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Tristan Bath , October 17th, 2015 15:11

Tristan Bath explores underexplored locations and microscopic whispers while attending a "sound forest" festival in Latvia's capital

All photos by Arnis Kalniņš

By 2015 experimental music has more or less entered the mainstream, and with it comes a whole heap of experimental music festivals. In the unlikely location of the Latvian capital on the cusp of winter, I find one of the most underrated such festivals in Europe. Now over a decade old, the Skaņu Mežs ("sound forest") festival continues to set itself the lofty annual task of both searching for "new languages in music and sound" and detaching the people of Riga from "their mundane and everyday comfort zones". Recent years have witnessed the likes of Demdike Stare, Bee Mask, Andy Stott and The Haxan Cloak foraging the outer rims of electronic space and deepest depths of bass music in search of new boundaries, while much earlier editions of the festival included sets from a range of black metal artists. The organisers clearly have their ears close to the ground when it comes to anticipating new and increasingly weird musical trends. This year sees the aesthetic of the lineup shift to a mix of fractured dance music and brutally sparse neo-minimalism, distilling the current musical avant garde into three nights of popular and jazz music, broken into its constituent pieces and counter-intuitively reshaped for a new era. Squarepusher, Peter Brötzmann, James Holden, and Zs more or less make up the headline acts, with Norway's low key songstress Susanna Wallumrød thrown in for good measure, but it's what happens on the fringes that really make this sort of festival. Curation is perhaps the defining art form of the modern era, and what with the popularity of experimental music, the fringes are getting pushed further and further to the side, so it's no small task. As such, the performance of Solos I, II and IV by German composer Jakob Ullmann lingers most potently in the mind as I queue for airport security on the way home Sunday evening.

We're crammed in at the back of an almost entirely silent hall in the centre of Riga, shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other people desperately trying not to make the slightest sound in near pitch blackness. A cockney twanged voice starts a painfully noisy phone conversation just outside the hall's entrance and somebody slinks out to ask the caller to keep it down. "Nothing's happening in there!" yells the (admittedly out of place) bloke. "The king's got no clothes!" Jakob Ullmann's compositions focus on frankly insane levels of quiet, and it proves to be the most challenging performance of 2015's Skaņu Mežs. Three instrumentalists - cellist Ellen Fallowfield on stage, oboist Molly McDolan to the right of the hall, and bassoonist Dafne Vicente-Sandoval off to the left - each simultaneously perform a Solo piece by Ullmann for an excruciating forty minutes, just barely making a sound and barely visible in near total darkness. The entire Daile building, from the front row seats in by the stage all the way to the bar and toilet outside, are irrevocably sucked in. Absolutely all intrusive sounds are muted (or at least attempted to be muted) for the duration of the performance. The rustling of my coat's duffles becomes a gigantic racket, and the breath of my neighbour a veritable hurricane. The obvious reference point is John Cage's 4'33", but there's the sense that Ullmann's piece actually encourages an even greater level of deep active listening than Cage's audience passively giving over to the happenstance noises of the room. Rather than full on silence, it's microscopic whispers of notes that make up the music, more or less forcing deep meditation upon us. It's uncomfortable, unpleasant and above all, shocking to be in the room. Pretty impressive for a chamber trio to genuinely shock in the era where Wolf Eyes are signed to Jack White's label.

Backtracking somewhat, this year's Skaņu Mežs splits three nights across two consecutive weekends, with night number one falling on a Friday and focusing in on futurist reconfigurations of electronic and dance music. Several of the artists in attendance over the course of the festival, including Jakob Ullmann, are part of the 48 chosen annually to represent the international SHAPE platform (Sound, Heterogeneous Art and Performance) for innovative European music/art. One such artists is Vienna's Chra, aka Christina Nemec of Shampoo Boy. She recently put out one of Editions Mego's most haunting debuts in the form of her bass- and field recording-heavy set of abstract miniatures, Empty Airport. Opening the Friday night, she wields countless samples like spinning plates. The hiss of her field recordings blend with heavy processed noises, coalescing into something round-edged yet brutally heavy like a fucking fire truck. She fully tests the ability of the speakers in the Riga's Palladium, approaching the likes of Lustmord sheer ear crushing harshness. The Palladium is still slowly filling, and bathed in purple light, Chra responds in kind slowly shifting her noise. She moves from sound collage into something resembling outright doom, even mixing in some recognisable synth chords and a gently shifting hi hat - although the speakers nearly explode on the journey. Admittedly she was originally pegged to play as half of a duo with Irradiation called Pasajera Oscura (Irradiation got sick), therefore this may not be a fully representative set, but Chra's grab-bag approach to sourcing sounds sits quite in opposition to the precision of the rest of the night.

