ROUND-UP REPORT: moers festival 2016 (Germany)

Festival banner – Photo credit Henning Bolte

Moers festival 2016 (Germany)
(Moers, May 13 – May 16, 2016. Report and all photos by Henning Bolte)

The saints which the Germans call Die Eisheiligen (the ice saints) St. Servatus, St. Bonifacius and ‘Kalte’ Sophie (of Rome) clearly manifested themselves during this year’s edition of the moers festival at the German city of Moers (pronounced like the name ‘Reuben’) at the periphery of the Ruhr area close to the Dutch border in the federal state North Rhine-Westfalia . They sent a chillingly cold wind to this renowned Whitsun weekend event. It seemed that even the rabbits had hidden and were not discernible anymore.

The Programming

moers festival as a music festival bears a strong personal signature of its artistic director Reiner Michalke (links to reports on his earlier editions are below). The festival is accustomed to making clear, forward-looking and eclectic choices which are full of contrasts.

There was a strong component of vocalists including singer songwriters: Hildur Gudnadottir, Stian Westerhus, Sam Amidon, Maja Osojnik, Arve Henriksen, Natalie Sandtorv, Carla Kihlstedt, Becca Stevens, Jacob Collier, Cassandra Wilson

There was also a strong electronica presence: The Liz, Stian Westerhus, Warped Dreamer, Maja Osojnik, Hildur Gudnadottir).

– Notable too was the portion and distribution of string instruments


Looking at the programme certain clusters of musicians/groups can be discerned, clusters that show which territories and musical approaches this year’s edition covered. I prefer to review performances using these categories and not in chronological order of appearance during the four festival days.

Firmly Fast Forward: NO BS! Brass Band, Subway Jazz Orchestra, Tim Isfort Zapptet. Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble (LUME)

Stark Contrasts: Warped Dreamer, Maja Osojnik/Patrick Wurzwallner, Amok Amor, Stian Westerhus, Schnellertollermeier

Playful Particles: Kaja Draksler/Susana Santos Silva, Medusa Beats, Carolin Pook “pezzettino 8”, Not On The Guest List

Repetitive Rounds: Dawn of Midi, Hauschka&Kosminen, Moon Hooch, Doglife

Narratives: Johann Johannson “End of Summer”, Hildur Gudnadottir, Jeremy Flower “The Real Me”, The Liz,

From The Deep South: Harriet Tubman feat. Cassandra Wilson, David Virelles’ Mboko, Harold López-Nussa Trio

Personal highlights

If I had to choose my personal memorable highlights of the performances I saw, it would be:

–  The church concerts of Stian Westerhus and Hildur Gudnadottir at the Stadtkirche Moers on one hand and David Vireilles’ Mboko, the Draksler/Santos Silva duo and the Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble (LUME) at the festival hall on the other hand.

Every one of these performances – and the music – would have made the visit to the festival worthwhile on its own.

Stian Westerhus – Photo credit Henning Bolte

Stian Westerhus and Hildur Gudnadottir

Stian Westerhus, known for his dark scattering sounds and his strong physical involvement within, created a completely new kind of flow and reshaped it in utterly captivating ways together with the characteristics of the room, the receiving readiness of his audience and the spirit of the moment. On a unconscious level the daylight in the white room of the church turned the music into a Whitsunday Trance. Westerhus was based on his just released album Amputation (House Of Mythology). His music carried souls to a higher place. It applied to Hildur Gudnadottir’s music making too although in a different pace at a different temperature. The subtleties of her sampling and looping the cello sounds along with her voice’s patient singing worked out irresistibly in the long run. It left a deep and overwhelming trace.

Kaja Draksler/ Susana Santos

The duo of Amsterdam based Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler and Porto/Stockholm based Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva performed on the huge stage of the festival hall – a tough challenge in terms of attracting the audience focusing attention, keep it and increase it. Draksler and Santos Silver performed three pieces based on their compositions Hymn To The Unknown, This Love (both from their recent duo-album of the same title (Cleanfeed) and Geringonça which is on Santos Silva’s album Impermanence (Bandcamp).

