Sunday 8 November 2009

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE 4 (Part One: Performances)

“But tonight, it is Halloween...”

Yep, ”Brighton’s annual festival of cross platform sound experimentation and art” hit it’s fourth digit last weekend! Rescheduling things slightly later in the year left less chance of hanging out in the venue garden, but had its upside. Halloween of course has its roots in Samhain, the Celtic festival where our world was nearest to the spirit realm - surely the perfect time to hear such music! (A sense perhaps best conjured up by City Hands’ ethereal set.) People even turned up to the Saturday night in Halloween costumes. (Though ironically to see what was probably the least strong line-up of the three nights.)

The big formal innovation this year was to combine the festival with an exhibition by its participants, hence the use of the term ‘art’ in the description above. Despite this leading to the adoption of the gallery as the second venue room (for which it was inferior), this was generally to the good. After all, as someone who argued last year for more of a visual element, I could hardly say otherwise! Two things about this exhibition were obvious. First, the creative attempts at packaging (particularly tape packaging) far outshone the paintings, drawings and hangings. Second, that while the works were as varied (in style and in quality) as the performances there was a recurrent attempt to evoke the spirit of outsider art. Many pieces had that lurid kitschness, where the familiar is co-mingled with the eerie to end up somewhere vaguely threatening. (Apologies, but I can’t remember who the example below is by,)

Two years ago, we’d joked how ‘feral’ had become the word of the festival. This time, it was ‘outsider art’ which seemed to keep cropping up. During the cartoon workshop, (of which more anon) as we attempted drawing alternately with our eyes shut and our left hand, someone joked we should call ourselves an outsider artist group. My flatmate was going to see Daniel Johnston the same night, and was playing his latest CD before leaving. I thought it sounded awful, a generic rock album with Johnston’s voice merely stuck on top. My flatmate countered by commenting that had been Johnston’s ideal all along, not to be mired in lo-fi but to sound like the Beatles. At which point it hit me: “I’m off to see a bunch of rich-kid Berlinners expressing their alienation by banging things and screaming, while you’ll be watching an actual outsider-artist who just wants to sound mainstream!” You can’t help but be reminded by the famous Half Man Half Biscuit lyric:

”My life is comfortable,
But I don’t want that image for my band,
Inside, I’m reasonable,
But I’ll make out they just don’t understand”

And of course such a yearning is in one sense absurd; you can’t take up outsider art as a style, like jazz or reggae. On the other hand, by this point we have so much of a musical tradition that it’s often helpful to find ways to unlearn it all. (Or else music will sound like... um... the way most music sounds.) Perhaps the best way to proceed is with a sense of humour, and with it an awareness of the potential pitfalls.

So in this spirit I welcomed Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarrsson’s solo set (above), which I took to be a Dadaist provocation against the scene’s worst excesses. Sigmarrsson staggered from side to side, made angsty-Munch faces and... that was about it really, all culminating in a snatch of cheesy dance music at the end. For this first night no-one had seemed to figure out how to dim the Gallery lights, a general irritation elsewhere that actually worked for the better here. Passers-by sometimes stopped to stare at this throng gathered to watch one man stagger - some amused, some confused. Others just quickened their step.

So it was somewhat ironic to see Sigmarrsson go on to his duo with Leif Elggren which epitomised the angst-into-attack model – even down to Sigmarrsson screaming at the audience whilst making devil signs! However, despite all that, it must be said the set was splendid! With it’s crackly, cut-up array of sounds and snatches of radio broadcasts it gave off as Burroughsian sense of information overload to the point where any content is rendered meaningless, of communication breaking down and nothing being left from the recordings. Signal vied with noise, with no clear victor in sight. Perhaps the duo were using modern means to react to the modern world, not merely slamming teenage doors.

As an indication that ‘angsty laptopper’ should perhaps be treated as a genre like any other, with a variety of things which can be done inside of it, Damion Romero did an equally intense set which was quite different in content – a series of drones rising in pitch and intensity, intercut with other shards of sound. As these huge sounds welled, Romero sat almost entirely still, like Biafra’s “kid at the back of the room.” It was like the audial equivalent of someone staring you out. Only enjoyable. (Well I enjoyed it anyway.)

But before it starts to seem that it was all noise and fury, let’s rush over to look at someone else.  While some had brought along an array of wires and gizmos to power their sets which must have stripped catalogues bare, its perhaps ironic that Audrey Chen (above) was able to conjure so much tonal variety from just her own voice, a cello and some minimal electronics. Her set ranged from Diamanda-Galas-style screeching to moments of quiet serenity and back again, moving so effortlessly through quite different movements you wondered if there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. Before starting she commented how much she’d enjoyed the previous night’s storm and indeed her music had some of that wild elementalism to it, the way a storm will rise and fall in fury while remaining part of one experience. A true highlight. (Yet, contrary to all outsider art notions, Chen is apparently classically trained.)

Here’s a video of Chen performing in Poland.

And yet, by contrast Mechanical Children were another highlight precisely because of the narrow nature of their sound. As their name might suggest, it was like they were working with heavy machinery as much as instruments. It seemed inexplicable that they should remain in the room through the set, so surely did their low moans and rumbles simulate the sense drilling down to the centre of the Earth. Passers-by from the street stopped to listen at the window, then pressed their hands to the glass in order to feel what was going on.