Chra's Editions Mego labelmate and fellow SHAPE artist Lorenzo Senni has more or less distilled trance music into its core most element in recent years: the stab of a buzzy synth lead. His show's therefore about as pointillistic as it's possible to be. Senni holds court from behind his gear like a vintage super DJ, mincing grooving away like a self-satisfied Ricardo Villalobos, but the sounds are rather a showering rain of vaporised trance music slices. Bitcrushed rhythms arise amid the arpeggios and endless stream of melody built from chunks of cheesy trance like some broken European hit radio station. Despite only a vague sense of danceability, the front of the crowd breaks into waves of shifting bodies, transported by Senni's unique new form of 'Ibiza kosmische'. Powell's set follows, and fuelled by a massively amped crowd - or perhaps the pole-to-pole attention given to the Steve Albini fiasco which only happened that morning - he overruns. Powell actually shoves away festival officials as they try and end his set and make way for the Squarepusher, and they leave him be. After all, bangers like 'No U Turn' are pretty tough to argue with. Like James Holden does a week later, Powell's arguably simplistic take on electronic music aims straight for the gut with the triple headed Cerberus of hooks, grooves, and repetition. It still works every single time.

However, the highlight on this Friday has to be the manic set from Riga native, Mãrtiņš Roķis - aka N1L. In addition to joining this year's SHAPE platform, he recently became the first artist to sign to Lee Gamble's UIQ label, and helmed its maiden release with the Wrong Headspace EP in September. So N1L's been pretty much catapulted into the experimental club music limelight. His show is one of the most brutal of the entire festival, guiding rancid warped samples over deeply submerged beats and harsh percussive overtones. N1L works his own live visuals too, and opts to assault all in attendance with fast blinding strobe lights. It's relentless, and the music veers off into epic industrial heaviness. A peek at Roķis' work under his own name reveals an aptitude for harsher noise than his UIQ EP lets on, but of all in attendance N1L's undoubtedly the most deserving of a spot alongside the lofty likes of Squarepusher. 

It's the second weekend of the festival, and I'm back in Riga sporting two or three more layers than last week plus hat and scarf. How can it turn to winter so suddenly? The change however is a befitting one, as these two nights have the location switch to a seated venue, and an icily experimental form of music. The first night inadvertently guides us through some fifty years of experimentalism, starting with a set of solo piano compositions by American minimalist Frederic Rzewski, now in his 70s. Active since the 50s and co-founder of the legendary electroacoustic Musica Elettronica Viva ensemble in Rome in 1966, piano music has remained arguably at the core of Rzewski's outlet for over 60 years. He's a true virtuoso too, rolling his fingers through a far ranging, all encompassing wealth of dynamics and emotions. His dexterity has barely weakened with age, and the more outwardly violent moments comprise a mass of harsh angry staccatos. This sort of primordial experimentalism still sounds like music unbound after all these years, as does the sound of a Peter Brötzmann's quartet in full swing.

The freely improvising quartet of Peter Brötzmann with Chicagoan vibes player Jason Adasiewicz, and Steve Noble & John Edwards (aka the UK's best jazz rhythm section) have been playing together for a couple of years now, but it's looking like they'll end up being viewed as a massive highlight amongst the many peaks and troughs of Brötzmann's career, six decades and counting. They wordlessly take the stage in front of one of the most packed out crowds of the festival, and explode with a crazed assault of beautiful noise. Things quickly subdue after Jason Adasiewicz whips out a pair of violin bows, scraping the edges of his vibes to craft watery notes that drift and hang in the air. John Edwards responds with some melodic bowing on his bass while Brötzmann and the thunderous Noble all but break into silence for several minutes of tense lightly shaded textural improv. The dust settles and Brötzmann emerges with these huge resounding themes - practically the free-jazz equivalent of Hans Zimmer - and the group race through another hour or so of boundless freneticism. They all solo aplenty, and Noble's jungle drum excursions even manage to get whoops and whistles from the audience.

