The last days of October, 2018. The month had been fairly warm for the time of the year. In the evening we set off to Brno, for the opening of the Vasulka Kitchen at Dům Umění (CZ). The entrance hall was overloaded with all sorts of people of all ages. First the obligatory gala speeches, by the organizers Tomáš Ruller, Jennifer De Felice, and invited friends. Steina and Woody were sitting in front, being in their late seventies, early eighties. Jiří Suchánek did not perform that evening I guess, and the rest of the performances came along as in a long vast wave, and ebbed away slowly from memory. The reason may have been that the hall sounds definitely like a swimming pool, and that conventional sound amplification equipment and treatment was not doing a good job there. I believe a distributed, calculated, multichannel speaker system would do better on these occasions. I remember as a kid in church, admiring the many small speakers hanging strategically between the gothic pillars. Everything said was and had to be understood very well, even when the organ would kick in, or the choir would start to sing. But again, on an evening like that, one drinks a glass and talks to acquaintances. There was a nice ambience, in the style of an opening of a festival, and the night was young. Outside there was a projection on the facade. Inside there were some electronic musicians playing, showing some 3D animations, presumably inspired by the Vašulkas. Bastl Instruments is one of the Kitchen's supporters. Lately they seem to have been expanded fast. But the nice thing may be that they are still quite focused on young electronic artists, providing them next to the necessary modular synthesizers with quite some interesting new tools and little machines. For instance, a while ago, they produced the unique OMSynth, or the Open Music Synthesizer. It is an interesting idea not to package the components and pre-configure them in boxes with knowbs and sliders, but to provde all the basic electronics for synthesis, add some tutorials to get you started, and let the creative musician invent the rest. If we can talk about a revival of analog electronics in a digital dress, the OMSynth definitely adds an experimental quality to it! Respect!
A week later I was travelling to Brussels. Well, it is cheaper and faster to fly, but what about global warming and how artists deal with mobility and ecology? Beginning of November, here come All Saints and All Souls holidays, with the required graveyard visits. I haven't been on the graveyards there for 20 years but recently there were some older 400-500 year old sites restored. More than talking about the dead, the favorite family topic usually was how the first frost had destroyed the Chryzantéma flowers on the graves. But now there was a comfortable 12-15˚C temperature with autumn sunshine and open blue skies. I walked that weekend among the restored graves, and most of them have poetic lines and sayings engraved in them, that make you think about how short life can be, or unknown eternity. Maybe it made me wonder, what music we hear when on the road? Certainly in times of obsessive political protectionism and hightened nationalist identity crises, more than ever artists and especially musicians of any cultural background are showing a different way of dealing with identity. How many bands with people of all different backgrounds share stylistically and culturally the same music, the same technology and media, the same expressions? The old news may be that this has been the case for as long as humanity has been around. So much for separatism. Art, music and media seem to work things out differently.
On Sunday November 4th, the Maciunas Ensemble played at the old Apollo Huis, Eindhoven (NL). A pity I could not attend the concert, due to travelling plans, but nowadays we cannot complain. The ticket was a mere 1200 kčs, via Berlin and Köln, and it took just 12h to be dropped off in the middle of Brussels. The Apollohuis is another 4 hours away by train, so I did not make it that day. Apollohuis existed between 1980 and 2001, and they organized tons of art exhibitions, improvised and electronic concerts and performances, public lectures, symposia. They had a publication and record label, and set up several festivals. The place was started by the late Remko Scha (NL, check out his Machine Guitars) and Paul Panhuysen (NL, known for his string installations). These people's influence on sound art cannot be underestimated, for they were the first to systematically bring experimental sound installations, and sound sculptures of all kinds, from analog to electronic to digital. Several early pioneers of (interactive) media art were artist-in-residence at the Apollohuis. I remember visiting Paul Demarinis (USA) in Eindhoven around 1995, working at the release of his infamous 'The Edison Effect: A Listener's Companion' for the Apollo Records label. Steina Vašulka (IS/USA) was at that time visiting art director at Steim in Amsterdam, and so we went to Eindhoven for a studio visit.
