Sunday, 3 March 2013

Sonica – The Spaces Between Sound and Vision

1.
If seeing is believing, what, then, is hearing?

Are those sounds – things that go bump in the night, which cut through
the air, either of their own volition, or else manipulated and
fine-tuned into a shape that some might call music – figments of the
imagination?

As for watching and listening, those more concentrated, more focused
applications of the visual and sonic senses, how do they work?

Are perceptions of what we watch or listen to not identical?

If so, how can one be moved to tears by a particular sight or sound,
while another is left cold by the same experience?

On a train that no longer chugs or click-clacks like they used to, but
which propels itself with a low rumble, I think of a trip to North
Berwick made with David Attenburgh’s favourite sound recordist and
former member of Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson.

Watson was doing a residency at Edinburgh University, and was taking a
group of would-be sound recordists on a field-trip to North Berwick.

I was writing a piece on Watson to tie in with this and the
accompanying performance set to take place at the end of the residency.

Rather than do a formal interview, I decided to make it more
observational, watching and listening, waiting for something to happen.

On the beach later, Watson would tell anecdotes from his Cabaret
Voltaire days in-between demonstrating how the best microphones work
when immersed in rock pools and the sea as the tide lapped against it.

Watson would tell these stories in his bluff but never gruff Yorkshire
accent which, after thirty-odd years working in sound, still rang with
a sense of wonder at the sonic possibilities of the natural world.

Scattered at points along the beach, serious-looking young men and
women sported headphones as they wielded assorted pieces of kit about
the landscape.

On the train, Watson listened hard to the sounds of the train in
motion, the little tics and creaks of the carriages, thee almost
in-discernible squeaks of the wheels, the squeals of the brakes.

This inspired Watson’s adopted brood to get out their microphones and
stick them on the walls and doors of the railway carriage to see what
they might hear.

On the train and on the beach, this little gaggle of sound recordists
looked like train-spotters or treasure hunters.

In a way, they were both.


2.
In a silver – not black – Glasgow taxi just after Friday night
rush-hour.

The weekend starts here, and the taxi is so shiny and sleek that its
rear window has windscreen wipers, which click and whirr into action
sporadically in an attempt to fend off the November drizzle.

It's the first weekend of Sonica, the new festival of 'sonic art for
the visually minded' as the programme puts it in wilfully inscrutable
lower-case.

Sonica – or sonica – is the brainchild of Cathie Boyd, artistic
director of Cryptic, formerly Theatre Cryptic, the Glasgow-based
international music theatre (but not musical theatre) production
company.

For sonica, Boyd and Cryptic have teamed up with Graham McKenzie,
artistic director of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and
formerly of the CCA in Glasgow.

Also on board for sonica is Patrick Dickie, a leading contemporary
music producer at the Almeida, English National Opera and elsewhere.

As its by-line suggests, sonica aims to tap into the increasingly world
of what, for the sake of box-ticking, we must call cross-artform
exchanges, in this case, between the gifts of sound and vision.



3.
When did Glasgow’s sonic landscape change?

Was it when the late writer and musician Tom McGrath brought Duke
Ellington, Miles Davis and others to the city when he was director of
the Third Eye Centre, on the Sauchiehall Street site of what is now the
CCA?

Or was it when Alex Harvey appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test
singing Jacques Brel's Next, looking demonic in white face and clown
stripes?

Or when Maggie Bell sang No Mean City over the opening credits of
Taggart?

Or when Simple Minds went global with Don't You Forget About Me, a song
they never wrote, but which seemed to define the city's mid-1980s sense
of chrome-lined aspiration.

Was it before that, when Alan Horne started Postcard Records in 1980,
introducing
the world to Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera and the Sound of Young
Scotland, plus, from Australia, fellow travellers The Go-Betweens?

That Horne did all this with the wit and the cheek of what the late
John Peel described him as ‘a truculent youth’ youth is one thing.

The fact that he did it from the wardrobe of his West Princes Street
flat that became scene central to post-punk Glasgow, is even better.

More latterly, maybe it was the rise of the experimental music festival
that happened a decade ago with Instal.

Instal was – or so it seemed – like nothing that had ever happened
before.

Over ten years, its organisers, who at some point branded themselves as
Arika Industries, introduced Glasgow yo major figures from the world of
left-field music and sound.

Phill Niblock, Henri Chopin, Philip Jeck, Fennesz, Icebreaker
International and a myriad of others played Instal during its early
years at the Arches, opening the ears and minds of seekers in search of
something other than whatever music had become.

