A wonderful weekend in Glasgow, more precisely a wonderful weekend in the company of Tectonics, the contemporary music festival hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. One of the great things to note here is that this is music which, shall we say, doesn’t appeal to many. Sometimes one may wonder why it appeals to any – some of it anyway. Last year’s festival slogan was ‘make some noise,’ but this is noise with a bit of structure to it, it has to be said. I noticed that most of the woodwinds now have plastic screens behind them, to protect them from the brass.
It seems to me that a lot of women composers are now emerging onto the contemporary classical music scene, and they were well represented at Tectonics. Several performances stick in my mind. A diminutive Julia Reidy, barely taller than her 12-string acoustic guitar rendered her instrument into an intensive hypnotic machine, with a repeating motif delivered with a determined precision. Words fail me, so here’s what the official description says about her piece, Brace, Brace “littered with dread-tinged incantation from breath-down-the-neck field recordings, auto-murmured voice, synthetic hum, and irrepressible guitar kinetics. Her signature 12-string playing – precise, burrowing and rhapsodic – dominates framing a plaintive electric centre. The music feels at once on fire and playful.” For once I agree with a caption.
Jennifer Walshe’s The Site of An Investigation was an energetic, punchy, topical piece, expressing modern day concerns about all the ills we’re becoming acclimatised to, like plastic, Facebook and extinction. She appropriated words from others, e.g. the execrable Zuckerberg and turned them into the defining lyrics of dystopia. A wonderful piece. Perhaps it captured the mood of the event, looking with reluctance at a new discordant dawn where everything is fucked.
Angela Sawyer – all the way from the US – brought humour to this sometimes sombre toned occasion. She, like Laurie Anderson is a storyteller, but relies more on twiddling the knobs of her electronics than a violin. What made her piece especially funny was her giving two dozen members of the audience various ‘game calls,’ i.e. duck, sheep and other animal noise devices. The audience were encouraged to blow these freely, creating a background cacophony to accompany the main act. It was genuinely funny. I think there’s a lesson here for the hosts of Theresa May’s regular speeches to hard-pressed shopfloor workers. Give them the tools for the job!
Other stand-out contributions: Mahan Esfahani on harpsichord – who could imagine this rather staid, tinkly-tinkly period instrument being turned into a crashing, swiping, thumping in-your-face motor of the contemporary cutting edge? Roll-over Scarlatti, there’s a new harpsichord in town. Esfahani also played a tribute to Luc Ferrari, the creator of musique concrète. Once again, the poor tinkly thing got a virtuoso pummelling that would have shaken the timbres of the sturdiest chest of drawers. I almost worried that the instrument would fall apart. A chest of drawers comes to mind merely because of Esfahani’s harpsichord’s four descending keyboards, like a burgled piece of furniture, its innards turned out.
That was just one occasion this weekend that reminded me of a performance by Keith Emerson of The Nice I saw donkey’s years ago in Harrogate, where he physically grappled with his organ (no pun intended) on stage, throwing it around as if it were a matchbox. (Wikipedia: “Emerson would abuse his Hammond L-100 organ by, among other things, hitting it, beating it with a whip, pushing it over, riding it across the stage like a horse, playing with it lying on top of him, and wedging knives into the keyboard.”) The things young people (can) do! The second so remindful performance at Tectonics was the wildly eccentric Mik Quantius playing with his three keyboards, as if they were recalcitrant adolescents who alternately needed coaching or thrashing, all the time accompanied by wailing, intoning, mad-talking or blubbering. There was great humour in this performance too, and whilst watching Quantius’s strange antics I immediately formed the conclusion that his sound, his oeuvre was the sonic equivalent of the Keinholz’s sleazy figures, in their strange configurations both human and not human. Here was their strangulated voice, their revival, their awakening! Which is to say if Keinholz’s figures were to have a voice this would be it, emerging from the pain of being with a meaningless, inchoate scream.
In the more traditional (ha!) contemporary music vein, I enjoyed Oscen by Sarah Davachi. This wouldn’t be out of place alongside Arvo Pärt or perhaps Max Richter – soothing, washing over waves of sound, or as the caption says something “that considers both the consort and disunion of textures and harmonies near at hand.” Yeahhh, c’mon, it’s yer good old memory and loss job, innit? Tectonics’ finale was Diabolus Apocalypsis, another early work in the development of contemporary music, performed only once before, at the ICA in 1976. Pulsating it was.
Tectonics is a short festival, and that in my mind gives it an advantage over its big brother the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which is spread over two weeks. Should you wish to go to the former it’s £28, but the latter is getting on for £400 for the whole thing. I wouldn’t mind going to the HCMF, but there’s so much on, 99.9% of which I have no idea about, it is impossible to choose. The great thing about both festivals is that they are recorded for BBC3’s New Music Now (formerly Hear and Now, Saturday nights at 10pm). Most of Tectonics will be broadcast over the next three Saturdays, I imagine.
Footnote: Should you listen to Tectonics, I am pleased to inform you that the first clap you will hear at the end of many of the performances is my own. Often with this kind of music one waits for ages for the audience to start clapping, and one suspects this is because they can’t figure out when the piece is over. So I have taken to watching the conductor very carefully, and making sure we all clap in good time. I’m quite proud of myself. I for one will be glued to the radio in the next few weeks to hear my own clap. I am wondering whether I should become a shouter, to assist listeners. Bravo! Yow! Ewow! I’ll have to think about that, there could be some risks involved, and besides, I’m not a natural shouter. Or American. Posted 7th May 2019
Co-curator of Tectonics, conductor Ilan Volkov with Genevieve Murphy performing Calm In An Agitated World. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is stage right, out of shot, in the Old Fruitmarket.