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Melissa Rakshana Steiner , September 4th, 2014 09:43

The Wysing Festival in rural Cambridgeshire last weekend saw a female-artist-focussed line-up on a thrillingly diverse date out that ranged from abstract experimentation to shouty indie and gothic disco jams. Melissa Steiner reports on great sets from the likes of Holly Herndon, Nik Colk Void, Helena Hauff, Woolf, Trash Kit, and various Raincoats.

Sue Tompkins is channelling the stray thoughts of a thousand different people. Conversational scraps, the kind you might hear walking across any London bridge at rush hour flow and stutter and burst forth as she creates a soundscape of words you can practically see hanging in the air. Her unusual cadence and rhythm deconstruct these words until you barely remember what they mean any more, just how it feels to hear her say them. The former Life Without Buildings vocalist is a mesmerising performer, her breathless, almost childlike voice offset by how simply she presents herself: black jumper, black jeans, black trainers. In this festival of sonic experimentation in which many of the performances involve complicated tangles of extension cords, computers and mixing desks, Sue Tompkins just has her voice and a stringbound pile of paper in front of her to prompt the stream of consciousness. She bounces lightly on her feet, marking beats that only she can anticipate, smiling disarmingly at the audience, many of whom are sitting on the floor as we allow her words to tap into our subconscious and form some kind of meaning.

We are in a round wooden structure which looks as though it moonlights as a house for a swamp witch. It's Baba Yaga's hut in the middle of a field in Cambridgeshire. As large black butterflies awkwardly bumble around the rafters above Sue's head, I am awed as she never once falters in her delivery.

A few minutes later, this gentle scene is replaced by one in which I am trying my best not to pass out as my skull is invaded and scraped out by a room full of strobe and bone crunching industrial noise produced by London based artist Hannah Sawtell. It's difficult to decide if the relentless intensity makes me feel more or less like a person; on the one hand I am hyper-aware of my physical discomfort and the edge of panic half an hour of strobe tends to induce, but at the same time the density of the sound, so hypnotic and continuous, seems to delete individuality; I am just another herky jerky body in a room full of them (some with suspiciously casual expressions, I notice).

The contrast between these two performances is what makes Wysing such a satisfying experience. The one-day music and art festival, now in its fifth year, showcases performers who you may not expect to share a bill, united here by the originality of their sound art practices. Most of the live performances occurred on two stages, the aforementioned swamp witch's hut, actual name: the Amphis stage, and the bigger Gallery stage, with an easy walk across a field between the two. This year, the theme was Space-Time: the Future, with a particular focus on female artists. The bucolic setting was really kind of the opposite of the future, though. After boarding the organised coach from London to Bourn where the Wysing Art Centre is based, we wend our way through picturesque villages (making an unscheduled pit stop beside a field with modesty-preserving high verges due to the copious amounts of early morning coffee everyone had consumed before the 10am departure from Kings Cross), arriving at the peaceful artist residence, pear and plum trees laden with fruit, marmalade cat sleeping on the edge of a well. The ridiculous levels of idyll - at one point a dormouse/vole creature scuttled through our group - gave the festival a relaxed atmosphere. It was a civilised gathering, and people were there to do some serious listening. Yep, there was definitely some chin stroking going on, but also the aforementioned mind-blasting, end-of-the-night raving and some silver catsuits, too.

Well, the catsuit thing was just Ravioli Me Away to be fair. Completely on form with their energetic blend of post-punk/funk bass and highly strung keyboard, they were placed early on the bill which was a bit of a shame as the crowd was still in the “let's leave a huge empty gap at the front and stand perfectly still” mode. The costumes and catchy lyrics (“I'm a good team player, I'm a quick, quick learner” - and repeat) put me in mind of the B52s combined with Devo, which sounds implausible I know, but I'm going to take it further and throw in some Twin Peaks too, as behind the silver trio Home Tour Vision, a projected YouTube video, took us first-person shooter style through creepily normal suburban homes, replete with treadmill and overstuffed couch, though disappointingly no white horse.

It was at this early point in the day that I went to check out the third performance area, the Studio stage, which later in the evening would feature a range of screenings but at the time I dropped in was the scene of a two hour durational work by Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides. I stepped out of the sunlight and into a dark room which seemed to be filled with incense, a small group of people sitting on a mat on the floor (which luckily I managed to see before tripping over someone having an “experience”). A woman was playing what I could dimly make out to be a singing bowl, interspersing it with other noise-producing objects such as tin foil. It seemed a meditative and immersive piece, but unfortunately I didn't have the concentration required at that point in the day and didn't stay to find out. Interestingly for a festival focussed on the future, audience members were asked to switch their phones off when entering this space to ensure they didn't interfere with the electronic equipment being used.

