Aberdeen's sound festival 2014 gets underway

Aberdeen's sound festival 2014

Rohan de Saram / Jane Baker

Opening weekend included performances by Rohan de Saram, Jonathan Mayer and Erwan Keravec

If there was ever any need to prove that Aberdeen’s sound festival of contemporary music was about more than just classical – or that musical genres and boundaries have little importance anyway – then this year’s opening weekend would have done the job perfectly. Appropriately enough for 2014’s theme of new perspectives on traditional music, there was Indian music, new bagpiping, warped Argentinian tango – and also a trio of premieres of more traditional orchestral pieces.

Crack contemporary cellist Rohan de Saram took up residence among the paintings in a bright corner of Aberdeen’s Art Gallery for a concert exploring drones, and how they’re used in music both contemporary and ancient – from India and elsewhere (●●●●). Jonathan Mayer joined him on tampura for touchingly focused performances of some of his father John Mayer’s miniature 'Ragamalas', brief explorations of Indian modes and moods. But it was de Saram’s solos that really took flight, in a ferociously raw delivery of a 'Reel' by English composer Cyril Scott, and an expert negotiation of the increasingly frenzied, double-stopping ‘Loop’ movement from Ligeti’s 'Viola Sonata' (which de Saram had recast for cello).

Both men were almost upstaged, though, by the charismatic presence of Breton bagpiper Erwan Keravec – he made an unforgettable entrance, piping while slowly approaching from far off in another gallery room, then striding purposefully across an adjoining space (and just visible through the doorway) to manipulate how his rich, vibrant sound carried to the audience. It seemed remarkable that the pulsating, many-layered minimalist textures he created were the product of just one person.

Keravec’s main concert (●●●●) pitted bagpipes against voices, including extraordinary vocal improvisations from Basque singer Beñat Achiary, who growled, shrieked and keened into the microphone to match the intensely expressive microtonal wailings of Keravec’s pipes. Despite playing both Breton and Scottish traditional music, Keravec explained his desire to remove the pipes from their cultural associations and hear them afresh as a ‘pure’ musical instrument – and his radical experimentation with their sound made a profound, visceral impact.

There were more pipes in an outdoor afternoon performance called A la pipeta! (●●●) – Argentinian Spanish for ‘surprising!’, we were informed – in a bandstand on the top of Aberdeen’s St Nicholas shopping centre. A healthy crowd of passers-by gathered for a semi-improvised sound event that electronically sampled and transformed the bells of the nearby Kirk of St Nicholas, mixing them with Buenos Aires street sounds, squawking sax, and local pipers and drummer, all led by Argentinian composer Fabiana Galante with electronic manipulations from sound festival organiser (and Aberdeen University professor) Pete Stollery. It was a one-off, as fascinating in process and conception as it was in output, but if nothing else, it took the festival firmly into the lives of Saturday afternoon shoppers.

Fabiana Galante reappeared that evening as one quarter of Fulgor al Bies (●●●), an Argentinian quartet who push the country’s sultry tango traditions in unexpected directions – with more electronic collages, prepared piano and husky breathing from the bandoneón concertina, for example. It felt a bit self-regarding at times, and ironically the pieces that got the audience’s toes tapping most were those most clearly related to traditional tango.

More successful was an early morning promenade concert back in the city’s Art Gallery (●●●●), with duos of performers scattered among the institution’s installations: the flute-and-percussion partnership of Ruth Morley and Tom Hunter were especially bewitching in Peter McGarr’s velvety 'Windflower', all breathy flute shapes and gently caressed vibraphone. And that trio of more traditional classical premieres came courtesy of a new Auld Alliance collaboration, between Scottish new music ensemble Red Note, and Clermont-Ferrand’s string group Orchestre d’Auvergne (●●●●).

Alongside the volatile 'Of the breathing land' by Scottish composer Brian Irvine and Glasgow-born William Sweeney’s bagpipe-inspired 'Absence', Thierry Pécou’s theatrical Ñawpa stood out for its intense, unpredictable string writing – and for requiring its violinists to parade on and off the stage as if in some bizarre ritual. It felt as if the sound festival, as incisive as it was provocative, was confronting and questioning traditions – classical, folk and others – in any way it could.

sound festival

An innovative festival of new music in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. From contemporary classical music to electro-acoustic music, traditional, vocal and jazz, the festival brings together a wide range of different musical styles in a variety of concerts, workshops, installations and talks.

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