by carl wilson

Victo 2005: R&D; On The Human Strain


At long last here's my review, from today's Overtones in The Globe & Mail, of last week's Victoriaville festival. In general I think it's not ideal to use the column in a reviewing function (I think it muddles up the voice), but I think the Anthony Braxton-Wolf Eyes meeting was a historic enough occasion to merit it. To see the pic of them together, you'll have to buy the paper. On the other hand, a paragraph toward the end was censored by the editors - it's restored here. (Do you think the word "bugger" is that bad?) And I would never have used the fourth word in this headline:

Jazz theologian goes slumming, and makes a bit of history

The Globe and Mail
May 28, 2005

It may not go down alongside the day Dizzy Gillespie met Chano Pazo (and invented Afro-Cuban bebop), but a real moment in the history of jazz, or something, went down last Saturday at the 22nd annual music festival in Victoriaville, Que., reconfirming it as the best place on the continent to go get your inner ear realigned.

Having wrung out half its audience to the point of post-traumatic stress, noise band Wolf Eyes said there was time for one more: Did we want Leper War or Black Vomit? The poll was inconclusive, so the trio’s hulking, bare-headed mouthpiece John Olson turned to the show’s guest star: “Anthony?” [...]

And at that, the near-sexagenarian, notoriously cerebral jazz composer Anthony Braxton glanced down at his saxophone, pursed his lips in a beatific smile and eagerly answered: “Black Vomit!” (Olson joked Braxton must have been inspired by their previous night in the hotel bar.)

Within seconds came the shuddering solar-plexus drum blows and the jerrybuilt-electronic chaos of the track from Wolf Eyes’ 2004 album Burned Mind. And the man who in 1971 released the first full-length solo saxophone album in jazz history was blowing madly along.

Though Victoriaville’s festival is supposed to be about tearing up the musical rulebook, in fact it’s swarmed by sub-factions — the jazz elitists, the rock yahoos, the Québécois-prog populists. This year was primed for a bit of a showdown.

Unprecedentedly, director Michel Levasseur had handed some programming duties over to Thurston Moore of New York postpunk band Sonic Youth: Moore filled the third of the festival’s five long days of music with the young brutalists of Wolf Eyes, Hair Police, his own mayhem-bound nine-piece Dream Aktion Unit and more.

Meanwhile Sunday was stacked with jazz heavies such as Braxton, German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet and New York bassist William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra.

(There were also highlights outside either cluster, such as stunning avant-traditionalist Chinese singer and guzheng player Xu Fengxia, the harp and electronics set by Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori, and Kid Koala and Martin Tétrault’s super-charming turntable duet.)

Officially Braxton was at Victo (as devotees call the festival) to play a duet with guitar improviser Fred Frith, and with his own sextet, but his surprise coup was to sit in on Wolf Eyes’ whole set. People giggled about this in the disconcerted way they do when categories come unglued: Why was the black college professor hanging with the white noise dropouts?

Braxton’s always been a divisive figure. Since his 1968 debut album, the Chicago-born musician’s compositions titled with numbers and diagrams put off listeners and critics who thought he was too “academic,” too enamoured with world music and European composers like Stockhausen to be loyal to jazz’s swing and blues. Braxton rightly calls such criticism both “reverse racist” in its scorn for any contribution by whites, and straight-up “antebellum” racist in its conviction that black musicians should be gutbucket-instinctual rather than brainy and cosmological.

But at Victo, where he’s played many times in the past 22 years, and a few similar European festivals, he’s a heroic warrior against the conservative revivalism that’s dominated jazz since Ronald Reagan became U.S. president. It’s a sign of insider status in these enclaves to grok Braxton’s complex systems.

Such supporters can be as much of a burden as detractors: His music isn’t supposed to be some bonsai-tending hobbyist’s pastime. Braxton constructs his arcane mathematical-alchemical structures by collaging musical elements together in a game of musical 3-D chess. He intends the results to resonate with global sociopolitical dynamics — and even magically to alter or undermine them.