Now, the Maciunas Ensemble was the Appolo house orchestra, with artist Paul Panhuysen, scientist Leon Van Noorden, performer Mario van Horrik and musician Jan van Riet as consistent members. The idea was based on Fluxus artist George Maciunas' Music For Everyman scores, promoting total freedom in its realisation, with a large degree of anti-conceptualism. He would say: “In Fluxus there has never been any attempt to agree on aims or methods.” The Maciunas Ensemble played an impressive series of unrehearsed and 100% improvised pieces together, and a lot is available via the Apollo Records label, including even a box with 11 cd's. But yes, I missed their 50th anniversary celebration.
Meantime it was getting much colder than when I left home (CZ), and the usual November weather was coming up fast. Thicker coats, sweaters, socks, heavier shoes, … In the afternoon suddenly it became dark and it started to drizzle: the rain feels like melted snow, liquid ice. The temperature dropped 10˚C at a sudden. One evening, waiting for a train to take me from Ghent to Brussels, I was having an accidental conversation with a train driver, also waiting for the next train. Almost on a daily basis, there was at least one suicide. In 2 years time he had had already 3 people suddenly coming from behind a bridge and jumping suddenly on the rails. He sometimes woke up in the night lying awake seeing it over and over again. “This goes on till after Christmas” he said, “then it suddenly stops”.
Due to the train delays, the concert by the Japanese duo Tomoyuki Aoki and Harutaka Mochizuki (JP) had just started. You have to imagine a singer song writer, with sunglasses and a velvet voice, leather jacket, melancholic, bewailing and dark, masked in echo and reverb, paring up with an improvisation saxophonist jumping in and out of the long slow songs with agility and clarity, directness and unworldly inventivity. The combination was an astonishingly fresh new music, at times recognizable but never traditional, cheap or imitating. The very intense set which I hadn't expected, was quite different than the recordings online. They could have been a much better choice for the new Twin Peaks music bands than the ones that were selected for series 3.
The following days I spent my time in a studio. I took some time off to get into Ableton Live. I never had felt the need to do so, since I am working rather with programming languages and patching libraries. But the place I was working at was using a plugin to drive their 64 channel Wave Field Synthesis equipment (IPEM, UGent). For 2 days I would be cursing on it, because the interface was definitely made for DJs and short sample affectionados, with sequencers in mind. After struggling with the longer recordings, in the end I could live with it and even enjoy the easiness of endless combining different modules on different levels of the 'playing' process. And of course the way you can put in a certain automatisation on a track with OSC is quite handy. Well, as for the input in the system, what is better than testing new gear with it. So I hooked up a Koma Field and FX kit. I am neither a fan of analog synthesis, as you might understand from previous lines: everytime that I am patching cables in a couple of boxes, I am missing the ease of computer sound generation and manipulation, to make it either really exact or complex. Analog synthesis to me will always include this off-control problem, and usually does not reproduce the same thing when needed. But the Koma field kit is interesting, apart from its minimal synthesis and filter means. It is as well a portable 4-channel mixer, and so it is in its compactness quite useful to treat analog signals coming from microphones or piezos attached to other resonators and materials. Probably the makers won't like it that I hook up the boxes to a battery pack, but out of principle I like to work without wall outlets and transfo's, and in good weather with a solar panel outdoors. So now you know what musicians do in November on the road: they learn new software, mess around with analog synthesis, field recordings, instruments they never played, and listen to it on equipment they cannot afford at home… Till they perform with other artists, hoping for other unexpected outcomes in beauty. Again, old news, but next to Bastl, the Koma gear is not bad either.
Intermezzo. Today it started to snow. They say there was a snowstorm that stalled all traffic 7km away, but here it was just some white dry layer barely covering the grass, trees, and stones. But this morning there was a layer of almost 20cm over all and everything. You can hear the packs of snow slowly sliding from the roofs, cracking and sighing, singing almost, and then the silence and the muffled impact, the falling down. Suddenly it is winter, and while staring out of the window over the vast white fields, thinking about what else I have seen last month.
