One thing that’s always impressed me over my seven years or so living in Ireland to date is the diversity of festivals. The big ones are great, but the small ones – Other Voices, Knockanstockan, Vantastival to name just a few – have always come across to me as the place to meet fellow music obsessives, and the place to track down the best atmosphere on offer. Multicultural and multifaceted jazz festival 12 Points, which announced its line up this week and takes place in April, is one I’m fairly new to, and has all the makings of something wonderful in that it’s curated, diverse and simply trying to be good at what it does.
Festival director Kenneth Killeen kindly took the time out of his frantic festival build up schedule this week to tell me about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and why it’s important. And to throw in a few tips on the Irish jazz scene along the way. I’m off to spend a couple of hours on Soundcloud…
12 Points was specifically set up to interlink Dublin with other places in Europe, musically. What’s come of that, so far? Has it matched expectations?
I think it’s safe to say that it has matched expectations. As we go into our 9th edition of the festival, looking back gets a little easier. There are more reference points in the past to measure our impact, and crucially, time has passed, which allows you to see results. 12 Points has always been an ambitious project and one with a strong concept around linking urban centres in Europe through music. I suppose we had many questions when we started, such as, “What does it mean to be a jazz musician in the 21st Century?” or “Do other countries & cities face similar challenges to the creative practices in Ireland?”.
Through the festival itself and our 12 Points PLUS programme from 2011 to 2013 we have succeeded in linking Dublin and Ireland with multiple festivals in Europe. Thankfully the 12 Points brand is one that European promoters and festival bookers have come to trust; they trust our curation, distillation and presentation of 12 acts each year and use the festival as a benchmark for emerging European talent. And it’s great that it is seen as an Irish brand from an Irish organisation. I think that’s important.
Being a small country, on the periphery of Europe geographically, we’ve managed to insert ourselves right in the middle of the European music scene, through 12 Points. But we still have work to do in this area. I would like to see more Irish artists represented at the large European festivals and industry showcases like Jazzahead. The Irish scene is very progressive, with a lot of talented musicians and an urban voice that is unique to this country. Its only when you hear bands from all across Europe that you can get a sense of that. 12 Points has highlighted some of these bands over the years and, as 12 Points grows, I hope that performance opportunities for Irish artists abroad will grow also.
You’ve based the festival in a number of locations outside of Dublin over the past few years. Does that help you to experience new things? How different is the cultural attitude to the festival in your experience?
It’s funny because we parachute into these locations and each one is always different. Our “away” editions concept was a bold step but it has been great for the festival. When we first moved the festival to Stavanger, Norway, in 2010, we didn’t know exactly what lay ahead, but we knew, fundamentally, that it was necessary for a pan-European focused festival to itself be nomadic, to be experienced outside of Ireland. And since then, it has become essential for the growth of the festival.
Moving a festival is not without risk and consequently it’s a model you don’t see often, outside of large showcases like Womex for example. But, I suppose that is another reason why 12 Points is unique. All music is a two way street between a willing audience and good performers, so we believe it’s intrinsic that as many different audiences experience the festival as possible, while still being Irish owned and operated. If the festival is a reflection of all of Europe distilled into 12 acts, its location is not as important as that message. And in that regard, our biannual nomadic approach has helped us reach more audiences, more programmers, educators, media etc. It has also helped propel 12 Points into an important festival for programmers to attend.
Moving the festival to different locations attracts different cohorts of festival bookers, programmers and media and helps disseminate the concept, and, as I mentioned, over time these large festival promoters, programmers and bookers have come to trust our selection process and the standards we maintain. Even the big festivals realise its vital to show progressive new talent alongside the big names and 12 Points is a pivotal platform to showcase that. On the production side, a key element is that we get to see & experience what local audiences think of the music while working alongside respected venues around Europe such as Casa da Musica in Porto and Norrlands Operan in Sweden. All of these things are of great value to 12 Points. And, the cultural attitudes in local audiences towards the festival are always positive, because 12 Points is a festival of discovery.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you are from or indeed where 12 Points is presented because audiences, in the main, are excited to be part of that discovery. Despite flipping the standard model of a festival with big names, we’ve found that audiences ‘get it’. So they are open minded and on board from day one. What we present at 12 Points is often a million miles from people’s pre-conceived notions of “jazz”. But ‘jazz’ has always been a sponge, absorbing current mainstream musical influences as well as regional musical ethnicities to create something new. It’s always reinventing itself and today, young bands take musical cues more from that than the great American songbook. They don’t feel it’s a requirement to interpret standards as a means of expression. European jazz today is a complex mix of new ideas and independent thinking. And, the audiences are an intrinsic part of what makes 12 Points a success.