However, it's the dreamy and unsettling plucked double bass solo filled with jagged edges from John Edwards that actually tickles those hairs on the back of your neck. The following night John Butcher and Paal Nilssen-Love play their first duo set in something like a decade, and make a showing for a distinctly more atonal brand of free improvisation, with Paal Nilssen-Love practically falling over his drum kit throughout the manic set. He picks up toys to smash and scrape his kit with, creating all manner of drones, clicks and rumbles. Butcher's methods are similarly far reaching, including circular breathing, and some truly harsh high-end squealing. Butcher even elects not to blow his sax at all, utilising the bell to craft feedback against the microphone or tapping away at the keys hard enough to make a few tiny discernable notes.

Deep noise veteran Christoph Heemann makes a case for a very non-physical side of the spectrum, crafting intense massive drones and walls of gentle noise akin to the overpoweringly emotional shapelessness of William Basinski's Shortwavemusic. It's almost too loud in the high end repeatedly, and Heeman almost motionlessly guides tapes and samples of field recordings into the mix, including sound of a train rumbling and creaking past with a visceral Lumière-Brothers-like realism. It's always going to be tough for this sort of slow moving music to compete with the extremes of both Jakob Ullmann's softness or Peter Brötzmann's harshness, but Heemann has been at this since the 80s, working with the likes of Nurse with Wound, Merzbow and Jim O'Rourke over the years. If anybody can make the case for this music's weighty punch, both emotional and physical, it's him.

The night peaks with a set from Zs, who perhaps embody the modern fringes better than anybody else. The Brooklyn band has been active since roughly the turn of the century, initially taking the form of a sextet before whittling slowly down to the trio of core instrumentalists at Skaņu Mežs - guitarist Patrick Higgins, drummer Greg Fox, and saxophonist Sam Hillmer. The trio run through most of their recent album, Xe, opening with an experimental game piece, 'Wolf Government', the start of which is signalled by Hillmer smashing a microphone into a small stone in the palm of his hand. Higgins is one of the most gifted guitarists working right now (just check out the playing on his new Bachanalia album), but Greg Fox's manic drum abuse assures Higgins' role in the music on Xe is as the central timekeeper. He holds down the main ostinato at the heart of 'Corps', while Fox departs on several superhuman drum solos playing like the many-armed deity Kali, and Hillmer lurches around the stage thrusting notes from his sax in a variety of shapes, occasionally bending the notes via effects pedals. Zs are one of the purest examples of a band that straddle both populist and fringe circles. Their clatter is often hooky like Deerhoof, and mostly groovy, and yet it's deeply repetitive, while pushing the instrumentalists to the very edge of their physical capabilities. It's also never too far from veering off into brash atonal improv. Zs make a huge sound, far beyond the means of earlier and older acoustic musicians like Fred Rzewski or Brötzmann, they do however most certainly utilise the spirit of old school free jazz, but they also find inspiration in shapeless heavy forms of music like Christoph Heemann's. Everybody's musical knowledge is so broad now, correctly assessing the gigantic scope of their influences (and using them justly) is perhaps the biggest challenge facing contemporary experimentalists. Zs do it better than almost anybody.

The final night of the festivals falls on a Saturday, so it's apt to have James Holden lug his weighty modular synth from the airport for an Inheritors set. It's over two years old now, but The Inheritors has lost none of that searing energy that made it one of the best albums of the millennium. After a very many hours of some pretty challenging sounds, the chairs are cleared away, and anxious Latvians amass, hungry for a dance in the open space. Holden plays in a duo with drummer Tom Page, and most certainly arrives armed with some goods the people want. It's tough to argue with tunes like 'Renata' or 'The Caterpillar's Intervention', which more or less comprise a set of loops guided by Holden on his synth, coerced into dramatic moments of grandeur as the bass drops in or out, or indeed as Page leaps in with a massive beat. The crowd go aptly nuts, expelling a week's worth of pent up energy. Even the lamenting waltz of ‘Seven Stars' has feet shuffling. Holden and Page are called back on stage for the first encore of the festival as the audience refuse to let them leave, and smash their way through a brand new tune, filled with new synth sounds and an additional layer of complexity beyond the looping melodies of The Inheritors. It's perhaps the highlight of the set, so things are definitely looking good for James Holden's next album.

