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Things Learned At: Semibreve
Wyndham Wallace , November 29th, 2013 10:09

Wyndham Wallace attends the Semibreve "exploratory music and digital arts" festival in Braga, Portugal, and discovers his sweet tooth…

A Spoonful Of Sugar Makes The Medicine Go Down

A few doors down from the hotel there's a pastry shop, and on its storefront awning the words are bold and clear:

'The World Needs Nata.'

There's nothing like an insider tipoff. Before I head to Braga in Northern Portugal for the Semibreve Festival – a small but almost perfectly formed event now in its third year – I'm advised that there's one thing I cannot miss. It's not, however, The Haxan Cloak, or Philip Jeck's adventurous turntablism, or Atom TM's anti-capitalist, antiseptic, electro pop. It is, instead, something equally well formed as Semibreve, but way, way smaller.

If there's one thing I learned during sixty hours in this pretty city – whose very existence seems to remains a secret to many people, despite (amongst other things) its impressive place in Catholic history, a top class football team, an award-winning stadium and its position as the country's third largest city – it's this: the Pastel De Nata, supposedly invented by monks in Lisbon some 225 miles away to use up leftover egg yolks after the whites were used to starch their ecclesiastical outfits, is one of the most delicious delicacies ever created.

I know, I know: you don't read the Quietus to be told that a small tart is the most important discovery of a music festival. But the crisp, buttery pastry of the Pastel De Nata and the exquisite texture and sweet vanilla taste of its filling remain the defining flavours of a weekend that was already almost perfect. And the secret to its magic? The fact that it turns something whose appeal seems limited – in this case, egg custard – into something utterly irresistible. Arguably, this, too, is the secret ingredient in Semibreve's success. By presenting a carefully blended selection of "exploratory music and digital arts" in glorious surroundings, they ensure that almost everything becomes palatable, at least, and unforgettable at best.

That What Is Not Is What It Is

In the scholarly surroundings of Braga's Livraria Centésima Página, a bookstore situated along the edge of one of its main squares, Rafael Toral – once "one of the most gifted and innovative guitarists of the decade" according to the Chicago Reader, and now given to experimenting with a variety of electronic gadgets and instruments – is sitting at a small wooden table with Chris Bohn, editor of The Wire. The Portuguese musician is in town to perform later in the evening, but first there's the matter of his recently published manifesto to discuss.

Like most of what will be performed during the course of the weekend, Toral's music remains a secret to me. Whether this is due to laziness, a lack of time to prepare or a conscious choice to approach everything with an open mind is for others to decide, but it allows the nature of his manifesto to be considered without prejudice.

"Musical creation, being a human activity, should not be based on technology but, naturally, on the musician," Bohn reads, as Toral sits patiently beside him in a sleeveless Puffa jacket. A small audience listens carefully. "The term 'electronic music," Bohn goes on, "refers to the type of technology used in its creation. It is a cultural anomaly for a musical genre to be defined by the instruments that are used in it – one does not use the term 'saxophone music', for instance – and this demonstrates its lack of cultural emancipation."

It's mid afternoon on the second day of the festival, and there are some here who haven't been awake terribly long, the pleasures of Super Bock beer sold at bafflingly cheap prices having got the better of us in the small hours of the preceding evening. Outside, many of the local university's students are dressed in their best black uniforms, their frames draped in black cassocks, their heads hidden beneath three-cornered clerical hats. Nearby, a group of younger scholars are being marched around a small children's playground in the shadows of colourfully tiled buildings, their outfits replaced by bright yellow trousers and tops, their leader distinguished only by his small backpack as he leads them in chants that might be military cadence calls, but may just as easily be children's rhymes. Indoors, meanwhile, we shift in our seats, surrounded by towering shelves of Portuguese books, swimming in their incomprehensible words as though in a thick soup. In contrast to their contents, Toral's ideas seem easy to follow.

"Music as a human achievement – physical, mental, spiritual – is a primary cultural value," his treatise concludes. "Music as a technological achievement is a secondary cultural value. The term 'electronic music', which encompasses musical expressions that have little in common, is no longer useful and is becoming void of meaning."

