday. Opening up my notebook I read the first written sentence: ‘’couldn’t buy drugs, so I made this music’’, as a thoughtless joke about the Spacemen 3’s album title ‘’Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To’’.

We lay down in the grass, under a tree (where we interviewed, in the following days, the pair of musicians Ab Baars and Ig Henneman), meditating upon the condition of the fowls, that walk elegantly around us. Since there is nothing to do except for drinking beers and wine and wander around the empty streets of the mysterious Nickelsdorf, I try to think of possible activities: bird watching, whistle blowing, sky watching, keeping the beers cold.

The organizers allowed access to a kultur haus, a big building located 500 meters away from Jazzgalerie (the place where most of the concerts took place). In the kultur haus anyone could come and sleep over night, during the days of the festival. It looked like a lovely camp of refugees, with mattresses and sleeping bags laying everywhere. In the backyard of this building there was also the possibility to camp your tent, so you could enjoy a shower, free, in nature and get rid of inhibitions.

The festival starts on Thursday, with the Luc Ex' Assemblée, comprising Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone), Ab Baars (tenor saxophone and shakuhachi), Luc Ex himself on acoustic bass and Hamid Drake on drums. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still hear those first smashing strings coming out of his bass guitar. But unlike his role in the legendary group The Ex, Luc is more laid-back here, cutting across the boundaries that usually define jazz, rock and improv. He seems to enter a trance when he plays. At some point you could hear some Ethiopian influences. Add to that Laubrock’s rapidly executed duets with Ab Baars while Drake maintains the equilibrium and we get a finely tuned, skillful and mature quartet. And then the craziness starts, and continues for four days, with intense concerts and performances, all of them unique, one of a kind.

The first night continues with Mrafi, an Italian quartet project combining the reeds of Edoardo Marraffa, the Italian musician Antonio Borghini on double bass, Pasquale Mirra on vibes and Cristiano Calcagnile on drums. Lots of energy! They seemed to be improvising over a compositional framework, taking us back to that late 70s free-jazz sound. The third concert brings on stage - again - Hamid Drake (whom we had the great chance to interview in the following days) and Austrian piano player Sylvia Bruckner - a lovely combination. Impressive music. Gentle moments of resonance, when everybody is silent and is present with the musicians on stage, right there and then; that moment locked in your mind.

One of the first things that you get to see from the first concerts is an extraordinary relationship between the stage and the audience. Actually, there is no stage and no audience, these two cannot be divided, it is just music that grows out of wild and untamed instruments, up in the sky, flying over time and planting marks in peoples’ memories.

You see the musicians on stage, but you also see them more often in the audience, together with the other people. I assume that a good part of the audience of this festival is constituted of musicians or people who are directly involved in music, in any way. Another great thing about the festival is the people that are coming here every year; those who continued to do that for some good years by now and who contributed to the spirit (or idea) of ‘community’ of this festival. You don’t arrive at Nickelsdorf by accident, but by chance. And once you realize that you’re in a place where (almost) everyone gathers for the music, in order to explore it with eagerness, everything changes. Even if you don’t understand everything that’s happening there on stage, you feel that you’re part of something. And it’s something quite special.

*photo credits: Uli Templin.

Bob Ostertag
Bob Ostertag

Free music is the way

Friday I woke up around noon and met my companions in the Jazzgalerie bar/restaurant. I had a garlic soup. We unsuccessfully tried to have a swim in a lake nearby, but we couldn’t find it. We returned to the bar, had a peak eye on a shelf with records and played 'Tibet' of Don Cherry (actually a reissue of the ’74 album ’Eternal Now’), while preparing for the first concerts at Kleylehof (a cultural space located about 6 km away from Nickelsdorf, where you could find an amphitheater, in a beautiful garden and two barns where modern contemporary art installations and sculptures were intriguing the visitors).

There were three solos: first, there was the Australian double bassist Mike Majkovski, followed by a solo of the avant-garde electronics wizard Bob Ostertag and a solo of Israeli born (now Swedish resident) musician and activist Dror Feiler (whom we had the chance to talk with). In the cool room we enjoyed outstanding performances and sonic experiments. Trance-like listening experience. Abstract, noise, it was all experimental.

Bob Ostertag controls the sound from a joystick. Dror Feiler begins his performance with a short speech on the freedom of music, concluding that ‘’free music is the way; one of them’’. At some point, it becomes so brutal; now, back in Bucharest, while it’s raining outside, I wonder how long it takes to get there, to that point of free art fighting programmed art. After a short pause of silence, a dramatic saxophone solo - with ethnic feel - starts, out of nowhere.

Back in Nickelsdorf, the first concert that I confront is Ashes, a project combining the forces of four versatile musicians: Julia Reily (a guitarist, composer and improvisor from Sydney), Richard Scott on modular synthesizer, Hilary Jeffery on trombone and electronics and Steve Heather on percussion. Elaborated, partly psychedelic rock, partly free improvisation.

