July 20th, 2011
Soundwaves Festival, Brighton, 14 – 17 July 2011
By Adam Bambury
Photos by Roger Harmar (rogerharmar.net)
From beer to beards, Brighton seems to have a festival of some description every weekend over the summer.
Unlike many of them, Soundwaves isn’t an excuse to flog you expensive yet enticing food and drink while a dodgy funk band plays in the background. A registered charity dedicated to experimental sound, it’s supported by local institutions like Brighton University as well as the Arts Council and that bastion of the musical avant-garde, Wire magazine.
Consequently its 2011 incarnation was a suitably high-brow yet wide ranging event, with a programme that included modern classical, a solo set by David Thomas of respected post-punk veterans Pere Ubu, and some kind of IDM meets cabaret music mash-up which I fortunately managed to miss (though rumour has it involved the hurling of cabbages at the audience).
Each day of the weekend festival had its own theme. Saturday was Sing, Sunday was Listen. Quirky electronic type Leafcutter John and dancer Lucia Tong’s collaboration Tipping Point – a piece examining “balance” – began Move on Friday at the Sallis Benney theatre.
John sensibly left most of the movement to Tong, who began by curiously twisting a long pole that was stuck through the strings of a small amped up guitar sat on a stool. Encouraged by the deep textured twangs that resonated through the room, she became more playful, knocking it around with different parts of her body before moving onto other instruments lying around the space.
Meanwhile John sat behind his laptop at the back and manipulated the emerging audio. One moment the guitar sounded like it was ricocheting off the walls of a cathedral, the next it was layered up into wonky loops.
An intriguing if occasionally meandering performance emerged from this visual exploration of the relationship between movement and sound. Best was the surprising moment when John reached out and pulled both guitar and stool across the hard floor towards him by its lead. It filled the room with a familiar yet unearthly screech, framing this usually avoided occurrence with speakers for our aesthetic reappraisal.
Day two was in the refined retro environs of Brighton Town Hall, which looked great but had the disadvantage of having a conspicuous lack of seating and a ban on all food and drink.
Unencumbered by the sense dulling effects of booze, we hung from the second floor balcony and watched a trio from chamber ensemble Chroma perform with a laptop-toting engineer from Intermedia Musica on the tiled floor below.
Together they played pieces for accordion/clarinet/violin/electronics with a lucid energy that melded considerable analogue technique with subtle electronic nous, moving skilfully from sublime shimmering drones to lurching wonkiness. For Alterations by composer Jan Hendrickse (http://vimeo.com/26571487 )they put away the conventional notation in favour of laptops showing a video score – a series of flickering squares of different sizes, colours and positions – which was easily observable from our aerial vantage point.
The drinking ban didn’t apply to David Thomas. He swigged generously from a silver hip flask throughout his solo performance, a mix of sung and spoken word pieces. His high-pitched nasal American yowl, by turns keening and melancholy, aggressive and hectoring, made his tales of marriage, Mars, depression and petrol stations all the more involving, though occasionally incomprehensible. A table of electronic equipment to his side went mostly untouched, in favour of an accordion which he slung over his neck – having first donned a red plastic apron – and played simply but affectingly.
Banter was frequent and interesting, the curmudgeonly Thomas persona an integral part of the performance. ‘For 40 years, people have laughed at me when I’m trying to be serious and cried when I’m trying to be funny,’ he lamented.
He went on for an hour, though it seemed like half that, and served as a reminder that despite all the gadgetry on offer to experimental musicians today, sometimes the most compelling instrument is still a well-aimed human voice.