X Avant Festival The Music Gallery, Toronto ON September 13 to 16

X Avant Festival The Music Gallery, Toronto ON September 13 to 16
The second annual X Avant music festival commenced with a layered rumbling crescendo of five acoustic guitars, bass, cello, four violins and percussion as David Daniel treated the audience to his hypnotic epic, "Sunfish.” Utilising a special assembly of Toronto’s top experimental players, the Chicago guitarist created fascinating harmonic tension with the arrangement, but some of the melodies seemed underdeveloped. Melodic development however, was in abundance for the Wooden Stars’ pristine prog-pop. After an unlikely yet compelling free jazz version of "House of the Rising Sun” as an introduction, the Stars impressed with the subtle complexity of their compositions and sublime vocal harmonies, which veered into Zappa territory. Day two brought Contact, a group performing electronic music with an organic orchestra. David Bowie’s "Warsawa” was a highlight, and Aphex Twin’s "Black Calax” was a suitable but safe choice. Some of the selections grew monotonous to the point of exhaustion, but could be appreciated as exercises in concentration — in the absence of strong acid. An altered state could also have made it easier to enjoy the hour-long improvisation between Pauline Oliveros and Anne Bourne that followed. Though Oliveros’s virtuosity and creativity were extended through her accordion, the fascinating bursts of minor-key carnival dementia and note-less sputtering seemed to prevent anything resembling melodic development. Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rich Brown pulled out some mind-bending saxophone freak-outs anchored by atmospheric loops and highly adept cascading bass patterns to open Friday’s festivities. Displays of otherworldly musical ability were the order of the night with Trichy Sankaran stretching the boundaries of rhythmic possibility during his mesmerising set that was both performance and clinic. When Sankaran asked his daughter specifically to keep the raga for him while he tried something new, no amount of explanation could clarify the unfathomable instinctual mathematics his fingers and palms beat out of his mrdangam. Follow Follow ended the night on a bit of a subdued note — odd considering their set was mostly Fela Kuti material. The musicianship was extremely solid and there were beautiful moments, but the fire was lacking. On Sunday, the Madawaska String Quartet performed an impeccable set of lovely and haunting classical pieces by Allison Cameron and Ushio Torikai. Closing the festival, Owen Pallett joined Picastro for their album release. The collection of sombre but engaging songs was given spirit by Liz Hysen’s laconic wit and dressed in distinct form by her tasteful and inventive band. Brimming with challenge and often overlooked brilliance, let’s hope there are many more years of X Avant to come.