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Kettled In: Sound Art & Deep Listening At Glasgow's Sonica Festival
Colm McAuliffe , February 1st, 2020 10:31

With work by Yuri Suzuki, Navid Navab ,Michael Montanaro, Yulia Kovanova, Demelza Kooij, and others, Glasgow's Sonica festival was an interdisciplinary treat, finds Colm McAuliffe

Photos: Neil Jarvie

The 2019 edition of the biannual Glasgow sonic art festival Sonica is vast in scope with commissions, performances and installations from across the globe yet rarely does it feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale and ambition of the festival. The festival’s programme teems with a divergent and often far-reaching “energy dialogue”, as Joseph Beuys would put it, conveying the forces and energies of the natural world. For Beuys, the natural world, as well as the human psyche, were the loci of mysterious and meaningful interrelations, and while he intended to transmit this through his own art, Sonica succeeds in similarly generating a near micro-ecology of artistic interventions rooted in the present and the experimental, the playful and the provocative.

Sonica 2019 particularly excelled in the magnification of heterogeneous situations, offering new frameworks for reading nature while highlighting sensitive values implicit in environmental issues. The most remarkable example of this was Kathy Hinde’s work, which was spread across the entire festival but magnificently anchored through both her Deep Listening Soundscapes, where compositions based around sounds recorded below the surface of the Flow Country – a vast expanse of blanket bog stretching across Caithness and Sutherland in the far north of Scotland and a vital defence against the effects of climate change -- by submerged microphones called hydrophones and secondly, through Chirp & Drift where a cavalcade of accordion bellows perch in a bird-like fashion, dotted around the branches of a tree. As the air moves through their reeds, these instruments make piping sounds that imitate and recreate the calls of the many rare bird species found in the Flow Country.

Kathy Hinde’s work is richly complex but never enigmatic and always deeply empathetic. Behind her work lie clear ideas and theoretical conceptions and this is mirrored in the presentation; Chirp and Drift, in particular, demonstrates a wonderful interplay of lucid ideas and a purity of expression which is never compromised by form. Both installations were active within the Hidden Gardens at the back of the Tramway venue and complimented by a series of other installations, most notably Matthew Olden’s Data Flow which, in effect, re-created the expanding and contracting of the bog in the Flow Country. Olden turned this breathing motion in a soundtrack, demonstrating the varying levels of difference across the different parts of the bog, the breath dependent on the health of the peat. Incredibly, this was played through 96 speakers; by crossing form and material, Hinde and Olden forged a new and somewhat redemptive hybrid between previously singular acts of natural activity.

Elsewhere in Tramway, Demelza Kooij and Lars Koens' Graminoids, a six minute video installation piece, documenting the reeds of native grass that harvest upon Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. Embedded in the monochrome video is a polarity between the heavy and dark colouring of the visuals and the light and airy movement of the grassland; graceful and breath-taking but also maintaining the purity of vision concomitant to Hinde and Olden’s work outside the same building.

Koens also co-created Colony, a collaboration with Siberian artist Yulia Kovanova, which both explored the migratory of the Arctic tern and, structurally, wound its way up to the very top of the Lighthouse venue. The Arctic tern can boast an impressive feat as it is responsible for undertaking the longest annual migratory journey of any bird on Earth, a journey all the way from Arctic to Antarctic and back again. In turn, Colony consists of a range of abstract colour sculptures -- each representing a tern in flight – and sonic expressions with the viewer encouraged to follow the journey of sculptures in celebration of the tern’s own vast migratory pilgrimage. Following the sculptures as you wind your way up the Lighthouse spiral staircase is both terrifying in that your attention hinges upon the light, colour and texture of Kovanova’s artworks, creating a mark-making ritual which brings focus and directness to the work.

While artists often transpose ideas from one culturally resonant condition to another, suggesting alternative or hidden trajectories, Colony is very much situated in the concrete and the real, a concept which is further turned on its head through Yuri Suzuki’s Furniture Music. Taking inspiration from Erik Satie’s concept of “Furniture Music”, Suzuki’s re-interpretation concentrates upon sounds made in the everyday Western existence by construction, machines and computers, suggesting that the sounds affect us at a subconscious level. “When you do your laundry, why must you listen to a dreadful pounding noise that may distract you from your tasks or simply take you away from the present?”, he asks. “Could a washing machine make a beautiful ambient sound instead? Our lives may be made easier with technology taking care of most of our chores, but perhaps, with a little imagination, we could redefine how sound impacts on our mental wellbeing.” Suzuki’s installation piece works primarily through its irreverent indexing of everyday domestic objects which affords him the opportunity to establish a correspondence between the “real” and the “abstract”, transcending disciplinary spaces and temporalities.

Just across the room from Suzuki’s Furniture Music, we encounter Navid Navab and Michael Montanaro’s Aquaphoneia’s strange calibration of alchemical apparatuses: a large horn, a range of complex glass and kinetic instruments, fire, mist, collectively described by the artists as “alchemico-sonic gold”. The trick is to speak into the horn in order for your vocal to be thermodynamically processed through fire and vapour and water. While the correspondences between disciplines are certainly not subtle and the alchemy confuses as much as fuses, there is a Duchamp-like flippancy to the entire operation; dare I say it but it was a lot of fun to have my meagre vocal offerings to stimulate and enchant the medium, as Marshall McLuhan would have put it.

The lives of these art-works and objects, and the interdisciplinary and trans-cultural conditions they circulate within is an important leitmotif in Sonica and unquestionably key to the festival’s continuing dedication to unfolding more ecologically minded forms of agency, performance and intelligence. And underneath all of this lies the unspoken idea that Sonica really does matter because people are eager and odd enough to love the strange and revealing intersections of art and sound which are not clouded by didactism and nostalgia and living unequivocally in the moment: this is about as contemporary as it gets.

In 2020 Sonica will be visiting Normandy 31 April - 17 May, Göteborg 2 – 4 & 9 – 11 October and London 30 - 31 October