Israeli conductor Ilan Volkov is a blur of manic energy, a font of curiosity and advocacy deftly navigating the bureaucratic layers of classical music institutions in order to interrupt the status quo from within. In 2012, Volkov – the onetime assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (under Seiji Ozawa) and the principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra between 2003-2009 – initiated his Tectonics music festival in Reykjavik, Iceland, commemorating John Cage’s centennial. The gathering subsequently expanded both geographically the following year (with iterations in Glasgow and, again, in Reykjavik), and stylistically, fiercely adding adventurous strains of electronic, improvised, experimental, and rock music into the fold.
Since then Tectonics has been presented in those cities as well as Oslo, New York, Adelaide, and Athens. While there’s no shortage of large-scale festivals fomenting genre collisions with a heavy curatorial thumb on the creative scale – like the often slight pop-classical mash-ups of Liquid Music or Ecstatic Music – Volkov’s vision doesn’t trifle with hybrids where various ingredients often cancel each other out in the name of accessibility. Instead, he entrusts listeners with the intelligence and inquisitiveness to make sense of boldly diverse programming themselves, detecting aesthetic connections and clashes inherent within his sometimes whiplash-inducing strategizing.
For the second time in its recent history, Only Connect, a festival organized with like-minded catholic sensibilities by the forward-looking Norwegian contemporary music organization nyMusikk, invited Volkov to share his expansive worldview. Volkov and nyMusikk artistic director Bjørnar Habbestad assembled a typically diverse and challenging line-up for a three-day cooperation in Stavanger, Norway, May 23-25. Inherent in a program that rejects stylistic boundaries and genre purity is the risk of failure—it comes with the turf in presenting the unknown. Volkov’s messianic glee and open ears provide a unique platform for new sounds and unexpected combinations.
The festival’s opening night program, presented at RIMI/IMIR, a repurposed grocery store that’s now a multi-media artist-run space, established the nonchalant eclecticism of Tectonics straight out of the gate. Ilmari Hopkins, the co-principal cellist of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra (which played a key role in many of the performances throughout the gathering), kicked things off with a focused reading of Not Alone by George Lewis, in which jagged bowed figures were electronically refracted, spatialized, and smeared by an interactive computer program. The piece was dedicated to the brilliant cello improviser Abdul Wadud (who released a solo recording titled By Myself in 1977), with Lewis demonstrating his recurring concern for interactive performance, albeit without any improvisation on the part of the cellist.
The duo of Áine O’Dwyer and Graham Lambkin followed within an unnerving set that demonstrated the pair’s fearless embrace of the unknown. Their materials were absurdly minimal; the former stood at an out-of-tune upright piano, seductively reciting a short passage scrawled in a journal about communion with nature, rejiggered in poetic mutations and slowly accruing meditative keyboard chords, while the former, sitting uncomfortably in a chair, a cup of red wine at his feet, held two small bells and built something from nothing, formulating absurdist reflections on financial ruin in a city made rich by oil deposits (Stavanger). His nonsensical jabber found a focus with absurd humor, discussing a dissolute man who was left only with his “oils.” O’Dwyer subtly picked out threads from her partner’s fractured narrative, displacing meaning for her own ends, hilariously intoning, “sometimes I rub the oil all over my body.” The way the initial tension of utter creative stasis opened up possibilities was both bizarre and breathtaking.
The noise-rock trio Burning Axis delivered a one-dimensional drone, applying the visceral attack of Tony Conrad to the instrumentation of the Dirty Three, but without the acoustical richness of the former or the dynamic power and melody of the latter. Their puddle of sound was swept away by a crushing iteration of Fake Synthetic Music by Norwegian singer Stine Janvin. I reported on a performance of the same material in a review of Berlin’s MaerzMusik festival, but rather than performing at the cavernous converted factory Kraftwerk, here she delivered an onslaught of strobe lighting, fog, and otoacoustical mayhem in a black box where the listener was completely enveloped by her dazzling embrace to techno language with nothing more than her scythe-like voice and masterfully deployed loops and delay.
