Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Sanatorium of Sound Festival, Sokołowsko, Poland, August 12-15, 2016

Last year, I was surprised to be invited to give a talk at this affair but it was just after our return to the US and too hectic a time to incorporate such a trip into our schedule so I was very pleased that the invitation was extended again. Not only for the chance to attend and participate in a fine looking festival but also to visit, for the first time in my life, each of my ancestral homelands, Poland and Germany.

Sokołowsko is a small village nestled near the Silesian and Sudetenland regions, which these days span areas of southwestern Poland, southeastern Germany and eastern Czech Republic. Getting there isn't so easy. For reasons known only to airline magnates, it's about twice as expensive to fly to the much nearer Wrocław (known as Breslau in German and Vratislava in Czech) as to Berlin, some 350 kilometers distant so we were asked to do the latter. Thanks to the extreme good graces of Lucio Capece, we were able to use his studio in Berlin after the festival and spend a few days there. It was a small comedy of errors actually making it from Berlin to Sokołowsko involving our lack of cellphones, a shared car (via BlaBlaCar) with a delightful young Polish couple who were under the impression that they were picking up attendees of an apparently adjacent festival centered around sado-masochism and other sexual expressions, the extraordinarily bumpy Polish highways, well-intentioned but clueless direction givers in small towns and more. But we arrived, a bit later than I hoped (unfortunately missing sets by Jonas Kocher/Gaudenz Badrutt and Illogical Harmonies (Johnny Chang/Mike Majkowski)). It's a lovely little town, nestled in among steep hills, very lush. Fatigue may have played a part, but the concert just starting at that point by Ensemble Phoenix, a ten-member chamber ensemble playing works by Antoine Chessex, Kasper Toeplitz and Robert Piotrowicz didn't do so much for me, though one of the two by the latter, "Grund" had its moments.

The main site of the festival was a sanatorium that was established in 1854. Per Wiki (in German, Sokołowsko is referred to as Görbersdorf):

Görbersdorf didn’t differentiate from neighbouring villages until it was visited in 1849 by Countess Maria von Colomb, a niece of Prussian General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. The countess, delighted by the scenery, persuaded her brother-in-law Hermann Brehmer to establish a health resort for consumptive patients. In 1854 she and Brehmer opened the world's first sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis at Görbersdorf. The care included the Priessnitz method of hydrotherapy and also a precursory method of climatic-dietetic treatment was applied. The treatment of consumption practised by Alexander Spengler at Davos, perpetuated by Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain, was modelled after Görbersdorf, which at times was called the "Silesian Davos", although it should be called Davos "Swiss Görbersdorf". The resort was relatively expensive, but well organised, and before 1888 it had both a post office and phone lines. At the same time the quantity of 730 curates well exceeded the number of inhabitants. Several further sanatoriums were established in the following years and until World War I, Görbersdorf had become popular with guests from all over Europe, who had numerous mansions and even a Russian Orthodox chapel erected. At the beginning of the 20th century Scandinavian guests introduced snow skiing and a ski jumping hill was opened in 1930.

The central building, an impressive one, has been only partially restored as an arts center and a few events took place in a room that retained very much an abandoned feel:

Others took place in the local movie theater, a modern "multimedia" room in the main campus and outside in the surrounding park.

