On the edge of wrong

On the edge of wrong I Labia I Cape Town

The Johannesburg bassist Carlo Mombelli coined the phrase “playing on the edge of wrong”. It was fitting then that he also headlined On the Edge of Wrong, a festival of improvised music. His expression eschews predictable and well-travelled courses in pursuit of new discoveries. It favours emotion over melody and texture over harmony. It relies on intuition rather than rote, and risks ‘getting it wrong’ in search of beauty and depth. In short, it’s music made by not playing safe.

Improvised music can mean many things and this festival’s 12 musicians (a trio, a duo and seven solo sets) encompassed the gamut: free explorations rooted in jazz (Mombelli, Mark Fransman, Ntshuks Bonga/Ronan Skillen/Brydon Bolton) or birthed from an interest in modern classical works (Frank Mallows/Bolton), soundscapes using field recordings (James Webb), noise manipulations (Gareth Dawson) and what Mombelli dubbed — to the audience’s delight — the work of “loopheads” (Alex van Heerden and Richard Kapp).

To decipher this festival of contrasts, curated in absentia by Norwegain music-student Morten Kristiansen, one could arrange the sets along multiples axes, with acoustic at one pole and technology at the other. Fransman aired that most beautiful of reed instruments, the baritone clarinet, in an engaging dedication to Eric Dolphy. Bonga (saxophone), Bolton (double-bass) and Skillen (tablas, didgeridoo) riffed perfectly off one another in a riveting exchange that proves free jazz can have an audience in a country still recovering from the over-simplification wrought by the call-and-response of Safrojazz.

Staying acoustic, but in tones infinitely more calm, Bolton and Mallows approached the minimalist ethic, especially in a piece where Mallows bowed his vibraphone, rather than using mallets. By contrast, it was only technology at work when Dawson plugged a mixing desk into itself to produce feedback screeches and looped flutters.

Introducing another axis — experimentation — Dawson’s sonic assault was complemented by a work on unprocessed acoustic guitar from Gripper. He foregrounded improvisation through a self-inflicted rule: starting with a blank score Gripper played only what he penned right there. This device removed the usual comforts musicians employ to feel their way through spontaneous pieces.

A final axis is a tilted and slippery slope — call it inaccessibility. Or, as a patron quipped, “music you wouldn’t listen to at breakfast”. It involved taking two acoustic instruments (van Heerden’s trumpet and Kapp’s guitar), each musician manipulating their sounds through laptop and console (van Heerden) or effects-pedals (Kapp). Van Heerden sampled the horn to create melody, riffs and percussion and made a piece that would easily fit on any given urban remix album.

The line-up of the festival, which was well attended, made a few omissions, notably the improv trio Benguela, also members of the Cape’s freestyle hip hop fraternity. Its singular achievement, though, was to produce a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. By collecting together musical forms that are far too seldom heard, and juxtaposing their variety, it was (perhaps unintentionally) a mark of the way South African music is maturing in terms of both contemporary composition and modern experimentation.