While the final night most certainly belongs to Holden, two Latvian acts and a Swiss percussionist provide some of the best examples of the contemporary European lunatic fringe. Percussionist Christian Wolfarth hails from Zurich, and at the tail end of the night performs his intense solo work using little more than three cymbals to a small audience. A few minutes of tinkling and toying with the cymbals quickly gives way to Wolfarth wielding two violin bows over the edges of the ride cymbals, stroking up and down and up and down with precision. Over some 30 minutes he crafts a slow moving set of blissfully intoxicating microtonal drones, varying his speed and energy with virtuosic precision so as to microscopically mutate the glistening ringing of the cymbals. Latvian composer Voldemārs Johansons with Norwegian sax player Rolf-Erik Nystrøm wield similar levels of gentle power with a new composition for laptop and Nystrøm's stunning sax playing. Nystrøm moans through his horn like a whimpering dying beast, while Johansons replies with live sampled and processed sax lines. Church-like death knells make up the depths of the piece, at times verging on the sort of vast doomy notes still relatively unexplored by the sax.

As is very often the case with these sorts of festivals in musically underexplored locations, the local acts we stumble upon are often the most essential. The confusingly named 1/2 H 1/2 W have been playing together since about 2007, racking up hundreds of shows through Europe in the process but never releasing any recordings. It's a vast sprawling collagic sort of sound they make, and the lineup seems just as fluid, perhaps bringing to mind the likes of GY!BE, or more accurately that group's far more adventurous (and arguably superior) sister group, Set Fire to Flames. The stage is littered with gear: a drum set, a complex mass of pedals and guitar amps, samplers and microphones, keyboards and vinyl players. Five Latvian males arrive, two of them grasping trumpets, and the set begins with looped horn lines over gnarled bass guitar tones. It combines into a sort of cataclysmic avant doom then distorted noises and harshly misplaced samples from cheesy nu metal bands are scattered indeterminately into the mix. One trumpet player switches to drums, and the ensemble head into the industrial cosmos, taking in a vast number of noises over the course of their set. There's motorik jams, abrasive free rock thunderstorms, and ultimately a lilting melancholy piano playing out over a bobbing ocean of samples drones and loops. The moment of serenity gets suddenly blasted into a million pieces, as the drummer yells "let's fucking go!" (in angry Latvian that is) and 1/2 H 1/2 W launch into a terrifying blast of improvised thrash! A vocalist screams into his microphone, twisting his voice via sampler into a mess of white noise, growls, and drowning chipmunks. It's a genuinely terrifying, utterly brutal moment. For me, it's the defining moment of the festival. The concept of a fringe music being in any way hierarchical, of looking westward to ruling cultures, or backwards to historical giants, is innately flawed. That having been said, it does enable some form of audience to gather. The anarchy of 1/2 H 1/2 W's set however, remains my non academic, unintelligent, chaotic highlight of Skaņu Mežs 2015. (On that note, they do have some brilliant recordings that remain unreleased, plus a handful of material on an old Myspace page.)

It's never quite certain if the aim of the modern avant-garde music festival is to lead or be led; whether they're trying to read waves, or ride them. It's already an uphill struggle considering Riga's continuing relative obscurity as a destination, but for the thirteenth year in a row Skaņu Mežs has compiled an intensely challenging lineup, and the results paint a vivid picture of the current state of music's outer rim. It's a vivid mass of saxophones, synthesisers, and samplers firing out noise, of many-armed beasts bashing away at drum kits, and nights of hammered dancing to beats resembling blunt objects. It's about tones and textures now, and structure and melody were more and more clearly the tools of mere 20th century musicians.