Instal too looked at the sound and vision thing, in a festival called
Kill Your Timid Notion, which took place at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Then, eventually, after a few years, the art crowd, who had never been
at Instal before, latched on, and other things started happening.

Some were interesting, some not so, but they were happening.


4
At Tramway, the first Sonica event I see is Sandglasses, and not
Soundglasses, as I originally misread/heard.

Sandglasses is composed by Lithuanian composer Juste Janulyte, in
collaboration with video artist, Luca Scarzella and four cellists from
the Gaida Ensemble.

The cellists play in a series of cooling tower hour-glass cocoons that
is sublime and hypnotic, as if played by ghosts.


5
In the bar inbetween shows, the talk – ear-wigging in on it – is of who
the audience is for this sort of thing.

I came alone, and know no-one here until I bump into my classical music
critic colleague, Kate, and her actor friend, Carrie.

In a room full of Glasgow cool kids who like the sound of their own
voices as much as anything else at sonica, I'm glad they're here.

In our own chit-chat about who this sort of thing is for, it becomes
more a case of what this sort of thing actually is.

I tell Kate and Carrie about two things I’d seen in Edinburgh earlier
in the week.

The first was One Pig, a composition by Matthew Herbert taken from
sounds recorded during the life and death of a pig.

These sounds were then cut up, mashed up and turned into a performance
piece by Herbert and three other performers dressed in white coats
inside a boxing ring-cum-pig-pen.

Herbert has done something similar with recording cooking live, turning
an intricately layered affair into a form of novelty cabaret which at
times resembled the breakfast time choreography of Morecambe and Wise's
kitchen sketch.

The other thing I saw earlier in the week was Entartet.

Entartet was devised by theatre designer Kai Fischer, and was part
installation, part performance, based on the text of the brochure for
the Nazis famous exhibition of degenerate art.

The texts are read by recorded voices in a series of plinths activated
by the listener walking close to the speaker.

If timed correctly, the overlapping voices form a terrifyingly banal
cacophony of ignorance.

Both One Pig and Entartet dealt with reconstituting sound in very
different but equally provocative fashions.

Yet no-one, apart from myself, as far as I could see, attended both.

Neither are either audience in evidence at Sonica.

This is something that's always puzzled me.

Of course, it's the nature of my job as a critic to have as wide a
palette of artistic experience as possible, be it through theatre, art
or music.

In music, I'll happily attend jazz, contemporary classical, noise,
sound art or out and out pop events.

You can hear something of each in all of these, I reckon, though the
audiences of each are so niche to each particular flavour that never
the twain shall meet.

The only time I've ever seen all of the audiences for the 57 varieties
that make up 'experimental' music scenes in the same room was in summer
2012, at an event hosted by Dialogues, the University of
Edinburgh-based initiative led by composer Martin Parker.

Led by veteran saxophonist, improviser and long-term collaborator of
the late Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, the idea was to put a group of
improvisers from different disciplines on the same stage and see what
happened.

It had already been tried in Dublin, and the Edinburgh show drafted in
jazz, noise, electronic and contemporary classical musicians for a gig
at Edinburgh College of Art's Wee Red Bar, which, for such a rarefied
show, was uncharacteristically packed.

Trouble was, for all Parker's open-minded gravitas and sense of
enablement to the younger musicians, it didn't work.

Everyone onstage did their shtick, be it free jazz blowing, cello
scraping or knob twiddling, and that was that.

Nothing – to my ears, at least – ever connected.

This, of course, is the risk of any improvisation, and audiences take
their chances.

You pays your money, and you gets what you gets.

In this case, for all the sense of critical mass, I, for one, was glad
when it was over so everyone could go back to their own corner and do
what they do without irritating interruptions.


6
A while later, I ended up having an argument with someone about all
this at a house party / gig.

I'd never met the person before, and was introduced to him on account
that he'd apparently gone to see gigs put on by the House of Dubois in
the late 1990s and early 2000s, which I'd also gone to.

The House of Dubois put on left-field gigs in Edinburgh before anyone,
but were largely hopeless at getting anyone to go along to them.

I'd stumbled on them when they put Godspeed You! Black Emperor on in
Stills Gallery on Cockburn Street.

Stills is tiny, and the even tinier speakers blew before Godspeed could
accelerate to full apocalyptic pelt on what was their second UK gig
ever.

For years I thought it was their first, but there'd been one in Leeds
or somewhere the night before.

And maybe the speakers didn't blow.

Maybe the plug was pulled after complaints from the upstairs
neighbours.

