It’s a bold start for Skaņu Mežs to open its main festival weekend with a concert reworking November, the lost minimalist composition for piano by Dennis Johnson, who abandoned composition for mathematics shortly thereafter. American pianist R Andrew Lee hits simple chords one at a time, holding the spaces between them just beyond the threshold of comfort and expectation for the next one to strike. For five hours, viewers drift in and out, but most stay — by the third hour, I’m curled up on a stack of cushions, mesmerised.
The following night begins in a similarly classical vein, as composer Santa
Ratniece opens with the Latvian premiere of a piece for strings, commissioned by Kronos Quartet. Michael Finnissy brings a wilder energy to the piano as he reworks the Gershwin songbook with gusto. He’s followed by an equally intense elemental electronic set from Klara Lewis, who begins with howling winds and stormy weather before transitioning to beats flaring into explosive grooves and visuals burning down the house.
Lewis, with Killing Sound, MESH and Peder Mannerfelt, are a bill within a bill, all of them European artists supported by SHAPE, the pan-European organisation that supports new producers and a range of festivals across the continent, of which Skaņu Mežs is one. But this festival goes further, crossing continents and genres —where else would you find a producer like Lewis followed by a muscular improv workout by the great saxophonist Charles Gayle and bassist John Edwards, egging each other on with acrobatic and theatrical riffs, while drummer Roger Turner kept time like a Wrestlemania referee who has seen it all? After that, Fennesz and King Midas Sound’s smoke-filled set felt like a paranoid dub session from a bunker on an alien planet, thanks to The Bug’s jittery fight or flight production — but it went on for nearly twice the allotted 50 minute slot. Halfway through, singer Kiki Hitomi wailed a climactic dirge that should have signalled its end. At least Vatican Shadow had a sense of fun and timing, hurling himself around the stage and whipping his hair like a graceless Numanoid Frankenbeast to his chunky, amped-up, stompy techno, saluting the audience and beckoning them to cheer and stamp harder — and who could refuse? A few people even handed him beers. But even so, it was nearly 3am before Latvian guitar prodigy Matīss Čudars played a looping improv set to a much emptier room. Early leavers also missed Mona De Bo, Latvian jazzy post-rock savants who deserve to be better known worldwide.
The next night, Killing Sound began with a cabaret of angst in the centre of the floor that would have suited 1980s Berlin, or 70s Mute records — complete with a scuzzy, industrial-lite cover of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” by some dudes in berets and shitkicker boots. When Roger Turner returned for a second evening of improv, this time with Thomas Lehn on analogue synthezisers, the two conjured an atmosphere of metallic squeals and scrapes that suggested demented speak and spells and dying TV tower static, with parps, squelches and shaker egg rattles that were more foley than percussion.
Camella Lobo aka Tropic Of Cancer calms things down with a shimmering set of darkwave songs recalling Cocteau Twins; her visuals, by Pedro Maia, also offered
a nod to 4AD designer Vaughn Oliver’s explosive, smeary use of acid colours. Black Spirituals’ set followed this prettiness with an ecstatic holy mess of frizzed out feedback and noise processed through a table so overloaded with pedals that the complexity of their schematics would probably freak out an air controller. This was accompanied by a drummer who rattled his cymbals like nervous stacks of plates in an earthquake zone, and at one point played his beer bottle like a whistle.
A surprising highlight is when Zebra Katz — or Zebra Fucking Katz, as he reminds us through several call and response sessions — appears, to enthusiastic
shouts for favourite tracks. He raps with a queer, clever, unpindownable style and wit, strutting and vogueing, stripping off wigs and costumes and spraying the room
with champagne. But when his party’s over, MESH’s production is all banging peaks: full on, nonstop dystopian cyber whooshes and scrubby melodies that lack the subtle narrative shifts of a Klara Lewis set or the weirdness of Peder Mannerfelt, who follows. Mannerfelt’s trademark stage costume is a face-covering long scraggly wig that suggests a blond version of Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus crossbred with Cthulhu. Weirdly, his set swings from the friendliness of the former to the menace of the latter, with pitch-shifting sounds and stop-start beats that skittle and scrabble through the room. Like this festival, he’s at his best making connections that are surprising and unexpected.
Emily Bick for The Wire (issue 394)