Music-and-sound-art-festival-held-in-fort attending adventures (part of a series)
Newhaven Fort, East Sussex, Sat 3rd Sept
So one night I happen to be watching a documentary on Miyazaki making 'The Wind Rises'. Or more specifically on how he was motivated by the contradictory feelings of being avowedly anti-war while attracted to the aesthetics of militarism. And of course back in the day I was attending antinuclear marches while almost simultaneously listening to industrial music, pretty much militarism for the ears. So I knew the feeling.
And what do I do the very next day but attend (and I quote) “an expansive multi-disciplinary music and arts festival held in the evocative spaces of Newhaven Fort in East Sussex”?
All those stories which reached us from the continent, of people squatting old Car War bunkers to turn them into venues, this must be the nearest to that I've seen. Except it didn't just repurpose the fort but take advantage of it's layout, take it's nest of nooks and crannies and create a spontaneous sound art happening around every corner. Despite it being a mere half hour ride from Brighton I'd never been to the place before. Which made the experience only the richer as I ascended ramparts, descended vertiginous stairwells and traversed corridors so narrow as to resemble some strange Surrealist film set.
There was a programme but in true festival spirit it seemed more appropriate to drift, trusting to run into something you weren't expecting, following the sound trails like some Pied Piper child. At one point, following sounds along a long underground tunnel I eventually realised that rather than some act lying tantalisingly ahead of me they were coming from a string of hidden speakers. I'd gone from Pied Piper child to White Rabbit chaser! (When I did get to the end there was some woman reading earnest poetry while naked. You don't win 'em all...)
The choice of setting was doubly inspired. Music venues are built around old showbiz schematics which map relatively easy to rock and pop music, so we normally don't think to question such basics as darkened auditoriums and spotlit stages. But music such as this comes from a wholly other tradition, which works its magic better in a wholly other environment.
And improvised music (which much of this line-up was) is always site-specific, always based around the mood of the moment and the acoustic properties of the space. I certainly shan't forget Inwards emitting electronica from inside a bunker, viewable only through a narrow slit like the world's most secure DJ booth, while we musical eavesdroppers hung out oustide.
The day was a mix-up of performances, film showings and sound installations. The amount of stuff on offer made for almost an embarassment of riches, and I did find myself passing through the installations rather than letting them sink in, keen not to miss the next happening – resulting in their playing something of a second fiddle.
But at the same time there was an appealing absence of any neat dividing line between installations and performances. For example Alice and Luuma's Self-resonating Feedback Cellos (handily pictured) was “a durational droneduet for elctro-acoustically modifed cellos and no cellists”, essentially self-perpetuating cello feedback. While Hakarl's eight hour performance was in it's way an installation which merely used live musicians rather than mechanisms. As the string trio played slow and repetitive lines from inside a gun emplacement, making for a surprisingly natural auditorium, I watched a passanger ferry slowly emerge over the horizon and pull into town – it seemed part of the thing. (I also liked the way one player sported a Taylor Swift T-shirt.)
Seijiro Murayama's set was a classic case, as it would not have worked so well in a more standard setting. The bare lighting, the way we casually sat around him on the floor matched his stripped-down performance – one drum, one cymbal and one voice. He'd often pause unhurriedly between sections, eyes remaining closed, unconcerned with providing a steady flow of entertainment, doing merely what he was moved to do. I know I always say this stuff is analagous to shamanic ritual. But honestly, I say it because it's true!
There were a couple of acts I found disappointing. Of course there were the inevitable outbreaks of frenetic jazz rock and the like, but as there were multiple opportunities at any one time I just made my way elsewhere. I mean here stuff I sought out, then felt afterwards I'd backed the wrong horse. (And remember I was mostly avoiding stuff I'd seen before, feeling the day was about encountering something new.)
I was keen to see Audrey Chen again, after her enthralling set at Colour Out of Space. (Now some seven years ago!) In that time she's ditched the cello and now relies only on her voice. Perhaps tonsils are simply an easier item to pack, when travelling from one international festival to another. And the sounds she could conjour from those vocal chords, with no need for effects or filters... it was impressive. But those possessed-sounding voices have become something of a genre of their own, while the cello gave her something more unique. Best points were when she sounded the possessed version of a soul singer.
I was equally eager to see Carla Bosulich, and equally disappointed. While I can't claim to know her music well I like it when I hear it – like bluesy songwriting and lo-fi freakery got double-booked but somehow managed to get along. Like a more volume, less laid back Califone. Here, for the first half of her set she kneeled over a guitar which she scraped with found objects while pressing pedals. The second half grew more song-based, marked by her throwing back her hoodie and even taking to her feet. But the result was rather neither-nor, like whichever half we were in was the wrong one – too loose followed by too constrained. It was too much like what a rock star does when they're not doing a set-list set.
But more happily and more often, I stumbled across other things I previously knew not of and was wowed by. John Chantler's electronica set was something like a chauffeur-driven rollercoaster ride, being expertly taken through the most vertigious twists and turns. I especially liked the way he'd skid in and out of beats. Too often when electronica artists turn to beats it's like the fun stuff is over, and the set becomes constrained within their tramlines. Whereas Chantler was their master, not their servant.
When you watch electronica artists hunched behind a line of jack leads, they can seem as remote and arcane as sorcerers casting secret spells. Conversely Pierre Bastien (also handily pictured) took the 'demystifying' approach of the post-punk days in a new direction. He'd built a meccano construction, projected up on the screen above him, around which he'd loop tapes. He'd play along while triggering samples, often accompanied by a video of their making. His enthused stage persona was part mad scientist part children's entertainer, infusing music-making not just with the sense of accessibility but of fun.
At the other extreme, Ewa Justka was lit only by the glare of a flashing white light. She emitted a fusion of electronic noise and dance music for the end of time, the pumping beats giving a discipline over the usual self-indulgent howlaround. By fortuitous scheduling she followed some dippy New Age act, less like night following day than truth winning out over platitudes. In fact as the set went on I came to think of it almost as an antidote and corrective to the blissed-out all-hold-hands feelgood of dance music, uniting us all but by pulverizing us into our constituent atoms. Remarkably, she was able to keep the sonic onslaught up for some forty-five minutes without losing any of it's impact. We staggered out and somehow got the train home.
More of my photos of the day over on Flickr.
You can see photos of the Fort in all it's at the event's website.
A brief write-up and some cool photos of the events at Cutlasses.
That set by Seijiro Murayama...
...and Ewa Juska, though from Warsaw...
… while this short film's of the predecessor event. Which alas I didn't attend, but gives you a good flavour...