Goethe Institut seem to have played an important role in getting things set up for you. How have they helped with the cultural/ international side?
Yes, tremendously. It was through our interactions with Goethe Institut in 2007, when Germany held the EU Presidency, that we were in a position to engage with them on this project and subsequently unlock other sources of funding. Their philosophy was aligned with our own. We would not be able to realise a festival of this scope and size without key cultural benefactors like the Goethe Institut. Right from those beginnings, they understood our concept & vision and recognised the potential to advance young European musicians. They, along with other key partners have been very supportive each edition. Through their channels they raise the profile of 12 Points in each country. For example, in Germany, we always have a high number of applicants and the call-out for submissions each year really trickles down through of all the promoters, schools & conservatories and this can be attributed to the support network built around the festival through agencies like Goethe Institut, EJN, Embassies and other cultural agencies.
Jazz isn’t a genre that gets a lot of publicity in Ireland, generally. How healthy is the scene here?
The short answer is that it’s very healthy. The scene in Ireland is actually similar to a lot of other European cities. But you can only understand that when you host the festival abroad and see how difficult it can be to reach audiences in Porto, Stavanger & Umeå. They too have the similar audience development hurdles to Ireland. And it’s important to realise that.
When you know that audience development is not just a domestic issue you can begin to understand that you are part of a bigger picture. And that’s when people can start working together. You can think bigger when you know the issues are similar. Having said that, the scene is vibrant in Ireland. It’s very progressive and I suppose part of that can be attributed to 12 Points. When Irish artists see what their European peers are creating, it opens up a lot of possibilities for them, and we’ve had many cross border projects come out of the jam sessions at the festival.
Ireland has a long association with our culture and music. It’s a selling point and we have a lot to offer. Being a small island however is not without its challenges. I would like to see more Irish artists touring in Europe and 12 Points is a good vehicle for that. Part of the musical progression has been driven by web & online content. Its now easier than ever to hear and see what’s happening across the world through Soundcloud, YouTube, Bandcamp, Spotify and other platforms, and that has it’s own influences on musical development and direction. It makes the planet a much smaller place. It’s something that wasn’t nearly as prevalent even a decade ago. This can obviously be a good thing with regard to confidence in creating & disseminating your music but also potentially “limiting” as musicians subconsciously or otherwise adopt regional idiomatic variances as their own.
It’s one big melting pot right now and Ireland is on par with many of their European counterparts in creating compelling new music.
Tell us a story from the festival – one of the memories that keeps you going…
Besides the planes, trains and automobile disasters which are part of every festival? Or the wonderful relationship we have with airlines, lost luggage and instruments?
Seriously though there are loads of great memories. It’s really hard to pick one. I personally love watching the first band go on, and hearing that first note as they kick off the festival. From a production standpoint it’s a tense moment, signifying that we are now underway and its 24/7, “what will be will be…” for 4 or 5 days. And then you juxtapose that with the last band wrapping up our festival where everyone is physically drained but mentally euphoric. There’s just a great sense of achievement from the bands perspective and our own.
I also love the networking nightly dinners where the delegates and artists eat together. You can see links being made connections being forged. It’s rewarding to see that and it reinforces why you do what you do. The post festival jam sessions in Porto were pretty epic though, and went until the wee hours. A great memory of very little sleep, loads of little cimbalinho coffees and copious amounts of Red Bull!
A lot of your acts seem to go away saying they’ve benefited from the community side of the festival. Is that community hard to find on a day-today basis?
The community aspect of 12 Points cannot be overstated. It’s another cornerstone of the ethos of the festival. We encourage bands to stay over multiple days, where possible, network with their peers and delegates and participate in our Jazz Futures conferences and nightly showcase jam sessions.
For many bands its their first large festival experience and we want to make sure it’s a good one. A 50 minute set is just one facet of our take on artist development. So, we try to create a community ethos. Fostering these links on a day to day basis is challenging and requires a lot of input from all parties to make it a success. But it’s worth it. We now have bands collaborating from UK and France, from Finland to Italy and Norway and Ireland.
