by Bradford Bailey, Mexico City
May 11, 2016 – May 15, 2016
Within our heavily mediated reality, and the endless mirror of social media, it’s easy to ignore how quickly we’ve become a culture that talks at each other, rather than with each other. Despite the conception that the Internet has opened access and enables discourse, we are increasingly removed from those around us – caught in the “ground loop” of our own reflections. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arts. In order to grab distinction, creative voices are encouraged to build singular worlds, free of collective, collaborative, or historical paradigm. Importance is placed on the individual, not our relationship to, and understanding of, broader contexts, or the perspectives of others. This is precisely the condition that the El Nicho festival, which occurred across Mexico City between the 11th and the 15th of May, sets out to challenge.
This festival of avant-garde music, founded by Eric Namour and in its sixth season, brings together a diverse group of experimentalists from across the globe, stressing cross-cultural exchange by placing them in close collaboration with each other and with peers and audiences from Mexico. Like much of experimental music, it attempts to “democratise” sound, challenging us to reconsider what we understand music to be and the character of collaboration and social dynamics. At the festival’s outset, it was apparent that the world of experimental music has no veil. Audiences and artists mingle and meet, as do their sounds, regardless of background, preference, or philosophy. This is a world of discourse, focused listening, and openness.
After a number of talks and pre-events held over the course of the preceding week, the festival kicked into full swing at the Goethe-Institut Mexiko. This first evening highlighted El Nicho’s core intercultural philosophy: a German artist meeting a Lebanese artist, and both collaborating with two from Mexico. It began with an improvisation between Mazen Kerbaj (LB) on adapted trumpet, and Darío Bernal Villegas (MX) on drums. From the first squeal of Kerbaj’s horn, both proved their profound depth, understanding, and intuition – working together as rhythms shattered the delicate, carefully placed sonorities. Experimental turntabelist Ignaz Schick (DE) was then joined by violinist Carlos Alegre (MX) for a sonic assault of delicate introspection, which defied any expectation, before a wonderful collaboration between the evening’s four musicians. Despite differences in background and approach, each rose to the occasion, issuing a brittle, intelligent set, challenging the audience with incongruous interrelationships. From its outset, the night pushed expectations for everything to follow over the course of the festival.
On Thursday, audiences gathered at Ex Teresa Arte Actual for an intervention, challenging the space, performers, listeners, and expectations of sound. Confronted with two stages, the audience was forced to shift between a series of alternating acoustic and amplified performances. The conceit was brilliant – punctuating the event with confusion and movement. After two underwhelming sets, things quickly escalated with a palate cleansing performance by Carlos Alegre (MX). His blistering violin and vocals wove a brilliant atonal and harmonic construction, raising the bar for the sets to come. As the audience drifted into the adjoining space, his challenge was met by a stunning solo set by Mazen Kerbaj (LB), who exceeded the lofty heights he achieved the night before. He was followed by Mike Cooper (GB), who met Kerbaj’s challenge with heart wrenching force. His guitar playing, electronics and vocals were stunning. John Hegre played a wonderful set of fed-back guitar, seeming to collapse the arches of the former church, before a fantastic performance by Juan Sebastian Lach of James Tenney’s For Ann (rising). The night concluded with a fierce Free-Jazz set by Arashi [Akira Sakata (JP), Paal Nilssen-Love (NO), and Johan Berthling (SE)]. Though the audience seemed ready to collapse after an overwhelming event, the trio whipped them into a frenzy and were met with more enthusiasm than I’ve seen in a long time – giving a fitting conclusion to an evening of remarkable sonic range.
The next afternoon a small group of fans and locals gathered in Plaza Los Ángeles (Guerrero) where Akira Sakata (JP), Ignaz Schick (DE), and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (NO) met for a solo set by Sakata, and a trio performance. The event was a brilliant collaboration with the mobile library ALUMNOS47 who bring their contents to underprivileged neighbourhoods across the city. Sakata’s performance was deeply moving. I was particularly struck by his rendition of Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre’s Humility In The Light Of Creator, before the group joined as a trio for a blistering set, ricocheting down the streets and puzzling onlookers.
