Sunday, 4 December 2016



Yes, Colour Out of Space has hit seven! Self-described as an “international experimental sound and art festival”, with the alternative guide Eyeball guaranteeing “maximum weird shit”. As ever, it was a solid three-day festival and what follows is by necessity sketchy and incomplete...

This year one whole day was given over to Fylkingen, a Stockholm-based contemporary music collective who've been operational since (yes really) 1933, with a record label from 1966 and venue from 1971. What was indicative about their group interview was how insistently up the wrong tree it barked. Again and again it was asked what they had in common while they continued to insist the only answer was a negative – they didn't want anything that had been done before, anything being done elsewhere. And, after seven years, we can safely say the same is true of the Colour Out of Space programme.

And so perhaps inevitably, as ever with COOS, with the Fylkingen folks or over the whole weekend, things went from the compelling to the excruciating, from acts you willed to be over to those you never wanted to end. But it's worth taking the rough with the smooth. For one thing, it's good to deprive yourself of the fast-forward button. There's much music which I initially hated, then through slow exposure came to love. Yet these digital days, when you can so easily just click away, you can forage while actually stay in your box. Which leaves the live setting as the only chance music has to get to work on you. Admittedly, there wasn't one instance of this happening all weekend. (Excluding acts which simply took a little time to get going.) But still, it's a good habit to keep up.

To misquote Frank Zappa, does humour belong in noise? Interviewed for the previous Festival, chief curator Dylan Nyoukis recalls his Mother attending and asking him if it was okay to laugh. Which is pretty funny in it's own right. And despite the dour stereotype some conceive of, many acts come ready-aware of their own absurdity. But there's also no shortage of outright humourous pieces, which serve to break up what might otherwise be a relentless drill-bit intensity – the clowns between the circus acts. Perhaps accounts of previous years have followed the tortured artists and skipped over the funny stuff a bit too much.

And what's interesting is that even if your only aim is to act ridiculous, it can be as hard to cut it as a clown as a musician. Fylkingen's WOL, despite an overlong preamble which was really just an extended setting-up, managed to masterfully twang stretches of sellotape. And by 'masterfully' I mean their ability to perfectly pull the 'pained concentration' face of the classical pianist, as if stretched tape was their chosen means of expressing their art. It's never what the clown does which makes him funny, it's his hopelessly serious intent.

Whereas Anne Pajunen (also of Fylkingen) seemed to knowingly nudge you in the ribs with her inverted-commas absurdity. Such performances seem a form of 'safe space shock'. While Dada aimed to antagonise audiences this feels aimed at in-the-know hipsters, ready to laugh along, wanting the self-congratulatory part of outrage while avoiding any actual outrage.

I wouldn't be sure in what category to put W Mark Sutherland. Intoning Russian Futurist poetry in amassed anti-languages, he jumped off stage, traversed the auditorium and finally passed through the exit door. An usher confirmed he was still proclaiming the stuff as he left the building. Perhaps I'll cross paths with him in a couple of weeks, down some Brighton sidestreet, as he continues to Klang and Zaum.

After I've seen a great impro performance I'm almost apprehensive over seeing them again. Will the magic work a second time? So it was with Angharad Davies, who I last saw surpassing superlatives at Aural Detritus.

She was again playing unamplified violin, this time in a duo with Lina Lapelyte. I always take to a good visual corollary for the music in the staging, and they placed themselves in the centre of the room, back-to-back and circling one another. In impro music, too often one provides the click track for the other to extemporise around. But here neither took on a fixed role, but played continually interwoven lines – a true collaboration. Their playing went from strident bowing to ethereally exploring the edge of hearing and back again. Fantastic stuff!

As said in previous years, acts which are simply novel means of sound sourcing (such as sticking a contact mike down your throat), quickly become merely gimmicky. An antidote of sorts was Fylkingen's Marja-Leena Sillanpaaset - who set up a power electronics system and simply stepped back, allowing it to develop without her. It was powered, insofar as I could tell, by a detuned radio which set up resonances among the rest of the kit. 

The willingness to surrender authorial intent, to trust to the elements, was Cagean – even if the resultant music sounded nothing like him. I looked round afterwards to see someone sopping wet. He'd found it so oppressive he couldn't even stay in the same building, so had stood it out in the rain. Whereas for me it was exhilarating...

Phantom Chips was an act of two halves. The first part reproduced the eternally multitasking nature of the modern mind, unable to actually settle on a single thought, like a TV flitting through a thousand channels as if they all require watching at once. Something usually conveyed by frenetic skittering beats, a device which only ups the ante while actually providing a point of continuity. Chips' act was more like a myriad of sound sources, overlapping without overtyping one another. And, interestingly, rather than an anti-modern critique it more conveyed the exhilarating buzz which embracing the electronic flow can bring on.

Half-way through, she introduced her patented squeeze-nodule and stretch-string instruments - which she promptly handed out among the audience. Her infectiously cheery Aussie character did undo the usual laptop stereotype, the outsider who never actually steps outside the house. And her choosing a child to conduct the various players was appealing. But it fell between the stools of performance and workshop. Overall, I preferred the Phantom to the Chips.