Maybe the beauty of improvisation is the quality of being so unique; it captures a single moment, it never sounded like this before and it will never sound like this in the future either, ever again. Like in life, we improvise everything, in any way, no matter how hard we planned certain things and circumstances before. Things will never be as planned, you can’t fight this.

Fleeting thoughts: a birth of a child; sounds of meat beaten with passion coming from the kitchen; extremist radical brain massages; changing the world; don’t fight. The more you fight, the less you’ll succeed. Don’t resist. Let it breathe.

The second act seems a bit softer. Watussi is a trio composed by Ingrid Schmoliner (an Austrian musician, composer, pedagogue and curator) on piano, Joachim Badenhorst on reeds and Pascal Niggenkemper on double bass. One of the highlights of the night was Trio Kimmig (violinist Harald Kimmig, Daniel Studer on double bass, Alfred Zimmerlin on cello) plus John Butcher on reeds. Butcher is one of the most influential musicians in free-improv, known for his subtlety, expansions of the vocabulary of saxophone and acoustic exploration of spaces. The concert was simply flawless, with complex relationships between the four players. It managed to captivate everyone, even though it was very quiet and subtle most of the time. (Also, check his essay on Freedom and Sound).

This music is crazy and everybody seems to enjoy it. I see wild animals running from the stage through the public, elephants getting out of the trumpets, drums burning, faces of people coming here and using music as a pretext of escaping from their own existence, just losing themselves in the sound. Maybe it’s the wine that gives me an overall feel of comfort in searching for the sync. I want to get up and scream loudly, trying to cover the harsh reeds coming from the stage. They’re like whips hitting my ears, while everybody sits mesmerized, with a grimace of solitude on their faces. Can anyone hear me? Sometimes music makes you feel lonely.

There were two more thought-provoking concerts (Nuiversum and Lotto) that followed during this long and intense night. It’s hard for me to decide if I really liked some concerts more than the others, since it’s all novelty and excitement. When people were asking me which concerts did I like the most, it was hard for me to think in these terms. But the highlight of the day (and one of the high-points of the entire festival) was the solstice concert on Saturday morning with Hamid Drake on percussion and Pasquale Mirra on vibes and percussion. This was a truly special moment, that never happened before at this festival; as we were all laying down in the grass, the sun was rising, coming out, and Hamid and Pascal were playing the most amazing music, in a spiritual atmosphere, with a candle light guiding the sun up to the sky. At a certain point, we all started repeating after Hamid one of John Coltrane's meditation mantra: "may there be peace, and love, and perfection throughout all creation.’’ I slept happily that morning.

More and more

The next day two more concerts happened at Kleylehof. I discovered a new Austrian exciting music project called Ventil (comprising Peter Kutin - guitar, electronics; Flo Kindlinger - guitar, bass synthesizer; Michael Lahner - synthesizer; Katharina Ernst - drums; Conny Zenk - visuals). Very electronic, powerful, partly industrial, partly post punk, partly a little bit of everything that’s good sonically). The setup on stage was impressive; Katharina was shining on drums. The other project was a trio of Jon Rose - violin, electronics; Meinrad Kneer - double bass and electronics; Richard Barrett – electronics.

I really enjoyed the project All Change, the brilliant trio of Eddie Prévost (drums, percussion), Tom Chant (tenor & soprano sax) and John Edwards (double bass). They were straight musically, categorical and unpredictable. Well, all of the musicians had their dose of unpredictability, but some succeeded to use it in a better way than others. Tom Chant’s sax playing was one of the highlights of the festival for us. Organic, gritty and original and brilliantly accompanied by the two rhythm section veterans.

Sudo Quartet was also very concentrated, with the audience’s Joëlle Léandre leading the double bass, Sebi Tramontana on trombone, Carlos Zíngaro on violin and Paul Lovens on drums. The last concert from Saturday was remarkable; attractive in the sense that the audience didn’t really seem to like it, judging by the hesitation felt in their waves of applause - Lisbon Berlin Trio brought together the guitarist Luis Lopes, Robert Landfermann on double bass and the young and restless Austrian drummer Christian Lillinger.

Another personal highlight from the festival was the concert of Dror Feiler (on electronics and reeds) and Philipp Quehenberger on organ, which happened in the evangelic church of Nickelsdorf on Sunday afternoon. In the church, the music is trippy. Long drones, entrancing and deep, perfectly fitting the acoustics of the tall building. While playing in front of the church altar, Dror looks like a god preaching his music to the people who want to listen to it. Behind him there is a painting of Jesus Christ. This music evokes feelings of hopelessness. Quehenberger sits upstairs and plays the organ, wearing a Run DMC shirt. The music is dramatic, serious and dark. Mesmerizing. There’s no place for entertainment here.