In the days leading up to my departure, a friend asked me what I was going to be doing in Portugal. I told them I'd be checking out 'electronic music'. When they asked me what that actually meant, I scratched my head, and finally conceded that I wasn't exactly sure. Bohn – a wise, elder statesman of adventurous music, with a wizardly hairstyle and a jacket not unlike those worn by the Braga students hazing outside in the late autumn sunshine – points out how, when bands first started plugging in guitars, this too was considered 'electronic music', and Toral's manifesto underlines the absurdity of the words as a designation. This is, the musician reminds us, a form that is a good century old.

It occurs to me that, much like the phrase 'indie music', the description is used these days not for its literal meaning, but for its implications, and most important amongst these is that the words stand in opposition to something else. 'Indie music', after all, is no longer the exclusive preserve of independent labels – and often bears little relation to the sounds that were so defined in the mid 1980s – but it's an epithet worn like a badge of honour. Similarly, 'electronic music' nowadays encompasses glitch, and techno, and ambient, and experimental, and synth pop, and house, and countless other micro-genres, and all it really signifies is what it is not: it is not rock, or indie, or folk, or chanson, or fado, or metal, or any manner of other kinds of music which nonetheless also sometimes employ electronic technology. 'Electronic music' tells you little of its content, and saying you enjoy it most is about as informative as saying you prefer vegetables to meat: it indicates a stance, a philosophy, but nothing more precise than that.

I Do Want What I Haven't Always Got

Amongst other topics discussed by Bohn and Toral was what the latter referred to as a sense of 'disconnect' between the performer of electronic music and their audience, due to the frequent lack of a link between the gestures of the artist and the sound that he is producing. While those making music on a stage with laptops are still able to provide a spiritual experience simply through the sharing of common space, Toral argues, the fact that there's no obvious affiliation between the musician's physical movements and their music – unlike, for instance, when a drummer hits a snare, or a guitarist strikes a chord – places limitations on the encounter.  

This disconnect is seldom significant when electronic musicians are playing in a club where their primary function is to make people dance. Spectacle is rarely a requirement of the unspoken contract between performer and clubber, after all. At Semibreve, however, two thirds of the performances take place in the spectacular Theatro Circo, a recently restored, century old theatre. Golden stucco, marble columns and red carpets adorn its lobby, while, in the main auditorium, plush port coloured seats and three layers of balconies boast an air of extravagant exclusivity beneath a vast, intricately decorated, domed ceiling and magnificent chandelier. There's no dancing here, and even looking at your phone during a show prompts ushers to warn you that you'll be asked to leave should you do so again. The same protocols exist in the festival's second room two storeys below, though this, with its temporary seating built on scaffolding, is a more familiar space for punters who regularly attend events like these.

Any potential lack of engagement is something that's been grasped by both Semibreve and most of its artists, the majority of whom compensate with monumental visual accompaniment. Though – as Toral and Bohn suggest – it's often impossible to figure out what any musician is actually doing on stage, it's invigorating sitting in these dark spaces, giving the music and its accompanying imagery full attention instead of worrying about bumping into the person next door, or fetching a drink, or having to hush someone talking loudly behind you. With a giant screen behind them to employ as a giant canvas for the 'digital art' aspect of the festival, there's – almost without exception – plenty to see, and the sound system is, frankly, second to none. What Semibreve encourages – and this is rarer than it ought to be – is total immersion in music and graphics, and the Theatro Circo is without doubt one of the finest environments one could imagine in which to do just that.

Serendipity Is Janek Schaefer's Mistress, But Sleep Is My Best Friend

Janek Schaefer has his own ideas about where and how he wants his music heard. Over the course of the weekend, his work is in evidence in two differing fashions. We're introduced to the first on Friday evening as we take a look around the venue for the first time. A bewilderingly tall gentleman with his hair swept back so that he looks like a scholarly Jim Jarmusch, Schaefer stands beneath red lights, twinkling in their subdued glow thanks to a coating of glitter that he's applied to his face and hair. He's provided an installation called 'Love Song', and he explains how it was first inspired during his honeymoon. "Love was in the air," he intones in a theatrical voice – it's the first of many earnest, often punning pronouncements that he'll make – and then encourages us to don a pair of headphones that are floating around the room attached to a bunch of heart-shaped helium balloons.

