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Things Learned At: Sonica
Michael Begg , November 17th, 2015 21:26

Michael Begg reports on a beguiling weekend of visual sonic art in Glasgow, including performances by Myriam Bleau, CØV, David Fennessy and Lauren Sarah Hayes

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Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

These are curious times for the Scottish capital. The International Council On Monuments and Sites, advisers to UNESCO, recently combed through the streets, the parks, the derelict spaces, the empty buildings, the pikey boot sale shame of the shopping centres. The visits were instigated to ascertain whether the Scottish capital still deserved to maintain its listing as a world heritage site.

The city council seem to have adopted a fondness for public outcry, as though adopting a strategy of courting controversy, arrogance, grotesque spending and acts or random illogicality were somehow a guarantee of assured policy.

As the World Heritage status goes down the toilet with the rest of our self esteem, and the landscape becomes a gaping maw of boutique hotels, exclusive retail experiences, branded coffee outlets, and executively sponsored culture-focused hub-centred investment enhancements, the few beleaguered individuals whose tireless efforts to bring genuine creative spark and edge – Nick Herd's Braw Gigs, Summerhall's Nothing Ever Happens Here strand, and Neu Reekie all deserving of a mention – exist almost, it often seems, as a dissenting underground.

Our neighbours to the south in Gateshead have just wrapped another successful TUSK. Three solid nights and two full days of oblique, pointedly obscure sonic excursions into elemental, indulgent territories that remain, nonetheless, full hearted and open armed, and notably, critically, within the familial embrace of a broader regional cultural dynamic. That aspect, almost equal to the quality and breadth of the acts presented, is inspiring, sustaining nourishment.

Which is something I find echoed as I travel west to Glasgow for the third outing for Sonica, Cryptic's 11 day blast of visually informed sonic art. Where TUSK was located in the neglected civic spaces, basement cells and abandoned police houses of Gateshead centre, Sonica confidently straddles numerous high profile city venues – Tramway, Glasgow Film Theatre, Mitchell Library, CCA - as well as exploiting the more esoteric possibilities afforded by Govanhill Baths and Hamilton Mausoleum.

Cathie Boyd, Cryptic's artistic director cum dynamo cum impressive force of nature, has nurtured a remarkable ecology of partnership, integration, inclusion, outreach and mentorship, highlighting the role played by the city itself – sprawling, damaged, hard-bitten but determined, culturally optimistic despite being materially skint. The programming of Sonica invited reflection between performances and installations through necessitating walks through back streets and underpasses, from imposing edifices of mercantile wealth, via post industrial graveyards and into abandoned and reclaimed spaces on the fringes and margins where the city crashes into sprawling schemes and half forgotten cobbled lanes, all bound in the constant rush and roar from the M8. Glasgow could not help but add its signature to the presented work.

Lyken and Dove draw light and sound from the Black Isle

With a grant from Creative Scotland's Imagining Natural Scotland initiative, audio visual artist and Cryptic Associate, Mark Lyken, and film maker, Emma Dove armed themselves with the tools of documentary and field recording, and headed into the Black Isle – a peninsula of north eastern Scotland – and allowed the place, the people, the sound and light to inform Mirror Lands, a deeply moving, absorbing and haunting film and sound study.

The Black Isle has its charms, but it is hard country and, as one of the narrators observed, you're either here because you need or want to be, or you get out as soon as you can.

The camera fixes in long static shots, like sullen stares, penetrating telling details; a wind-chewed pier, the rusted flank of a long forgotten boat, stubbled wheat and distant town lights in the cold gloaming.

Lyken's sensitive sound design listens to the sounds arising from the territory and, like a psychogeographic hypodermic punctures the telling element and draws it into his sonic narrative.

