It feels like a cliche to describe a female cellist’s performance as graceful, but Okkyung Lee’s playing at the Dailes Theatre early Friday evening was built of grace notes in a precise musical sense. Great gusts of splintered appoggiaturas seemed to anticipate a textural resolution into a fully defined attack that was endlessly deferred, like a novel composed entirely of apostrophes and glottal stops. Lee hammered with her fingers upon the neck of her instrument like a tabla player, bowing as much with the wooden back as the hairs of the bow. Close your eyes, and you could imagine a table crowded with homemade electronic devices, all squealing, growling and burbling away in gleeful concert, but the sound was both violently chthonic and ethereal without any electronic augmentation.
As Keith Fullerton Whitman took the stage with his suitcase of patch leads and voltage-controlled machines, I started to wonder if perhaps we were approaching peak modular. His set contained many nice sounds, but on the whole it felt directionless —too much like bearing witness to an overgrown boy playing with expensive new toys. Of course Whitman is hardly new to the modular scene, but for whatever reason the command of these erratic machines seems to escape him tonight; his playing seems unfocused, passionless.
The trio of Wadada Leo Smith, John Edwards and Mark Sanders, by contrast, were positively burning. The latter pair seemed to be pushed into their fiercest, most urgent playing by the sheer force of Smith’s trumpet. Blasting out febrile trills and importunate stabs of almost pure noise, the former Anthony Braxton collaborator did play notes — and plenty of them — but it was the impurities he introduced into them, the grain and the patina, that made each one so compelling. Meanwhile, drummer Sanders seemed to be channelling some of the energy of Smith’s occasional sparring partner Jack DeJohnette, tearing through his kit like a Tasmanian devil.
It seems appropriate that Robert Henke of Monolake has taken to transforming his live shows into elaborate laser-assisted installations. There has always been something geometric about his particular brand of techno, a music of inclined planes and acute angles where every point appears precisely. Performing to a seated audience tonight, he allowed his sus urrant drifts more space to breathe between beats, recalling at times the tense atmospherics of Alan Howarth’s work with John Carpenter. Shrouded in darkness and choked with dry ice, his lasers pierced the room, drawing us into an ever shifting Frank Stella arcade game or an immersive physics lesson illustrated by Jordan Belson. From his involvement in developing Ableton software onwards, Henke has spent his career making live techno more engaging; with his latest venture he takes that aim to a new dimension.
Following Henke: an abrupt change of pace. A long tracking shot down a dank corridor melting into slow motion waves. A slow fade into a man alone in a derelict house; and a woman’s body floating face down in a swimming pool. The films of Katrina Neiburga could be fragments assembled from the cutting room floor of Andrei Tarkovsky or Jerzy Skolimowski; rich yet bleak, and pregnant with an unstable constellation of meanings. Accompanied by haunting music performed live onstage by Gas Of Latvia (aka Andris Indans), the assemblage became as compelling and beguiling as a dream. One of the country’s most established electronic musicians, Indans has long produced soundtracks for renowned video artist Neiburga. On this occasion, the roles were reversed somewhat with Neiburga becoming VJ to a Gas Of Latvia gig. Yet she was not a VJ in any conventional sense. Image and sound were never crudely mickey-moused, rather working in counterpoint as the eerie atmospherics of Indans’s sounds are punctured by sharp beats in unpredictable accents. But aside from a desultory set of post-Boards Of Canada electro from Martins Strautreks in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Indans-Neiburga collaboration was all we saw of Latvia’s domestic music scene in a festival dominated by US imports (aside from Wadada Leo Smith and Keith Fullerton Whitman, these included If, Bwana, Marissa Nadler, Audrey Chen,’ nsect Ark, Xeno & Oaklander, and Steven Hess, playing as part of Innode). This is a shame because the available evidence suggests Latvia has a lot to boast about.
This eleventh edition of Skaņu Mežs has brought the festival out of its usual diverse miscellany of venues into a single handsomely equipped black box theatre a short hop from Riga’s touristy old town. Like most modern festivals, such upgrades come supported by the usual bevy of corporate sponsors, in this case particularly Red Bull and the iRobot autonomous vacuum cleaner (which spent the weekend pootling about in the theatre’s lobby, part of some sort of interactive installation). But prominent among the supporters here is the US Embassy and something called the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a private body whose website claims it was set up in 1984 by “an anonymous American philanthropist” to fund cultural exchanges between the US and the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries. Nothing suspicious about that, obviously. I only hope that these American benefactors will soon be good enough to support an equivalent number of Latvian artists to a festival in the US.
Text by Robert Barry for The Wire magazine (December 2014)