Monday, August 29, 2011


Coal Mine Michal
August 26
Gallery of Fine Arts
August 27

Clever clarinetist (and shameless flirt) Karel Dohnal.

The blistering temperatures matched the intensity of the music at Ostrava Days over the weekend, with two high-volume avant-garde events kicking off nine consecutive nights of contemporary music concerts in this gritty industrial city in northern Moravia.

On Friday night, trolleybus 104 swerved and lurched through a sweaty ride to Coal Mine Michal, an industrial heritage site on the city’s east side. Atop a towering tipple, crossed hammers in green neon overlook a massive mining and processing plant with haunting echoes of more prosperous times. In the huge changing room where the performances were held, miners’ clothes still hang by chains from the ceiling, like ragged ghosts.

The spooky factory ambience was perfect for abstract, otherworldly pieces like Cecilia Lopez’s Musica Mecanica para Chapas, in which standard horn instruments and various electronics interact with a chapa, a large, suspended sheet of metal hooked up to amplifiers. What sounds like a random series of noises is actually carefully scored, with the musicians all following timers and achieving some surprisingly sophisticated sounds.

Stockhausen’s Harlequin is more like a musical stand-up routine than a formal piece, with a solo clarinetist in costume squeezing every last laugh and improvisational riff out of a basic 12-bar hook. Karel Dohnal is a superb player, and was not shy about jumping at the sight of his own shadow or shamelessly flirting with women in the audience – for too long, perhaps, nearly 45 minutes in a hot, crowded room. After that, a heavy but brief bass distortion set by John Eckhardt, with accompanying ambient horn accents, came as a relief.

There were two musical standouts. Vocalist Salome Kammer gave a brilliant reading of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, employing changing tones, tempos, sound effects and occasional snatches of melody to give life and personality to what is essentially a long string of nonsense syllables. And an ensemble from the Ostravská Banda orchestra served up an excellent improv, starting on stage and then expanding throughout the space – behind and to the sides of the audience, up on catwalks, in adjoining rooms – to create a vivid three-dimensional jam. Along with standard instruments like a trumpet and cello, in-situ objects like corrugated metal doors were used to create sharp percussive effects, while other players wandered around twanging a Jew’s harp or pushing a screechy metal chair across the floor.

The piece ended with what sounded like screams from an adjacent shower room, where earlier in the evening, performance artist Daniël Pflogger stood naked, back to the audience, with a menacing-looking device hooked to his genitals. Periodic blasts of electronic noise and medical charts on the walls were meant to simulate actual clinical research of male sexuality: “I reproduce the contraction pattern of the subject’s sphincter muscle that was registered during masturbation and orgasm,” Pflogger explained in the program book. But what it looked like was someone being tortured, with the wires and Pflogger’s outstretched arms calling to mind images from Abu Ghraib. The shower room setting added even creepier undercurrents. While not typical of Ostrava Days, Pflogger’s Electrodes put quite a jolt in the opening evening.

Saturday was all about jolts of electricity, with a 10-hour electronic music marathon starting in bright light and steamy afternoon heat at the city’s Gallery of Fine Arts. The audience moved between two small rooms for alternating performances, dashing out in between sets for fresh air and liquid relief in an adjoining beer garden.

For those of us who are not practitioners, electronic music all sounds the same after a while – a limited vocabulary of noises and effects, rearranged in order and volume. It even looks the same, mostly male soloists or duos hunched over tangles of electronic boards and wires, intently twisting knobs and dials, never looking at the audience. The first real break from that came courtesy of Tomáš Vtípil, who turned in a set that sounded like a madman had been turned loose in an orchestra pit and was sampling every instrument to see what insane sound he could pull out of it, with occasional screams of rage or exultation. Inventive fare, but the volume drove this critic to the beer garden, where it was much more pleasant listening to the noise through the open windows, with a cold Ostravar in hand.

Still, there were interesting moments. Gordon Monahan did an engaging mixed-media theremin piece that, he explained, originated when he couldn’t stop a radio broadcast from interfering with an electronic performance in Toronto. Petr Kotík introduced a recording of a new version of his sound collage PIUP, which was a treat to hear. And the duo No Sugar turned in an explosively inventive set, with multi-instrumentalist Liz Albee getting some amazing electronic noises out of an ordinary trumpet.

For this critic, the highlight of the day was the pairing of Andrea Neumann and Ivan Palacký. Along with electronics and metal percussion, Neumann plays an “inside piano” – a piece of the string board, literally from inside a piano. Palacký sits at a table loaded with gadgets, tapping, scratching and twirling his way through them like a kid in an electronic toy shop. Unlike much of the music on Saturday, theirs was quiet and nuanced, an accumulation of many small sounds and a mesmerizing exploration of the spaces between sounds.

The museum setting added its own dynamics in the form of a “Motor Art” exhibition. While industrial sounds were roaring and clanging away in the performance spaces, visitors could wander an adjacent room where several vintage Jawa motorcycles were on display, along with some true beauties: a 1902 Laurin & Clement belt-driven BZ motorcycle; a powder-blue 1961 Jawa two-seat Skůtr; and a cherry-red Aero 500 roadster in such bright mint condition that it almost hurt your eyes to look at it.

Geeky? Definitely. And a perfect match for a suds-soaked day of geeky electronics.

For a tour of Coal Mine Michal:

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