Review: Tectonics Glasgow 2014
Neil Cooper reflects on three days of inspiring experimentalism at Glasgow's Tectonics festival.
If incoming Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan really wishes to refresh his music programme with something more contemporary than the current model, as he hinted at during a recent press briefing, he could do worse than look at this second edition of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's inspired three-day meeting of musical minds, which saw curators Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell foster international alliances aplenty.
While Volkov has been a mercurial figure, both with the BBC SSO and in Iceland, where a Reykjavic-based arm of Tectonics runs in tandem with the Glasgow event, much of the the groundwork over the last decade for something as sonically ambitious as Tectonics was done by the Instal and Le Weekend festivals, with Campbell in charge of the latter for much of its existence. The involvement of the BBC and the presence of Radio 3 in particular at Tectonics, however, suggests an official seal of approval that opens up an avenue of mainstream culture to a strand of forward-thinking experimentalism too often pushed to the margins. This also frees up composers to produce bigger works than they might normally have the resources for.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the opening and closing concerts of the Tectonics weekend. The first featured Bill Wells performing a new piano-led piece, 'Summer Dreams', with viola player and long-term collaborator Aby Vulliamy alongside a thirteen-piece string and horn ensemble drawn from the SSO that made for an ethereal experience accentuated by the acoustics of St Andrew's in the Square. Even more ambitious was Richard Youngs' festival finale, 'Past Fragments Of Distant Confrontation', but there was a lot more inbetween in a full to bursting programme which looked designed to disorientate.
Much of this pushed boundaries of space, form and content in a series of moments which use the assorted venues housing Tectonics in interesting ways. While another large ensemble played David Behrman's self-explanatory 'Pile of Fourths and Pitchbends', the first half of Friday night's concert followed Wells and co with Klaus Lang playing solo harmonium in the centre of the room, with Thrainn Hjalmarsson doing something similar with viola and Marcus Weiss with assorted saxophones. Jer Reid took things even further with 'Fracking', a piece for manipulated electronics which saw dancer Solene Weinachter begin her meditations on the venue's balcony before moving into the main space sporting a costume by artist Victoria Morton.
The second half began with a short piano piece by Christian Wolf, before Richard Youngs performed a wonderfully evocative solo vocal piece, using St Andrew's in the Square's rich acoustic in a powerfully insistent miniature that tapped into folk idioms while sounding thoroughly contemporary. Catherine Lamb and Klaus Lang's viola and harmonium duo was concentratedly low-key, while Vernon and Burns' 'Renditions of the Beat: A Resuscitation Recital' was a playful mix of pure sound and spoken word that was a harbinger of much fun to come.
While there was much anticipation centred around the first of two Tectonics appearances by former Sonic Youth guitarist, the increasingly ubiquitous Thurston Moore, in the end his duo with Japanese Fluxus veteran Takehisa Kosugi that closed day one was a pleasant enough but unremarkable concoction of avant-guitar stylings and electronic squiggles.
The real highlight of the second leg of the evening, alongside Youngs, was ANAKANAK, aka Conquering Animal Sound vocalist Anneke Kampman, whose solo turns are fast mutating into increasingly confident multi-media spectacles. Her 'the as if body loop' featured visuals by artist Tom Varley, which accentuated the pulsating stridency of Kampman's performance. As she morphed her live vocals into dubbed-out mis-shapes using layers of electronics, the end result was akin to a one-woman Cabaret Voltaire circa 1982, just before Sheffield's electronic pioneers fully embraced the dancefloor.
Saturday's proceedings may have been divided between the Old Fruitmarket and the City Halls' more formal Grand Hall space, but that didn't prevent composers Christian Wolff, David Behrman and Georg Friedrich Haas from exploring what an orchestra might be capable of when taken out of its comfort zone, a challenge the BBC SSO rose to with distinction. Plunderphonics pioneer John Oswald, meanwhile, messed things up even more with a wink to the Beatles at their trippiest on his BBC Commission, 'I'd love to turn'.
Sarah Kenchington's 'Sounds from The Farmyard' installation was a gloriously Heath Robinsonesque sonic playground that set up shop in the Recital Room off the foyer of the City Halls, with a trio version of female collective Muscles of Joy ramping up the presence of Glasgow-based artists even further.
Things really livened up with an impromptu promenade through the Old Fruitmarket, in which a whole heap of Tectonics artists and fellow travellers including Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra director and saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, plus curators Volkov and Campbell, spiralled their way through the audience, blowing and honking an array of instruments or else singing or shouting their way through the space with harmony and dissonance rubbing up against each other in equal measure.
As warm-ups go, it was perfect for Thurston Moore's second appearance of the weekend, this time in tandem with Blood Stereo mainstay, founder of the Brighton-based Colours Out of Space festival and proprietor of the Chocolate Monk micro-label, Dylan Nyoukis. Combining Moore's guitar with Nyoukis' electronically enhanced gibberings made for an intense but surprisingly nuanced experience.
