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Three Songs No Flash

Long Revelations: Rewire Festival Reviewed
The Quietus , April 13th, 2022 07:41

From a broad-ranging celebration of Meredith Monk’s genius to a mind-melting show from Mabe Fratti, and stellar performances from Circuit Des Yeux, aya, Caterina Barbieri and more, this year’s Rewire showed Richard Foster and Jasper Willems glimpses of a better possible world

Caterina Barbieri, photo by Stephan C Kaffa

Rewire Festival, set in the centre of Den Haag, often feels as if it’s been beamed down from another planet. A mixture of forward-thinking, sometimes challenging avant garde music and unexpected locations can create an alien experience for the visitor. Especially when set in a pragmatic place like the Dutch seat of government.

This year, the huge new Amare building hosted a festival highlight, a celebration of the work of the American composer, Meredith Monk. Amare is weird. At times it feels like visiting a setting of an academic version of Logan’s Run. No matter, the sumptuous main hall is the perfect place for Monk’s work. On the Friday we are treated to her Vocal Ensemble tackling Cellular Songs, and the Saturday sees a showcase of 2020’s Memory Game. There are films and talks dedicated to her, too.

A recent interview in this publication with Monk noted how she uses patience as a loadstone; which maybe makes her work like that of William Blake; revelations aren’t quick flashes in the pan, they are the application of a creative language learned over time. During Cellular Songs Monk, flanked by the singers from her ensemble, radiates calm. Yet she remains the source of energy on the creative heatmap. She is oddly hypnotic; whether that is seen through the simple movements with her arms and hands when directing a sound, or emoting phrases such as “I’m a restless woman, I’m an old woman”, her deliberative way of walking, or the way she sits, hands folded on her lap. At times a piano and violin add tonal colours to the vocal palette. Her Vocal Ensemble, dressed in slightly differing white costumes and black bovver boots, serve as a chorus or act out various tableaus, creating the sort of theatre Aeschylus dished out to the ancient Athenians. It really is very beautiful.

Saturday’s Memory Game, based around Monk’s earlier piece The Games (written in late 1983 in Berlin), is another matter entirely. It’s fleshy and sinister. The music comes courtesy of New York’s fabulous Bang On A Can All-Stars, who groove expertly away throughout, their mellifluous playing applies subtle washes of tone to a pretty stark piece about the human predilection to control knowledge at the expense of others. The singers, clothed in red, black and russet hues impart a faintly totalitarian air, reinforced by Monk’s explanation of the narrative - one playing out in real time, given the passages devoted to refugees, propaganda and a world engulfed in war. Again, it’s a tremendous experience; Monk’s work is hypnotic, truly broadcasts from an ‘isle full of noises’. A projection, surely, but there's also a distinct ‘80s feel to sections, with sighs and gasps of Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, and even Soft Cell filtering through the atmosphere.

If I don’t catch COVID during aya’s show in the sweatbox of the Paard van Troje’s small hall, I never will. The feeling you are ingesting gazillions of tiny liquid droplets of someone else’s being, FFP2 mask notwithstanding, is unnerving. Not that many seem to care. There’s only one focus for the hundreds of nodding heads and that is aya and, behind her, eye-melting visuals courtesy of Sweatmother. Now bear with me, but I think aya’s show radiates massive Hawkwind vibes. The world has ended and there’s nothing left but these huge digital lumps of sonic debris rattling around in outer space. Despite barging through the mesosphere, the music also carries traces of that peculiarly gungey, frayed residue of old Mother Earth that Hawkwind’s had. Further, the intensely colourful visuals rearrange your cells. And aya, like Robert Calvert back in the day, brings the audience entirely into her trip. She’s happy to josh and fence with us and we also get the odd squawk and growl; sometimes this digital cosmonaut sounds like a provincial deejay, talking over the top of a bit of music after the buffet. It’s madness to project such things but the gig, surely one of the best of the festival, is revealing dystopian ley lines on my mind’s eye like I’m on a microdose trip in Aldi and I can’t help pointing them out.

Meredith Monk, photo by Pieter Kers

Rewire goes the distance to put artists into uncanny situations, even when artists are unable to attend because of some lousy logistical snafu. Case in point with Kenyan producer Slikback, whose visa was denied. Fortunately, he appears courtesy of an audiovisual collaboration with Weirdcore, allowing the festival to still show its audience something. Even if that something was a humongous screen stationed at Paard van Troje, mixing Weirdcore’s glitchy visuals with Slikback’s torrential beats. Suffice it to say, people in the room still went bonkers. Who needs humans?

Sometimes the palatial ambition Rewire manifests with its artists folds in on itself, and somehow, this inspires attendees to think beyond notions of good or bad. Circuit Des Yeux was such a curious case this year. Brandishing a four-octave voice that shakes the pillars of the very heavens, Haley Fohr habitually rips out your still-beating heart and shows it to you. Her performance at Rewire was substantial, using the talents of Residentie Orkest to perform the string arrangements she wrote for her latest opus -io. It’s significant to note that Circuit des Yeux explicitly asked audiences to wear a mask – since a single case of COVID among artists or crew can derail an entire tour, with big financial repercussions. Sadly, only a minority of the audience pays heed to Fohr’s request. One of the members of the string ensemble even had to pull out.

