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Things Learned At: Counterflows Glasgow
Oscar Gaynor , May 3rd, 2017 15:01

At this year's edition of Counterflows festival in Glasgow, with performances by Midori Takada and Mark Fell, Oscar Gaynor finds a festival with radical and inclusive notions about what exactly it means to be a part of the underground

The logic of a music festival so pointedly obtuse as a Counterflows is in part that it asks you to un-learn what you know, and demands instead that you piece knowledge back together through scattered fragments. It is spread scattergun across Glasgow like a minimal composition – in its sanctified music halls, community centres and its dripping non-places. As such, the four-day melting-pot programme of avant-garde artists and traditional musics from the peripheries incrementally folded the city into its texture.

Chafing polyester trousers can be unbearably loud.

Like the majority of the festival’s events, the Japanese composer and percussionist Midori Takada’s rare appearance in the U.K. has been sold out weeks in advance, the queue snaking around the University lawns to enter its Chapel. Through the Looking Glass, her seminal 1983 record, has been garnering a cultish status for years with its spectral ecosystem of clicks, calls and hypnotic—almost shamanistic—percussive rhythms, and is re-released this year on WRWTFWW.

Seeing the place packed to the rafters the festival co-curator announces on the mic that it seems that marginal music seems not to be so marginal anymore. Both the reverence given to Takada’s performance, and the inherent holiness of the audience taking their seats in serried pews had the effect of making the chapel paper-thin. Throughout her procession-like performance the decaying ripples of the gong seem unending – stretching time out so that each sound held an uncanny intensity. Hands running through hair, the church bell and the crossing and crossing again of dead legs gained equivalence to Takada’s abruptly lush and austere rhythms.

Takada’s performance in the Chapel on the opening night neatly typifies the ambitions of the festival and the unique platform it creates: democratic, inclusive and collaborative. It’s in this spirit that you find the Glasgow underground’s Anxiety pulping minds and vocal chords one night, a specially-brought together ensemble that realises the full band ambitions of songwriter and improviser Ashley Paul for the first time, and Les Filles de Illighadad another night, supplying polyphonic Tuareg funk rock from Niger.

So it was that chin-stroking reverence for virtuosic and accomplished music always found its counterpoint in some ragged, anti-social, electrifying shambles. A sound bubble similar to Takada’s is made for Glorias Navales from Chile, who are used to playing their minimal folk over the sound of bar room chatter. The opposite is true for artist and performer Sue Tompkins whose sparkling vocal assemblages were wrenched from the sterile gallery into the milieu of a heckling mob.

It’s all about swirling it round, man.

The name itself paints a useful picture of the festival. Eddies and whorls are created when one current finds itself in the path of another. Like when you stir a cup of tea, the spoon moving through the brew creates the counter-flow. The artist Joseph Beuys, making work engaging with the field of epistemology—the study of the production of knowledge—made aesthetic analogies: that these swirls, these ‘current vortices’, were responsible for the formation of the patterns in oil settling on top of water, the structure inside bones, as well as even the intricate nasal organ of a deer. In other words, swirling—one substance abutting another—creates chaos but ultimately produces form, structure and wonder. And by and large, this is its magic formula: putting two things side-by-side and seeing what resonance or dissonance is created.

That the underground is above ground (and the above-ground is going underground).

The Laurieston Arches in the Southside on Saturday—its penultimate day—are both cool, dark and dank at one turn, and flooded with improbable and balmy Glasgow sunlight at another. It is the ideal venue for the typically hard-to-grasp, categorically ‘un-categorisable’, The Modern Institute: An amorphous mélange of abrasive noise—sampled sounds, ear-curling snare-blasting—and self-conscious performance art. It is underground and it isn’t.

Their regal posturing and aloofness (should you see them at all – kitted in bondage, obscured face-on by a stretched silver emergency blanket), and deliberate outrageousness (inflating a Mylar zephyr in the centre of the crowd) articulate the boredom of a precarious generation. Time rich, cash poor, looking for an out. In this way, their energy, and the performance’s radical dumbness, is an expression of a politics. Beyond, say, obliquely, Destroy All Monster’s I’m Bored and a punk sensibility, it’s implicit and bursting at the seams.

Svitlana Nianio (of the early nineties Ukrainian band Sugar White Death / Cukor Bila Smert’), playing for the first time in the U.K. represents a more measured emergence from the underground. Analogous to Su Tissue’s 1982 Salon De Musique with its repeated keyboard phrases, Nainio’s brilliance was—with song part traditional and part science fiction film soundtrack—in turning into them curling wisps of incense smoke: delicate and inspiriting.

Anyway, precisely what constitutes the underground or the marginal comes to seem completely irrelevant. The ‘underground’, if so overwhelmingly global as Counterflows posits it to be, is still about the building or the recognition of a community: selling tapes, exchanging contacts. In this musical community the strings are drawn tighter between what could be considered the 'refusal of' and the 'exclusion from’ the capitalist system of value to a position where both find common ground.

The difference between a tala and a raga.

A quick switch from the sun-dappled terrace of a pub along the Kelvin to the CCA’s wood-panelled theatre had made for a disorienting start to A Carnatic Paradigm, a project conceived by musician and producer Mark Fell. Laying back in the mood-lit room, ready to pass out, listening to the first section of the multipartite programme of traditional south Indian music and new minimal electronic interpretations, you could spot a disembodied arm in the darkness above the crowd. Fell seems to be mixing these exemplars of Carnatic music live from the heavens. Below, an ensemble of musicians he had met in India last year recite the various species of talas and ragas on sitar and adapted violin, each time giving exacting explanations of their histories and compositions. Hindustani in origin and specific to several areas of southern India, Carnatic music is a vocal music, that, even when played on instruments is written to imitate the voice.

This is direct tutelage – the Carnatic Paradigm slowly unfolding as some kind of pedagogical experiment. A reading room housing related research and literature was available over the weekend to dip in and out of. The players actively promoted their instrument and heritage to the audience. And Fell’s new compositions rose out dialogue with, and study of, the logic and mechanics of the music.

But I can’t really explain the difference between a tala and raga. Fascinating as it is, Wikipedia’d be your best bet for that. New knowledge though comes through seeking contradictions and enjoying that space in the middle. Counterflows is a timely reminder of a method for the working-out of new ways of dealing with the present – responding to the challenges of the democratic model it typifies. Coming up against noise and melody. Cleverness and dumbness. Structure and improvisation.