Anyway, the House of Dubois put weird gigs on in Edinburgh before
anyone.

As well as Godspeed, they put on Kid Loco, Matmos, Labradford, the
Durutti Column, Pole, Genesis P Orridge, Royal Trux, John Fahey,
Fridge, Kid 606 and loads more.

On one level, House of Dubois were ahead of the curve, and a couple of
years later after All Tomorrow's Parties and Instal and all that,
they'd have been packing places out.

As it was, the shows were never that busy, which is why I was surprised
I'd never met this person at the house party noise gig I ended up
having an argument with.

He was a musician or a composer, and we got talking about the House of
Dubois, which somehow led me at least on to how different audiences go
to some things but not others, which led me onto the Evan Parker improv
show where they all seemed to be in the same room.

He seemed to think I was saying that it was the audience who dictated
what was played.

I said no, what I was saying was actually not that, but that the gig
didn't work because....

And he said, yes, but there are elaborate constructions in place in
what Evan Parker did, and wasn't it the audience who.....

And I said, no, that's not what I'm saying, what I'm saying, what I'm
actually saying is....

And on it went, the two of us both so desperate for our points to be
made that we weren't even listening to each other, and if we thought we
were, we just heard something to disagree with, so we ended up talking
at cross-purposes about two completely different things entirely, not
communicating in any way, shape or form.

It was stupid, and I was a dick.

But.

As much as it was infuriating drunken rubbish, as a verbal illustration
of why the Evan Parker multi-disciplinary improv show failed, it was
spot on.


7
Imagine a club where nobody came.

Or one where the revellers became spectators, watching the spectacle
from the edge of the deserted
dance-floor, restrained by the formality of their seats but their
hearts skipping a beat with every new pulse-beat and piece of
choreographed machinery.

Robbie Thomson seems to have done with Ecstatic Arc his brand new sound
and motion installation for Sonica, which necessitates ear-plugs being
handed out at the door of Tramway 4's smaller space as they would be at
a My Bloody Valentine or Merzbow gig.

Unless you were standing right up close to the speakers at both those
shows, however, like I did when I went to see Joy Division at a
Saturday matinee show at Eric's in Liverpool in 1979 when I was fifteen
and didn't know any better because it was the first gig I went to, you
didn't really need them.

Especially as my left ear's never been right since that Saturday
afternoon in 1979, anyway.

Even so, the club-land aesthetic being conjured up by a Prospero-like
Thomson from his place before a laptop at the front of the seating bank
is spot-on, from the slivers of dry ice being pumped in to the full-on
techno mash-up that his industrial collage morphs into later.

Using Tesla coils and electro-magnetic fields as his source, Thomson
manipulates space and time in the form of kinetic sculptures and
light-fields that zap about the room as if mapping the trail of
invisible pin-balls.

As the lights flick on and off, there are tantalising glimpses of a
cage seemingly frozen in mid-air, which, as with Samuel Beckett's
Breath, is both theatrical and sculptural at the same time.

With Thomson's hands guiding his box of tricks, it's also a playful
paradise of science-fiction style hi-tech wizardry in an adventure
playground where big-time sensuality is accelerated to the max.

Resembling a miniature diorama of the sort of light-shows neon-lit
1980s fun palaces used to stop the music for, some of what's on offer
is also a very knowing tease.

How can there be poles, for instance, without pole-dancers?

Best leave that one to the imagination in a post-modern son-et-lumiere
show that would leave the ageing rave generation pop-eyed with envy and
raring to get on the floor.


8
In another taxi – black this time – back across the city, which is full
of late-night neon-lit life now, and the driver spends the entire
journey on the phone, presumably to a pal.

With the intercom switched off, the driver's Glasgow burr drifts in and
out of hearing, his in-line patter by turns throwaway and intense as he
flits between chit-chat and conspiracy.



9
Bluebeard is an audio-visual creation by Dutch trio, the 331/3
collective, based on Bartok's Bluebeard Castle.

The castle here is a revolving cube bathed in animations which play out
nightmarish dystoptian visions of war-spattered cities as a woman tries
to navigate her way through the maze.

At times all this is unengagingly flat, at others over-whelming,
something which I find out later probably has to do with music
publishers Boosey and Hawks, who hold the copyright for Bartok, at the
very last minute refusing permission for Bluebeard's Cast;le to be
used, let alone messed about with by new-fangled concepts.