Can you point us jazz novices towards an act or two that sum up what you do? Are there some great Irish acts to keep an eye out for? Perhaps a night that might be a ‘must see’ at this year’s festival?
I would of course be bias in saying that you should attend all nights, but truthfully, like the hour hands on a clock, I think a festival like 12 Points is only truly experienced if you see all 12 bands. That’s the full ‘pie’ if you like. We want a musical reflection of the diversity of the broad church that is jazz today and we showcase that through 12 bands. Then we try to arrange that to be diverse in and of itself on a nightly basis.
Seeing 3 bands on a Thursday or Saturday will only give you a small sense of the current pulse so it’s a bit like a jigsaw. We design the 12 bands to compliment each other and juxtapose each other, which is my long winded way of saying, attend all four days!
If I had to pick one night, it would be Saturday where Irish band Umbra are playing along with Black Dough from Sweden and Hildegard Lernt Fliegen from Switzerland will close out our 2015 festival. In terms of Irish acts to look at, there are many. Last years Irish act Alarmist are highly recommended, as other alumni such as OKO & RedivideR. Strong labels like Diatribe are putting out great music also.
How difficult is the financial side of running a festival like this?
To put on any festival takes money. It requires a lot of preparatory work, building & maintaining relationships with embassies and foreign cultural agencies. And 12 Points simply would not be possible without the key support of the Arts Council, Culture Ireland, ourselves at Improvised Music Company and the many European partners and patrons we have cultivated throughout Europe.
With over 40 European musicians and 20+ key delegates, the logistics & costs can be intricate, but we believe that the value for money is worth it, as an exciting prospect of discovery for audiences, a key developmental step for emerging European musicians and a great networking opportunity for delegates and programmers to see and book these artists. As with any festival of course, we have to keep a very close eye on all costs. We try to partner with as many likeminded organisations as ourselves every year. It’s something that takes months of financial planning, but once that’s done, our principal job is around the culture of the music!
You don’t seem to go for really big name acts. What’s the trick to selling tickets when you don’t have that blockbuster? Have you simply built audience faith over the years?
Not having big name acts was a conscious decision because 12 Points is all about emerging artists so it’s important to us that all acts are treated equally. This means audiences have to take the leap of faith that we do each year.
Thankfully both in Ireland and abroad people are open minded and receptive to this prospect. The key thing is to highlight 12 Points itself as a concept to audiences. Its better understood as 12 different voices or opinions from across Europe, all with something unique to say. So, our audiences have been built around that over the years and they know that whatever 12 Points artists are performing, it will be diverse, experimental, explosive & most importantly a cohesive current snapshot of jazz in Europe.
Finally, what do you hope 12 Points might go on to achieve in the coming years?
Our next edition in 2016 will be abroad and potentially in 2017 also. The main reason for this is that we want to be in Dublin for our 12th anniversary in 2018. At that point we will have hosted 144 bands. As the festival gets older, now its important to track where our 2007 and 2008 artists are. What have they achieved?
In the past 5 years we’ve developed a comprehensive application procedure. We now require a lot of information from each band member around their performance highlights, academic background, their other projects, age and crucially where they are from. Europe is a big musical hub for South American artists for example, and rather than portray any aesthetic of exclusion for these people who live and work in Europe we realised we had an opportunity to map how musicians move through Europe, immigrate, emigrate and go where the music takes them, be it to study or perform etc. In 2018 we will present a study on this, the first comprehensive paper of its kind as part of our 12th anniversary.
Our conference, Jazz Futures, is also something that can grow and expand to encompass more input from other idioms. We would also like to start our 12 Points PLUS touring programme if funding becomes available so that 12 Points could maintain its presence at other festivals
throughout Europe all year round.
Finally, 12 Points can broaden its audience even further. We are looking to insert 12 Points, as a European hub stage, into larger international festivals in the US, Canada and other big cities across the world. A branded European proposition for these festivals is something that non European audiences can relate to.
12 Points takes place in Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar from the 15th to the 18th of April. Tickets are available here.
State of the Nation is a blog project for 2015 focused on telling the story of the Irish music scene through interviews with some of its major players. Interviews are published weekly, and you can find a full index of all published to date here.