Aarhus Vocal Festival 2013
AAVF 2013 is chronologically over, but still pumping in my veins and breathing in my soul.
It was a wonderful, educationally enriching and communally loving experience. It would be impossible to give you an overview, but I’ll try to relate to you some of my personal experiences, in hopes that the subjective view will give some sort of representative impression of what went on.
It was all pretty well organized, user-friendly. My hotel was only a five-minute walk from the site, which was a big advantage. The biggest problem was not enough hours in the day—wanting to simultaneously attend all the workshops, watch the small group and large group competitions, hear the midday concerts in the foyer, grab some food, and schmooze!!
Pre-Festival – Sono and Naura were both new for me, young Danish groups of about 20 singers, both really high quality, interesting repertoire, flawless performance, charming appearance, setting the bar high for the rest of the festival.
Friday – The Mzansi Youth Choir and the Boxettes gave two very different examples of how far contemporary a cappella can go and still knock out the crowd. The Girls Choir of Mariagerfjord were ‘just’ another one of those perfect Danish choirs.
Saturday – Since first hearing them in Vasteros in 2008, I’ve become an impassioned devotee of Vocal Line, so it was of course a really great thrill to hear them again. The combination of Vocal Line, VoxNorth and Eivør wasn’t easy for me. It was a new aesthetic, speaking in a musical language I was less familiar with. It sounds fascinating to me, and I plan on exploring it in the future (in the present, actually—I’m listening to Eivør as I write!)
Sunday – WeBe3 was a totally new treat for me, improvisation at its purest, and you know I’m a purist ;-). The Real Group and Rajaton both gave short but absolutely first-rate sets, showed why they’re the acknowledged leaders of our cult. It’s the third time I’ve heard both, and maybe the best. Level Eleven had some high points, and promises more to come in the future.
Monday – The group that completely blew me away was Jesper Holm’s Touché, as I had never even heard them recorded, let alone live. I knew they were a 12-voice group singing Count Basie big band charts and complex Gene Puerling arrangements from Singers Unlimited. What I wasn’t prepared for was the total, absolute technical perfection Jesper has achieved with these guys. Brassier than Basie, subtler than the Singers Unlimited, and purer than Gene Puerling, their mastery of these genres was TOTAL. The delivery was crystal-clear, as pure as glacial water. Even the soloists sang with superhuman control. And I was particularly impressed by how steeped these kids are in the vocal jazz tradition. They really do know where they’re coming from. And I can only dream where they’re going. More about that below. Just to make you even sorrier you weren’t here, I’ve posted the entire set as soundcloud links on Jeff Meshel’s World.
Reach Out and Touch a Star
It’s a strange situation at these festivals – you listen to the artist at home, think about their music; read about the upcoming concert; buy a ticket, buy a plane ticket and reserve a hotel; travel, with all the anticipation and excitement and build-up; and then an hour after the show you’re drinking a beer with the artist, with him telling you how he felt about the show. We’re used to admiring our ‘idols’ from afar. The warmth and intimacy of a festival such as this is a big part of its utter charm.
I met a guy on the train who was coming from Belgium to hear Bruce Springsteen in Denmark. They say Bruce is a really nice guy, but you’re watching him with 20,000 strangers from 3 kilometers away, with 500 armed guards in between you and him. Here, an hour after the show, you share a beer with the artist and hug him and thank him for the fine show, and he tells you how excited he was… Who de boss now?
They started with the incomparable dynamo Line Groth Riis leading 800 people singing two ultra-cool arrangements, with really fine, overpowering results. Go beat that. And that’s just for starters.
The Single Singers had to prepare four songs, three of which were quite difficult, in two rehearsals with no clear conductor. No mean feat that! It seemed quite impossible at the beginning, but somehow it worked at the end. The really great thing that happened there for me was singing Vocal Line’s version of Peter Garbiel’s “Don’t Give Up” with Jens Johansen himself conducting! So, that was a thrill in and of itself, but the really inspiring aspect was singing the song, being part of the tapestry of that beautiful, divine arrangement. I had listened to the song many, many times, but there’s nothing like singing it from within. (Guess what is going to be Song of The Week on my blog tomorrow?)
I joined five other workshops, each one an education in and of itself.
The amazingly talented Roger Treece, the man behind Bobby McFerrin’s “VOCAbuLarieS” was really pushing the envelope of grasping how rhythm and pulse work. It was sometimes a stretch to follow him, but yet a lot of fun.
Everyone was raving about Jim Daus Hjernøe’s workshop in Sweden, and I finally caught up with him here. “Rhythm and Groove” was uplifting, mind-expanding. He made so much sense out of central elements I’d never been aware of previously. I told him that in my next incarnation I want to come study in Aarhus. He responded that they have a really good remote learning program. If only I had the courage! Me, studying with these giants?
