Live reviews

REVIEW: Forward Festival 2018 at Shapeshifter Lab, Brooklyn, NY

Forward Festival 2018
L-R: Matthew Putman, Hillard Greene, Federico Ughi
Patrick Holmes, Daniel Carter
Photo credit: Tobias Wilner

Forward Festival 2018
(Shapeshifter Lab, Brooklyn, 6 and 7 December. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

There are wires everywhere, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s name. This a visual manifestation of electronic music at Forward Festival 2018: a New York musical community’s two-night annual get together; and an opportunity to bring electronics to a level-pegging in the realms of improvisation and avant-jazz over eight short sets.

The opening group was this mission personified, with Federico Ughi and Jeff Snyder (who spoke in advance of the festival HERE), joined on stage by Cenk Ergün. Electronic musicians outweighed traditional musicians two to one, which leads for an unusual compositional dynamic and an unusual listening experience. Ughi sat centre stage, and through a range of rhythms and contributions provided a central improvisational anchor. He controlled the phases and moods through his play, but also through the selection of tools: developing from mallets, sticks, brushes, and back through the range.

As the percussion built, jumped, and crackled there’s a visual connection maintained between sound and action, which was interestingly obscured with Snyder and Ergün. Set up on opposite sides of the stage they presented as two ends of the history of electronics: modern day computer wizardry concealed behind a shining macbook and some neat arrays of knobs with Ergün casually sitting like he would in a cafe; and an alchemist’s nest of wires being diligently reconfigured into two enormous stuffed flight cases, with Snyder stooped over thoughtfully applying new order to the visual chaos by adding and adjusting cables, and tweaking knobs. Together the sounds melded into a pulsating beast.

Any impression of a barrier between a sound and its production, of a musician’s application and the audible expression, were shattered by saxophonist Rachel Musson. Her solo moment was a tour de force in using the tenor as a sound platform, noises and notes getting a level pegging. It’s also one of the rawest things I’ve ever seen. Wearing ones heart on one’s sleeve doesn’t cover it, it felt like reading someone’s personal diary.

Musson was followed by a 577 records mainstay, a group bringing label founders Ughi and Daniel Carter together with long-time bass collaborator William Parker and Mary Anne Driscoll at the piano. In a fashion, this was a quartet of individuals exploring their own paths, but together being much more than the sum. Parker is the beating heart of the group, and he and Ughi fed off each other while Carter tenderly tested out a mind-boggling area of trumpet mutes and varying scales of saxophone (over the two days he casually played six different instruments). Musson retook the stage and led Carter into a beautiful dual tenor arrangement.

Listening Group are an antidote to noise and playing abandon, and although had twice as many people on stage, made half the noise. With a remit to, well, listen, this was a sensitive affair, but a rare opportunity to bring out sounds which often go unheard: the clack of a saxophone’s keys, and a delicate bassoon as the de facto ensemble lead. The instrumentation is unusual (strings, electronics, woodwind, percussion) and the outcome of the concerted experiment was a mystical undulating sound experience.

Donald Sturge Anthony McKenzie II
Photo credit: Tobias Wilner

Friday had a more raucous soundscape, and opened with the diametric opposite to the listening group, with a stripped back drums and guitar setup making enough noise for a small army. Donald Sturge Anthony McKenzie II is a new power source that you could run most of South Brooklyn’s grid off. There are toms everywhere, and a terrifying snap and spring to the constantly changing high energy beats, so much so that bits of the drum kit were flying off and giving up as he went. He played with abandon, looking most taxed when keeping a restrained beat for the accompanying guitar slides.

The energy continued into Telepathia Liquida and New York United, the last ensembles, and current big hitters. A rolling back line for Carter’s soprano and Patrick Holmes’ clarinet to plaintively pick over. Moments of angst built up with Hilliard Greene’s furious bowed bass, and were released by New York United’s more dazed electronics from Tobias Wilner.

The overlying feeling was that Carter and Ughi could do this for hours, days (and indeed Ughi had been at the heart of the majority of the groups over the hours and days). They seem so comfortable playing, the room could be empty and they’d still carry on, content. It’s playing amongst friends. Throughout the festival the concept of stopping between musical thoughts to receive a round of applause was alien, and aside from the occasional pause the breaks were really only when a group had finished its set after half an hour of draining effort.

Forward Festival is a variety show, but with an underlying desire to improvise and experiment. It ends up as a showcase of contrasts: attentive listeners, and big sounds purveyors; future electronics and raw human acoustics; spontaneous displays and carefully structured frameworks. It’s imbued with a sense of exploration, of looking forward.

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