Frantasia Festival breaks musical ground

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JAY — If you were to walk into Jay’s Otis Mill in August 1913, your ears would have been greeted by the sounds of the country’s third-largest paper mill, busy with work. One hundred years later, the 10th annual Frantasia Festival of Out Music and Arts filled the mill with sounds of a different variety — groundbreaking, experimental music and visual creations formed by some of the world’s most adventurous artists.

The sights, sounds — and sometimes sensations — of this year’s Frantasia spanned the full gamut of musical, visual and theatrical experience. From the silvery, quiet layered harmonics of Joshua DeScherer’s “Leaves” to Jonas Bers’ rich visual spectacle of music-driven colored light projections to the ear-splitting, violent noise collages of Andrea Pensado, the variety of music featured in this year’s Frantasia more than whetted the aural whistle of adventurous music connoisseurs.

Frantasia’s performers took advantage of every corner of the mill’s space, which was filled to near-capacity during Friday and Saturday nights’ performances. Philadelphia’s Loren Groenendaal, founder, artistic director and choreographer for contemporary dance company Vervet Dance, took this a step further and gave a moving outdoor performance in the starkly-lit parking lot, accompanied by Flandrew Fleisenberg, who provided an effective musical percussive backdrop using nothing but three different-sized metal lids.

New York’s Jonas Bers used the ceiling of the space for visually stunning light projections, inviting the audience to lie down to get the full effect of his “modern witchcraft,” partially created by the output of synthesizer modules and ambient room noise fed into circuit-bent video editing equipment. The stage moved from the front of the room to the back and even to the middle of the room, each transition directed by Dr. Eric Mitchell, a retired military surgeon who, besides being an entertaining master of ceremonies, ran a tight ship. When one of the performing groups said they’d need about three minutes to set up, he responded, “I’ll give you two.”

Performers hailed from as far away as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Kaethe Hostetter, donned in a white animal-print bodysuit and hat from Turkmenistan, played several beautiful pieces on her violin, including her interpretation of a piece by Ethiopia’s Asnaqètch Wèrqu, which she played live for the singer two weeks before her death. One could hear a pin drop as she performed “Gubliye,” her pure, angelic voice singing in Amharic over rich harmonies on the violin, moving a few audience members to tears. Toward the end of her set, a train rattled in to town — and the tracks were only a few dozen yards away from the building. In most concerts, this would have been a disaster — but at Frantasia, it was a bonus — and artists and audience members alike marveled at how perfectly the train sounds seemed to counterpoint the music.

Returning to the venue this year was Big Plastic Finger, “a super psychedelic space noise core rock improv quartet,” whose waves of relentless sound erupted into living chords of sheer power sculpted from chaos in what appeared to be a mixture of strength, defiance and unadulterated passion. Embedded in the force of the music one could almost hear the howling winds of Hurricane Sandy, which demolished the group’s former Rockaway Beach, N.Y., home almost a year ago.

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Some of Frantasia’s composers explored the idea of the vibrations of sound as sensations in the body. As I was listening to a noise music collage by Andrea Pensado of Salem, Mass., something strange happened. A deafening sound metamorphosized into a supersonic circular saw, slammed into my left ear, spun around a few times, applied a generous helping of sonic wasabi and exited out the right side of my head. I sat there dumbfounded for a few seconds, shaking my head, trying to wrap my mind around this bizarre physical sensation. When I shared my reaction with Pensado after the concert, she was thrilled — for pushing sound to the outer limits of its formal meaning and experience was exactly what she had been experimenting with. 

While some musicians played with sensation, others played with the perception of bending time. Broadcloth, a new free-improvisation trio from New Haven, Conn., explored this idea in a selection from Adam Matlock’s musical “Mere Distractions,” based on his real-life experiences during his father’s hospitalization. The piece explored the sense of unreality one might experience when facing bad news at a hospital.

The story was told in flat, plodding tones, effectively slowing time down as one might perceive it in this situation. The really bad news was delivered in a Renaissance-style chorus, like a chorus of the Fates. In the middle of the piece, the story explains how a woman enters the room with a lyre and begins to play. The music changes and bends around this surreal event, driven home by the beautifully controlled coloratura tones of Anne Rhodes’ voice. The listener is aurally transported into another frame of mind, as one would be in such a departure from reality, which slams down hard after the reverie is over.

A magical aspect of Frantasia is the energetic collaboration among the artists to create new sounds and experiences. Some of these ensembles are planned in advance, while others form at the concert itself, called “jump ins.” If, Bwana teamed up his computer music mastery with Broadcloth’s experimental acoustic chamber music ensemble, comprised of cello, accordion and voice. Kaethe Hostetter joined Waterville’s Umber Owler, who played flute and other instruments.

Christopher Cathode, noise music artist and percussionist, strapped on his custom Zendrum ZX and combined forces with atonal funeral folk pioneer Naythen Wilson in Wilson’s final public musical performance. Together, they created a masterpiece of dark musical energy which seemed to pour every ounce of music left inside them into the mind of the listener, wiping it clean of its usual internal banter and leaving it in the state it might embody after two hours of meditation. But considering many of the audience members were plugging their ears from the volume’s sheer force, maybe that’s just me.

A musical surprise in Friday night’s performance was that of Creek, consisting of Martin Chartrand of BreadROSE and James Dickinson of Poor Elements and The Praise Construct. Chartrand, up until this performance, had been known for his storied folk songs with a human-rights theme and unorthodox harmonies and rhythms. He strode onto stage dressed like a ’50s throwback with a red flower tucked behind his left ear — an unusual look for this performer. The piece “Dim Blue” began as a beautiful and forlorn love ballad with haunting lyrics, quickly fading into a powerful noise piece with heavy undertones of dark eroticism, created by a combination of Dickinson’s miked sheet metal fed through distortion and effects pedals and Chartrand’s “light” Theremin — an instrument handcrafted by Joshua DeScherer from homemade electronics embedded in a plastic dog dish.

The final performance of the festival ended with a bang — and the sound of bouncing ping-pong balls — as Massachusetts’ Birdorgan took over the stage and much of the seating area with their musical comedy and deconstruction antics. Masks were worn or thrown around the area, while cassette tapes were disassembled and wrapped around performers, mike stands and chairs. A drum set was cruelly abused and tossed around on the floor. Two of the performers disappeared and returned wearing papier-mache eyeballs on their heads, a nod to The Residents, which brought a peal of laughter and applause from the bleary-eyed audience, still sticking it out even though it was well past 2 a.m.

At the end of Saturday night’s performance, my mind was full of ideas and my musical soul had been sated and entertained — but after hours and hours of the some of the most inspiring and innovative music I’ve ever heard, my poor, tired ears were toast. I needed a coffee — or a drink — to clear my head, but Jay is not exactly the Mecca of late-night dining establishments.

“Extraordinary performance, well done by everyone,” Fran Szostek, founder of Frantasia Festival of Out Music and Arts, said of this year’s event. “Without a doubt, it was the best one yet.”

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