Saturday's events began with an intriguing talk by Michał Libera and Daniel Muzyczuk titled "The Fall of Recording", positing that recorded music may eventually be understood as a temporary phenomenon, from the very first recorded sounds in 1860 (which, ironically, weren't intended to be heard, rather to be a visual representation of sound patterns) to sometime in the near future when it may "devolve" back into live performance only. We shall see. Next came a long-term project of Keith Rowe's called "Dry Mountain", one which I was unwittingly roped into. Last year at the same festival, Rowe and festival organizer Gerard Lebik created a five-minute piece of electronic music. It was given to four visual artists who "back-composed" graphic scores based on what they heard; I don't recall the artists' names (I wasn't taking notes for any of this) but from the program booklet, I'm guessing three of them might have been Alicja Bielawska, Bożenna Biskupska and Daniel Koniusz (Rowe was the fourth). The scores were a graphic one by Rowe, a large painting of black streaks on a white background, a set of perhaps two dozen "color sample" pieces (not unlike Richter's, in a way), each about 5 x 8 inches, arrayed high on a wall and a tabletop array of leaves, branches and various detritus. (The event took place in the room pictured above.) The original five-minute piece was played first. Then, eight musicians (Gaudenz Badrutt, electronics; Johnny Chang, violin; Bryan Eubanks, electronics; Emilio Gordoa, vibraphone, percussion; Jonas Kocher, accordion; Kurt Liedwart, electronics; Xavier Lopez, electronics; Mike Majkowski, double bass) in four configurations from solo to quintet, played sequential five minute readings of these scores. As they were doing so, four "artists" (myself, Michael Pisaro and two women whose names, I'm afraid, I didn't get) drew new scores based on what they were hearing from their assigned group (mine was Gordoa, Liedwart and Lopez, working from Rowe's score). These were passed to the musicians involved and the octet immediately performed them tutti. It was a strange event, not a little intimidating for myself (I wasn't aware of my participation until that morning) but oddly enchanting. Interestingly, I purposefully declined to look at Keith's score but my own, somehow based on what I was hearing, bore some fairly decided similarities to his. Pisaro, working with Chang and Majkowski, attempted to instantaneously score exactly what they were playing only to return it to them to play. In any case, the audience appeared to enjoy it.

General fatigue caused me to miss both Anna Zaradny's performance earlier in the day (by the time I arrived to the venue, I couldn't get in, but as it was rather loud, could get more than an inkling from outside) and very unfortunately, that of Alessandro Bosetti immediately after the "Dry Mountain" set. His was to be based on a fragment of notation from Leoš Janáček referenced in the earlier talk; I hope I can hear that one of these days. Along with the Bosetti work, Valerio Tricoli's concert that evening was part of the Fall of Recording idea, using excerpts from a diary of Pierre Schaeffer to construct a vast and dense wall of concrête-style electronics but with far more air and naturalness than I've normally encountered in this type of milieu--very impressive.

The evening ended with an outdoor performance by Lucio Capece using speakers suspended from three balloons (originally four, but one escaped) which were propelled to and fro while receiving and broadcasting sine wave signals from Capece's electronics. At one point, he played very soft and extremely beautiful tones on his slide saxophone, enhancing the ambient tones wonderfully. The setting was fine, the weather excellent and the sounds compelling.

Early Sunday afternoon, I gave my little talk outside in the park, happily bolstered by Keith Rowe and writer Daniel Brożek. The gist of it was the proposition that we're coming to the end of the "era", as it were, of truly free improvisation in the AMM-sense of the term, that younger musicians are (have been for a while) moving on to other grounds, conceptual, compositional and more and that this is neither good nor bad, simply the way it is, a function of history. I thought I performed rather feebly but the crowd seemed to enjoy it and, as said, it was fortunate to have Keith and Daniel on hand to rescue me from excessive plunging down various rabbit holes. (photo below by Artur Sawicki)

There followed one of the true highlights of the festival, realizations of two works by Michael Pisaro, "festhalten, loslassen" (Pisaro, electric guitar; Lucio Capece, bass clarinet; Johnny Chang, violin; Mike Majkowski, double bass) and "A single charm is doubtful (Harmony Series #14)" with the above quartet supplemented by Bryan Eubanks on soprano saxophone and Jonas Kocher on accordion. Performed in the same semi-ruined room as "Dry Mountain", both pieces were stunning in their combination of purity and fluctuation, individuation and overlapping, all played with superb control and sensitivity. The addition of two voices in the second work seemed almost impossibly sumptuous, really a gorgeous arrangement of timbres.

