Wakushoppu unites the experimental arts in Prague—for one night only.
By Lloyd Dunn
Under the quizzical name Wakushoppu, Japanese for “workshop,” we have in Prague a long-running performance series that regularly takes place in a dark basement belonging to Vršovice’s Cafe v Lese. Once a month, Wakushoppu’s organizers assemble a program of selected performers, both local and international, to take the floor (there is no stage, as such) to earnestly test the limits of their craft. Currently in its eighth iteration, Wakushoppu has become a prominent feature within the larger cultural scene and has come to be an essential component to Prague’s contemporary cultural landscape. The series was conceived specifically as a showcase for live improvised and experimental performances, and for these ephemeral forms—which truly exist only in the moment of their creation—Wakushoppu events are meeting points for artists of varying orientations and skill levels, giving a broad and lively overview of these (anti-) disciplines which might otherwise be very difficult to come by.
Beginning in 2010, the series was originally an outgrowth of the activities of the art group Handa Gote, self-described as a “research and development theatre group.” Their first event, called Wakushoppu 0.1, took place at a Meet Factory studio. Tomáš Procházka, one of the project’s founders, explains, “After Meet Factory would not permit us to invite an audience, we played alone to an empty room. We played for nobody. After that first night the project moved elsewhere, and we ended up in the basement beneath Café v Lese.” Later, Petr Ferenc joined the project as a co-organizer.
Procházka describes the series as a point of convergence for performers who work in the free improv scene. An explicit goal for the organizers is to provide these often difficult-to-categorize artists with a platform on which they can come together and collaborate, with all the necessarily unpredictable results. The conceptual framework of Wakushoppu also includes a second level of ephemerality beyond the performances themselves, in that these events can be thought of, as Procházka puts it, as a series of “short-time alliances”: performers who may or may not know each other are thrust together to create something new within a brief window of opportunity that may last only the duration of a single onstage set, depending on the circumstances. Another stated goal of the project leaders is to bring about a kind of catalyzing energy, and then to inject it into Prague’s creative community, thereby helping to foster new developments and spur on evolutions of its various existing forms.
Today, Wakushoppu events are organized and prepared by Procházka and Ferenc, who are themselves improvisational musicians with extensive resumés in the field. They are both active in other roles in the Prague cultural scene as well. Procházka works under the pseudonym Federsel as a sound designer, improviser, and performer. He is also a member of the aforementioned Handa Gote and of numerous music projects, including the improv group Poisonous Frequencies. He manages several blogs where he collects fragments from the various cultural scenes in which he takes part, many of which cannot be categorized by genre. Procházka describes the object of his interest as the “local deep underground,” and names a number of examples of forms such as freak-out, outsider music, and anti-music, with a more or less strict focus on home-recorded (or informally recorded) works.
Ferenc is a Prague-based journalist and musician who, before co-founding the magazine HIS Voice, was a member of various bands and projects. Ferenc also performs solo as Phaerentz. When asked about Wakushoppu, he handed over most of the credit: “Wakushoppu is Tomáš Procházka's child. He organized the first show at the end of 2010, then in 2011 invited me to help him as the project moved to Cafe v Lese.”
Such free-form projects, however insightfully framed, have a tendency to go off the rails if the initial vision of the organizers becomes critically blurred. But according to Ferenc, the project is moving ahead on a solid basis: “Four years later, I am still amazed how great his concept was—and yet so simple. A free concert, with neither artist fees nor entrance fees, to be held once a month. So something that was supposed to be a meeting point and a workshop has become an actual concert series with an international lineup. The workshop ethos is still there, however. Do you have a new or a one-off project? Want to try a new strategy for sound or image making? Welcome.” Then he added, “Some evenings have been unforgettable.” In the spirit of the “free” part of free improv, participants are given the chance to try out whatever it is they may have wanted to try in the past, but perhaps were never given the opportunity.
