Monday, 13 May 2013

Tectonics Music Festival, Glasgow

Live concert review


Conductor Ilan Volkov started the annual Tectonics Festival in Iceland last year, and this year also brings it to Glasgow. Although few of the musicians played both events, the ethos was the same at the two sites, mixing musicians and composers from different backgrounds to see what happens. The whole event was carefully curated by Volkov, with many of his own favourites included. A major focus of the weekend was to present works by American composer of experimental music, Alvin Lucier, who both performed and had an installation on show at the City Halls.

Tectonics beer mats

Not many weekends of classical music start with the audience being given wristbands to wear and with branded beer mats. Day 1 opened with a BBC commission by David Fennessy (Prologue, Silver Are The Tears Of The Moon), a work inspired by Werner Herzog's diaries apparently. It started with a dramatic blast of strings then slid along nicely, keeping the 5 percussionists of the orchestra busy until they were helped out when about 20 of the orchestra joined them on they wee percussive frog things that the One World Shop sells. It was a lively start before Morton Feldman's piece Cello and Orchestra slowed things down. Creeping along and creepy it felt like incidental music to a tense scene in a horror film. A problem I have with a lot of modern classical music is that really the only place you are frequently exposed to it is in soundtracks, so it's hard not to make those connections. Next up we had the first piece by Alvin Lucier, Exploration of the House. The orchestra played short snatches of Beethoven which were recorded and looped back into the hall, and that recorded and looped again. It became increasingly muddy, with distortion and feedback, increasingly droning and abstracted in a way specific to the room and the time. Maybe you end up with a version of the piece akin to how the increasingly deaf Beethoven heard his works. After the interval the composers (Charles Ross and Frank Denyer) were more bearded, so chin stroking was more the order of the day for their pieces The Ventriloquist (in which the composer conducted his improvisers by using a sandbox, some water, seaweed and shells) and The Colours of Jellyfish, which was very delicate, floaty and hard to nail down, a bit like a jellyfish I suppose. (Remind me to tell you my story about accidentally swimming into a sea full of millions of baby jellyfish that had just spawned.)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Things were already over-running as we all shuffled next door into the beautiful venue of the Old Fruitmarket which was soon reverberating to Hanna Tuulikki's piece Voice of the Birds/ Guth na eóin Her distinctive voice (which can be heard here or on cd with Two Wings) lead a choir of female singers mixing Gaelic folk song with bird song from field recordings echoed by the singers. I do love her voice and the whole thing was also visually beautiful. I'd look out for more of that.

Next up in the main hall were Romanian born husband and wife double act Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram who "represent the Hyper-Spectral trend in contemporary avant-garde music" I believe. They presented and conducted three pieces of their own work, involving prepared pianos, sheets of metal, drone-merchant Stephen O'Malley on electric guitar and computer generated noises (which they both faffed about with a bit in a slightly irritating way). Their demeanour and their music both lacked any humour or levity.

My own personal supergroup -Stuart, Hildur and Aidan's Group

With much that had gone on already over-running there had been a lot of dashing from one act to the next without pausing. So it was good to get back to the Old Fruitmarket and find that the bar in there was now open as we entered the more relaxed "late gig". Stephen Pastel was doing a DJ set (which didn't include any Kenickie - its an old grudge that my brother carries against him). Then Scotland's national treasure Aidan Moffat, Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite and Iceland's Hildur Gudnadottir took the stage. Hildur Gudnadottir was one of the main attractions for me this weekend, as I loved her solo album Leyfdu Ljosinu from last year but here she was background cello-ing for Aidan's words and drumming and Stuart's archetypal guitar playing. Then we had Oren Ambarchi leading an arrangement of Knots by James Rushford. This was the first time that I felt the noise warning signs around the venue were justified, as excellent drumming from Joe Talia, fought against Ambarchi's bizarre guitar and feedback playing. The strings and horns of the BBC SSO including Volkov and Hildur Gudnadottir were almost inaudible behind it. It was droning magnificence and virtuoso playing, although I did go home with a touch of tinnitus I think. I've often seen people try to juxtapose electric guitars against classical line-ups. They can compliment each other, but they never seen to meld together, one always seems to overwhelm the other. Tonight the guitarist won.