Beautiful strange sounds (inside-piano techniques and nose flute for example) were embedded in or connected to melodic motifs (with some folk music allusions) in a continuously clear gestalt that Draksler and Santos Silva morphed and contoured progressively in ways that were also musically highly connected. They are two young musicians who are currently making big leaps musically, which makes one look forward to what they will want to do next.

David Virelles’ Mboko

The music of David Virelles’ Mboko dispensed with the fireworks commonly associated with Cuban music, but was naturally captivating because of its rich spiritual and conversational quality. It opened a space imbued with intermingling voices and rhythms. At the centre were the sacred and mundane Cuban hand drums played by Roman Diaz and the framing piano of Virelles, zooming in and out, connecting and uniting shouts, recitation, prayer and chant in a lively rich flow. Drummer Eric McPherson and bassist Thomas Morgan bridged and coloured the space in sensitive ways.

The music conveys traits of the inner life and practises of the Santeria (Regla de Ocha) with its orishas (saints), a syncretistic system in which sacred and mundane things closely intertwined are flourishing exuberantly. The ‘system’ is not easily to catch or fathom for outsiders but – as a kind of fictitious documentary – the music’s quality provides possibilities of just sensing it.

LUME (Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble) 

As opener of the last festival day 15-piece LUME (Lisbon Underground Music Ensemble) violently crashed into the festival hall and exploded in fast forward mode. A crossing of Count Basie, Frank Zappa, Naked City and colossal head banging its music even buried and ousted Kalte Sophie’s chilling coldness in a fire-and-ice clash for a while. The frenzied dynamics emerged from a rock solid base of sound giving leeway to heavy crisscrossing as the musical equivalent of a  massed free fun run in a park. LUME was able to burst into and jump between different modes rapidly, fluently and colourful, for example giddily switching between brightly shining horn riffs and mighty sound avalanches. Pianist/composer Marco Barroso has developed LUME into a uniquely functioning sound organism discernible also at Barroso’s minimal way of conducting. He can get by with a short starting or switching sign. The rest then emerged directly from the ensemble’s organism. It proved that LUME is one of the most thrilling and dynamic large ensembles among the still growing number of this kind of units.

‘Firmly Fast Forward’

The first night finished with the 12-piece NO BS! Brass Band from Richmond, Virginia. With its 5 trombones, 4 trumpets, sax, tuba and drums a line-up was deployed which could make a big sound. It was a fast forward big sound, but it also revealed itself as rather tight and one-dimensional, with a lot dull repetition in lieu of crackling, scraping and scuffing layers. Almost nothing was left of New Orleans’ second line beat, rather it was a kind of house version of it. This band apparently is an offshoot of notorious and now defunct unit Fight The Big Bull led by guitarist Matt White. White launched a successful career in pop music and this band with two of the original trombonists of Fight The Bull Reggie Pace and Brian Hooten took a different track. This also reflects recent developments in the music business.

A kind of opposite, with careful and sophisticated arrangements was the 18-piece Subway Jazz Orchestra from Cologne that opened the next day. As a kind of laboratory for the youngest generation of the Cologne scene it serves an important function. The unit’s music, a suite entitled State of Mind came up with some interesting ideas flawlessly performed on a decent level but it was not cracking nor especially tasty or in terms of dynamics gripping. The orchestra delivered solid work but as a whole a bit too obediently. It would be something to have the capacities of these skilled musicians transformed towards the level and daring vitality of for example a unit as the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra.

