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Saturday, 4 May 2019

COLOUR OUT OF SPACE FESTIVAL

Various venues, Brighton, 26th-28th April


Just when you thought it was safe to take off those noise cancelling headphones… and two and a half years since the last outbreak of international experimental sound shenanigans in central Brighton… Colour Out Of Space is back! Now for the eighth time!

As said over the previous outing, the three days run the full range “from acts you willed to be over to those you never wanted to end.” And, having willed more than a few things to end this year (some played up quite highly in the programme), I won’t be reliving the memory here. With thirty-five acts in total (excluding talks, workshops, installations and a film show), covering the whole thing is hardly possible anyway. Mostly it’ll be stuff worth mentioning in dispatches which gets mentioned in dispatches.

Well, mostly…

Perhaps a minor gripe, but at times I confess I find this scene’s blanket audience approval a little indulgent. When so much that’s being created is highly experimental or entirely spontaneous, or highly experimental and entirely spontaneous, I can see a need for a supportive audience - one willing for things to work rather than fail. But default approval isn’t the same thing as blanket approval. Trying is good, but succeeding better.

Mostly this music doesn’t feature words, even when it involves vocals. And looking at a couple of misses might explain why that might be. The “I’m alienated me” vocals were the worst part of Wild Rani’s set, to the point you really wished she’d let the music do the talking. While Natalia Beylis’ vocals… well, more of a voiceover… felt kind of normalising, with their all-too-obvious swipes at the self-help-self-actualisation industry. Perhaps vocalisation risks banalisation, when we’re actually dealing with things too basic to be said. There’s a reason, after all, why Munch didn’t paint ‘The Speech’.


While conversely, with the Charles Mitchener duo (above), for one long section the vocals consisted of forcing a simple phrase from a reluctant throat, where the inability to articulate became not a barrier to overcome but the point of the thing. The result was a free jazz set which I actually liked! (If that sounds an odd title for a duo, it’s a team-up of Neil Charles and Elaine Mitchener.)

Then again, Glands of Eternal Secretion’s set didn’t get into gear until the second section. Where he gave up scraping tins with kitchen knives (an action which proved to have diminishing returns), to tell an absurdist narrative, no more reducible to sense than the music it accompanied.

Olivier Brisson didn’t just collage together sounds from a range of sources, including tapes, samples and live sounds. His set seemed to combine different ways of listening, from composite sounds to close listening to - like a movie ranging from cinemascope to microscopic view.

Whereas, though equally composed of samples, Red Brut seemed to smooth them together, blending them into something which always seemed to make some sort of sense. (If one you could never actually describe.) In the distinction between Dadaist collage (rough, juxtapositional, abrasive) and Surrealist (presenting the strangest of things as if somehow credible), she was definitely in the second group. Though apparently she also drums in a No Wave band, this set couldn’t have been any more sublime.


Laptop artists can sit so still on stage you find yourself believing they’re transmitting music by the power of thought alone. Then there’s others who, without touching anything as mainstream as an instrument, couldn’t be any more hands on. The show had the smarts to place Jérôme Noetinger’s (above) tape manipulations in the middle of the auditorium, and I got to sit fairly close.

I always get these details wrong but it appeared to me he was live-recording direct onto tape, while also manipulating its sound with magnets, found objects and so on. (I also watched him set up and, archetypically Gallic, his first action was to uncork, scrutinise the label and sip from a bottle of red before touching the first bit of equipment.)

Though where you’d place Af Ursin in that range I’m not sure. He played bowed strings against metal plates. At least as far as you could tell, as he stood behind the plates, blocking off any view of him above some very rock’n’roll-looking ankles. One hand many have been playing bass and the other treble, but that was about the only concession to standard musicality. The result was spectral if anything ever deserved the word. You’d tune in to the point where relatively small shifts seemed magnified. If was one of those sets which convinces you consensus reality was only ever a hoax, and is now breaking down all around you. At least for their duration.


As a gag, for their booklet photo, the Elks superimposed their heads over a group shot of Metallica (above). Knowing little of Metallica, and generally being happier that way, I knew not of this. (I also believe everything I read on social media.) So, spying slouched figures in ripped jeans, I assumed a noise band.

In fact they hovered at the limits of perceptibility as much as Af Ursin. Two wind players barely breathed down their instruments, accompanied by two electronic know twiddlers. The music happened not by outright statement but by the barest hints and whispers. My over-poetic analogy would be coming across an ancient tablet, the script upon it sand-blown and the strange characters barely discernible, but all the more compellingly mysterious for that.

The show had the smarts to programme two complementary opposite acts for the Saturday night finale. White Death’s set was almost as if broadcast by sonar - warm, fuzzy and resonant. It was the musical equivalent of being read a bedtime story, simultaneously comforting and bracingly adventurous. The performer was notably pregnant, which led to musing how that might have affected her set.


…shortly followed by Bill Nace and Twig Harper (above). Nace produced wave after wave or bowed, treated guitar, while Harper spoke in tongues over the top. Not music which immersed you in it but which struck you powerfully. If White Death took you below the waterline, they were all stormy surface.

As said after the third outing
it shouldn’t be assumed a festival such as this covers the ’edge’ of music, as if inhabiting a narrow margin where only one thing is on offer. It’s the very reverse, demonstrating how closed-up our conception of ‘music’ normally is. You generalise at your peril. But it was noticeable how many sets felt mediumistic, in one way or another. Inaudible voices were in regular supply, often in foreign languages. (Perhaps not to the performers. But we’re going with my subjective reaction here.)

Of course those who hear messages in short wave radio static from their dead Auntie Mable are being hubristic, assuming the universe must be full of decodable messages meant directly for them. But we can apply the principle more generally, where the purpose of tuning into the ether is not to receive some specific thing. but make us more reflective. I believe Huxley’s phrase about cleansing the doors of perception may have already been claimed by some band. But if it hadn’t, it would fit in well around here.

The three days finished with Tomutontto (back from the fourth outing), playing what could only be described as dance music for the faerie folk. To which people responded with yer actual dancing, not always a COOS staple! Yet in another way it was a fitting finale…

For COOS has a somewhat Brigadoon-like existence; vanishing from sight until you believe it will never visit our Earthly shores again, and you probably just imagined the whole thing anyway, then reappearing unexpectedly to circumvent all our common laws and customs. Will there be a ninth? It’s probably like one of those movies ending with the hushed line “will we ever see the like of this again?”

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