Le Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville featuring Matana Roberts, John Zorn, Phil Minton Victoriaville QC May 17-20

Le Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville featuring Matana Roberts, John Zorn, Phil Minton Victoriaville QC May 17-20
No self-respecting crystal ball would predict that Victoriaville, a small industrial city located 160 kilometres northeast of Montreal, would host North America's premier international festival of pushing-the-envelope improvised music. Festivalgoers hear the whole spectrum of improv music: avant-jazz, experimental rock, Euro-improv, leaps of non-Western music into the 21st century, and other adventures that defy any ready label.

Despite recalcitrant crystal balls, the 28th edition of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, affectionately dubbed Victo in musical circles, presented 19 concerts this year, with an expanded selection of sound installations placed in prominent public spaces.

The Feral Choir project, led by the British voice arts pioneer Phil Minton, kicked off Victo 2012, giving eloquent evidence that the out-there music championed by festival founder Michel Levasseur attracts regular folks who "everybody knows" will flee from such wildness. Minton's philosophy is that any unmusical sound made by the human voice can be turned into music: moans, laughter, coughing, rapid loud conversation -- anything. Minton trains, even prefers, people who do not have musical training. He worked four days with 30 Victoriaville residents from multiple walks of life, from 20-somethings, to retirees, to hipsters, to people who looked like a bank manager or town librarian on their days off. They were all visibly tickled pink to be working with Minton, and vice versa.

So Victo 2012 took off with a clear message to the community at large: New Music -- it's accessible, it's fun, it's for you.

Two gigs at the Cinema Laurier venue featured Joe Morris and Bill Laswell, respectively, leading lights of Downtown New York's avant-rock scene, except when projects lead them to be leading jazz lights as well. What guitarist/bassist Morris had in store for the audience was music from his latest album, named The Spanish Donkey after a sharp-edged torture bench used to mutilate prisoners' genitals during the Spanish Inquisition. Compared to the album's material, heavy metal is a lullaby. One nonstop day of this CD could break any political prisoner. It is also a daring tour de force.

Thursday and Friday night concerts featured none other than John Zorn, performing not on his legendary sax but as a conductor of his "comprovisation" suite inspired by the William S. Burroughs novel Nova Express. He also offered up the premiere of "The Concealed," a series of combined musical/literary/visual inspirations from major mystical traditions. Saturday night, meanwhile, featured the seminal trumpet master Wadada Leo Smith and his all-star band playing selections from Ten Freedom Summers, a new four-CD set from Cuneiform.

Coming as part of Victo's avant-rock evenings were Montreal's Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, helping celebrate the 15th anniversary of the influential Montreal label Constellation Records. That celebration was bolstered by another Godspeed You! Black Emperor spinoff, Esmerine.

However, the big musical discovery of Victo 2012 came during Constellation's mid-Sunday afternoon concert by New York jazz saxophonist/composer/singer/poet Matana Roberts. The fact that this hyper-talented Big Apple musician has decided to center much of her activity in Montreal is a statement about the strength of the music scene that young musicians have created there.

Things were flowing nicely for Roberts, but nothing extraordinary -- until she delved into her song "Libation for Mr. Brown: Bid em in..." The crowd heard a sweet folkish melody underlying words that took a verse to sink in, as Roberts sang gaily about auctioning slaves, her ancestors. "Bid em' in" is a profoundly powerful musical condemnation of America's original sin of slavery. It propelled Roberts's large free jazz ensemble to take off like a rocket. The audience instantly rose to standing applause when her set sounded its last bar. Every festival hopes for a magic moment. This was it.