As the sun set, a reinforced audience gathered at the Centro Cultural de España en México for an evening addressing the diversity within avant-garde sound practice. It began with a stunning performance of Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I by an ensemble made up of some of the finest voices in Mexico City’s thriving avant-garde scene (Darío Bernal Villegas, Alejandro Castaños, Ramón del Buey, Juan Cristóbal Cerrillo, Carlos Iturralde, and Iván Manzanilla). Outside stuffy confines of a symphony hall, they breathed new life into the work. This was followed by a stunning solo cello performance by Lori Goldstein that brought me to tears. Leafcutter John performed an interesting set with light triggered electronics, before The Thing, the Free-Jazz super group of Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (NO), Mats Gustafsson (SE), and Paal Nilssen-Love (NO), took the stage for a blistering frenzied performance, met with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but wonder why Free-Jazz doesn’t have a thriving life in Mexico City.
Saturday proved to be a full day, beginning at Ex Teresa Arte Actual. After a strange talk / intervention between Moniek Darge, Francoise Vanhecke and Rolando Hernandez, one of Mexico City’s more interesting young voices, Johan Berthling played an incredible set of solo bass improvisations, defying all sense of categorisation. This was followed by a brilliant collaboration between Mazen Kerbaj, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, and Lori Goldstone, which was one of my favourite sets of the festival, before the event concluded with a solo gesture by Mats Gustafsson – more than proving his worth as a solo composer.
Later the crowd regathered at Centro Cultural de España en México for a night of multi-media exploration. Bonnet, current director of Groupe de Recherches Musicales, founded in Paris by Pierre Schaeffer in 1951, performed a stunning acusmátic presentation of historic works from the studio on an 8 channel speaker system surrounding the audience, before giving a mind blowing performance of his own work under the moniker Kassel Jaeger. This was followed by a beautiful performance of James Tenney’s Fabric for Ché by Juan Sebastian Lach before the night concluded with a mind bending live cinema event performed by Greg Pope and John Hegre, which found Pope drawing on 16mm film as it passed through the projectors while Hegre improvised the sound in front of a mesmerised audience.
Sunday, the festival’s final day, held at the Museo Tamayo, was its most ambitious. With countless events, talks, and concerts, it was almost impossible to keep track of the fury of activity. With around 2500 hundred attendees over the course of the day, it was also its most successful. The day got rolling with a beautiful performance by Alexander Bruck of James Tenney’s Koan, which upon conclusion was overtaken by ensemble Liminal / Sonidero’s overwhelming rendition of the composer’s In a Large Reverberant Space – helped by an unexpected and beautiful improvised dance routine by a young attendee. This was followed by a brilliant performance pairing Mike Cooper with Mazen Kerbaj, which was one of the highlights of the day, only matched by Lori Goldston and Aimée Theriot’s wonderful improvised collaboration for two cellos. The event was deeply inspiring. It displayed the inclusive and expansive character of experimental music, opening us to its vast sense of possibility, before concluding with a deeply spiritual duo for two saxophones by Akira Sakata and German Bringas, wrapping up the day on a lofty high.
I can’t say enough good about the sprawling week. It was a lot to take in. Some performances were brilliant, others were not, but the allowance for taste and failure is what makes the festival and this music great. Against the efforts of its remarkable participants, I am forced to look at the whole. The ambition of cross-cultural exchange, and the hope of sharing the joys of entering a challenging world of sound, threaded through the days. It is this spirit that remains with me more than any single moment, reminding me of what is wonderful and important about the arts – of the need to exit our mediated realities, stand in a room together, and embark on adventures that defy prediction. Ones that shatter the mirror of self, and return us to discourse.