The Wakushoppu blog serves as a complete record of shows, including sound and video recordings of entire performances. It provides an invaluable look into the soul of Prague’s improvisational performance scene. We see and hear artists working in the dim light of the space, using all manner of soundmaking devices that range from conventional musical instruments (often used in unconventional ways) and electronic sound generators and filters, to inscrutable objets d’art that also happen to make sound (a performer in one video makes mysterious sounds by fondling a metal box that seems to have come from Un chien andalou), all the way to ordinary objects you might find in any home or on the street (another performer makes sound by blowing into a pine cone).
Artists sometimes perform solo, but more often appear in small impromptu ensembles, struggling with the limitations of their chosen instruments, the arrangement of space and the presentation equipment (sound and lights), the sometimes thinly stretched attention spans of the audience and, it could perhaps be said, space-time itself. Based on the blog’s documentation recordings, performances often begin quietly, or at least tentatively, passing through different and varying phases before coming to a close. If you sample one of these tracks for a few seconds, first at the beginning, then somewhere in the middle and near the end, there may be a great sense of surprise as one realizes a “this” has passed through a “that” to arrive at a completely unexpected place.
If the venue boasts a primary strength, its sheer continuity must rank high. Owing partly to the regularity of its schedule, Wakushoppu has a loyal and committed audience, and performers can always rely on educated and sympathetic ears to be present to receive their emissions. Additionally, the blog, which both announces upcoming shows and documents past ones, serves as a public database that covers the Prague improv scene in real time, as a living, breathing entity. Procházka says that the musicians also use it as a reference and sometimes use the recordings that are made during the sessions as source material.
The next iteration of Wakushoppu is coming soon and promises not to disappoint. Showcasing two artists supported by the Agosto Foundation, the evening will showcase sets by US cellist Lori Goldston and German vocal and keyboard artist Mik Quantius. Rounding out the event will be a set by Poisonous Frequencies, including performers from Prague and Austria.
Featuring Lori Goldston (USA), Mik Quantius (GER), and Poisonous Frequencies (CZ, AU)
7 July 2015 at 20:00
Café v Lese, Krymská 21, Prague
Lori Goldston is a cellist and solo improviser who, in both amplified and acoustic settings, draws from a range of archetypes that include traditional song, abstract musical forms and free improvisation, moving freely between disciplines. She has applied her “classically trained and rigorously detrained” technique to a wide variety collaborations in a wide array of musical contexts. Her accomplished handling of the cello is a distillation of her many years of experience working in classical, rock, jazz, and experimental idioms, with popular music groups as well as orchestras. Goldstonn’s sound veers from amplified electric-bass-like sounds to throaty acoustic growls, thrums, plucks, and sustained chords, and she displays full mastery of her own musical language. In playing, the sound passes through various states that elicit drama, soul, intensity, and control, and with her sensitive handling of the various registers she brings forth from her instrument, she makes clear the reasons the cello is an instrument of undying appeal.
Mik Quantius is a member of the Köln metal scene and the krautrock band Embryo. His vocal works have been described as “absurd sounds that fly out of his throat, often touching the threshold of pain,” and his performances recall a spastic child, an off-kilter whiz kid locked in a strange toy room, struggling with the uncomfortable fit of things and the sounds that come out of the toysm. He performs as an unstable presence: capricious, curious, ill fitted to this world. His vocalizations, by turns winsome or childlike and diabolical, are matched to the eerie organ-esque sound that accompanies him as he moves without restraint from the ethereal to the visceral.
Poisonous Frequencies is a trio consisting of Tomáš Procházka, Petr Vrba (both from Prague) and the drummer Didi Kern (from Austria). In a recent performance by the trio, a sprawling, long-form improvisation emerged from a moment or two of uncertain first steps, with each instrumentalist gradually finding a way through the signal flares sent up by the other two until they discover a massive connectedness. Then the entire thing erupts into the seemingly impenetrable blast, blare, and beat of a bumptious evisceration of space and time. Lapsing, pushing forward, and lulling again, the sound careens on, on rails of its own forging, a mad jazz, a roller-coaster ride on elastic tracks, until it eventually uncoils itself, winding down to a whimper of resignation.