Fete Quaqua is a long-running institution, an annual concert series organised by guitarist John Russell which seeks, as he puts it: “to extend existing collaborations / relationships between musicans in juxtaposition with new ones and thus provide a fertile ground for free improvisation.”
“…but all this business of voices yes quaqua yes of other worlds yes of someone in another world yes whose kind of dream I am yes said to be yes…all balls.” (Samuel Beckett, How It Is.)
Notwithstanding Beckett’s coinage, the Quaqua website informs us that: “‘Quaquaversality’ means to point in all directions and the name ‘Quaqua’ is Latin for ‘whithersoever’.” So now we know.
Russell’s invitees this year were: Chris Burn (piano, trumpet), Lawrence Casserley (electronics, sound processing), Nina de Heney (bass), Hannah Marshall (cello), Adrian Northover (alto and soprano saxophones), Thomas Rohrer (rabeca), Sabu Toyozumi (percussion, erhu), Lisa Ullén (piano), and Ute Wassermann (voice, whistles). Violinist Satoko Fukuda was also scheduled, but could not attend.
I took Rohrer’s instrument for a modern-style violin, but although it does look similar and play in the same range, the rabeca is in fact a fiddle from northern Brazil, more typically used in Forró music. And Sabu Toyozumi’s erhu, if you were wondering, is a two-stringged ‘spike’ fiddle, or Chinese violin.
Each night there were two sets of four performances, the first and last being by the full tentet. Russell’s scheduling was assiduously democratic, with each musician performing just once or twice per set.
The performances broke down as follows:
Sunday, 1st set: Electronics, piano (Ullen), rabeca, and saxophone. / Cello, percussion and erhu, and piano (Burn). / Bass, guitar, and voice. 2nd set: Cello, electronics, saxophone, and voice. / Bass, piano (Ullen), rabeca, and trumpet. / Guitar and percussion.
Monday, 1st set: Bass, cello, erhu, and piano (Ullen). / Guitar, rabeca, saxophone, trumpet, and voice. / Cello, electronics, percussion, piano (Burn), and voice. 2nd set: Bass, erhu, and alto saxophone. / Electronics, trumpet, and voice. / Guitar, piano (Ullen), and rabeca.
Tuesday, 1st set: Erhu and rabeca. / Cello, piano (Burn), and voice. / Bass, electronics, and piano (Ullen). 2nd set: Cello, guitar, soprano saxophone, and trumpet. / Electronics, rabeca, and soprano saxophone. / Bass, guitar, percussion, piano (Ullen), and voice.
Russell told me: “I like to keep a thread running through my Quaqua projects and to also have some new elements each time. Six of the musicians (including myself) had played in Quaqua groups before and four had not. Those four were Nina de Heney, Adrian Northover, Lisa Ullén and Lawrence Casserley.”
I was particularly looking forward to hearing Russell’s signature wiry scrabble transformed by Casserley’s sound processing, which I usually hear channelling the more liquid flow of Evan Parker’s saxophony in the context of the latter’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, but I was to be (slightly) disappointed.
Casserley, who either played a brightly colour-coded interface much like a piano or else plucked samples from a touchscreen tablet, didn’t have much presence in the sound mix, and it was only in the quietest moments that it was possible to individuate his ghostly electronics amid the struck and bowed sounds with which they most often blended.
The most interesting setting for Casserley’s work was the blending of Ute Wassermann’s vocalizations with Chris Burn’s smeary trumpet.
If Casserley was buried in the mix, Wassermann’s vocal was too prominent. She was the de facto focal point of each set she featured in, both physically – always situated forward and centre stage for the ensemble performances – and aurally. Whether consciously or not, the instrumentalists all tended to defer to her vocals which, ultimately, I found rather irritating. There’s no doubting either the idiosyncrasy of her style or her mastery of technique (imagine non-musical vocal coach abstractionism), but with the exception of an occasional arabesque mirroring of Northover’s soprano, she proved unresponsive to her various partners. And the less said about her frequent recourse to novelty whistles…
Ullén and de Heney, both from Sweden, have an established partnership, and both played with great sensitivity. Their third-set performance with Marshall and Toyozumi’s erhu became a string quartet with Ullén focusing on the piano’s harp, sounding it with judicious economy. The wiry de Heney played with a dancer’s lissome strength and economic precision of movement.
I would have liked to hear Ullén and de Heney play a duet, but time constraints meant that there were few opportunities to focus on individual pairings. Toyozumi played the only two duets of the series: hands-on percussion in tandem with Russell’s guitar, and ehru with Thomas Rohrer’s rabeca, which pushed the Brazilian to overturn his instrument and play its underside as a percussion instrument. For me, these were the highlights overall.
The trio for bass, alto saxophone, and percussion and erhu was the most fiery and viscerally compelling set of the entire series which otherwise witnessed mostly attentive deference. In the latter sense, kudos to Hannah Marshall, who worked perhaps harder than anyone to divine the individuating essence of each unique musical setting, and to Chris Burn, who showed his versatility but often, when appropriate, selflessly chose to contribute his silence.
I asked Russell whether any new partnerships had been forged among the musicians; perhaps some had exploited the opportunity to record together? He said: “There wasn’t any playing between musicians outside of the concerts but I think there were some new connections made both musically and ‘socio-economically’ i.e I heard a lot of talk along the lines of ‘we should play together again’.”
At the end of the final set Russell thanked his guests for taking him on “a journey of delight” over the past three nights, then nearly had a heart attack when Toyozumi punctuated the ensuing round of applause with an unexpected cymbal crash. But he survived to return to the Vortex two nights later to play with Evan Parker and John Edwards, a concert in the saxophonist’s ongoing monthly residency.
This trio had a more imposing presence than any of the Quaqua combos, a fact not just attributable to Edward’s full-size contrabass dominating the space so recently vacated by de Heney’s smaller instrument. Edwards plays as hard as anyone, and though he’s an acute and responsive listener he’s at his best when exerting himself against someone with equal stamina, trading energies. Parker may not be as bullish as his old sparring partner Peter Brötzmann, but he came up in the same school and can play with just the sort of sinuous resiliance required to mesh with Edwards. Russell had to dig correspondingly deep, playing harder than he had during Quaqua, practically scouring his guitar strings to produce a lacerative accompaniment.
But for all it’s impenetrable density the music was full of subtlety, with Parker on tenor slipping occasionally into the serpentine, compound complexities of his lighter soprano style. Edwards also eased off at regular intervals to accentuate the swing feel implicitly marking his time, and Russell encouraged the elaboration of any melodies suggested by chance evolution. At one point he seemed to extrapolate from a naggingly familiar refrain, and when I later asked if he’d had any particular theme in mind he said no, but that tunes often suggest themselves while he’s playing, like “All the Things You Are” maybe, and I think that was it. Whatever. A moment divine, for sure.
Each of the sets at Fete Quaqua 2012 was recorded to video and posted on YouTube.
For Fete Quaqua 2012 musician’s bios, see the Fete Quaqua WordPress site.
For details of Mopomoso, a regular concert series at the Vortex organised by John Russell and Chris Burn, see mopomoso.com.
For John Russell, see his website.
For Evan Parker, see The Official Evan Parker Website.
Freedom of the City 2012
Thomas Lehn at Cafe Oto, with Tim Hodgkinson, Hannah Marshall, and Philipp Wachsmann; John Butcher and Roger Turner, 29 June 2012
Maja S.K. Ratkje, Ikue Mori, Evan Parker, John Wiese at Cafe Oto, 31 March 2012