Maja Osojnik – Photo credit Henning Bolte

‘Stark Contrasts’

As a sharply contrasting element Slovenian electronic musician and vocalist Maja Osojnik and Austrian drummer Patrick Wurzwallner performed right after the duo of Draksler/Santos Silva music that had a quite temperament and temperature. With the performance entitled Let Them Grow (named after her recent solo-album)

Osojnik/Wurzwallner entered darker and more violent realms at times sounding like a grunting and howling wolf pack, like fluttering bats in the dark, like a squealing sawmill or like a kind of distorted version of The Doors’ Break On Through (to the other side) finally ending in a vocal Reiβwolf. In a highly energetic set she navigated through electronic fields, radically morphing her often lo-fi electronic sounds to even the amorphous. Osojnik did not hide in violent electronics. Rather the ferocious electronics triggered the expressiveness of her angry voice. She acted as a nimble master/mistress of the switching button board, the mike and the voice in her hands. It revealed as a powerful as well as enigmatic performance that aroused curiosity.

The Belgian-Norwegian foursome of Warped Dreamer hit the stage on Sunday, in between David Vireilles’ Mboko and Dawn of Midi. Warped Dreamer is the two Belgian musicians of drummer Teun Verbruggen and keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin and the two Norwegian musicians  trumpeter/vocalist Arve Henriksen and guitarist Stian Westerhus. The Warped Dreamer musicians work without a net of preconceived material. Their concerts are fully improvised. Simply spoken Warped Dreamer’s music is a matter of extremes witness their latest album Lomahongva. Parts of utmost serenity alternate with violent outbursts that at times can get extremely loud. The dramaturgy of transitions between the two sides is a crucial element.

After an extremely slow, lingering start the group rose up to an intensely twitching motion, a peristaltic, head banging movimento grandioso that was acted out in a longer turn all of the fibres in. After an interlude by keyboarder Jozef Dumoulin on the piano the group entered an ethereal zone where Henriksen started singing. Stian Westerhus meanwhile bowed his guitar echoing Henriksen’s singing whereas Verbruggen’s drums detonated. Henriksen then started to use different hybrid instruments as a recorder and a trumpet with a clarinet mouthpiece. After a violent percussive attack of the piano by Dumoulin the music entered calmer waters. Westerhus started singing softly into the guitar in combination with Henriksen’s muted and softened trumpet sounding very much like a shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. The music with its electronics, extended techniques and vocalizations captured a wide range of sound(s) and thereby touched upon cosmological dimensions. The transitions and shaping of the sound remained unpredictable and enthralling, the modus operandi and the roles of the four musicians tended to remain more or less fixed. Arve Henriksen was the most agile of the group, angelic at one moment and hobglobin at the next. Stian Westerhus was the crushing, crunching, grinding spirit. Jozef Dumoulin whose electronic equipment got lost on the airport so that he was restricted to the acoustic piano and a lent mini electronic device plumbed the depths, beat the dust and fathomed the plains and plateaus. Teun Verbruggen was the draught, the storm, the rain and the thunder.

‘Playful Particles’

Like other cities have a ‘poet in residence’, since a couple of years Moers has an “Improviser in Residence’ living and working in town for a year to ‘carry the spirit of the festival’. It has become a tradition that the IiR opens the festival with a work of her/himself and performed by a line-up chosen by the IiR her/himself. This year’s IiR is violinist/percussionist Carolin Pook, a German musician living in Brooklyn. The work she came up with is a prototype of ‘playful particles’, of playing to gather and playing together. She designed a work for eight violins and a drum entitled Pezzettino 8 (Snippet 8) manifesting the tension of the individual and the social group, the self and the norm, the prescribed format. Each part was specifically arranged for each musician. The different parts kept on merging into a collage of pulsing sounds with individual solo passages breaking out. It was set up as a process piece in which the process of the creation of a whole that is more than the sum of its parts can be experienced. Pook had invited seven violinists to prepare and perform the work with her (Hannah Weirich, Yael Barolsky, Sabine Akiko Ahrendt, Lola Rubio, Irene Kepl, Zuzana Leharová, Una Sveinbjarnardóttir). For a performance there is the inner effect between/on the musicians and the outer effect to/on the audience – in this case a huge stage in a quite huge hall. Before the group set sails Pook charmingly expressed her enthusiasm about the inner effect. The musicians played eagerly and with urgency but the performance fell short a bit on the outer effect, regrettable in view of a great idea. Maybe a mobile spacial arrangement would have helped.

