It doesn’t take long to get the measure of a new music festival – aims, outlook, characteristics – but that doesn’t mean it becomes predictable. i’ve found this to be more than usually true of Forum Wallis, which remains one of the most remote festivals i’ve had the pleasure of attending, two-and-a-half hours east of Geneva in the small town of Leuk, in the heart of the Swiss Alps. In some respects Artistic Director Javier Hagen has found a straightforward formula: a mix of chamber and electroacoustic pieces during the day, at some point usually involving himself and partner Ulrike Mayer-Spohn either as performers and/or composers, and something improvisational at the end of the evening. Yet on each of the now three occasions i’ve attended Forum Wallis that formula has kicked out the most unexpected and remarkable results. (It’s worth pointing out that this year the festival has been split into several parts in different locations; i just attended the main sequence of ensemble concerts.)
One of the primary characteristics of concerts at Forum Wallis, all taking place in assorted spaces within Leuk’s beautifully restored castle, is intimacy. It’s made me appreciate the extent to which huge concert halls can prove challenging in terms of trying to become immersed in the musical action. No such problems here, and that was especially the case in Vincent-Raphaël Carinola‘s SOLedades, a semi-theatrical, electroacoustic “huis-clos” work that enclosed its sole protagonist, Pascal Viglino, on all sides with walls of percussion instruments. He appeared from outside this ‘room’, seemingly returning to it in a thunderstorm, yet if this place was familiar to him in any way Viglino’s performance indicated such familiarity was broken and damaged. Guided by a mixture of his own child-like curiosity and words projected from speakers – possibly the product of his imagination – he made his way around the walls of instruments becoming (re)acquainted with their nature, timbres and possibilities.
This process of literally and figuratively feeling his way resulted in a kind of “accidental music”, as if the sounds elicited from the instruments corresponded to a form of fragmented soliloquy that the disoriented figure could not at this stage articulate properly. Over time, his understanding grew, and with it playfulness and ambition, though even as his behaviour and technique became more sophisticated, Viglino made the whole thing entirely spontaneous. Whatever the details of its oblique, Sartre-meets-Buñuel narrative, it was genuinely riveting, bringing to mind Takemitsu’s Seasons in its all-enclosing percussion environment, climaxing in a gorgeous chorus of bright metallic resonances.
Another impressive solo performance, only semi-enclosed this time, was given by Lisa Tatin who didn’t so much play as inhabit LAB_21, an interactive device (created in collaboration with composer André Décosterd) bringing together sound, light and projection in response to Tatin’s physical actions. Inspired by Yoann Thommerel’s 2017 book Mon corps n’obéit plus (My body no longer obeys), the entire performance gave the impression that every audiovisual element, though physically separate, was nonetheless an integral, fully-connected part of Tatin’s body. Her voice soared, the lights became impassioned; she lyrically crooned, and they elegantly undulated; she screamed, and they violently spasmed. Yet while the physical connection was ostensibly clear, the work raised more subtle questions about the mental connection, and the extent to which Tatin’s emotional exclamations were actually responding to, rather than instigating, the sights and sounds in front of us.
It was as much about movement as song, exploring the complexities of the (dis)connection between mind and body in a performance that was intensely forceful, the electronics lending extra muscle to Tatin’s literal muscular gestures and shapes, the projected words giving a more emphatic mouthpiece to Tatin’s own voice, while the lights continually suggested something of the inner, psychological drama driving everything. Though an outstanding performance, there was the sense that this was a work in progress – confirmed in a short documentary film after exploring the project’s development – and it left me looking forward to experiencing what LAB_21 could be capable of in the future.
In previous years at Forum Wallis i’ve been demonstrably underwhelmed by the coterie of improvisers who seem to appear year after year (all of whom are men – if i’m to believe what i was told, women improvisers are an unknown species in this region of Switzerland), but this year the experience was very much more successful. The performance by Le Pot, comprising Manuel Mengis, Hans-Peter Pfammatter, Manuel Troller and Lionel Friedli, was in no small part as good as it was because they spent the majority of the time not playing their respective trumpet, synths, guitar and drums. Instead we were treated to an engrossing large-scale interplay of abstract and referential sounds with a high sense of drama, gradually moving away from tentative beginnings (does improvisation start any other way?) to a full-force rock out sequence.
There were distinct retrofuturist stylings to the soundworld they created, which in conjunction with a somewhat doomed, fin de siècle tone created music that appeared to be, by turns, commenting on the past and present or predicting the future. To a large extent this revolved around Pfammatter, who was relentlessly physical with his synths and gadgets, yanking them around to produce alien sounds and squalling unfathomably distorted speech through a microphone. His energy led to the performance almost coming off the rails, as on more than occasion some of his paraphernalia fell to the floor, though this only added more urgency, and a sense of real necessity, to the music. It was like one last avant-garde hurrah before the end of the world.
Engrossing in a very different way was the concert given by Dsilton, featuring keyboardist Georg Vogel, guitarist David Dornig and drummer Valentin Duit. The conjunction of jazz with 31 equal temperament turned out to be extraordinary, starting from the point of perception, inasmuch as there were a surprising number of times when the presence of microtones was far from obvious. Yet as the trio progressed, one became aware that, both melodically and harmonically, there was a much greater sense of smoothness, or suppleness, and with it freedom. Like a sonic form of HD, the much finer resolution afforded by 31-ET enabled Vogel and Dornig to slip-slide through solos and progressions with an ease that was entirely frictionless. At the same time the tuning also worked to colour the music in entirely new ways, yielding harmonic hues that often baffled the ears and melodies that appeared to ripple according to their intricately undulating contours.
Admittedly, after about 40 minutes there was a sense that the trio had exhausted the possibilities, becoming timbrally, stylistically and even harmonically rather dull. Yet this was mitigated by extended solos from Dornig and Vogel that demonstrated the staggering degree to which they have assimilated 31-ET into the foundation of their language, in addition to an elasticity of tempo and seemingly telepathic level of communication between all three players, both of which were genuinely incredible.