An historical sensibility was imparted with a bracing version of Christian Wolff’s modular chamber orchestra gem Burdocks (1970-71) presented in the foyer of the magnificent Stavanger Concert Hall, with five discrete ensembles – comprised of seasoned performers and local classical and jazz students, scattered around multiple levels – interpreting his graphic score. The piece was the composer’s response to the idea of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra (which Wolff at the time had yet to actually hear), in the way it relied on a community of musicians built on different degrees of technique and background, neither of which were of any particular import.
During a conversation earlier that afternoon, Lewis referred to Burdocks and other pieces we would hear the next day as relational music. Indeed, when Lewis joined with Wolff and Norwegian bassist Michael Francis Duch to perform his own Shadowgraph, 5 and Wolff’s Or 4 people and the recent Line Exercise, the musicians used scores as points of departure, placing divergent materials in ever-shifting positions and combinations, rather than using them as a fixed object.
Volkov conducted the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra through five wildly disparate works on a Friday evening program, where his ability to direct skilled musicians through different operational modes trumped any of the individual pieces: whether the way Anders Hana and Martin Joh collided just intonation with ideas from Norwegian folk music on Lur og dekur—I kvardag og dommedag, or how Israeli saxophonist Dror Feiler extracted a sonic onslaught beneath his peripatetic (if not distracted) improvisations, on a battery of reed instruments and noise generated on a cracklebox, with Blixa Bargeld’s ferocious recitation of a text by Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish poet Ghayath Almadhoun in Epexēgēsis.
The orchestra teased out exquisite articulations of the intersecting lines and tense swells within Naomi Pinnock’s The Field is Woven, lush romanticism in Øyvind Torvund’s whimsically transgressive Archaic Jam, and twinkling, twitching patterns modeled after the blinking of different species of fireflies in Kristine Tjøgersen’s Bioluminescence for Orchestra, where rhythmical pulses of light interrupted the pitch-black auditorium.
A program of work by French composer Pascale Criton was astonishing, with meticulously pitched performances by two of her closest collaborators, cellist Deborah Walker and violinist Silvia Tarozzi. In conversation, Criton insisted that she makes her pieces with the performers, in an extended back-and-forth process. And indeed, the string players had clearly internalized the music to a staggering degree, displaying remarkable nuance for the microtonal sounds.
Tarozzi played Circle Process, a work using 1/16th tones, building an excursion from bowing the body of her instrument, producing grainy scrapes, whispered motions, high-pitched scratches, extravagant harmony, and visceral beating. Likewise, Walker extracted infinite possibilities from Chaoscaccia, blending wild glissando, left-handed pizzicato (both plucking and muting), and rapid-fire jete. The program concluded with the premiere of Soar II, in which the three vocalists of Stavanger’s Song Circus produced shadowy breaths and seductively unstable harmonies, drifting above and below shimmering lines made by Walker and Tarozzi.
The festival closed with a joyful collaboration between Lewis and the local Kitchen Orchestra, a multivalent contemporary ensemble equally fluent in improvisation and scored music, working together on two of the composer’s works, including Creative Construction Set™, which was originally written for Berlin’s Splitter Orchestra. The members of the group responded to a variety of open-ended instructions printed on cards, which each musician – including Lewis on trombone – reacting, challenging, and redirecting the action with an infectious glee.
In his typical fashion, Lewis generously shared his instructions cards with the audience, allowing them to hear how certain directives manifest themselves, but the smiles plastered upon the faces of the participants said it all, expressing the sense of community at play. Indeed, an undercurrent for much of the festival was a genuine feeling of blissful exploration where rigor needn’t be mutually exclusive from fun.
Peter Margasak is a longtime music journalist who spent more than two decades as a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, and also has contributed to Downbeat, Chamber Music, Bandcamp Daily, The New York Times, and more. Since 2013 he has curated the weekly Frequency Series at Constellation in Chicago, and since 2016 has been artistic director of the Frequency Festival. He presently is attending the American Academy in Rome as part of its Visiting Artists & Scholars Program.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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