Repetitive Rounds

Repetition and repetitive structures are a crucial feature in music, narratives, religious practice and life. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Miles Davis’ All Blues, Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (a unit from neighbouring city of Düsseldorf), Terry Riley’s In C, Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain or Piano Phase are just a few prominent and famous examples. At the beginning of the century Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch created a Zen-inspired form of repetitious, modular groove music. Christian Wallumrød’s Stompin at Gagarin and Craig Taborn’s Beat The Ground are other examples. Especially Craig Taborn who closely collaborated with Detroit techno originator Carl Craig has integrated elements of techno deeply in his playing. Actually also the music of Moon Hooch and Dog Life, groups that both performed this year at the festival has repetition as a central feature, Moon Hooch as a high voltage head banging dance unit and Dog Life as a rough, textural variant of repetitive music. Dog Life and Dawn of Midi are wild antipodes of each other, the first trio playing (loosely) to gather, the other trio playing together in forced neat synchronization – each with different effects on the audience.

Presently various kinds of motivic repetition formats represented by en vogue groups as Portico, GoGo Penguin or Plaistow are up and coming as a kind of light (maybe even trivialized) version of minimalism. Dawn of Midi belongs to this wave too but is much tighter, more thorough and coherent in its approach. Its performance on Sunday evidently met receptive souls and fell on fertile ground among the Moers audience. The same happened with the lighter version of the performance of the duo Hauschka&Kosminen on Monday. Was Moers, as usual, in touch with the Zeitgeist? The answer is yes. It is hoped that moers festival will also go beyond these forms of horizontal reductionism and pick up new forms of rich layering and spiral looping (not represented this time) in future editions.

Carla Kihlstedt – photo credit Henning Bolte


Narratives confirm or make sense of experiences or reported events. In getting narratives across musical elements can play an important supportive role or music can be the medium to convey narratives. Besides Johann Johannson’s multidisciplinary End of Summer narrative there were two more profiled narratives. The first one was Jeremy Flower’s The Real Me about the different sides of ageing. It took the form of a song cycle and was conveyed in the form of traditional song. Together with the EOS chamber orchestra Jeremy Flower and his fellow musicians delivered a pretty intense, vivid and poignant piece of music strongly driven by the passionate singing of violinist Carla Kihlstedt.

The second one, the Book of Birds by The Liz, adopted a more heterogeneous, multidisciplinary scenic approach with electronics, instrumental interventions, recitations, masks, grime, lighting, and puppets. All three musicians, Liz Kosack, Korhan Erel, Liz Allbee, acted their roles as musicians and narrators in a bird like appearance. The three Bird-Lizes were statically grouped in a flat triangle with trumpeter Liz Allbee as the most mobile part. The narrative arose from a loose patchwork with texts from Kathy Acker, Jean Cocteau, antiquity, and the musicians themselves. It developed rather slowly thereby heavily deconditioning the spectators’ expectations/habits and at the same time arousing their attention, triggering curiosity. It has a big potential and The Liz offered precious moments where things coincided but the dramatically force of the mise-en-scene did not hold strong enough to draw in more people of the audience. Possibly physical movement and lighting might reinforce and heighten the outer effect of the core’s set up.

Cassandra Wilson – Photo credit Henning Bolte

From The Deep South

moers festival offers a broad range of non-classified music. As part of its distinguished approach music close to the southern origins of Afro-American jazz could not be missed.

As its incarnation guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, drummer J.T. Lewis and none other than vocalist Cassandra Wilson made their appearance under the name of eminent Afro-American Underground Railroad slave liberationist and civil rights activist Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), a group founded by Ross in 1998. Harriet Tubman figures prominently in the narrative of Afro-American history even if her name is less known in mainstream media discourse. Looking at her life story a lot of still virulent traces can be discerned. As Melvin Gibbs emphasized identification of these and identification with Tubman’s activities is still highly relevant.