What strikes most is the disparity between the hard bitten edge on so much of the visual information, set against the soft affection of the souls who live there. These long lingering shots may show wounded animals bleating in abandoned barns, or waterways cluttered with abandoned ships, drilling rigs and 10 storey cruise ships trying to turn and seek out more picturesque landfall. But the people speak of the ever changing light, the purity of the air, the clarity of thought arising from the uninterrupted views to eternity. It suggests that our sense of place and belonging is at least in part an inwardly informed, archetypal experience as much as it is a consequence of our physical location.

Seismik Software

Tramway, a cavernous conversion of one of Glasgow's old tram depots into one of the most exciting and dynamic art spaces in Europe, plays host to Herman Kolgen.

Three pieces of his signature cutting edge techno-hybrid of software, sonics and screens are offered up. Link C, here presented as a UK premiere, is based on Philip Glass's String Quartet No 2, and the Maxwell Quartet elegantly and sympathetically interpret the score, finding empathy and elegiac waypoints in the intertwining rhythms of Glass's original, while Kolgen manipulates images across the vast screen of cityscapes being sliced, diced, flown through, flown over, cut and sliced again. The effect is impressively tight and the production value – particularly in the cleanest sounding PA I've heard in some time – is unquestionably high. But as the programme moves on through the sci-fi dystopian abstracted post human cityscapes of Aftershock  and on towards Seismik, and the much anticipated use of technology and programming wizardry  to hook into live seismic activity recorders across the globe and deep under Glasgow itself, the limited sound palette utilised by Kolgen – a kind of single weighted static rush, with crackling barbs and sub-enhanced voltage shocks - and the impeccable polish and sheen on the AV technology somehow serves to distance the possibility of intimate contact with the work.

Whilst visually arresting and sonically crisp, the perennial issue of the lack of tactile instrumental physicality in electronic music – for the audience as much as the performer – maintained the potential to undermine the artistry. It seemed too easy to forget the live performance element and feel like the passive observer of a white noise ruptured preload sequence from Call Of Duty Black Ops.

Reverberation Rules

In a Sonica discussion session preceding her site responsive performance, 15 Seconds, in Hamilton Mausoleum, Lauren Sarah Hayes directly addresses this problematic lack of tactility in electronic performance. In moving from her formal instrumental training into electronic performance Hayes was keenly aware of the lack of resonant feedback coming to her from her instrument, and the consequent impact upon performance, and the performers relationship with their instrument. This has led to her building several of her own instruments, triggers and interfaces to arrive at augmented and hybrid solutions fusing acoustic feedback, electronics and haptics.

Hamilton Mausoleum, a thirty minute bus journey from the city centre boasts a 15 second reverb tail, and so the room itself, an impeccably crafted neo classical dome, becomes in Hayes hands a resonant chamber as much as a performance space. We sit within the instrument she has created and travel with her as she pilots the soundwaves. Her filtered vocalisations layer and thicken on a crackling sea of sawtooth tones and spin into the heights of the room. Sparks of light, shocked spittle clicks, and what feels like the magnified approach of a plague of ants all vie for space in the mix against deeper swells and drones, groaning steel and sonar calls. Haunting, of course, as this is a house of the dead, but also a moving, albeit possibly incidental, epitaph for the long gone heavy industries of the west coast, mining and shipping, the chewed and crumbling remains of which we are transported through as we are lifted from our reverb reverie and cast back through the driving wind and rain into the city.

Bigger. Louder. Bassier.

A commissioned performance spin-off from their Contra installation, David Morton and Sam Underwood, Sonica Artists in Residence, share Hayes interest in the issue of resonance and tactile instrumental response. Their solutions, however, are markedly different. For this years Sonica, they are housed in the tank room of the Glue Factory – a great example of that urban staple the disused industrial factory re-commissioned and occupied as a creative hub of studios, exhibition and performance spaces.

Using grain duct pipes of various widths, omni-directional mics and active speakers, the pair have created their Giant Feedback Organ. Moving around the room, one encounters standing waves of bass frequency as the competing drones meet and harmonise, creating pulses and movement as well as viscous walls of sound. The building shakes, the fixtures rattle, the organ pipes themselves wriggle and ripple with barely constrained force.