Braxton first saw Wolf Eyes at a festival last year in Sweden. He bought up everything at the merchandise table and even fantasized about moving to Stockholm (“as a cook, if I had to”) to study their “vibrational energies,” until he found out they were actually from Michigan. If it wasn’t my imagination, in Sunday’s dazzling show by Braxton’s sextet, amid a swirling mobile of suites that flirted and scrapped and merged with one another, some of the movements already seemed to carry the unbolted-buzzsaw timbral influence of Wolf Eyes.

If it’s startling that this jazz theoretician would fall for a thuggish group with roots in hardcore punk, consider what they have in common: Just as Braxton declares he’s no longer a “jazz” musician (“I have no desire to extend American hegemony”), Wolf Eyes likely would distance themselves from “rock.” Like Braxton, but at a much higher decibel level, Wolf Eyes interlay found sound, past influences and their own eccentric inventions, adding up to a sensibility dualistically divided between cyber futurism and Unabomber-cabin rustic grit. (Although the departure of member Aaron Dilloway seems to have subtracted a few degrees of seriousness.)

And Braxton’s sextet is half of a new 12-piece group that he wants to make his personal permanent ensemble. The idea seems aimed in part at removing himself from the music business to an autonomous realm — much the way the noise artists have built their own underground circuit.

Brotzmann and Parker’s big bands have vision too, of course, but for some reason this week they felt like ghosts of avant-gardism past. After their Sunday concerts, I had to soften my negative take on the circle-dance primitivism of New York’s No Neck Blues Band, whose meandering set did eventually manage to evoke the kind of feral, present-tense presence the jazz groups never cohered enough to find.

The peak in that sense was scaled Monday by Japanese noise royalty the Boredoms, whose closing post-psychedelic communal-rock ritual had a whole arena trancing out in baffling bliss.

So bugger genre and bugger style. Crucial musicians always propose not just notes and chords but social experiments too hazardous for real life — random racial-reassignment cosmetic surgery, suicide pacts, marathon group sex, giving up on language, returning to the ocean — to be staged instead in sound. It’s research-and-development on the human strain. And as Prof. Braxton knows, it can come along in shredded jeans cursing its head off and with sirens in its suitcase as (un-)easily as in any other outfit.

The weekend’s debates were bracing for all sides. To mark the spot with a bold red X, the festival really must issue a triple live-CD set of the many faces of Anthony Braxton at Victo 2005. And they absolutely must title it Black Vomit. Which is funny, you know, but not merely funny.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, May 28 at 1:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (5)



Nice piece. Glad to have your words in the Globe (when they appear) as well. Any thoughts on the more electronic aspects of Victo this year?

- tV
[ e|i magazine ]

Posted by tV on June 1, 2005 3:50 PM



We got last Saturday's column out here in St. John's. But ,it's not always there.

Another thing about festivals like Victo is that the whole community gets their ears cleaned. The International Sound Symposium here brings together dance, video, music and sculpture for a paying gig. With an audience.

Another great thing is the line-up mix-ups where different folks collaborate for the whole ten days. Having these events in small places gives the festival a chance to take over. It's amazing and my favourite part of living here.(The music and the fact that summer usually falls on those two weeks).

Posted by kevin on May 30, 2005 10:38 PM



It's money grab RG...where you been? They skipped the part about making it free to print subscribers to earn loyalty...BTW I wish Carl was unconditionally national...that's why I read this page instead...can't rely on the Glib and Stale editors to make good decisions anymore about what the rest of Canaduh wants to read. Getting tired of thumbing through and never finding it...they probably think the rest of us wouldn't understand all that high falutin urban inflected slang. We should mount a write-in campaign, but would probably do more harm than good for Sir Wilson...strike that.

Posted by Phil on May 30, 2005 7:12 PM



as a subscriber to the print version of the Globe, i am happy to see overtones' report of FIMAV/Victo, but wonder if the Saturday publication will provide national coverage of the event. bugger the editors for their "so to hell with genre and style", and why is the column used up on a review, when the review is hot enough and important enough to stand on its own?
and btw what's with the limited access to reports online? The page you requested is only available to INSIDER Edition subscribers

Posted by rg on May 29, 2005 9:49 AM



Last weekend's Globe used the word "slut" on the front page of the review section. Bugger seems a little more antiquated and acceptable, somehow.

Posted by Jay Watts III on May 28, 2005 4:00 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson