Wels / music unlimited: how the future starts now
The 36th edition of Wels / music unlimited was exemplary in how to curate a diverse and exciting line-up. A binding mash-up of genres with a percentage of female and non-binary artists able to withstand the female:pressure test.
The wondrous array of female-initiated creativity, with amongst others Lisa Ullén, Sofia Jernberg, Witch Club Satan and a mash-up showcase of Scandinavian free improv, classical, jazz and metal, demonstrated how the future starts now.
Rose Dodd was present from 2-4 November.
Off the beaten track where progressive vibes are conjured
174 kilometres to the extreme west of Vienna, the music unlimited festival is rightfully proud of maintaining a vibrant, unique and curious atmosphere, open to all visitors who find their way to Wels, a place normally just off the beaten track. Its goal: ‘Exploring the limits of listening in all possible directions’. Since inception in 1987, Wolfgang Wasserbauer’s open-nature ethos and warmth has established the core festival imprint around which tangential and aesthetically limitless possibilities can be excavated, established, then explored.
Housed in its countercultural venue in Wels, Austria; with both a local and international following, music unlimited’s evolving freshness and renewal is injected precisely: through the structural mechanism and commitment to bi-annual guest curation. Guest curators of previous festival editions being those such as Peter Brötzmann, Ikue Mori, Okkyung Lee, Mats Gustafsson. Indeed, Wasserbauer’s wish to seek out, source and display an indescribable range of music has cultivated an acutely attentive and discerning Wels audience.
With a strapline ‘the future starts now’ underlining her steering of this 36th edition, Agnes Hvizdalek’s assured curation revealed itself in quiet and focused determination. An invitation to curate born out of a long association with the festival herself, having impressively been invited to perform there four years in a row. Personally invested, a conversation began, evolving into this year’s explosion of diverse threads of disparate musical genres: experimental metal, free jazz, and various intersections of experimental improv with electronics being blended within intermingling sophistry. Embodying real and focused emphasis on inclusivity and unique, sharply focused self-expression: aesthetic choices subtly foregrounded the stark nature of the cultural field’s hitherto binary commissioning patterns. Adding weight to the festival’s independent nature, and increasing its seriousness and international prestige, simply ‘the future became now’ through this festival edition embodying real political acts of inclusivity and self-expression.
A simple commitment undertaken to cast a wider booking net was vindicated in Hvizdalek’s curated festival sound palette which blended luminaries such as the New York based Borderlands jazz Trio to trailblazing Norwegian improv-institution, the all-female Spunk: musical stalwarts, new and fresh voices invigorated, providing mashups of genres and subgenres: YAWN, PNØ, BEAM SPLITTER, singer Sofia Jernberg, Witch Club Satan and amazingly dextrous: integrally, quietly-innovating improv pianist Lisa Ullén, amongst others, all pushing the festival’s established hybrid mantra to the max. Vienna founded network female:pressure indicated that between 2020-21 there was only 27% female gender-presence participation in music festival line-ups. music unlimited’s 36th edition smashed this stat in style, with a hefty majority of female-led projects. Thus normalizing through elegant commissioning, something so simple, namely a playful exploratory program abundantly raising the visibility and audibility of many genres and styles of female talent. Bands like Norwegian Witch Club Satan reaching an international audience for the first time, claiming: owning their space with totality, in this uniquely authentic arena.
Jump-starting the opening night, Oslo based metal band YAWN threw us out of the box with their frenetic energy. It was a visceral and boisterous set, bouncing between metal and jazz, with experimental soulful electronics sometimes cutting up the noise. Dynamo trio, consisting of guitarists Mike McCormick, Torfinn Lysne and percussionist Oskar Johnsen Rydh, captured us in their slick interpretation of what metal’s energy can look like, with their computer-aided amp turned right up high. Lysne was the focal point, no matter the swirling maelstrom around him, his eyes fixed straight forward with haunting and beguiling presence: so far so music, loudly unlimited, and supremely convincing.
Embodiment in vocality
Under the audacious awning of unlimited, Hvizdalek exhibited acute and strong decisions honing in on specific musical narratives which acted as binding threads. Female vocality was strongly in focus in many of the line-ups underlining the centrality of vocal embodiment in its many expressions across the international improv scene.
Gobi Drab flute & voice, Lucie Vitkova, accordion player and Veronika Mayer electronics freshly formed line-up began the conversation which punctuated unlimited with thoughtful sets across the next couple days. PNØ in the combination of Agnes Hvizdalek voice Jakob Schneidewind electronics in their first outing were mesmerising, performing on the very first night, setting the bar high. Describing their collaboration as being ‘a long journey for us to find this in-between-space of uncompromising experimental voice sounds that do not need to fulfill any of the normal singer expectations and electronic danceable beats. It’s a completely different way of performing. It was the first time the audience was dancing when I performed (in my life and also the only time during the festival).’
