When UK singer Julie Tippetts first became involved with the experimental music movement in the 1970s, she had something of an epiphany. "I realized that you're allowed to do whatever you want" in music, she explained in an interview at the Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (May 19-22). Post epiphany, Tippetts went on to make a name for herself in the avant garde jazz world, most recently with like-minded composer/multi-instrumentalist Martin Archer. Over the last decade or so the duo has released several recordings of their abstract, intuitively composed pieces, many of which feature Tippetts’ poetry, but they’d never performed any of their recorded work live—until FIMAV invited them to. Their performance at the festival this year was only one of several premieres that FIMAV hosted. 

 Inspired programming decisions like this one have pushed FIMAV to the forefront of the experimental music scene this side of the Atlantic and have turned Victoriaville—a quiet town in the Québec province of Canada—into a magnet for the avant garde: each year musicians, journalists, tourists, and locals crowd into Victoriaville’s two concert venues to check out the latest happenings in musique actuelle. For the most part, credit for this achievement goes to artistic director Michel Levasseur, the visionary behind the visionaries.  

This year's festival offered 20+ hours of programming across four days, with various groupings (solo artists, small ensembles, large groups), a range of styles (electronic, acoustic, recorded sound, spoken word, rock, jazz, blues), almost one hundred musicians from Canada, Europe, and the US, and every program written and introduction spoken in both French and English. While each performance offered a compelling rationale for how sound becomes art, several stand out for their strong conceptual statements.

 Composer/trombonist George Lewis, a longtime member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, returned to the festival this year to present a two-part, extended improvisation for percussion, piano, and trombone entitled “Calder,” a meditation on a mobile by the modernist sculptor. The piece featured five players (Lewis, Thurman Barker, Eli Fountain and Aiyun Huang on percussion and Tyshawn Sorey on percussion/piano/ trombone) who roamed the stage from one instrumental set-up to another, improvising according to musical prompts written on pieces of paper. In no particular order, the players would display a prompt to the other members of the ensemble, who would proceed to bang, brush, tap, wheeze, beat, skitter, and blow through any number of churning, non-linear musical ideas. Like a mobile, the piece twisted in the air, circling back around, each aural impression seemingly different, depending on one's vantage.   

The trio Microtub (tuba players Robin Hayward, Peder Simonsen, and Martin Taxt) also used sculpture as a focal point in its performance, but to different effect. The group’s work centered on the expanded capabilities of the microtonal tuba, a brilliant oddity that composer/leader Hayward created in 2009 to explore the full spectrum of tonality on the burly instrument. Together the three tubists, positioned in a circle around a geometric construction, created deep consonances that dissolved seamlessly into palpable, oscillating dissonances—hard work on a brass instrument. But the result was a subtle, nuanced performance, full of oceanic movement despite the seeming stillness of the piece.            

For his three sets at the center of the festival, composer John Zorn, a regular at FIMAV, culled selections from his series at The Stone—“Bagatelles,” 300 short improvisatory compositions with themes that alternate between haunting/melodic and frenetic/disjointed. Zorn asserts that any small group can play these pieces, and to prove it he cast his musicians from all corners of the musical establishment: concert pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman; the young rock group Trigger (guitarist Will Green, bassist Simon Hanes, drummer Aaron Edgcomb); acoustic guitarists Julian Lage and Gyan Riley; and jazz guitarists Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot, for instance. To be sure, some renderings were more interesting than others. But even the lesser pieces only served to underscore Zorn's clever approach to deconstructing genre. 

Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq reduces improvised music to its most elemental. The ancient art of throat singing requires dramatic shifts between vocal registers and a masterful command of vocalizing on the inhalation; using this technique Tagaq conjures up unearthly sounds from some other dimension—guttural screams, disconcerting hisses, flute-like riffs. Backed by her trio, drummer Jean Martin, violinist Jesse Zubot, and sound artist Peter Kadelbach, and along with guitarist Bernard Falaise, Tagaq on stage was at times terrifying as she swept through the complete arc of human emotion. In her willingness to reveal the fierce howlings of her inner reality, however, Tagaq frees us to acknowledge certain primal forces in ourselves. At some point in our human history, her work reminds us, the preternatural singer with the animal voice was the avant garde artist for the tribe—to wit, the one who envisions the future and holds it up for all to see.   

(Reprinted from the July 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)