The evening of the 9th of November, we had walked through Molenbeek, in the media renowned for its multiculturalism, its returned IS fighters and terrorists. But in reality it is also an exotic suburb of Brussels, attractive for alternative and new culture in development. We were heading for a concert at the studio of the stage designer Jozef Wouters, an improvised venue for an improvised evening performance. The studio is situated close to where Plan K was and still is, though it doesn't have the glory of the new wave 1980s anymore. The Belgian capital's once temple of post-punk is now a respectable cultural centre. In former days and throughout the 1980s, the rafinery was the almost weekly meeting place of everyone belonging to a counter culture in Belgium. We saw the first concerts by Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, Josef K, Scritti Politti, James White and the Contortions, Bauhaus, The Slits and so many others, long forgotten… It was also the homebase for the then in Brussels residing Tuxedomoon (the band had collectively emigrated from California after the recently deceased conservative George Bush Sr. became president). Most likely the then still very local Front 242 did their first gigs there. The only reference I can find now is this testimony: https://www.post-punk.com/35-years-ago-today-joy-division-played-live-at-plan-k-brussels-belgium-live-debut-of-love-will-tear-us-apart/
Lost in memories and nostalgia, we arrived at the Jozef Wouters studio. There were a couple of people in the street, apparently waiting for the doors to open. The concert featured Roman Hiele (BE) on electronics, the Portuguese guitar virtuoso Manuel Mota (PT), and Christophe Albertijn (BE/IT) also on guitar. It became a sympathetic and intimate concert, attended by a small crowd and some musicians' friends. It was a rather pleasantly warm evening so afterwards we went to some Spanish bar behind the station for a more Southern feeling (Brussels IS exotic with its multicultural mix) and I ended up back home, reading quietly The Hospital, one of the few published novels by the Tunesian filmer Ahmed Bouanani (TN).
The next morning on the way out, I dropped by at the studio where the enigmatic Mr. Marcaille (FR/BE) was recording a new series of songs. A couple of years ago his Youtube performances went suddenly viral. Since then he is enjoying performing in trashy clubs, parks, underground cafés but also on larger festivals from Russia, Italy, France, Finland, Latvia, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Spain, UK to … Czech Republic! As a one-man-band on cello and drums, singing while only sitting in his underwear, he is performing some mutant improv-punk-hardrock that even appeals to kids I noticed last year on an open air festival. In the studio I heard him play a slow intense song, with layered cello and percussion. We had a morning coffee together, talking about the weather and the world, and travelling. I am really looking forward to his new release and performance set!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=CBQWxt3DNqE (including a short interview in French)
There is a lot of rhythm in the world. So it is definitely hard to tie sounds and patterns together into something that is still interesting. That afternoon, I put the batteries in the borrowed PO-12 pocket operator drumbox, and went to the limited tutorial. Soon it was evening and even sooner middle of the night. The PO-12 is only one of the series of Swedish pocket calculator style designed miniature drum machines, and recently they started even selling combinations of them: arcade, office, factory, speak, tonic, K.O!, sub, robot, and .. rhythm. they are cheap, you can sync with any other PO, they are neatly and simple in design. You can really put it in your pocket and play anywhere you want, since the batteries are lasting for years. BTW there is no on/off switch and it took me a while for instance to find the volume controls, or get an irregular pattern done. The pocket operators are impressive though for the price/sound quality. Once you got the little machine in your fingers they can become quite versatile in use, but you have to learn to be fast. The PO-12 like all other PO's, has 16 editable sounds, and can store 16-step sequences. It also has 16 (fixed) effects to use dynamically. The interesting thing is that the patterns can be copied to other slots and be chained together with repeats, which allows you to make more complex and longer pieces. Last summer in Galerie města Pardubic, Václav Peloušek was using one next to his Bastl gear as well. Apart from a nice sound, every PO has a built-in alarm clock! What more do you want to travel with: you get up in time with a good beat!