With six years playing together BEAM SPLITTER (Audrey Chen voice, Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø trombone & electronics) positioned themselves with the audience as close and surrounding them as possible so as to include them more viscerally in their process. Singer Audrey Chen’s exploration, to find ‘a more honest mode of communication for the difficulty to express (my own) diasporic narrative’ was their main focus, trombone scrapes and textures melded to interlace with vocal utterance, forming virtuosic shapings placed at the edge of sound. Maja Ratkje’s long evolved immersive integration into SPUNK’s musical palette where her voice is equal instrument to those of her fellow conspirators’ Hild Sofie Tafjord, Lene Grenager, and Kristin Andersen Høvin (horn, cello, trumpet & electronics) is a key vocal innovator in the experimental vocal trajet: wonderful that SPUNK joined this signal liminal vocal presence during these special days.
Sofia Jernberg’s presence filled the hall, and her compact set was a prism of resonant vocalisations imbued with moments of sung song intercut with throat clicks. Folded in on themselves, these clicks remind us of an eternal song that we once may have heard, from a memory of long ago. Hers is a voice whose colouration expands on every next occasion that we are next able to hear her: whose talent remains pure, as it is constantly evolving. Lisa Ullén too, in her quiet working out, threading her path across the keys with a tremendous quietness of focus. These were classic sets, a gift to all those present in Wels.’
From cutely humorous cut-ups…
Fun moments from Oslo based instrumentalists Tøyen fil og Klafferi with an enticingly and cutely balanced humorous new work made in collaboration with Lars Skogland, with an enchanting matching film alongside. Kristine Tjøgersen’s Adagio & Beethovenfest 2020, likewise offered a recognisable entry point into this world with retro-dance class visuals, a wry comment on activities from a bygone heteronormative era, underlined by a score generated from master music quotation. Fully attended, their lightness of touch was so warmly received in the hall.
… to, things normally left unspoken, being stated starkly out loud
Speaking directly non-binary, other voices were vitally, centrally and visibly positioned: in their rightful place on an international platform. In an absorbing triptych comprising a 30 minute synthesiser set, with two companion subsequent short films, transgender filmmaker Aron Dahl’s contribution to Wels’ musical conversation was extraordinary. His acutely affecting, and brutally honest short film ‘Invisible Boy’ began the second day. A crucially forward-thinking, and centrally included element documenting his personal journey in the month after a breakup, noting:
‘in your gaze I saw myself for the first time,
And then you were suddenly gone
And I went back to being invisible’
Echoing/reflecting the journey of many female practitioners, including composers, taboos being placed before the audience in ‘Invisible Boy’ included: queer desire, loneliness, identity and embodiment. Things normally left unspoken, are said out loud in this stark film, and underlined in imagery. Where time passes, frustration and effort towards self-actualization pervasively remain side by side, day after day, and still time passes, and some things remain the same, and some things don’t. Dahl performed to a packed cinema audience: enthusiastic applause, congratulations, many questions and follow-up conversations demonstrated a warm and heartfelt appreciation for work shown.
dominance, ownership and GothTrashGoddess power
All-female GothTrashNoiseGoddesses – Witch Club Satan threw down their set on Saturday night.
Displaying their musical and stage power: transcendentally morphing from Witch to white Goddesses, strutting their crucified divinity with simple and resonant lyrics like these:
‘She was a water girl. Born in water. And the water in which she was born was pink from her mothers blood in the tub.
She was baptized. She learned how to swim. In pools she pretended to be a mermaid. She didn’t really know she was mermaid-like. She had a glow, and they gathered around her like moths.You know the kind…
Luminescent girls don’t need anything. Luminescent fish attract prey. A mermaid’s song would be the most beautiful thing you would ever hear, and soon after, it would be all silence.
Our water girl woke up in the middle of the night one night, and went alone to the shore. She jumped out of her dress and into the blue. Her skin was shining under the waves. She was freedom. But then she was like Ophelia too, soon cold.
Beauty is dangerous.
Luminescent girls don’t need anything, yet they attract anything.
And this moonlight magnet was a threat to anyone who tried to deny her light. That was her only crime.
It was decided by law that she who floated would be dead by fire.
Our water girl was stripped naked and the buddel cut her long hair off. He tied her hands and feet together. He tied another rope around her waist to drag her up before it was too late.
Holy water, wash away our…
But then she was a water girl. She was water. She was not afraid of the deep. She was born in water, so she cut the cord, and sank with her ship of dreams.’
Grasping the venue viscerally, pumping the air with poker-hot metal-Goddess sound, in an unrelenting primordial feat of nature. Squeezing the air tight into us, strutting and parading their awesomeness and wholly owning us. All ritual power and transcendence, pure white witchiness, morphing from Goddess journeying through mock crucifixion to the innocence of a mermaid: in this set all prisms of ritual femaleness were revealed. Excoriating deeply creative renditions of power, exposing a gelatinous quivering underbelly of primordial matter in sound. Johanna Holt Kleive (percussion), Nikoline Spjelkavik and Victoria Fredrikke Schou Røising (guitars) embodied Witch Club Satan wildly.
Primal sexualised visceral feminine power Witch Club Satan truly inhabited the space offered to them in Agnes Hvizdalek’s very fully imagined 36th edition of Wels’ music unlimited. A festival which strikes out forward into the future, with the future being very present: our new future, right now.