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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 8

Victoriaville : 20 Years of musique actuelle

by Réjean Beaucage / May 5, 2003

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This year the twentieth edition of the "Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville" (FIMAV) will take place. Looking back on its history may help us understand the not easily defined term musique actuelle.

Musique actuelle, and the same applies to "contemporary music," takes in a variety of styles, tendencies and directions that share many features. As with jazz, we may use the expression to describe a family whose members each set off in a different direction ( John Coltrane and Diana Krall come to mind...). So what then is this musique actuelle? Our interview with Michel Levasseur, manager, artistic director and founder of the FIMAV should help us understand the concept.

When I asked him about the name "Festival de musique actuelle de Victoriaville" (the word "international" was added for the third festival), and more specifically about the meaning of musique actuelle, he said: "We did not coin the term, but in those days musique actuelle was more clearly defined by what it was not...It wasn't commercial radio music, nor was it institutionalized contemporary music. In 1981, I had returned home from a seven-year stay in Scotland, where I had discovered guitarist Derek Baily and his Company(1) as well as the group Henry Cow(2)." The three main elements that would shape musique actuelle can be found in their music: improvisation, jazz and avant-garde rock.

The fantastic growth of the record business during the sixties helped form the musical education of many of the main players on the musique actuelle stage. One could often buy music of the pioneers of jazz, classical and contemporary music, French chansons, rock, western or world music at the same record store, and thus many a budding composer was able to round off his musical education at the corner store, so to speak. It is this blend of all styles that forms the basis of musique actuelle, and its proponents may adopt a totally different method from one composition to the next, even changing according to the feel or the musical soul mate of the moment.

This frequent, but not exclusive, recourse to the technique of collage or improvisation, to the postmodern taste for rewrites as well as the open-arm approach to any new trend or vogue doesn't make it any easier to come to a sharp definition of this type of music.

Going back to the origins of the festival, Michel Levasseur adds: "The year before the start of the festival we had already organized a concert series. We also had gotten in touch with other producers in Montreal and Québec City, which made it easier to invite foreign artists. Through this channel we were also in close contact with visual art galleries specializing in the so-called art actuel. That's how we came to choose the name for our festival, which we started in 1983. Then I found out later that in 1961 there had been a 'Festival de musique actuelle' in Montreal, and that Pierre Mercure had organized it! For us the main thing was to get away from the all-too-restrictive Jazz Festival and musique actuelle fit in perfectly with our open-minded approach to different trends."

Pierre Mercure's Montreal Festival never had the repeat performance he would have loved to see, so it was only right that one of the 13 concerts listed for the first Victoriaville Festival (held December 1-4, 1983) was given by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and they played, among other things, a work by... Pierre Mercure. It will be remembered with a touch of irony that the festival known for its most unorthodox program listings might owe its life to an orchestra that some people consider rather conservative! Michel Levasseur explains: "Originally, the festival was to be held in October, but in July we found out that none of the subsidies we had asked for would be granted... I nonetheless decided to go and see the MSO. So I got in touch with the then music director Frank Dans, to discuss my project with him. It so happened that this fit right in with their regional exposure plans but only if they could come in December! I hurried back to Victoriaville with the news and sure enough, the fact that the MSO would come was enough to loosen the purse strings and get things going. We managed to move the dates for the twelve other scheduled concerts, and so it came to pass that our first festival was held in December!" The MSO also performed during the second festival in 1984.

A look at the programming

One steady line runs through all of the twenty programs Michel Levasseur has so far presented: eclecticism. The difference between genres, which has become considerably blurred in recent years, was still fairly sharp when the first festivals were held. The mixture of jazz, rock, contemporary and world music acts already pointed in the direction that would soon be followed by several musicians whose hybrid creations take inspiration from every genre. During the first three festivals, not only the MSO, as mentioned before, but also the Montreal Sax Quartet and I Musici were heard, as well as rock-inspired music creations by the likes of René Lussier, Skeleton Crew and Wonder Brass. As the years went by, the fame of the festival spread, and it has attracted talents such as Cecil Taylor and Terry Riley, and many other artists on the rise.

We should remember the vital role played by the FIMAV in the realm of music – not only giving the public access to foreign musicians, who would not have been heard otherwise, but also by providing a forum for local talent. For Jean Derome, Martin Tétreault, Michel F. Côté, André Duchesne or Diane Labrosse, who are all part of Montreal's "Ambiances Magnétiques," Victoriaville has been a most helpful terrain for furthering their careers. From the list of festival participants let us also mention the "Ensemble contemporain de Montréal," the N.O.W. Vancouver Orchestra, the Evergreen Club from Toronto, as well as Tim Brady, John Oswald, Joseph Petric and Marc Couroux.

The coming twentieth FIMAV Festival will once more stage performances in a variety of musical styles with an ever-increasing number of participants. Some veterans will be at the rendezvous: René Lussier, accompanied by six musicians, Fred Frith with the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, and John Zorn, who will present two different shows. There will be a few more of the older guard but also several new faces on the block. The same will be true for the public, no doubt, but all of them, be they on the stage or in the audience, have only one thing in mind: the fun of discovering new things. [Translated by Jef Wyns]

The twentieth "Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville" will be held May 15-19. Info: (819) 752-7912 www.fimav.qc.ca

(1) Derek Baily: British composer and guitarist born in 1930, he played through the whole range of musical styles until he finally settled exclusively for improvisation from 1965 on. He is the founder of "Company," a totally flexible ensemble that saw the light in 1976, and takes in musicians of any stripe.

(2) Henry Cow: an ensemble started in 1968 by clarinettist Tim Hodgkinson and guitarist Fred Frith. Under the impulse of experimental Rock and Jazz currents, and the influence of "musiques savantes," Henry Cow became the standard bearer of the European rebel movement called "Rock in Opposition," which is at the very roots of what is now called "musique actuelle."

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