That didn’t throw Circuit Des Yeux. Let’s not forget, Fohr has built a whole career out of putting herself in discomfiting situations to trigger her creative powers in awesome ways. -io marks Fohr’s tentative tryst with joy, and tonight, she’s not obfuscated by darkness, but dressed in bright, lavish orange. Her set offers colours and textures as vast as the cosmos itself; the sinister stride of ‘Dogma’, the poignant Sing Swan Song-era Can-indebted strummer ‘Black Fly’, the monumental, divine grace that is ‘Sculpting The Exodus’. Though the performance was awe-inspiring, I didn’t end up muttering on the floor like I have done at earlier Circuit Des Yeux shows. It always seems that Fohr needs a limitation of some kind to reach the apex of her sonic intensity. At the Nationale Schouwburg – even one string ensemble member down – it felt rather a safe setting: with the beautiful, grand stage and great sound to match the steadfast qualities of her music. Madly enough, Fohr sputtered to the finishing line, confessing to the audience she couldn’t do an encore because her voice was, in fact, shot. Hard to imagine though, seeing how we’re left hanging with a heartstopping rendition of ‘Stranger’.

If Circuit Des Yeux elevates in fly-or-die situations, so does contemporary jazz luminary Jaimie Branch. Branch shows the people at Koorenhuis that not even a million music academics can create a manual for playing the blues. Whenever she grabs her trusty bugle, she presents all the miles on her soul in a concentrated dosage – it’s impossible to fight back the tears whenever she does so. Branch realises you need passages of joy to alleviate those lump-in-the-throat moments; the infectious chemistry she has honed with her gifted bandmates – particularly virtuoso cellist Lester St. Louis – spark the audience into a frenzy.

Great but in a more understated way is Coby Sey, someone who often collaborates with pop abstractionists such as Mica Levi and Tirzah. Indeed, Sey performs on Friday with Tirzah. At Paard, we get to experience his craft in full. Sey immediately settles for compelling innuendo, kicking off with a heavy post-punk inflected jams and some shapeless, ambient meanderings, seemingly irreverent about feeding the audience something fully-formed right away.

No need: the magnetism of Sey’s music draws from ideas that seem either disposable, improvised or flawed. His distinct vocabulary as a producer is a synthetic primordial ooze from which pop songs either emerge or don’t. Multi-instrumentalist Ben Vince – who performed a memorable solo-set at Rewire in 2018 – is called upon at specific moments to let it rip on the sax, bellowing into the echo chamber of grimy undertones and prowling rhythms. Sey’s music is undeniably erotic in nature, and nothing about this set feels rushed, everything unfolds with attentive deliberation. Indeed, ending with an intimate piano instrumental would otherwise feel anticlimactic if it wasn’t for Coby Sey’s spellbinding subtlety.

Mabe Fratti, photo by Parcifal Werkman

Sunday is a glorious day: an excellent show from new Dutch soundscapers SOON is worth a mention, as is a mind-melting show from experimental-yet-rockin’ cellist du jour Mabe Fratti. If one artist crystallises an incomplete-but-generous transmission it's Fratti. Last year's Será que ahora podremos entendernos? (Spanish for ‘Will we be able to understand each other now?’) meditates on the desire to connect and the wish to be understood despite the confines of language or location. Furthermore, the Guatemalan cellist and composer sees her art as a means to connect with others rather than something to put on display. Fratti is a swashbuckling spirit who jumps at every opportunity to do so, and it’s totally within her character to travel to The Hague in the same weekend of wrapping up an extensive US tour supporting Efterklang.

Still wired with adrenaline from all the travelling, Fratti continues her collaboration at Theater aan het Spui with Concepcion Heurta. She is a giving collaborator who never hesitates to accommodate her talents to serve the vision of others. From the get-go, however, it’s pretty obvious that she has the initiative, with Concepcion Huerta taking on more of a supporting role with their modular soundscapes. Contrary to the meditative reflective poignancy of Será que ahora podremos entendernos?, these new tracks signify a triumphant noise-laden release.

It’s undeniably stunning what’s unfolding before our eyes: the way Fratti’s cello skirmishes with heavy guitar textures sounds like a strikingly digitised lighting storm, essentially going full Metal Machine Music on us poor souls. It’s exactly the kind of overpowering, swelling euphoria you feel whenever Low plays ‘Do You Know How To Waltz?’. This is freeform music that doesn’t feel opulent or wanky, but uproots itself from an urgent need to express and feel. Fratti isn’t wearing her game face either, noticeably joking and laughing with her fellow musicians on stage during the intermissions.

The set also fortifies Fratti’s talent for song without sacrificing the chaotic joy of experiencing life in full again, everywhere all at once. Beneath the final piece – even throughout all its cacophony – simmers a melodic undercurrent not unlike the Neil Young classic Needle And The Damage Done; a sorrowful, flickering sadness ushered by the unblemished beauty of the notes. Through my misty-eyed haze, I somehow had to think about Noah’s Ark as well, a vessel potent enough to carry all that volatile ferocious wildlife. A curmudgeonly atheist might suggest such an act is laughably futile, logistically impossible outside of human myth. But seeing this performance makes you feel – even for just one waking hour – that it could be done.

The festival closes in Amare’s main hall with an imposing show by Caterina Barbieri. Starkly lit and with a backdrop of swirls and clouds that resemble some ceiling fresco from the Italian Baroque, Barbieri pumps out a loud set culled from recent albums such as Ecstatic Computation. The music travels between contemplation and glowing, patterned soundscapes. And both artist and audience are soon on an inner journey, Barbieri setting the coordinates for her romantic take on electronic music, which draws from early classical music and late seventies circuit cosmonauts in equal measure. What is immediately noticeable is the way each bleep and pulse feels as if it is being examined in the round; scrutinised, picked up in the hand and then set back in its rightful place, the sequencing for which she is celebrated given physical form. The mid-passage with the four singers is puzzling (one of them is ever so slightly flat and short in the delivery, maybe that is deliberate, but it does grate on the senses a bit), but Rewire would not be Rewire if it didn’t take risks.