Hard Core Values
Various venues, Belfast
25 April – 1 May 2006
Sonorities, the annual festival of contemporary music hosted by the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year with all the introspective fervency of a considerably younger event. Exchanging contextual maturity for zealous singularity of mind, Sonorities 2006 was a puritanically pared-back affair, less a celebration of the new and more a revivalist meeting for something that hadn’t yet happened. Its notional exploration of the colliding roles of the composer-as-performer was left largely unmapped, the notion of performance requiring more, surely, than a laptop and the occasional frisson of a video screen to deconstruct it. The abiding impression was an amalgam of the self-referential and the recherché that struggled to make sense of the festival’s own singular agenda.
Noticeably absent was anything resembling the broad-based appeal of last year’s engagement with the music of Frank Zappa, the headline-grabbing appearance by Stockhausen in 2004, or the curiosity-pricking exotica of 2003’s focus on new Australasian music. Very much to the fore instead was an insistent, unrelentingly sub-atomic approach with the emphasis on the technological. If this was meant to suggest a return to core values after the previous two years’ celebrity-inflected programmes, in practice it resulted in often numbing hardcore music-making.
There were other tensions to note in the week aside from those between composer and performer as tenuous programming threads unravelled. The relationship between performers and audience was often distant and detached, the endless flexibility and potential of SARC’s performing space cemented into an inhibiting altar-and-pews formality by the one-size-fits-all stage-and-seating arrangement. It was a surprising decision in a space designed and equipped to exploit its own three-dimensional capabilities, and one that obliged audiences to experience the music in the most restricted and conventional of ways.
There was the occasional dislocation between performers, too. What were we supposed to make of Fred Frith’s opening concert at the Ulster Hall with a tentative Ulster Orchestra uncertain of how best to accommodate the cult guitarist’s signature fusion of rock music and ‘new’ music? Certainly the Irish premiere of his electric guitar concerto, The Right Angel, seemed to dangerously bloat and blur as the decibel level rose in ways the composer surely hadn’t intended. And although Frith’s freewheeling late-night improvisation session with percussionist Chris Cutler rather touchingly recalled their glory days in the early 1970s’ prog-rock and avant garde scene (whither now Henry Cow?), it offered up little more than a regrettably stale musical madeleine.
One undoubted coup this year was the appearance of genre-leaping, agenda-changing saxophonist Anthony Braxton on his first visit to Ireland. Exciting though it was to hear his often dizzyingly ecstatic instrumental conversations with trumpet (Taylor Ho Bynum) and guitar (Tom Crean), its heightened, free-jazz vibrancy sounded out of place in a festival so fiercely focused on the electronic. Contrarily, the most thrilling aspect of the concert was the sense of connectedness, of continuity, that imbued everything in it – there was, uniquely, a tradition in evidence here, one harking back to Braxton’s associations with Cage and Ives, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, and the ground-breaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Braxton was also, and by far, the most articulate speaker in a laudable if largely indigestible day-long symposium discussing ‘performance in technology mediated environments’. A first for Sonorities, the symposium was determinedly academic in tone and attitude – ‘The Aesthetics of the Esemplasm’ anyone? – and whether anything of merit or utility came out of it or not is moot. Somehow, it seemed to cast its own inert shadow over the week’s proceedings, adding to the worrying suspicion – fuelled by screeds of ‘funding applicationese’ in the poorly written festival booklet and sparse programme notes – that technology and theory had a more seductive appeal for organisers and many of the performers than the performance and the audience.
The hit-and-miss lunchtime ‘Open Fader’ series underlined the laboratory aspect of this year’s Sonorities by showcasing more than a dozen short pieces selected from nearly 160 submissions, too many of which felt like works-in-progress. Three, happily, that didn’t were Brett Battey’s atomised nocturne, Autarkeia Aggregatum, a gravity-free multimedia piece in perpetual flux that provided moments of engaging visual and sonic beauty; Jon C. Nelson’s cinematic-in-scope, operatic-in-execution L’horloge Imaginaire, which inventively played around with notions of time and the measurement of time and took full advantage of SARC’s sonic capabilities; and three-piece outfit Sensors Sonics Sights, whose arresting untitled improvisation offered an intriguing audio-visual display of new musical mechanics ‘conducted’ by electrical impulses from the brain of Japanese-American artist Atau Tanaka.
The more accessible evening concerts were those featuring live instruments alongside laptops. Bass clarinettist Gareth Davis may have brought a rather po-faced solemnity to his solo show, but he did serve up two of the festival’s more successful pieces: Martin Stig Andersen’s exhilarating This Park Will Be Closed to the Public Due to Essential Tree Work, driven along with amphetamine-like conviction and laced with disturbing sub-clauses and alarming punctuation marks, and Luigi Ceccarelli’s pulsating Birds, a virtuosic latticework of clarinet tremolos and recorded birdsong that injected all too rare moments of wit into the funereal black-cube of SARC’s performance space.
Portuguese violinist Carlos Zíngaro proved himself a compelling virtuoso on the instrument in his solo recital and liberally referenced composers inside and out of contemporary electronics with a dexterity that dazzled without ever distracting. Echoes of Stockhausen and Ligeti could be gleaned alongside allusions to Bartók and Kurtág in a breathless slalom race along huge structures assembled from splinters and shards of sound haphazardly phasing in and out of alignment yet contained and framed by Zíngaro’s inexhaustible dexterity.
Queen’s University PHd student Jason Geistweidt and resident composer Christian Calon separately took full advantage of their familiarity with SARC’s wide-ranging possibilities. Owing much to John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, Geistweidt’s faintly dystopian Combine threaded together samples from vinyl LPs bought in Belfast’s charity shops with a fizzing barbed-wire ribbon of static. If acid had defined the 1950s rather than the sixties, this is how it might have sounded. Calon’s Portrait Concert featured four pieces, each created with painterly care yet all vibrantly kinetic. The premiere of the SARC-commissioned North unveiled a hugely ambitious, multi-faceted instalment of a larger work (Atlas) utilising voice and found instruments in an eloquent technique that went far beyond mere collage. And where The Ulysses Project unleashed a Joycean tsunami of sounds that shot, gouged and thumped its way through the quiet while crying out for a physical staging of equal verve and imagination, Les corps éboulis, derived solely from sounds produced by an electric guitar, satisfyingly re-fashioned the electronic into the organic.
So, an intense and in places intriguing Sonorities this year, but a frustrating one, too. The provocative narrowness of focus may have been satisfyingly astringent, but whether this long-lived and much-admired festival can afford to continue with what appeared to be the support only of its own host’s students is a question that perhaps shouldn’t be tested for too long if Sonorities is to stand any chance of reaching its 50th anniversary.
Published on 1 July 2006
Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.