In the interval, prior to the post-show discussion, I'm chatting with
theatre producer, Susie Armitage, when we're interrupted by an
explosion of amplified noise that sounds like World war 3 has begun.

After some initial alarm, I realise my new iphone has somehow been
jolted into its game mode, and, as I can see onscreen, it actually is
imagining something on a par with such an event.

I eventually figure out how to switch it off.

Even so, after Bluebeard, it was all an oddly perfect display of sturm
und drang in miniature.


10
To the CCA, running late and racing along Sauchiehall Street in full
Friday night melee.

A black busker with a guitar poses for pictures.

On the next block, a bearded, long-haired gut plays sax like his life
depended on it.

In their own way, both buskers are re-wiring the notion of popular
entertainment, and connecting on their own terms.

Inside the upstairs auditorium of the CCA, which looks like a
wood-lined padded cell, the seats are set out in a kind of oval wrapped
around a large table full of analog kit; wires, knobs, pedals, that
sort of thing, so it resembles a Heath Robinson style sci-fi
installation.

Luke Fowler and Jean-Luc Guionnet, who previously collaborated on
Fowler's Turner nominated show at Inverleith House in Edinburgh is a
wilfully old-school reappropriation of BBC Radiophonic Workshop style
deconstruction, that seems to strip electronic dance music down to its
component parts.

It's a beguiling line of inquiry that makers it easy to spot certain
codas in their skeletal state.

Knowing how it can be put back together is an even more thrilling
prospect, albeit one here that's left tantalisingly to the imagination.


11
En route to the Mackintosh-designed Scotland Street School for Remember
Me, a miniature opera by Claudia Molitor that takes place in a school
desk.

I've already been to the CCA, to see Janek Schaefer's Extended Play
installation, Found and Aidan Moffat's Unravel, and Luke Fowler's
extended cut-up of Cornelius Cardew archive footage, Pilgrimage From
Scattered Points.

I've seen and heard all of these before, though encountering them in
the same building, it becomes like a little sonic fun palace.

Unravel is a series of recorded narratives by Moffat of 1980s
encounters played out in a juke-box type construction that attaches all
his warts and all love stories with a patina of nostalgia.

Extended Play finds a trio of Dansette record players on the floor of a
red-lit room playing out mournful melodies on 78” vinyl records on
cello, piano and violin respectively.

With each played intermittently, they create a series of new scores
based on the Polish folk song used by the BBC World Service to send
secret messages to the Polish Underground.

It's a moving experience, and carries more gravitas than anything else
in Sonica.

As for Cardew and his highly politicised Scratch Orchestra, well,
chance moves in mysterious ways, as is proven later when I’m riding the
Glasgow underground a lazy two
stops, Buchanan Street to Bridge Street, to avoid the rain.

  I flick through that day’s copy of the Guardian, and my eye catches
something about a democratic orchestra.

Like an old 78”, things do come around.

Meanwhile, I'm reading a review of the new Godspeed You Black Emperor!
album in the new Wire magazine.

The first time I saw Godspeed was in the Stills Gallery by way of the
house of Dubois in 1998 as already noted.

The most recent was at All Tomorrow's parties in Minehead at the end of
a very snowy 2010.

Aside from the blown speakers and/or plug-pulling, the aesthetic, and
the evocation of impending doom in a collapsing urban hell-hole of our
own design, awash with sub Arvo Part weeping strings and martial frum
explosions was pretty much intact.

The review talks of how the aesthetics and iconography of revolution
and apocalypse have become entertainment, as sentimental and
predictable in some ways as a pop song (I'm paraphrasing here).

I'm reminded of being taught Brecht at college, and the whole idea of
his so-called alienation effect.

Along with Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler, Brecht wrote ugly-sounding songs
to illustrate his plays.

Much of his aesthetic has been taken on by junkyard auteurs a la Tom
Waits and co, but with some back-room strip-lit razzle-dazzle instead
of political didacticism.

Our lecturer at college contrasted what Brecht was trying to do with
Suzanne Vega’s hit single, Luka.

Luka was the lead single off Vega's second album, Solitude Standing,
which, having been released in the mid 1980s, was a glossily produced
take on on the sort of coffee-house boho chic Vega had defined with her
first hit, Marlene on the Wall.

Luka was a first-person narrative told from the point of view of a
small child beaten by his/her parents.

While the lyrics were a sentimentalised form of social-realism, the
music it was wrapped up in was bland in its catchy inoffensiveness, so
you could sing along or tap a tow without ever realising what it was
about.

