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Michael Begg – Black Glass Ensemble

Michael Begg went back to his punk roots when he started recruiting for Black Glass Ensemble, the East Lothian based composer’s fusion of data-sourced electronic experimentalism and contemporary classical music, which makes its live debut at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh tonight.

“There seemed to be two different ways of doing it,” says Begg. “You either hire players and they play your scores, or you put the band together by drawing up a poster and putting it in a shop window saying drummer wanted, no mullets, no mods, must be into the Velvet Underground, Debussy and Arvo Part.”

Such an approach dates back to when Begg almost played the Queen’s Hall as a school-boy, when his teenage punk band, The Dialected, were put forward by Currie High School to play a battle of the bands competition at the city’s southside venue. Given that one of The Dialected’s songs was called Bomb on Westminster, one suspects it would have made for quite a night. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

“I was the prima donna who went in and got the drums turned round for a left-handed drummer, which I was. Unbeknown to me, while all this was going on, the guitarist had necked a bottle of vodka on his own, fallen over and broke his arm so he couldn’t play, and that was that.”

Almost four decades on, Begg has wormed his way back in to become an integral part of the Queen’s Hall’s live music programme. This has seen him take up an associate artist in residence post at the  venue, hosting and curating an irregular series of informal concerts in the hall’s bar area under the banner of LIMINAL. Tonight’s Black Glass Ensemble show and a subsequent follow-up in May are an expansion of the residency in tandem with Begg’s Omnempathy imprint. Throughout all of this, the word ‘liminal’ has remained key to Begg’s thinking.  

“Liminality has always been important in my work,” Begg says of an idea of something that is neither one thing or another, but which is in a period of transition.

“Adolescence is a good example. The rest of your life is informed by that period, which is both highly sensitised and hugely fragile.”

Begg stumbled on the word,
solastalgia, which relates to the anxiety of living through environmental change. Around the same time, he also heard a news report that included the line ‘as we enter the twilight of the American century’.

“The phrase Arise from the twilight became a kind of motto,” he says.

Fusing these ideas with an interest in turning data into sound, Begg began streaming data relating to lunar and solar eclipses, weather systems, geological stations monitoring ice melt, and live transmissions from satellites. Out of this came the basis for Black Glass Ensemble, and a whole new set of anxieties.

With Begg leading proceedings on ‘scores, samples, data feeds and erosions’, the group also features Ben Ponton from Newcastle experimentalists, :zoviet*france, Ponton and Begg’s electronic front-line will perform alongside cellist Clea Friend, violinists Aisling O’Dea and Julia Lungu, trumpeter Neil Cuthbertson, French horn player Jen Cuthbertson and percussionist Douglas Caskie.

“It’s a really high calibre of players from different backgrounds,” says Begg. “In the beginning, wwe had to sensitively move around each other’s expectations, but now, we’re really starting to find our own vocabulary and our own processes in order to draw together the scored material, the electronic soundscapes, the live data streams and the surreal interventions. Again, it harks back to punk. You bring all these people together, and you don’t really know what might happen, but you do it anyway and have faith in each other.”

Aside from The Dialected, Begg’s sonic explorations date back to his early work with Cerebus, a theatre company he co-founded in the 1990s. Working alongside Deryk Thomas, the duo evolved into Human Greed, named after the title of the theatre production they were sound-scaping. The duo’s first album, Consolation, was released on former Siouxsie and the Banshees bass player Steven Severin’s RE: Records label. Four subsequent Human Greed albums and associated solo work has been released through Omnempathy.

In 2009, Begg teamed up with Nurse with Wound associate Colin Potter to create Fragile Pitches, a commission for that year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay event, then run by Unique Events, and which took place at St Giles’ Cathedral. Over three hours, Begg and Potter played an electronically manipulated rumble sourced from the earth’s core. The event brought what is considered to be a marginal artform to full civic life. The presence of Begg and Black Glass Ensemble in a venue such as the Queen’s Hall is doing something similar.

By the time of Fragile Pitches, alongside Potter, Begg had become a key member of Fovea Hex, the remarkable musical vehicle for Irish singer Clodagh Simonds, who recently released the third part of her own ensemble’s Salt Garden trilogy of EPs. Joining Fovea Hex was another turning point for Begg.

“Up until Clodagh got in touch, I thought what I was doing was Noise, but she convinced me it was musical. After that I started to think in musical terms.”

Begg also won a New Music Scotland award for TITAN: A Crane Is A Bridge, a commission from the Glasgow-based Cryptic company for its Sonica festival of visual-based sonic arts.

“I started thinking of myself as a composer,” says Begg, “and that was a shock to the system, which threw me for a while.”

Tonight’s Black Glass Ensemble debut will consolidate all of Begg’s disparate lines of inquiry, while May’s show will feature a guest appearance by Begg’s fellow traveller in Fovea Hex and Fragile Pitches, Colin Potter.

“There’s a lot there that’s left to the unknown,” he says, “and things will go wrong. There will be moments when we won’t know what’s going on, and we’ll be out of our comfort zone. I just hope the balance is right, but if nothing goes wrong, I’m not doing it properly.”

Black Glass Ensemble play the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh with support from Linda Buckley tonight. Black Glass Ensemble with Colin Potter play the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on May 10.

The Herald, February 13th 2020



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