REVIEW: Surnatural Orchestra at the Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016

Surnatural Orchestra, Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016

Review: Surnatural Orchestra
(Ljubljana, Cankarjev Dom, June 29. Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016. Review and photos by Henning Bolte)

This was a definite highlight of the festival and a candidate for my events of the year.

In recent years larger ensembles and orchestras of young(er) musicians with fresh tonal colours, venturing new types of music, are increasingly frequenting festivals. Some are already established and well known, others are upcoming. Surnatural Orchestra from France has been underway for quite a while in own country. Last year the orchestra had its first appearance outside France at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in Britain (see review) and made a mark there (see review) as well as more recently with a Paris residency (see review). This year Ljubljana was the festival to step in and present this troupe’s new show with tightrope walker Tatiana Mosio-Bongonga and acrobats of Cirque Inextremiste.

However, Surnatural Orchestra is more than just another large ensemble. At first sight it can have some resemblance to Kimmi Pohjonen’s Finnish Accordion Wrestlers, say, or the Ethiopian Fendika circus performing with an extended version of Dutch group The Ex. In the 90 minutes show of Surnatural Orchestra a troupe of 25 artists including 18 musicians, three acrobats, two sound specialists, a light designer and a stage constructor operating and creating as a tight unit, were all involved. Normally travelling with a big top in France, for Ljubljana the troupe brought its complex show to the stage of Cankarjev Dom’s Linhart Hall. Balanced and balancing movements of all kinds were at the centre, and formed the connecting thread running through the troupe’s show with its surprising transitions, breath-taking turns, daring stunts and joyful and hilarious twists. All of its dimension and modes of action, the visual and the aural, the acrobatics and the playing of instruments unfolded simultaneously, with strong interconnectivity and a mutual support which helped the show to really flow coherently. Taking its way through a rich series of movements and challenges of balance the troupe brought forth an overall musical wave with charming poetical undercurrents, disarming naivety and many a smiles of purity. “Jazz to feast your eyes on and circus that’s music to your ears” is what the organizers hoped to experience. What the troupe accomplished went even far beyond that.

Clearly rooted in Brechtian theatre, the specific poetical and musical tradition of French circus – exemplified among others by troupes as Cirque Plume – and comical traits of Jacques Tati, they demonstratively and playfully played the game of playing theatre – obviously to full excitement and delight of the audience. Permanent resetting and reshaping the stage is integral part of the show. The red uniform and the wings of the regulator for instance were modelled after Tati’s Jour de Fete and after Otto Lilienthal’s early flight experiments. Tottering with a cute bouquet of daisies trombonist Hanno Baumfelder acted as mc, a wonderful insistent dream catcher and reincarnation of the young Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Hanno Baumfelder, Surnatural Orchestra, Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016

The music, the movements through the theatrical space, the balancing and the actions with/on (rolling) gas canisters, wooden planks and tight rope were logical consequences of each other well strung together in a highly dynamic way. It is clearly recognizable that the instrumental part is primarily developed in/from physical movement in/through space. It is not a later adaptation triggered by the theatrical “part” but part of the confluence of two individual rivers into a new stream. The ensemble comprises six reed players, three trumpets/mellophone and three trombones, sousaphone, two flutes, guitar and (Portuguese) cavaquinho, keyboard and two drummers. There is no double bass or other string instruments.

Surnatural Orchestra, Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016

Moving around in the theatrical space the scene is continuously changing and shaped by balancing of the musicians on rolling gas canisters of different sizes and instable wooden plank constructions. The musicians not only have to “put in the air” the weight of their individual sound. By doing this they also have to balance out the weight of their body among each other. The invisible fine-tuning is made visible by this and at the same time the quality of intertwined sound is influenced by it. Even the extended two percussion sets were moving across the stage like in a magical fairy tale revealing their secret enchanting sounds. It is an ever-changing architectural landscape on stage. The musicians are radically lifted out of their fossilized positioning (and role pattern) on stage.

