Rave - Instal, experimental music

Born free?

Instal, the annual festival of experimental music in Glasgow, has attracted equal amounts of flack and praise in its six year existence. Critic Neil Cooper and Instal curator Barry Esson go head to head to debate its pros and cons in a virtual dialogue.

Neil Cooper Instal’s now in its sixth year, and has grown considerably since it started. I’m not convinced, though, that bigger is necessarily better.

Barry Esson If you’re into this kind of music already, then of course you’ll be happy to see more of it. If you don’t know much about it and fancy trying to find out more, then if there are more acts, over a wider range of styles then hopefully you’ve got an even better chance of finding something you love.

NC When Instal started, Le Weekend in Stirling and Free RadiCCAls at the CCA were running. Now, there’s Kill Your Timid Notion, Subcurrent and Dialogues. That’s a very crowded arena for what’s essentially a small marketplace for ‘left field music.’

BE I don’t understand how anybody could seriously argue for less diversity in Scotland’s cultural calendar (nobody complains if a new indie music festival starts up) - the live music scene in Glasgow is in rude health because people in Scotland love seeing live music. That’s not a ‘small market place’. The guys at Optimo go nuts for some of the acts we book.

NC The musical landscape has changed over the last five years. Instal’s provided opportunities for international acts, but homegrown acts have been seriously thin on the ground. You’re addressing it now, but, given a thriving noise scene in Scotland, it’s taken a long time for Instal to acknowledge it.

BE We should be honest enough to say that there aren’t hundreds of Scottish musicians who’ve been about for years banging out experimental music classics: there are a few, and we’ve supported them. Instal features the best international work from people who are unmatched anywhere, alongside great local talent. There’s been a surge in good work in Scotland recently and the 20 Scottish musicians playing this year (way more than any other event like this in the UK) reflect this. I think that’s progress and I’m proud that we’re doing it.

NC There’s been a shift away from electronically inclined output to more acoustic based instruments. What’s happening now in terms of utilising sounds developed in the 1960s could also be seen as not much different from the slew of derivative guitar bands.

BE I don’t know if you’ve looked at the programme for this year’s festival but I can’t see where your frame of reference for this argument starts: out of 29 performances this year, only four will feature guitars and all of those acts have something exciting to say.

Each of the artists we work with are doing something individualistic and bold, whether trying to invent their own musical language or re-birthing living traditions.

Take Arrington de Dionyso, playing Instal this year, who listens to free jazz, Tuvan throat singing, American revenant singers and backwoods jaw harp players, and thinks that somehow all of those things must come together if he is to express his own vision, then gets on stage knowing he might sound crazy to free jazzers and throat singers alike: it’s new to him, and probably everybody who might come to Instal. It’s certainly brave.

NC The Wire magazine’s review of Instal 2005 suggested that at times the audience were lapping up anything that was thrown at them without using any critical faculties. The implication was one of emperor’s new clothes. What often looks and sounds like over-excited idolatry makes me suspicious.

BE That review starts off saying Instal is the UK’s ‘best oasis for new weirdness’ before saying ‘the audience were generous to a fault . . . I would argue that they were seriously at fault but once’. The reviewer didn’t like everything that year, but generally thought the event was great. I’m totally fine with that. We want people to feel like they can come along, take a risk and not worry if not everything is to their taste. We’re trying to give newcomers to this scene a chance to find something they like.

NC I’m not even sure Instal is ‘underground’ at all. Mark E Smith of The Fall got it right on ‘New Puritan’: ‘The conventional is now experimental/ The experimental is now conventional.’ Some of Kylie Minogue’s music, I’d say, is as significant as that of John Cage.

BE I’m not saying objectively that underground music is better or morally superior to any other form of music. There’s a place in our society for a diversity of voices, and everybody’s free to decide what floats their boat: we just want to broaden the choice people have. The artists we support are certainly not mainstream. Many finance their own records, play live because they want/have to, and make little money in doing so. To be driven by a desire to create music that your emotions, your personality, demand; to give voice to and express them in a way that is pure and true to you, takes guts and however you classify their work, it’s bloody admirable.

Instal, Arches, Glasgow, Fri 13-Sun 15 Oct.


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