Early that evening, there were solid solo electronics sets from Kurt Leidwart and Olivia Block, the latter incorporating some of those dark knocking sounds I love throughout and ending it with a fantastically drawn out "coda" of similar dull percussive elements that was quite moving. Block also had an installation up through the weekend, situated in another of those abandoned rooms, this one with no exterior wall. She hung gossamer, parachute-like fabric around the space which contained several speakers that recorded outside sounds, including voices of passers-by, augmented them somehow and rebroadcast them at low volume in the space. Very effective, especially when passing breezes fluttered the temporary curtains, very ghostly. Stephen Cornford also had an installation in a gallery on the main street, an odd electronic aviary of sorts consisting of dozens of microchip boards hung in clusters on two walls, bearing metronome-like tails that twitched back and forth, the mechanisms emitting tweets and cackles in just-off semi-unisons. I would have liked to have seen them arrayed in the forest but so it goes...

Later on came the much anticipated duo of Pisaro and Rowe. The work, conceived by Rowe, was called, "Venerable Bede" and was based on a parable by the same which goes:

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.

Both independently composed scores that lasted two hours and twenty minutes; Rowe's was of a graphic nature, Pisaro's traditionally notated. They were in the main multimedia room which had forward and rear exits along the near side. Rowe had police tape installed, creating a space about eight feet wide along the wall farthest from the performers and had the festival print a page of, well, not instructions but recommendations to the effect that listeners enter at one end, stay for however long they liked, but not too long, exit the other end, go out, have a beer, talk with friends etc., and circle back in when they felt the urge to, repeating the cycle as many or few times as the liked. Well, almost needless to say, that didn't work so hot with very few choosing to do other than ensconce themselves in the space and listen. After scoping out the set-up, I chose to remain outside for much of it though as the doors were kept open, enough sound bled from within to get an idea of what was going on. Each night previously, at around 11PM, the venue played disco music of a sort from external loudspeakers for the dancing pleasure of the attendees (why people going to a festival featuring music like that heard here would want to dance to disco is a question I've been unable to resolve, but such is apparently the case). Earlier in the afternoon, Rowe had noticed that the Bede performance would overlap by a good 20-30 minutes with the disco but asked Gerard Lebik to please let it go on as normal. :-) A superb decision. I was outside at the point it came on and had momentarily forgotten that it would. As it happened, the first music was less like disco and more like an especially soupy version of Return to Forever circa 1975 and I thought, "What the hell are they playing?" having visions of Keith suddenly picking up a guitar and wailing away á la Bill Connors. I went inside then for the last half hour of the work and it was glorious, Pisaro playing guitar both cleanly as I've heard before and with severe distortion, Rowe engaging the almost overwhelming disco with, toward the conclusion, the overture from "Tristan und Isolde", an incredibly poignant apposition. Great stuff, hope it was recorded.

On Monday, I attended only two events, a kind of rough solo set by Emilio Gordoa who never quite got into the kind of cohesive groove I think he wanted (though producing some seriously intriguing sounds) and a distinctive and refreshing one from Bryan Eubanks (on soprano sax and claves) and Xavier Lopez (electronics). It was quite the palate cleanser from everything that had occurred prior, both in terms of its transparency and the insistent use of rhythms and patterns. Lopez' sounds were almost banal--basic synth tones--but arrayed in great phased patterns that expanded and contracted much like early Reich but with a nice looseness, shifting unexpectedly. Eubanks used claves extensively, tapping out simple, clear sequences, staying with them much longer than you though he would, achieving a mesmerizing, trancelike feeling. Hard to describe otherwise, but really bracing, a fine doorway "out" from the weekend's music, toward some other clime.

Just a fabulous few days overall--great people (so nice to meet so many folk I'd known electronically for years as well as many I encountered for the first time), some wonderful music, a super-beautiful place and excellent pierogis to boot! Huge thanks to Gerard Lebik for the invitation.

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