What we hear are seven different voices all singing the word 'Love' seven times, holding the word for as long as they can. There was no prescribed form for their recording, and Schaefer has layered the sounds over one another, the results of which – in combination with the balloons and red lighting – are as subtle as a Lily Allen video. But there is a likeable, clumsy charm to both Schaefer and his installation, something also evident the following afternoon when he gathers about thirty of us in a dimly lit, wood-floored room above the Livraria Centésima Página. A solitary armchair stands at one end of the space, while at the further end Schaefer sits in a second, leaning over a long coffee table covered with cables, mixers and accompanying technology. A bedside lamp offers muted light, and he playfully spins an old Roberts Radio around that's quietly broadcasting Portuguese news.

This, fortunately, isn't the performance itself. For that, he attaches a tiny light to the palm of his hand, and advises us that we should feel free to lie down on the floor and close our eyes. First we'll hear a seven minute piece dedicated to his brother-in-law, who died earlier in the week – John Tavener, as it happens, a fact he keenly, almost insecurely, drew attention to the previous day – after which he'll perform a longer piece called 'Lay-By Lullaby'. He encourages us to lie down on the floor and rest because, he explains, we spend too much of our time rushing around. It's time we "pulled over," he adds – his punning skills once again to the fore – to step out of our fast lane society and let things pass us by. He'll be disappointed, he concludes, if he doesn't hear someone snoring.

'Lay-By Lullaby' lasts around 45 minutes, and features as its main star field recordings of cars made on a bridge over the M3 very close to where J.G. Ballard lived. Schaefer switches off the lights and we drift off in the darkness to what I later tell him sounded a lot like The KLF's Chill Out, except with more cars, louder engines and less Elvis Presley.

"That's a compliment," I emphasise, though I'm aware it's also an accusation that his performance hasn't been entirely original.

"There are no voices in my piece," he protests, "and no beats at all."

"Well," I reassure him, "I don't think it's important. If we can have millions of bands who play guitars and drums and sing about how their relationships aren't working out, I think we can afford to have a second piece of music reminiscent of Chill Out."

"Well, that's true. And I did hear someone snoring."

"Yeah," I smile sheepishly. "I think that might have been me."

"Well, thank you," Schaefer grins. "My work is done."

'Thank you," I reply. "I was knackered."

With The Best Of Times Come The Worst Of Times, And Both Are Close Relatives

Friday night, and Philip Jeck and Lol Sargeant open proceedings with a 20th anniversary performance of their ground-breaking 'Vinyl Requiem', again blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is not. For the first twenty minutes or so, neither of them even appears to be onstage, and we instead watch a giant projection of 180 Dansette record players lined up on shelves behind three levels of scaffolding, across which three individuals – like white-suited surgeons – stroll casually, placing the needle in vinyl grooves, letting ghostly sounds drift in and out of the mix. It's a disorientating experience: only when Jeck and Sargeant become visible at a table to the side of the stage – thus adding a third dimension to what we're seeing – can we be certain that these white figures are on the screen, part of what at times looks like a Luis Buñuel film. It's a provocative, intriguing opening to the weekend.

Following them on the main stage, Raime are a little less provocative, but their minimal industrial set – something like Sabres Of Paradise soundtracking Battlestar Galactica, or perhaps a Berghain-friendly Vangelis – is still often enthralling. This is at least partially due to the HD films that accompany each track: they look like a sci-fi, homoerotic take on Game Of Thrones. In the second room in the bowels of the building, however, Helm – aka Luke Younger, who provides the entertainment between the two main stage performances – struggles a little to maintain the tension at the heart of his work. His combination of found sounds, noise and seemingly dilapidated equipment offers a certain fascination, but the lack of any visual accompaniment is a shortcoming that he fails to overcome in these formal surroundings.