Day 2. The second day started with a performance piece by the fragrantly named "anti-band" Asparagus Piss Raindrop. I may have missed some of the narrative as I arrived late. However it ended with 4 people dressed in fluorescent headbands wrestling for a table of drums whilst a hooded man, in the style of Abu Ghraib, rattled his chains against cymbals. You get the gist.

Asparagus Piss Raindrop
To the grand hall where four pieces by Alvin Lucier were performed. Some had an air of being physics or acoustics demonstrations. We had Anton Lukoszevieze on cello evoking resonance from a variety of amplified vases, then Frank Denyer playing a meditative piece on the piano accompanied by "slow sweep pure wave oscillators", creating throbbing interference as the tones crossed. #next we had Bird and Person Dyning, electric birdcalls creating feedback through speakers whilst Lucier stalked the hall with microphone to alter it. If the first half was interesting, the second half was excellent. First there was the newly commissioned Criss Cross for two electric guitars and pure wave Oscillators.

Stephen O'Malley and Oren Ambarchi

Here Stephen O'Malley and Oren Ambarchi sat across stage from each other and had an electric guitar-tuning face off. O'Malley is a founding member of doom metal, earth shattering noise merchants Sunn O)), whose live performances are notorious for the volume levels. This was much more subtle, and again a physics lesson as the guitar tuning got them to a similar frequency and created a tremulous beat in the room. My favourite part was the acoustics lesson added by a police car passing the hall at the start of their piece, with it's sirens giving us the full doppler effect. It really seemed appropriately timed by our local constabulary and fitted the piece just fine.

Lucier's finale was a cracker. Short pieces from The Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever were played on the grand piano then replayed via an amplified teapot. Lucier himself studiously attended to his score, all professorial and serious with his half-moon specs as he lifted the teapot lid up and down to vary the volume of the familiar tune. You can say all you want about what this tells us about space, confines and rooms, but it was highly entertaining too.
Alvin Lucier's installation includes oscillators and ping pong balls
The next orchestral performance brought new works by Chiyoko Szlavnics and Martin Suckling. The former started with an electronic tone which was then echoed by the orchestra with a dystonic and melancholic feel. Martin Suckling's piece, Release,started with a dramatic blast from the whole orchestra, which they then repeated and distorted, before starting again. I liked this one a lot and it was reminiscent of the looping Gudnadottir or even Andrew Bird do as individuals, but here done with a whole orchestra.

It was the chance to see Hildur Gudnadottir perform that made me get a ticket for the weekend and she was up next in the Fruitmarket. Sitting alone centre stage with her cello and her laptop, atmospherically lit she appeared all vulnerable. She told us a sad tale of missing home and of a friend who recently lost one of her twins and she dedicated the piece to the child. Full of concentration she then built up the looping tune for voice and cello that is Allow the Light. Perfect setting for a lovely piece and I hope she takes good memories home from my city of Glasgow.

There was no rest for the entertained as we were marched back to the hall for the closing concert, more world premier, BBC commissioned pieces. The whole orchestra were back out of their box for John de Simone's new piece Geek. I had dashed to the hall today from taking a dozen children to the (bloody brilliant) Star Trek Into Darkness earlier and there was plenty of the tropes of John Barry and John Williams on show here. A big piece for a big orchestra from a big man, it was played at full throttle and was a lot of fun. Finally, the orchestra played a new concerto by Dumitrescu for orchestra and electric guitar, played by Stephen O'Malley, Elan and Permanence. The percussionists were very much to the fore and we finally got to hear them play the two big tombola things which had been on stage all weekend. In this episode of the battle between guitar and orchestra the orchestra won but they came closer to blending the two.

Stephen O'Malley and the BBC SSO
It has been a fascinating weekend of interesting and varied music. One thing which it has been good to see was that there were decent attendances throughout, and I hope that this means Tectonics can become an annual event. The musicians throughout were flawless in their playing, technically everything ran smoothly and was well organised.

Loved it.

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