Festival Densités 2009 and 2010

Asymmetry visited the ’09 and ’10 Festivals Densités in Fresnes-en-Woëvre, once as Michael E. Karman and once as Michael S. Karman. This fortunately confused no one. Densités is a very bright, very tight little festival. High-powered music making with some of the most talented musicians alive today, all taking place in a remote village between Verdun and Metz. I never quite figured out the relationship, but some of the new music people from Metz were there both years. And it was there in Fresnes-en-Woëvre that I heard about the Turntable Titan Tour of 2009, the Metz appearance of which I was able to attend after some creative juggling with my travel schedule.

The 2009 festival opened with a nice set by Barre Phillips, bass, and Emmanuelle Pepin, dancer, in which the dancer moves around with the chairs and the bass player moves around with his instrument.

Next was Eric La Casa, with a mélange of people talking, traffic sounds, low frequency rumbles, bird sounds, and miscellaneous very small sounds very amplified. What really struck me in this set was the combination of really loud front stage sounds (especially drums) and really soft back- or even offstage sounds. Very disorienting, and I mean that in a good way.

La Casa was one of the reasons I had been keen to attend the 2009 Densités, and the next set was another–a trio of Sophie Agnel, Lionel Marchetti, and Jérôme Noetinger. I had heard Marchetti and Noetinger in a spectacular evening of electronics and video in Bourges a couple of years before, out at Emmetrop, so was looking forward to hearing them again. Lionel and Jérôme were solid. Lots of very small sounds extremely amplified and some sudden loud harsh outbursts. I didn’t think that the piano part fit in with all that, or not consistently. Too much of pitches and chords. But she did make a lot of excruciating noises, too, with various toys in the harp, so pretty satisfying all round.

Burkhard Bein’s set started out quite minimally, just a ratchet sound and nothing else. Too soon it left that–too soon for me, anyway. Where it went was very interesting, no argument there. I wasn’t sorry for that. I did want more of the “nothing,” though. (My clip of the ratchet part was overwhelmed by the creaking of my chair that my camera picked up. Schade.)

That first day ended with a noisy set by Jazkamer. That’s all I wrote about it at the time: “Jazkamer is noisy.” A satisfying end to a long and delightful day of music making.

Next day began with John Tilbury. His first set was very simple and assured. Lots of silence. Simple lines. Quite mesmerizing. The second was a bit busier, with talking, preparations, and extra instruments. All of it music to sink into and let it take you wherever it will. This was the first time I had heard Tilbury live. Not the last, though, fortunately.

For all its activity, and there was a lot, the trumpet and saxophone duo of Birgit Ulher and Heddy Boubaker was remarkably static. I mean that in only a good way. What it meant for me was that in spite of all the various things going on, I could easily focus on anything at any time, without feeling I was being shoved along to the next thing and the next. Some of the anythings I especially enjoyed were the different mutes and “mutes” that Birgit held up against the bell of the trumpet; the metal thing that she made to buzz by just barely touching the bell with it was nice, and the feedback mute was even nicer!

Next up were Phil Minton and Isabelle Duthoit, and if anyone had told me that anything could distract me from what Phil was doing, I wouldn’t have believed them. But that is exactly what happened this afternoon. According to my notes, Isabelle’s vocal pyrotechnics were all I seemed to have noticed in this concert.

This was followed by another voice+ concert, which was too bad. Natacha Muslera and Damien Schultz were also good, but Isabelle was such a tough act to follow. I’m sure I would have been much more impressed with Natacha and Muslera if they hadn’t had to play back to back with Phil and Isabelle.

In between those two shows, I stopped by a cool installation by Armel Plunier (with Laurent Albert) that ran throughout the day. “Les Poupées Machines.” I could talk about it, but the video will speak for it much better. (And there are even better videos than mine on youtube, too. Check the ones uploaded by bibou38.)

That evening opened with a solo percussion set by Robbie Avenaim, yet another talented new music guy from Australia, a country that has been churning them out recently like crazy sauce. Really interesting blend of virtuousity and automatic music (human playing and machine playing).

Then there was another “trumpet+” set, this time Greg Kelley and Jason Lescalleet, in which Jason walked slowly around with portable recorders and set them down in various parts of the room, all while recording and playing back with them. And then spent his time going from one machine to the next on tables behind Greg, who also controlled some machines along with supplying cool trumpet noises for the machines to process. Fun to watch, but even more fun to hear. Nice metallic buzzing action with the trumpet and seriously noisy.

The last day of the festival started out with two radically different but both extremely delightful events, an installation/concert by Burkhard Beins and a high-powered, grab you by the throat Hairy Bones concert with Peter Brötzmann, Toshinori Kondo, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Massimo Pupillo.

That there are four clips of Beins and only one of Brötzmann says nothing about the esteem in which I hold these two musicians. Just so you know.

The 2010 visit was bedevilled by technical glitches–Asymmetry‘s recording device inadvertantly destroyed and the text files of reporting on the concerts corrupted. But we did manage to salvage a few comments, enough to show that the 2010 festival was every bit as good as the 2009 one, enough to make us very sad we were unable to attend in 2011.

One highlight of the 2010 festival was the duo of C. Spencer and Okkyung Lee with the addition of Sean Baxter. This trio was visceral and intense. The balloon inflated under the strings of the cello added to that atmosphere, though unfortunately the inevitable “pop!” was not as jarring as one might have hoped.

This was, however, music with a clear sense of purpose, a sense that in no way sacrificed the wildness of free improvisation. Gorgeous!

Jean-Francois Laporte’s Waves was performed with a homemade instrument, all tubes and stuff, with a little plastic-balled striker for one and controls to control the frequencies and amplitudes of each. The sounds ranged from low-level, refrigerator-type noises to buzz saw and then harpy-like screeching. You say that harpies are mythical beasts? Well, just imagine.

For the next piece, Jean-Francois stood on a box in the middle of the audience and swung another (smaller) homemade contraption around. It sounded like one of those howly sticks but engineered for much more variety of tones. It looked like a large metal bee and as he swung it, passed by within inches of people’s heads. The audience clearly was paying attention. Much easier not to drift off when your life is at stake!

In any event, classic Laporte: droning with incredible variation.

Germ Studies featured the guzheng, an ancient Chinese harp, and a synthesizer. Short pieces, mostly in the upper register; delicate but impossible to destroy. Intricate rhythms at the edge of perception. The harp more than held its own against the synthesizer.


And there was a diffusion by Lionel Marchetti of Book II of Trilogie de la Mort by Eliane Radigue. Classic Radigue!

With any luck at all, we’ll be able to make it to the festival in 2012.

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