But their magic was that, just when you started to think they’d just hit on a compelling sound, your ears started telling you the opposite. By setting the parameters so narrowly, they just made small shifts in sound so much bigger in context. It was like stepping into a lowly lit room, at first it all seems featurelessly black but as you stay more and more shapes become distinct.

Another ‘virtuous contrast’, where both options of an apparent dichotomy were shown to best effect, was between Kodama and Tomutonntu. For Kodama, Michael Northan played (mostly) electronics and processing while Hitoshi Kojo set about a collection of folk and ungainly-looking home-made instruments. The point was how smoothly the organic could merge with circuitry, the drones of the folk sounds blending with the electronic until you could no longer tell one from the other. It was transporting but rooted, never flighty. It was like looking at a towering totem pole, one end buried deep in the earth, another pointing to the stars - but all one seamless pole. The two even affected a ceremonial march-on to the stage while playing, a perfectly appropriate gesture for the sounds they were conjuring.

Tomutonntu, conversely, sought to rub folk tunes and electronics up against one another until sparks happened. Taking more the catchy, proto-pop side of folk, he would allow snatches of melody to appear within the overall electronic fuzz, always about to resolve themselves into fully-fledged tunes, but never quite managing it. It was this tension that perpetuated the piece, the tunes alone would probably have been trite. Beset by equipment problems, he was forced to break off early. Still, superb stuff!

You’ve heard the rest, now try the best. This was the first time I’ve seen Morphogenesis, legendary free-impro troupe of some twenty-five years standing and offshoot of the Scratch Orchestra. I particularly loved the way the three others sat at some serious-looking electronics, while Adam Bohman’s table appeared to be more of a bric-a-brac stall – adorned with glasses, jars and egg boxes. I also enjoyed the figure who marched up and down before the stage with a kind of electronic shopping trolley, manipulating things and sometimes yelling. I think he was part of the troupe, but wouldn’t swear to it.

The only possible criticism I could make was that a set, which started of as sublime and ridiculous, possibly went on a bit long – they’d surely got to Morpho-Exodus before they finally exited. This may be simply down to me, but I find it hard to listen to such structureless music beyond a certain duration. Still, it was abundantly clear why they have such high standing in their field.

The closing set by Ju Suk Reet Meete and Oblivia of Smegma was memorable because of the strength with which I reacted against them. Several other acts either failed to take off, or simply served up supposedly ‘alternative’ cliches. But, for all their sound and fury, there seemed to me a post-modern barren-ness to Smegma. As they played snatches of old records and plucked at instruments, it was like they had come from some future culture-apocalypse where meaning had collapsed and all that was left had become detritus. Where Ellgren and Sigmarrson had used that very concept as both meat and railing point, there felt something diffident to Smegma’s reaction. They weren’t like the finale, but what had been left from the other acts swept up. Like zombies from a Romero film, their hands passed over once-familiar objects with only the faintest trace of knowing them. It reminded me of the opening line in Vaneigem’s ’Revolution of Everyday Life’, that we have become like those cartoon characters who race over the edge of a cliff, with only their mechanistically pumping legs keeping them aloft.  

I have one over-riding plea regarding this music. If it doesn’t sound like your thing, that’s fine by me. But what isn’t okay is to treat it as a sampling source for mainstream music, duplicating moments from it in diluted form as gimmicks on pop singles or TV commercials. Of course rock music is in general black music stolen by white people. But this is one step worse, slaying the host in order to plunder its innards. Festivals such as this make it clear this isn’t “experimental sound” in some dry lab-coat way, making discoveries which can then be streamlined for mass production. It’s more like the wild man coming back from the desert to tell us what we all need to hear. These guys are creating music, which can have an effect on the listener as great or greater than any other style.

As you’d expect from a three-day event featuring over forty artists, there was much other good stuff here – this is really just the greatest hits. Best thing you can do – wait a year and go and see it yourself!

Coming soon(ish):  The talks and workshops!

Some handy links:

A Flickr page of Festival Photos (from which most illos here were pinched!)
Words and Music have done a good write-up of the festival in these three instalments.


  1. Just came over to say hi and have a quick read (on the clock!) - agree with your remarks about the tape/discs packaging - miles better than the stuff on the walls in the main... disagree about the last act - and agree with the comment about Adam Bohman's lot - I enjoyed them but they went on just that bit too long! Difficult to pitch a set of one continuous piece and it's interesting to speculate who handled it and who didn't... but it's all subjective anyway - and what was that 'feral' crap about a while back? Great review by the way - I missed some of the gallery acts because I couldn't be bothered to be jammed in such a bright lit space for alternate sets - so sat many of them out over the road in Hector's House!

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    ironically, despite is deficiencies as a venue, I think the gallery room had the better share of acts!

  3. Hi again - just published your comment on my blog - thought it had gone through already but... blah! Hate comment moderation but I got spammed to f*** a while back - in chinese, which was amusing at first - until it spread throughout several years of posts!

  4. No problem!

    I'd say 'thanks' in Mandarin, but no idea how the generate the characters!