Another Fylkingen fellow, Mikael Preys' music-and-film combinations seemed to me like fractal black holes. The film seemed continually going into greater and greater close-up as the music grew into greater and greater intensity, like perpetually crossing over the event horizon with no handbrake. You were metaphorically and literally drawn in at the same time.

Cassis Cornuta played an amassed array of eight Korgi keyboards. So many they just had to be set up before the start of the evening, then left on stage awaiting him - like Chekov's gun. Like a jumbo jet it was slow and rumbling in take off, but once going it soared powerfully.

I wasn't sure whether Daniel and Marcelvs L Lowenbruck's piece counted as sound art, instillation or an exercise in crowd psychology. Only when we didn't get handed questionnaires at the end did I start to rule out the last one. Let's call in an environmental work, something which needed that particular setting for it's effect.

In a darkened room they unleashed a sonic maelstrom, including what sounded like farmyard genocide, while a strobe randomly fired at us. Intoning performers weaved in and out of the crowd. Passing in and out of hearing, it sounded like there might be some 'stage' element you hadn't spotted yet, and people started to shuffle around in search of it. Whereupon you started to smell smoke... There should surely be a strong distinction between jockeying for a view-spot and the flight instinct triggered by fire, and yet the two did seem to readily combine.

Having endured some of the daftest excesses of the industrial scene, I'm normally skeptical of 'extreme' music, figuring extremes are normally where the dead ends are. But whatever it was the Lownbrucks' did has some gut-level, reason-bypassing effectiveness, like some old shamanic ritual designed to scare you out of your old skin. And it's appealing to come across works which are not photo-ops or YouTubeable. Sometimes you really have to be there, however out of fashion that is.

Matt Krefting simply played tapes. Yes, old cassette tapes on a range of old players, and seemingly mixing them only via the bass and volume dials with which they came. Given this lowest-of-lo-fi in the devices at his disposal, I'm unable to explain how he made the sounds he did or how it all worked so effectively. As far as I could ascertain, each cassette became an instrument in a minimalist composition, a means by which he could set up resonances between them. So the effectiveness of the headline act on Friday night became not how many punters the vinyl DJ got jumping, but how many bodies the tape player got reclining flat on the floor. He didn't wish us pleasant dreams, but I'm sure most had them anyway.

Whereas the Sunday night led to dreams of a very different nature...

Though I know Romanian spectralist composer Iancu Dumitrescu more by reputation, what little I've heard has confirmed his high reputation. As the record shows, I'm an enthusiastic ignoramus where Spectralism is concerned. So had the programme been him and Coldplay on bongos, I'd have probably got myself a ticket.

Accompanied by fellow composer, collaborator and wife Ana-Marie Avram for his afternoon interview, they proved so gloriously eccentric, so fitting of the deranged genius composer role, that I half wondered if they hired character actors to play themselves. Perhaps while remaining safely ensconced back in Bucharest catching up on soaps. I did manage to pick up... at least I think I did... that while influenced by Modernist music they were as equally steeped in the still-strong folk tradition of Transylvania. (Which remains a part of the world not overly troubled by modernity.) But they didn't seek to synthesise the two so much as find their commonalities, re-opening the links where classical music had driven a wedge. Those folk connections seemed to lead to them feeling very much of an Eastern tradition, where Bartok was a star in their sky while Messiaen not.

Looking back over my comments from previous years, it seems every festival there is a storm to which I compare one of the acts. Well, this year there was another storm and... Actually, they sound less like a simple storm than a whole weather system, an array of elemental forces at work. Playing with their own Hyperiorn Ensemble, sounds would cluster powerfully together then as quickly fragment – like violent squalls followed by eerie calm.

Morton Feldman said the process of creating music should seem a mystery to the listener. And that's true here, even though we know a little of how Dumitrescu does it. The ensemble play with standard classical instruments (a double bass, timpanis), already pushed to the limits of their sound range and then electronically treated by the man. My lowbrow comparison would be that pure electronica can be like CGI in films. Anything can be done, and then it is. And yet it feels somehow synthetic, removed from our world. While with Dumitrescu you can never quite fix on a point where the natural instruments lose their sound, and the resultant experience is gloriously disorienting. Like Modernist music going back to Stravinsky, it sounds primal and unearthly at the very same time.

The middle worked solely featured Avran's voice (well with a little of Dumitrescu's), so presumably was one of her compositions. And while it was not as iconoclastically striking as his, it was possibly even more effective. Her singing would be multi-tracked and delayed, but every time it built up to a crescendo it would twist into an entirely new direction. Perhaps hearing the human voice break the bounds of possibility is more effective than with classical instruments.

One day I hope to know enough about Spectralist music to say something coherent about it. Partly so I can call the piece 'Spectralism is Haunting Europe'. For now... when caught out by the clock, Dumitrescu promised us he'd return soon. Let's hope he holds to it.