Things fully let rip with the second night's closing performance by Cindytalk, for more than thirty years the thunderingly raw spleen-venting vehicle of vocalist Gordon Sharp. Sharp's musical roots date back to Edinburgh's original punk scene with his band, The Freeze, which was followed by appearances on 4AD Records house band/super-group This Mortal Coil's debut album, It'll End In Tears. Since then, his wilfully singular path has taken his explorations in avant-rock and self-styled 'ambi-dustrial' soundscaping ever further out there.
The eight-piece version of Cindytalk that graced Tectonics proved to be a beguiling visual experience as much as an aural one. While much of this was down to the presence of Sharp helming things as a dragged-up Cindy, looking like a trans-gender auteur straight out of Andy Warhol's Factory, the sight of band-members Melanie Clifford and Lucy Duncombe extracting sounds from table-tops full of electronic boxes, sticky-back plastic and such-like with near hypnotic concentration made for gloriously disorientating and contrary light and shade spectacle of fury and calm.
The way 'performance percussionist' Tim Goldie, aka " " [sic] VomiTimov Goldie Abject Bloc, appeared to play his face by rubbing it at length at one point further added to a mix of music concrete, skewed noise-rock and Sharp's soul-baring confessionals. At one point, on his knees, Sharp clutched his hand-bag to him, taking time out from an at times pulverising but nonetheless touching display.
If Cindytalk were purging old demons on the Saturday, the Old Fruitmarket space was left exorcised enough for much levity on the final day of Tectonics. The Sunday afternoon session began with a trouserless Usurper, the absurdist and increasingly performative duo of Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson, perched on the stairs of the City Halls in cardboard tuxedos as they attempted to iron their cut-off troos for what looked to be a very formal affair. Once the pair acknowledged the audience with faux-surprise and vaudevillian double-takes before raising a toasted with plastic container-loads of bottle-tops, they led the audience in a procession to the Old Fruitmarket, where four tables were set up in a large square that left enough space for the circus ringmasters Duff and Robertson effectively became to navigate their way around.
At each table sat a fellow traveller of Usurper; artist/musician Norman Shaw, musicians Fiona Kennedy and Luke Poot, and film-maker and activist Sacha Kahir. Stopping off at each in turn, Duff and Robertson whipped the table-cloths from under an assortment of junk-shop detritus that seemed put together at random from a job lot bought for buttons at Steptoe and Son's yard. Over four courses, a choreographed mish-mash of extrapolations, ablutions and a warped remix of dinner party rituals were performed in turn.
All this was both ridiculous and hilarious, but it was also in part at least a recognition and cheeky critique of how a runtish underground has either subverted or else been accepted and co-opted by Auntie Beeb's posh classical music radio station. Casting themselves as eternally bemused-looking unexpected guests, Usurper could revel in the mess they can make with such resources even as they fart in its face. In this respect, Usurper are becoming the Morecambe and Wise of the Noise scene that sired them. If live art was a form of breaking the frame of still lives, Usurper are a cartoon double-act who, like The 'O' Men, the duo of Sylvester McCoy and David Rappaport, who applied a messy fringe theatre aesthetic to early 1980s teatime TV show, Jigsaw, may yet make it on to kids telly.
There were more laughs to be had with S.L.A.T.U.R. (pictured, top), the Icelandic composers collective whose response to various on-screen stimuli, which included having the audience join in with a series of co-ordinated hand-claps, made for a participatory play-pen in which call and response was an essential component.
Back in the City Halls, the seven short vocal pieces performed by the eight-piece Exaudi ensemble under the direction of James Weeks was a fantastic pre-cursor to the world premiere of Weeks' Radical Road, which took place in the upstairs and downstairs of the City Halls foyer. With small groups of singers overlapping performances that tapped into the ebullient spirit of traditional work-song, it made for an initially overwhelming but ultimately exhilarating experience.
Volkov and the BBC SSO took over again for a series of world premieres by Catherine Lamb, Michael Finnissy, James Clapperton and Klaus Lang before the penultimate performance of the festival, a solo turn from Takehisa Kosugi, whose manipulations of raw electronics revealed a discreet but no less evocative form of sonic alchemy.
This left only 'Past Fragments Of Distant Confrontation', the grandest of big band finales by Richard Youngs. Performed in the round of the Old Fruitmarket, Youngs combined brass, strings, electronics and opaque guitar stylings for a short, sharp invocation of post punk dance culture which at moments recalled Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass project. If time had allowed, the performance should have ideally ushered in the most abandoned of club nights. As it was, it was the grandest and most joyous of finales to a shape-shifting three days and nights of sound and vision.
Glasgow Tectonics 2014 took place Fri 9 - Sun 11 May. For more info go to http://www.tectonicsfestival.com/