I couldn’t feel any sense of nostalgia on Sunday night, when the 36th edition of Konfrontationen came to an end. The historic ending was Globe Unity Orchestra, a high level demonstration of where 11 top class musicians could take their music. This music came from the future, even if the assemble was formed in 1966 and has since then changed its members and its music dramatically. The line up of this stellar performance was formed by Alexander von Schlippenbach (leader, piano), Henrik Walsdorff, Gerd Dudek and Fredrik Ljungkvist on reeds, Rudi Mahall on bass clarinet, Axel Dörner and Jean-Luc Cappozzo on trumpet, Johannes Bauer and Christof Thewes on trombone, Paul Lovens and Paul Lytton on drums. There were some interesting acts, including one with Nickelsdorf resident Lovens on drums and Dj Illvibeon turntables. Actually, the idea of introducing the turntable in this kind of context seemed at least interesting, since the DJ exceeded his function as a DJ and, became a creator of sound, of music - instead of just playing it.

I believe that besides the music you experience at this festival, you also get to meet certain people who are very special in many ways; you get to acknowledge certain stories, discover something new. Each indulges in an own personal experience, distinctive and bottomless.

*photo credits: Uli Templin, Bogdan Edi Dumitriu & Karl Wendelin

Final improv

Cătălin Teodoru from the JADD association in Romania comes to Nickelsdorf for 10 years, and with each new edition, the group of Romanian people attending the festival increased, little by little.

‘’After a while, you become one of them. You start feeling differently; you start seeing the same musicians three or four times, in different formulas (because this is the point) and to feel them; after many editions, there is a sense of serenity that gets you, and you don’t feel the same emotions like you did at first. Because the first five or six editions were supersonic airplanes. This music is improvised and it takes you in too many directions, a lot of different components from electronics, jazz, free jazz, improvised music. When you come from a certain background or music universe, you get here and a lot of new music horizons open for you; and you start to explore them. I couldn’t get the atmosphere, the essence of this music, only by listening to records at home. ''

You do need a little bit of training for the free music. A totally uninitiated person would first come and look at the musicians playing on stage, as if it was a circus.

''The musicians here have extraordinary techniques of playing music. They arrived at this level by their own wish to release themselves, to break boundaries, to search. Not everyone can do this. And if they do it, they would probably do it in a bad way. You can very easily see it for yourself. Here are the top class musicians from the Dutch school, the German school, the American school, who took a bit of distance from the classic traditional free jazz music. This is extremely improvised contemporary music; while in the classic free you could meet elements of jazz, like solo contributions performed by each musician, also using themes, and after a while starting to improvise.‘’

I met a 53 years old hippie journalist from Prague. ‘’Sometimes, I go back to the old rock music, which I like from my childhood, like Deep Purple, which is also nice and a little bit experimental. But from one point, I started listening to adventurous music. Because it is an adventure. It’s unexpected. And it is important, because you are not expecting it; for example, this afternoon, there was the Swedish saxophone player (Dror Feiler). He played a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and then, absolutely noise. Usually, when somebody is doing noise, it means nothing to me. But if you are doing noise like Dror was doing…’’

So how can you make a difference between good noise and bad noise music?

‘’You can hear it. Some think it’s boring, some think it’s excellent. It’s up to you to decide. Generally, I prefer live instruments. Those noise things… only very few artists can make it. Such as Lars Mohawk. I do prefer bass; I like instruments that make music on lower tones. A special instrument would be the trombone. (...) In terms of guitar players, I really like Mary Halvorson, she looks like secondary school student, with big glasses, but what she’s doing with the guitar is absolutely amazing.''

We end our conversation with a story about how he met the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, when he was 18 year old, coming for the first time in Romania. ‘’I am a big fan of Eugene Ionesco; back then we just finished the high school, so we planed to make a trip to Romania. I wanted to see the place where Ionesco was born. So we went hitchhiking to Romania. I had long hair, because I was a hippie. Back then, in Romania was very difficult, because nobody could speak English or German, or even French. Well, some people… but almost nobody knew about Eugene Ionesco. He left Romania and moved to Paris, writing in French. It was very surprising, because this place it was in the middle of nowhere, in southern Romania, a place called Slatina. A very specific town, absolutely different from anything. So we were four young hippies on a bridge, empty streets, and once in a moment police came and all of a sudden a lot of people came, with the pioneers, flags everywhere, and Ceaușescu arrived in a car, he passed slowly and after he disappeared with his procession, in 5 seconds, the streets were empty again. And it was only us again, four hippies on a bridge.‘’

There are so many things that can be discussed about Konfrontationen and about the music that is happening there, but as Hans Falb would say it in a conversation with Hamid Drake, ‘’it’s always hard to start talking about music, when listenin’ to music is much more important!’’ So, in order to expand your horizons, but also just to have a unique music experience, come to Nickelsdorf! You’ll find plenty of music with such strength and with so many wild ways of expression. Because the best thing about music is that it never ends. You can always learn, your whole life.

*photo credits: Uli Templin & Bogdan Edi Dumitriu

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