Friends Centre, Brighton, Fri 25th Nov

Alvin Lucier is an American composer of music and sound instillations, a former member of the Sonic Arts Union, who mixes conventional instruments with unusual sound sources, and straight scores with process works.

Adam Bushell, doubling as participant and compere, made for an engaging presence, introducing Lucier without wrapping him up in over-fancy terminology. Though Lucier's best-known for his Sixties work, the programme's oldest piece was from 1980, while three were post-millennial. (Bushell explained this was largely due to difficulties staging the more instillation-based pieces.)

The programme ran the range for me, with some I was waiting to be over almost as soon as they began, and others... well, let's focus on some of those others.

'I Remember' featured no less than eight participants who blew an array of objects to create a drone tone, while in turn reciting memories. (The score requesting you find and use your own memory.) Unamplified, you mostly couldn't hear what these personal memories were, they barely rose above the drone hum. But then I don't think they were the point. The idea, I'd surmise, was to create an environment where it's made easier for you to recall your own memories. The drone tones evoke a sense of timelessness and instil a meditative state, while the participants' memories merely joggers to make your own recall easier.

Except it was less a mechanism to dig up memories, than a frame in which to consider memory. It's strange after all the way we so readily accept our memories aren't neatly logged like computer files, but weave in and out of reach like a short wave radio band. And the way the voices arose, but only semi-arose, from the drone static conveyed that.

'Precious Metals' created quadrophonic sound by the simple expedient of placing speakers in the four corers of the room, emitting more drone tones. Brass players, stationed by each speaker, would break in at intervals. Rather than have their own lines they'd always play precisely on top of one another, so their various timbres would combine. It was as if a single instrument was able to produce some multi-level sound, like a 3D shape for the ears. It felt non-durational, like it was some eternal piece which we were only hearing a random section from.

But my favourite piece was the opening, and most recent, number - 'Criss Cross'. One string was permanently held down on two guitars, in fact the same string for each, providing an even tone. The playing came through simply altered it's tuning. Like much of Steve Reich's work, the resonances created from this simple-seeming input became richer and richer as the piece progressed. It started sounding like no guitars you'd ever heard, and went stranger from there. Several numbers were 'duets' between sound sources (for example another featured the human voice and an oscillator), but of them this was by far the most effective.

It might be some kind of fool's errand to try and find commonalities between the various pieces. But... if Lucier's chiefly associated with the Sixties, his music couldn't be less dramatic or iconoclastic, or sounding like it arose from a cultural firmament. Instead it's calm, perhaps even sombre. And it seems less formally experimental (in the “what would happen if..?” sense) than evocative, interested in what effect it has upon the listener.

'Criss Cross'...


..with more vids here.

The Rose Hill, Brighton, Mon 14th Nov

Though I know precisely one Richard Youngs album, the early 'Advent', my mind has somehow formed itself into a quite definite notion of what he does. Wikipedia describes him as possessed of “a prolific and diverse output”, but more importantly he has a knack of bringing diverse sources together and naturalising them. He can slip between folk, drone and experimental styles like a thing between, what are walls to others being nothing to him.

At this gig he clips down the guitar neck, with a device I later learn is called a capo, then strums away. As he works through the numbers he moves the capo down the neck through each fret in turn, never forming a single chord with his fingers. He calls this approach “high concept, low technique”. With that single-chord strumming going on with the guitar, you might assume it was being used as a straight man for some more active vocals. In fact he mostly sings simple, straightforward phrases over and over until they become like mantras.

Yet rather than being some academic exercise it’s strangely melodic. You're never quite sure where the melodies are arising from, but they're there. He's singing songs, of sorts. He frequently enlists the audience as backing vocalists and hand clappers, a sure sign of a folk gig. But like many old folk songs they seem straightforward while at the same time feel slightly elusive, like you can’t quite catch what’s going on.

And yet at the same time it doesn’t seem entirely fitting for people to clap each track individually, that they're really components of a greater whole. (Though I did appreciate people’s perverse insistence to still applaud when numbers were only a few seconds long.)

While this capo-driven main set was all from a forthcoming album, the encore was described ironically as a “greatest hit”. For the accompaniment this time he had stillless to do with his guitar – placing it on the floor, he weighted the strings down and modified the sound only by stamping his foot nearby. Yet this was the nearest thing to a clear-cut folk song of the whole set, and somehow felt warming when so much of his music is wintery.

That Wikipedia page also quotes him as finding life performance “nerve wracking”. But rather than some sensitive artist type his stage presence is avuncular and very often genuinely funny. (This being the guy who titled an album 'The Great Difficult Music Swindle'.) Which initially surprised me, but I finally found it fitting. There’s an intensity to the music but also humour, an awareness of it’s own absurdity without being meta or ironic. Youngs seems capable of doing almost everything at once, with the barest of materials. High concept, low technique equals minimal input, maximal output. The guy's an original.

Those who know me may spot me in the audience...

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