For Octavism, Morton and Underwood pitch a tuba against their – ahem – mighty organ. Refreshingly free of underpinning critical theory or concept – with a stated driving principal of “Bigger. Louder. Bassier” the pair attempt to thicken the air with low-end, and come pretty close to making liquid audio, an undulating soup of sub bass noise that speaks directly to your chest cavity.

The wheels of steel have accelerometers

Quebecois composer and digital artist Myriam Bleau, strides purposefully onto a darkened stage and looks with something approaching disdain at the riser in front of her. She throws her sweatshirt down on the floor, and flicking the software into action goes to work with the pumped up energy of a hip hop DJ with a grudge.

Her tools are four spinning tops, but these are no childish whistling tin space ships. These are stunningly well crafted devices loaded with LED lights, gyroscopes and accelerometers networked into a Pure Data source. Somewhat ironically given the grimly determined initial approach to her performance the result is a curiously euphoric dissolving of boundaries between turntableism, improvised glitch, DJ posturing, and, with the sound and motion triggered LEDs captured and projected onto a screen behind her, a highly effective light show. It is by no means a slur to suggest that her routine contains elements of light entertainment in that it is a quick, effective display of talent and ingenuity that is spirit lifting. The performance even ends with an open invitation to the sizeable audience to come down to the front and play with her toys.

Now its dark

Alex Menzies and Florence To, collectively CØV, are not moved by technology, software affordance, or, indeed, their own visibility as artists. They are concerned only with unearthing the singular qualities of individual spaces and generating an emotional response.  In the dim, smoky glow of the unassuming municipal baths at Govanhill they produce one of Sonica's most beguiling highlights in Etanan.

At the head of the performance candles are snuffed. Dim white lights, pointed at mirrors, push subtly animated beams through perfumed smoke. Subdued glimmers of movement at the back of the space suggest many hands moving large steel pipes, and the sounds swell as though directly from under the bottom of the pool, and through the blistered walls. A loose rhythm of mournful, ecclesiastical chimes forces the eye to reconsider the subtly swaying shapes and reconfigure them as an outsize suspended array of tubular bells. And a figure becomes nearly-almost discernible in the subaquatic gloom, striking the chimes with slow hammer falls, allowing the decaying resonance to fold with the drones and scratches that slowly consume the space.

It is a compelling, thoroughly absorbing spectacle that continues to chew at the heart and mind like some shadowed dream from which one awakes breathless and sobbing in the middle of the night.

Silence the pain with sound

Since 2012, Irish born, Glasgow based David Fennessy has been composing a series of works based on the diaries kept by Werner Herzog during the making of Fitzcarraldo. In Caruso, the eponymous singer is represented by sampled excerpts from gramophone recordings, against which Fennessy weaves filigree guitar lines. The result is a sonic depiction of obsession, and whilst the mix and volume are perhaps a little too tentative to reach any indication of  Herzog's transformative ecstatic truth there are one or two singular moments where the century old voice takes flight on a web of layered guitars to pull us into the maelstrom of the visionary – equal parts beauty and pain, bearing each other aloft, haunted by the knowledge that each higher note, each soaring reach, will take them further from the ground and make all the more brutal the inevitable fall back to earth.

Cathie Boyd and Cryptic are celebrating 21 years of championing risky, innovative theatre and, in Sonica, have evolved a compelling flagship of activity that challenges the tenuous borderlands between music, sound, art, theatre and light. Glasgow the city, Glasgow the idea, forms not only the stage for this activity but is woven into the fabric and informs the spirit of determined innovation. In the words of St Mungo, as featured on the city's crest, “Let Glasgow flourish”

Sonica will stage a weekend programme at Kings Place London in February showcasing the work of Mark Lyken and North of X, as well as installations from Kathy Hinden and Robbie Thomson.