I attended Katarina Henryson and Anders Edenroth’s “All Ears” workshop. I’d heard them go over the same material before more than once. And you know what? It gets better each time. Eighty strangers walk into a room, mostly fairly talented amateur singers. Then Katarina and Anders start teaching you the Art of Listening. And at the end of two hours we did a group improvisation – with our eyes closed!!! – about seven minutes of beautiful, transcendent, magical music. Just mind-boggling. Just these two hours were worth the 12-hour trip.
And Jesper Holm’s Advanced Vocal Technique. The program said ‘Harmonic complexity, swing feeling, jazz phrasing, sound and blend.’ Yes, that’s what he did. But I was reminded of the Yeats’ poem: That girls at puberty may find/The first Adam in their thought,/Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,/Keep those children out./There on that scaffolding reclines/Michael Angelo./With no more sound than the mice make/His hand moves to and fro./(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/His mind moves upon silence.) The absolute precision of his approach showed again that ‘God is in the details’. It was a truly inspiring workshop experience. Jesper is my new role model for doing a job well. And I’m proud to count him as a new friend.
I met SO many people—friends from Vasteros 2008, friends from Stockholm 2012, more recent Facebook friends, and new friends from Aarhus – too many to mention. I made a list of about 25 people that I had memorable interactions with, but I’m not going to list them because I know there were another dozen that are escaping my fuzzy brain, and hopefully another dozen that I’ll get to know now by writing. I did notice that the hugs have gotten tighter over the years, that each subsequent meeting with these fine people deepens the connection from the cordial to the friendly to the beginning of real involvement.
As you know, I do a lot of talking and thinking and writing about music, and I was fortunate enough to have three serious, focused, professional conversations.
The first was with Peder Karlsson. I first met Peder at Vasteros in 2008. I had brought a group from Israel and had briefly corresponded with him via email. On the first day I was nervous, confused, excited. Peder walked by, and I asked him timidly where the Whatever Room was.
I was a novice, a nobody, an attendee from afar; he was The Star. He looked at my nametag, looked at me, let out a shout of “Jeff!” and gave me a bearhug. I knew something different was going on in this community. Then in 2012, our second meeting, we became a bit friendly.
So now in 2013 I told Peder that I wanted to Skype with him about the history of TRG. He said, “Now!” For an entire morning, Peder told me about the origins of The Real Group’s music. There was a bit of an argument: I was maintaining that TRG invented our contemporary a cappella, while Peder was (over-modestly, I think) asserting that TRG drew from a number of different existing sources. In any case, we both agreed that this is fascinating piece of AC folklore, and it will be my pleasure to work our discussion into a printed interview in the near future. Oh, and now I can comfortably say that I feel Peder is a friend.
This is just one example of many–too many (and too personal) to recount here.
By the way, the origin of TRG’s music issue has riveted me for a long time and spilled over into several other conversations I had. Bill Hare had a lot of first-hand knowledge to share, and Jonathan Minkoff was gleefully maintaining that just about everything I think is diametrically opposed to the truth. Fortunately Judy Fontana was there to keep us from trans-Atlantic blows, suggesting the theory that vocal percussion was developed simultaneously on either side of the ocean. I’m gonna be thinking about that, Judy!
The second conversation was with Roger Treece, whom I’d asked in advance to meet with. I was aware of his work on “VOCAbuLarieS”, and really wanted to hear how Vocal Line was connected to that project. I also wanted to learn more about where Roger is applying his very prodigious talents these days. We had a great, honest, intimate talk which I hope to write up in one form or another (assuming that the glass of water I spilled on the table didn’t erase the file on my recorder). I sincerely hope Roger finds the perfect venue in which to work in the future, because I think his talent is unlimited and he can be a formative voice in a cappella in the next generation.
The third conversation was with Jesper Holm. I’d met Jesper very briefly in 2012, barely long enough to discover that we have a lot of overlapping interests and that I possess an obscure Singers Unlimited CD that he covets. I gladly brought it to Aarhus as an offering, looking forward to getting to know him a bit. We talked for less than an hour, but reached incredibly interesting places. We discussed the very substance of vocality, where group vocal jazz is today, and where it might go in the future. We also raised some ideas about utterly new vistas to explore, and concrete plans about how to do that. We were talking about inventing a new musical language. My blood is still pounding over that conversation. I hope that when the clouds clear, the substance remains and that Jesper sets out on that very profound journey.
What I’ve Taken Home
Oh, just so many ideas. And techniques for making better music. And exposure to new types of music. And hopes and plans for the future. And friendships. Membership in a most special community. And a whole lotta love.
I was at the original Woodstock festival. Given the choice of going back there or going to the next AAVF—no competition, man. Hands down, it’s Aarhus. Something is very sweet in the state of Denmark.
So I guess we’ll just have to make plans to meet again in Aarhus in 2015.