The Godspeed review also reminded me of Psykick Dancehall, a song by
The Fall that opened this most bloody-minded of bands second album,
Dragnet, in 1979.

Dragnet was recorded in a day, and it shows.

Like the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat, its production
revels in its muffled, no-fi splendour.

While Psykick Dancehall suggests some kind of other-worldy disco where
'they have no records', it is other words in  the song that go some way
to sum up the entire antagonistic raison d'etre of vocalist and writer
Mark E Smith, who, after thirty-five years, still leads his
ever-changing version of The Fall to places other bands fear to tread.

'They say music should be like a story of love,' Smith sneers, 'but I
wanna read a horror story.'

As with Brecht, it sounds like a manifesto, albeit one that Suzanne
Vega never read.

Remember Me is a portable rewiring of the Dido and Eurydice myths by
way of Gluck and Purcell.

Molitor looks like Cinderella en route to the ball as she operates her
Michael Bentine's Potty-Time type construction.

Cut-out shapes, pop-up books and assorted pieces of stationary play out
the epic inside the desk as manipulated by Molotor's goddess-like
presence.

At the end, Molitor whispers in each of the audience's ear as they
vacate the class-room one by one.

“Remember me when you leave,” she says.

And we do.


12
I'm sitting aside a Penny Farthing, pedalling steadily as instructed by
the voice in my head as I peer into some imaginary middle distance
which my pedal power is keeping lit.

A couple of hours ago I was on a speeding train, then a big city taxi,
racing against time, against traffic, but being caught by every rush
hour red light, in town, or at least that's how it felt.

Was all that imaginary too?

If so, how did I get here?

And why did it take so long?

Was it all down to that lost raffle ticket?

Or were they deliberately trying to keep me out?

These are the questions raised in Tales of Magical Realism: Part 2,
artist, film-maker and orchestrator of other-worldly events, Sven
Werner, whose ensemble may look like an old-time steam-punk outfit from
the impression given by the publicity shots, but whose collected
intentions are far deadlier.

Fifteen of us are led into a dark room that looks like a stable at the
back of Tramway.

We're handed a raffle ticker by a woman at the door, who checks our
respective heights as we enter.

My ticket is 131.

At the centre of the room, a ballerina dances, her centre of gravity
kept in place by the weight on the wall she's attached to.

In the far corner, a formally-dressed but dishevelled-looking band eke
out a low-slung soundtrack to the ballerina's seemingly free-form
stretchings.

In the corner opposite the band, a row of implements designed to
measure out heads is laid out on tables.

After several minutes, the double doors at the far end of the room
open, and a man and two women, again dressed formally, appear.

While the women sing some European anthem, the man calls out three
numbers, and those of us with corresponding numbers move forward, are
measured, and are led out of the room.

The sequence begins again, as the ballerina dances in her own world
while the band strike up in a different style.

After a few minutes the door opens, the man and two women enter, and
the process is repeated.

After more than  half an hour of this, there are only three of us left,
until another fifteen people enter, are measured, given raffle tickets,
and stand about.

The final two numbers of my group are called, and they go off.

I am the last remaining member of my group.

I have a train to catch shortly, and need to get away.

Three more numbers are called, all from the next group.

What is going on?

I approach the tall man who welcomed us who's now sitting on the
ground, and explain that my number has been missed.

For a moment I suspect it's deliberate, but he goes off to presumably
deal with the situation.

The ballerina and the band appear to have finished their circuit too as
well, and the band are now playing the same tune that they were when my
group of fifteen arrived.

At last, 131 is called, and myself and two others from the next group
are led through the double doors, along a corridor and into a big room
that seems to whirr with industrial motion.

Each of us are handed headphones, from which we receive instructions
from a voice that guides us through the adventure that follows which
just might be of our own making.

This, then, is the start of the show, and the last hour an elaborate
scene-setting, planting seeds and associations both visual and aural
which, in the a free-flowing hard-boiled noir-styled dream-scape that's
forever in a motion I'm propelling, makes as much sense as it ever will.

As the after-hours yarn morphs from one stopping off point to the next,
there are as many shades of Freud as there are of David Lynch in an
elaborate immersive experience that draws you further and further in.

Until, for me at least, I end up astride a Penny Farthing, pedalling
steadily as instructed by the voice in my head, with all the light and
shade that's implied.

At the end of all this, if it really is the end, I step down
unsteadily, and step out into the real night air.

With only my own internal soundtrack to call my own, I hail a taxi,
pray for green lights and a late train, and I'm gone.


A version of this essay appeared in MAP, February 2013
ends





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