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The music of the troupe is nourished by lots of influences and this time comprised hoketus like parts, overlayering and superimposing effects with traces of Carla Bley, Kurt Weill and Robert Wyatt, traces of Ellingtonia, French musette, Vaudeville, valses funébres and New Orleans second line beat. Remarkably for the last album of the ensemble, Ronde, Ferry Heijne, leader of legendary Dutch group De Kift, was invited as an advisor.

Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016

Special forms of music ever emerged from the movements and displacements that occurred on stage. It forced special constellations to arise meanwhile. A great example was the emergence of a second line beat celebrated quite authentically by a split up sub-group of the orchestra performing it in a theatrical mode with great singing and – faithful to the original – split percussion. In a jiffy this subgroup created a mini world and celebrated the living and dead in graceful procession.

For certain parts the ensemble is also working with a kind of conduction/collective improvisation, the soundpainting approach developed by American musician Walter Thompson in the 1970s. Soundpainting is the universal multidisciplinary live composing sign language for musicians, actors, dancers, and visual artists. It allows each musician to step forward and temporarily lead the orchestra by means of the gestural signs of the approach.

Both art forms functioning on an equal footing and are complememtary to each other, and yet they never became ornamental or illustrative. Both contribute in their own modes and ways to the common theme. That is what made it different from more additive approaches. The Surnatural approach evidently offers enormous possibilities for artists, audiences and programmers/directors.

Tatiana Mosio-Bogonga, Ljubljana Jazz Festival 2016

All culminated in Tatiana Mosio-Bogonga’s walk on the tight rope. To allow it happen, first the instable wooden plank construction had to be converted into a tight and solid-state construction enabling Mosio-Bogogna to balance on the rope without a net in full confidence climbing, hanging, crawling, rotating, walking, in splits and even in headstand – a wonderful, breath-taking spectacle of a strong beautiful woman. And still more was to come … The co-ordinator of it all, who had been on the scenery skiing and flying, had to show that he was equally able to make everything go haywire – so he got totally stuck on top of one of the two holding poles for the rope – one of the antitheses in the dialectical see-saw of the show. Whereas visitors had participated on stage for the tight rope act, later musicians conquered the hall and played from different positions in the almost darkened space. Finally the troupe had to re-gather on stage for a grand finale. And they did … again in a fully surprising way and to the delight of a full house with a joyous and diverse audience.

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Postscriptum: audience, skaters, park runners and bikers

When I went to the concert hall I had to pass the skaters busy on the big Republic Square with the National Assembly Hall on one side and the cultural centre Cankarjev Dom on the other side. In between the two big towers of Cankarjev Dom and The NLB (Nova Ljubljanska Banka), the largest Slovenian banking and financial group their click-clacking and their reeling, rolling sound triggered in me the image of a drummer (or more) interacting with them (and maybe parkour runners and bikers). Actually it has been done at Porto’s Casa da Musica. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed Casa da Musica in a way that the music hall and the square outside it are a piece of integrated and harmonious urban design.


Clea Torales-Elizalde, flute; Fanny Menegoz, piccolo flute; Adrien Amey, soprano saxophone; Baptiste Bouquin, alto saxophone, clarinet; Jeannot Salvatori, alto saxophone, cavaquinho; Robin Fincker, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Nicolas Stephan, tenor saxophone; Fabrice Theuillon, baritone saxophone, FX; Izidor Leitinger, trumpet, flugelhorn, mellophone; Julien Rousseau, trumpet, flugelhorn, euphonium; Antoine Berjeaut, trumpet, flugelhorn; François Roche-Juarez, trombone; Hanno Baumfelder, trombone; Judith Wekstein, bass trombone; Boris Boublil, keyboards, guitar; Antonin Leymarie, drums; Sylvain Lemétre, percussion; Laurent Géhant, sousaphone, synth bass; Tatiana Mosio-Bongonga, tightrope walker; Yann Ecauvre, circus artist; Rémi Bezacier, circus artist; Zakariyya Cammoun, sound designer; Corentin Vigot, monitor engineer; Jacques-Benoît Dardant, light designer; Thomas Khomiakoff, stage manager

Categories: miscellaneous

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