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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 8

Victoriaville Festival Turns Nineteen

by Philip Ehrensaft / May 1, 2002

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The international point of reference for the multiplying, diverse streams of experimental improvised music is a European magazine, The Wire . They identify Le Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville as the aesthetic leader for improv festivals. The 2002 edition of FIMAV marks its nineteenth year. Victo's record label just issued its seventy-ninth CD. It is curious and impressive that FIMAV takes place in a small, outlying industrial city most famous for manufacturing hockey sticks. This happened for two reasons.

First and foremost is the imagination, backed by innate entrepreneurial talents, of FIMAV's director Michel Levasseur. While living in Europe, he acquired a passion for avant-garde jazz and new currents of improvised music. Levasseur had a double dream: create a festival celebrating this new music, and help the economic recovery of his hometown.

Second, Victoriaville is a leader in innovative, grassroots initiatives in local development. This encouraged community support for a distinctly nontraditional festival, though not without initial sonic shock when they actually heard the music promoted by their brilliant native son.

What is "musique actuelle"? An old wag among journalists is that musique actuelle is whatever Michel Levasseur says it is. Fair enough, given its diversity, but there is a unifying thread. Once Europeans and Asians mastered American jazz improvisation, it was logical that they would explore how their own musical histories could enter the picture.

Improvisation was prominent in European art music through Beethoven and Liszt, but then largely disappeared. Postwar Europeans melded improvisation into folk traditions and pop and all that had happened in classical composition during the twentieth century. Asian art music and folk music involved complex improvisation centuries before Europeans even thought about being civilized. Then alternative rock musicians looked at all of the above and set off on their own journeys.

Now all streams borrow from each other and defy boundaries. The coup at this year's festival unites two founders of avant-garde jazz, pianist Cecil Taylor and trumpeter Bill Dixon. Both are over 70 years old but have more energy than most 20-year-olds. They're accompanied by British percussionist Tony Oxley, a European avant-garde pioneer. Levasseur has also invited not only London's tyro pianist Keith Tippet but his entire 21-member big band! Then there are two unusual duets, one featuring the eminent drummers Hamid Drake and Gerry Hemingway, the other pairing bassists William Parker from New York and Peter Kowald from Germany.

The latter pairing underscores what is utterly fascinating at FIMAV: Levasseur creates concerts mixing people from different parts of the globe and different genres. A new element is devoting the entire concluding day to techno music explored from diverse angles. In many ways Levasseur is the primary artist at FIMAV. The full riches, lasting from May 16 through May 20, are listed at www.fimav.qc.ca .

FIMAV 2002 will pay special attention to new musicians in Montreal's musique actuelle scene. Check out the Mruta Mersi choral concert which opens FIMAV, and Godspeed You Black Emperor's "Set Fire to Flames" project. Their appearance at FIMAV will introduce them to major musicians in the international avant-garde and to the music press, which is out in force for this festival.

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