The electrified body of Harriet Tubman went off laid back on a heavily rumbling vibe interspersed by deeply resonating vocals of Mrs Wilson. All guitar riffin’ and banjo picking was deeply drenched in gospel and blues to make the Black Sun Rollin’ before they ran the shimmering Voodoo Down:

I got High John in my pocket
And mud in my shoes
Walked all the way from Mississippi
Just to spread the news
Don’t care for idle conversation
I’m not your girl about town
But when it comes to make music
I run the voodoo down
And here in this quiet place I own
Worlds are born

They lingered on the intersection of the real world and imaginary worlds, where things get turned around, are evasive and glorious, hidden and clear. In quite casual way with Wilson’s sparse but effective guitar playing they got the Zwischenwelt, the twilight zone, opened up and glowing. It was Cassandra Wilson down to earth and exalted as well as exalting.

Die Röhre (The Tube/Roaring Voice)

Die Röhre, a small basement, is a ‘Jazzkeller’ relict from the early days of the festival that has been preserved until now. Here three days midnight sessions took place traditionally organized by a guest programmer. This year Louis Rastig, pianist and young artistic director of fresh Berlin A L’Arme festival (July, 27-30) curated the program of Die Röhre. Swiss power trio Schnellertollermeier would have been a hot contender for the main stage (see my review of the group). It was an ingenious set of Louis Rastig to choose the group for Die Röhre besides two other profiled young groups, Norwegian vocal-drums duo Natalie Sandtorv and Ole Mofjell and Swedish trio Doglife with saxophonist Anna Högberg, bass guitarist Finn Loxbo and drummer Mårten Magnefors. It was a well-chosen, clearly contoured, attractive program providing a good exposure for young musicians.

Dangers / politics

During its history renowned moers festival has been repeatedly in peril. The threat of stopping it has been a permanent companion of the festival and its artistic director. This year it was there again but in a quite alarming and damaging way – there was/is turmoil both before and after the festival. What is most remarkable: this time the thread goes together with growing artistic success and reputation as well as commercial stability. The festival received the award of the Europe Jazz Network recently, was visited this year by two international delegations, one initiated by German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Goethe Institute and Initiative Musik, the federal government’s funding agency in support of rock, pop, and jazz music from Germany and another one by federal state Nordrhein Westfalen’s Kultursekretariat. Moreover the festival received an extra grant for the next three years from Germany’s Federal Government. In March when the program announced the board did not even know if the festival could and would take place.

Nonetheless and even despite extremely cold weather the ticket sale stabilized on the high level of last year. After a well-received festival it was no real surprise that Reiner Michalke offered immediate termination of his contract to the board of Moers Kultur Ltd. during the final press conference. His message was clear. First, he is not willing to continue under the same circumstances as this year with its distracting, disrupting and threatening background noise. Second, by offering his resignation he wants to ensure that an open discussion of clear and workable solutions for the festival’s future can continue.

Wrap up

The festival with its 20 concerts in one night and three days offered a manifold and coherent programme of considerable range, a programme full of colour, contrast, challenge, controversy and (re)discovery. It was again a programme that not only bribed on paper but mainly by its sequenced unfolding on the spot with improved sound and light. As the review indicates the Stadtkirche concerts had a high significance of their own – a potential to consider and develop for the future. The shared programming revealed as a strong component of the festival. It is however highly questionable to maintain Die Röhre for purely nostalgic reasons as a venue for the night concerts. A better place closer by would be desirable and advisable.

The festival has reassured its profiled status as one of the leading independent and artistically interesting festivals in Europe. Its possibilities are by far not exhausted. There is certainly an audience of sufficinent magnitude to make it viable –  it is up to dedicated and resolute spirits to make it happen.


Moers Festival website

Hennig Bolte’s  past reports on the moers festival: 

The 2015 Festival
The 2014 Festival
The 2013 Festival

ARTE recorded/filmed several of the concerts and the coverage is online

Categories: miscellaneous

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