Sunday, 18 November. The days are getting shorter, the nights darker and longer. This year the annual Schiev Festival took place at Beursschouwburg Brussels, literally at the rooftop. The sound quality of that space is not exactly wonderful, but at least you can see the sky and look out all over Brussels from the terras. Again, a more balanced multichannel installation set up strategically would have done wonders, instead of the bad club sound we are now so used to, but which is not beneficial to bring out any musician's sonic subtilities. We went there to see two artists of interest: the local &apos who is living in Berlin now, and Gosheven, from Budapest (HU). As we met them both years ago, it is interesting to see each of them persuing their carreers so differently today and ending up in the same venue. &apos (BE/DE) is part of the band and label Bepotel (BE), but has always been playing solo in small festivals and venues. He is playing a distorted and chopped up self-coded pure electronic melodic trance music from his laptop, introvert but dedicated and honest. It is a straightforward structure changing in complexity as time progresses. On the other hand, the more ecclectic instrumentarist Gosheven is of the more narrative kind. He offers a mixed set of electronic melodies, with sampled instruments, while playing relaxed through the guitar lines. Meantime there was a projection with a full account of a returned apollo capsule dropping in the ocean and taken aboard of a naval ship. A nice double performances for the start of an amazing Sunday evening.
what if we were transparent and could fly across time over vast areas of land what if we could breath tastes and sounds across imagined relations and lines as we have become already shadows and ghosts in writing and singing, exchanging only small reversals in the copies astonishingly unreal, unfit for eating or hearing only to be remembered but not experienced, so let's move on and invent something new (anonymous, found on my way to the next concert, on the pavement, 18 November 2018)
Magasin 4 is situated in the old Brussels harbour. At school we proudly learned that Brussels has a sea-harbour though the ships have to go through 150km or more of canals. There are hardly ships anymore nowadays. The area used to be for years a wasteland until some alternative organizations occupied the empty hangars and storages, and created some alternative socio-cultural places. Now the area will be part of a kind of 'slum upgrading'. Across the street of Magasin 4, the immense 'Tour & Taxis' colonial building has been renovated, also called the 'Royal Entrepot'. It is on this very spot that Frans Von Tassis invented the first European postal service between the 16-18th century, better known as 'Thurn & Taxis', but in Brussels called 'Tour & Taxis'. In the previous century it became the storage for all the trade from the Belgian colony Congo, till the former's independance in 1960. No bigger difference than this richly renovated area for industrial and commercial fairs, sometimes a posh art fair, and the area next to the Canal where the post-punk concert space is. On a dark Sunday evening we entered the small hall, where the Indonesian duo Senyawa had just started to play. In 2012, the independent film maker and sound explorer Vincent Moon (FR), with ALL his movies freely available under a creative commons license, made a magic 25 minute movie of a live concert by Senyawa. This impressive movie, and authentic document of a band, filmed on location in Yogyakarta (Indonesia, Java), shows the musicians in the middle of their natural habitat, and is illustrative for their advanced mix of ethnic, experimental and contemporary rhythmical music. Rully Shabara has a versatile traditional voice, ranging from almost throat singing to high pitched shrieks. His extended techniques fit in perfectly with the hardcore and ethnical flavours, the noises and melodies of the self-built bamboo string instruments by Wukir Suryadi. This year they released a new album on Sublime Frequencies.
A good concert always has interesting audience as well. We were talking briefly with the experimental Netherlands-USA based musician-performer-writer-artist Sannety (ID, NL, USA), herself from Indonesian background and part of the duo Spermchurch, who has lately surprised with a set of intriguing experimental and rhythmical tracks. Hear for yourself: http://www.sannety.com/music/
The next band with the singer Baba Commandant from Burkina Faso is bringing a mix of Mandingo music and more western inspired style, reminiscent of Fela Kuti or King Sunny Adé. Baba is also playing on an ethnical instrument called the ngoni, which is giving a very repetitive melodic basis and swing to most of the songs. The ngoni has a body made of calabash covered with goat skin and in the concert an 8-string version was used. The ngoni seems to be the predecessor of the American banjo, and is often tuned in a pentatonic scale, which I think was also the tuning Baba Commandant was using. I hadn't expected much of the concert, thinking that it would have been another African band like so many. But I was terribly wrong about it. The energetic fusion of jazz, rock, ethnic, and genuine mandingo music was one of the best that I recently had heard, and even innovating to a certain extend with funky rhythms in a constant uptempo that moved everyone into dance.
Both bands are on the Sublime Frequencies label, and if you are in to ethnical and its more contemporary changes, this is the place to be! You will find rare music from around the world: from Madagascar to Pakistan, from Iran to Cambodia, from the West-Sahara to Myanmar… Visit the very complete bandcamp pages and enjoy the rest of the year with good music!