Sculpture, the other act on the bill who specialise in freeform structures, appear on the final, Sunday night, and are considerably more tempting. Their abstract, sometimes bewildering noise is perfectly married – just as Raime's sound was – to its accompanying visuals, in Sculpture's case provided live by Reuben Sutherland, one half of this 'opto-musical conglomerate' – as they style themselves – alongside Dan Hayhurst. While the latter swipes splices of tape from a stand beside him, playing plunderphonics with the array of equipment before him, Sutherland uses a variety of zoetropic discs that he spins on a record player beneath a camera to project suitably, dizzyingly kaleidoscopic images onto the big screen. These, like the music, shift effortlessly from psychedelic to cartoon-esque via many points between, though an hour of such antics is perhaps a little long.

Also present is Atom TM, sometimes known as Señor Coconut and – to his mother – Uwe Schmidt. Drawing heavily upon his recent HD album for Raster-Noton, his performance seems a little lightweight amid the more serious-minded work on offer here. Perhaps its contradictions are its appeal for some, but pillaging Kraftwerk wholesale before condemning "Imperialist Pop" with the words "Gaga, Gomez, Timberlake / Give us a fucking break" seems a little hypocritical. If you don't like expansionism, after all, don't go colonising. A song castigating MTV, as well as tired imagery of atomic bombs, ensure further that his politics seem as cutting edge as The Young Ones' – a reference chosen deliberately since it reflects the era in which Atom TM seems trapped – and yet the act remains bereft of nostalgia. Though the producer's sound is immaculately, enviably pure, Schmidt comes across as a pop act distancing himself from work about which he's ashamed, rather than a subversive force operating from the inside, which he is presumably how he'd like to be seen. Ironically, if we were dancing, none of this would matter.

It's The Music That Matters, And The Music Really Matters

"I play better than I talk," Toral advises us at the end of his Q&A session with Chris Bohn as we gather our coats and prepare to head out into the amber glow of the Portuguese sunset. No doubt there are plenty who agree with the him, even though he's proved far from inarticulate. But, a few hours later, I am not one of them. It perhaps says more about my own shortcomings than Toral's, but the sight of a grown man rocking out while gripping only a small console in his hand like an excitable kid with his first Playstation, a drummer meanwhile carefully debating which part of his kit to tap next – before settling instead for a gong – proves too much for a writer haunted by The Fast Show's 'Jazz Club'. Toral still keeps most of the audience in their seats for the full length of his performance, but if, like me, you've seen Yolanda Ayers' "sideways look at the jazz standard 'More Hoopla For My Moopla, Mr Ticketman'", you know that there is only one place to be, and that is anywhere else.

But Toral had a hard act to follow. Some ninety minutes earlier, The Haxan Cloak performs in the main theatre and unhurriedly unfurls a sound so dense, so intense, so ravishingly barbaric – and, by the end, so ruthlessly, crushingly loud – that only the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse performing the complete works of Mahler in the style of Swans would stand any chance of eclipsing it. Furthermore, Bobby Krlic's done this despite being one of only three performers not to use any form of visuals, leaving us staring at a dim orange cone of light suspended from the rafters and absolutely nothing else. People emerge afterwards in a state of shock: there is talk of panic attacks, of being overwhelmed, of being utterly devoid of any ability to express what has just been witnessed. It is a performance of, as they say, terrible beauty. Or, as a friend of mine might have put it, I could have shat tears.

If Toral's performance appears an act of comic pretension, and Haxan Cloak's one of grave art, Forest Swords – who round up the night's official entertainment before it all descends into another mess of Super Bock – represent a middle ground that's hard to judge. Tracks like 'Thor's Stone' are, on one hand, inventive and engaging, the dubby foundation of Matthew Barnes' polished machine music given added weight by this sombre theatre. On the other hand, there are times when I drift off and imagine I'm lazing on a beach at sunset with stoned, dreadlocked surfers listening to The Orb remix Enigma. Like the songs sung by the students marched round the playground that afternoon, the meaning and significance of Forest Swords depends upon your context, your disposition, and your ability to interpret. Now there's a disconnect…