Conversely, sound artist Lucy Woodhouse was all about the technology, ones and zeros are printed and projected everywhere (including on the screen behind her on which someone had also mysteriously scrawled “lana del ray” in marker pen). Creating laptop noise that sounded like the raw end of an electrical cord sizzling in a pool of rainwater, she turned the Amphis stage into a site of digital neurosis.

Remarkably different however were later Amphis stage bands Woolf and Trash Kit. Often appearing together at DIY punk shows, it was exciting to see the experimental elements of these bands in relief against the backdrop of the other artists of the day. Woolf broke the gallery-ice with blasts of darkly urgent punk, most songs climaxing and ending within a minute, apart from the one about forest witchery which begins with goosebump raising, thud-in-the-gut drums, perfectly suited to the rustic witch hut we were all crammed into. Trash Kit followed with the life-affirming energy their fans have come to expect, each song a fitted patchwork of overlapping rhythms and vocals, their lyrical authenticity matching the warmth of learning that the drummer's mother was in the front row. It was at this point in the day when the trips to the bar were becoming more frequent, and those to the BBQ slightly less, that the atmosphere began to get more lively. With the headlining acts approaching the event gathered steam, and if I have any kind of criticism it would be that, for a sold out festival, the main stage areas were too small. Getting into the Gallery to see Ana da Silva & Gina Birch from the Raincoats, for example, ended up being a one-in-one-out situation. Their crowd was a mixture of die-hard fans, many of whom were performing on the day, and those who were unsure what the hell was going on (“are they some band from the olden days?” was overheard. I guess this was a festival about the future, after all). Playing songs from both of their solo projects without any drums or backing, it was a vulnerable performance, though they seemed delighted by the audience response (the unwavering adulation must be old hat to them by now, surely), and I was pleased they ended their set with my two favourite Raincoats songs, 'No Looking' and 'You're A Million'.

“Yeeeahhh! I love it when the ladies are playing the bass!!” some exuberant Italian man screamed in my ear later that evening as we stood in front for Nik Colk Void. Missed the point, much? I thought. But as he'd no doubt partaken in something other than ale from the bar, I tried to forgive/forget him and focus on the performance. As the dark minimal noise filled the room, brought forth as a bow on guitar added new layers of abyssal sound, a pixelated projection of a guitar lacking strings revolved as though dead on a slab. This is the future, and it is intense. I managed to catch sometime Nik Colk Void collaborator Ashley Paul beforehand, and her carefully controlled experimentation with guitar, sax and voice was as beautiful and gentle as Nik Colk Void's was bone slicing. It's difficult to pick a highlight from a festival so fascinating and varied, but Holly Herndon's performance has stayed with me for days since. Visually arresting with ice blue eyes and bright red hair worn in her signature braid, she remained calmly expressionless as she surveyed her audience. Digitally manipulating her vocal output, Holly created a blended human machine noise, swathing the crowd in many textured layers, the bass-heavy beat making it impossible not to move, though this was by no means your typical dance music. Projected behind her was a rapid progression of Facebook profiles of those “going” to Wysing, creating a moment of anxiety as I saw my own name pop up on the big screen. This interactivity with the audience, utilising technology most of us were familiar with and seemingly setting it off with a human voice, spoke to something more than just clever electronic music composition. It explored our relationship with the technology, pushing it beyond everyday use.

I would've liked to stay for the end of Herndon's set, but the schedule that had been stuffed into my back pocket for nearly 12 hours urged me back to the Amphis stage to see Peepholes before the space became too crammed to get into (earlier in the evening tardy people were forced to watch electronic artist Karen Gwyer through the small, condensation-covered windows in the side of the structure). Peepholes have ditched their drums (though kept the synth), and the focus is now on the haunting vocal stylings put through various treatments, re-birthing the band into a new era. I felt like I was clawing my way back to Helena Hauff, the Hamburg DJ and producer who closed the festival with a dark disco, playing twisted electro with a gothic sensibility. I was knackered and was content to lurk around the edges, but the rest of the crowd was finally moving; this felt like a much-needed release.

Too soon it was over, and Londoners scrambled for a seat on the coach, while others made their way up to the field set aside for camping. As is always the way with festivals, there was so much I'd seen, but so much more I would have liked to experience. I'd skimmed through the marquee where artist publications and zines were displayed, missed all of the screenings and a few of the performances.  With artists as thought-provoking and occasionally challenging as this line up, I needed more time to take it all in.

And while I also “love it when the ladies are playing the bass”, the feminist politic evident in the focus on female performers was less about contriving a situation, and more about revealing a rich and varied community of artists who are inspired by and often collaborate with one another. In a way it reminded me of a lyric in Raincoats Gina Birch's song 'Smash The Patriarchy', where she sang, “You ask if I'm a feminist, I say, why wouldn't I be?”