End of November, and it was getting colder and colder. I guess I missed the deadline for the Vertigo applications, maybe DIY artists don't go to big institutions and producers and invest better time in making their own alternative networks. Though the calls are over, what still remains online is an impressive list of places for new technology and art. Check out here, and probably next year there will be a new call if you are interested? https://vertigo.starts.eu/projects/
The next week, I visited the sound art space Overtoon. They are one of the last artist run organizations producing their own work, with or without residents, with their own sound studios. It took me a while to get around the building and find the entrance. They are situated on the the 15th floor of the Brussels WTC and the building is also used to register refugees. Outside you have a wonderful view of part of Brussels, with the Royal gardens, and you can even see the Atomium. Inside the workspaces, in the corner there stood a modular, but there was no time to look at it into detail. Instead I had a talk with the directors/sound artists Christophe De Boeck and Arnoudt Jacobs, like always about the good and bad in the world, and the beauty in sound art, about their work, and all of that over a hearty lunch. I sighed at the last view of the capital of Belgium from their panorama, unfortunately they have to move to another place soon, but that is for another time…. http://overtoon.org/
Just before leaving Brussels again, an unexpected but interesting concert came up. On the 20th November at Les Ateliers Claus in Saint-Gilles, a Hispanic-Portugese neighbourhood, Stephane Clor (FR) opened the evening with a long but never monotonous solo on double bass. Just one improvisation, subtle and done with style, concentration and energy. Then came the legendary Fred Frith (UK) on stage. The usual references of names and bands: Henry Cow, Art Bears, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, Keep The Dog, Cosa Brava. He worked with Robert Wyatt, Derek Bailey, the Residents, Lol Coxhill, John Zorn, Brian Eno, Mike Patton, Bill Laswell, Iva Bittová, Jad Fair, Bob Ostertag, … Soon becoming 70, these days he is back on the road by himself. it is difficult to pin down a musician like Frith down to a style, but whatever instrument he was playing (guitar, violin, homemade instruments, objects, …) or whatever direction he was wandering in, he always kept up with avantgarde and experimentation. At Les Ateliers Claus he showed how snappy and skilled he is still, not losing any of his inventiveness to skill and habit. Soon Autumn will be gone.
On the long way back home, Again 1000 km, on different 5 trains, I realized I missed this year's Eastern Daze festival twice: once in Vooruit Gent (BE) and once in Berlin (DE). Both cannot be confused. Eastern Daze in Belgium is an annual concert organized by the concert organization, record label and online onmagazine publisher KRAAK. They have their annual festival boasts 3 days of international young avantgarde, experimental folk, electronic and acoustic music. It exists for 5 years now, and it is getting quite popular, Their selection of bands and performers is often surprising and revealing. I met with some people of Goodiepal's band, who donate all the money that band makes to stranded refugees outside the European borders.
The other or orginial Eastern Daze, who also runs the music label Babavanga, had just its festival in Berlin. Since 2010, Lucia Udvardyova and friends have been looking for new things. In their own words: “Beyond folklore clichés and Cold War discourse, below the radar of the tastemaking music press, DIY, alternative, independent music scenes are thriving in Central and Eastern Europe. Since 2010, Easterndaze has explored and mapped local DIY scenes operating in a digital realm, introducing the creative personalities and collectives behind them to provide context. ” But better check it their documented website, since a sound is better than 1000 words!
Oh! and I realized I also missed Bratislava's Next Festival this year! And for sure I would love to have been there! We're already December now… There is never enough time for good music. Now back home in Vysočina, I am thinking of that country where last month 75.000 people protested against the lack of government action and support for an international climate change policy, where 5000 rightist parties and their extreme right militants protested against acceptance of the UN Global Compact for Migration, and tried to obstruct participants going to Marrakesh. The Czech government refused already beforehand to sign any treaty, but I haven't heard anything about Katowice yet…
Let's wish for at least good music while we try to get out of this shortsighted and inhumane, truly collectively suicidal mess. Have a nice Christmas and New Year!
“We're thirsty for noises, cries, crowds, and skies.” (Ahmed Bouanani, The Hospital, 1990 (translation 2018))