Leo Chadburn reports from the third edition of London Contemporary Music Festival, as it moves from an East London factory space to a colossal bunker underneath the University of Westminster

Dimitri Djuric

A Sci-Fi bunker lies beneath Baker Street

This is surely the definition of what a London music festival should be: a tough nut, with a touch of the spectacular, like all the best things the metropolis has to offer. LCMF is only three years old, but has a super-charged confidence, taking the idea of a festival where no one has gone before. It’s required some extraordinary venues to achieve this. Following stints in the retired multi-storey car park in Peckham (2013) and a dramatic factory space off Brick Lane (2014), the 2015 edition took place in the most surprising venue yet: Ambika P3, a vast bunker underneath the University of Westminster, formerly used as a lab by the school of engineering upstairs (they tested the concrete for Spaghetti Junction here). Who knew this space existed? The acoustic has an industrial boom; the architecture is sci-fi dystopian, like the interior of a spaceship off on a weird trip.

There’s danger in numbers

London as a meeting place for like-minded artists is the theme of the festival’s opening night, ‘Collective Capital’, opened by conceptual young composers’ organisation Bastard Assignments, who perform Edward Henderson’s Tape Piece (2014), a spontaneous sonic installation cum trip hazard that involves a team of performers noisily sellotaping the venue to itself.

The more established, more unhinged Squib Box collective premiere Neil Luck’s Via Gut (2015): electronic and acoustic parps and cadenzas around a fractured narrative on bodily functions, suavely delivered by Luck himself. Imagine Slavoj Žižek presenting a Viz-magazine themed game show and you’ll have some idea of the eccentricity and hilarity of the performance. Squib Box member Adam de la Cour steals the show with his virtuosic portrayal of a ‘tap-dancing arsehole’, in stained concert dress, entangled in blow-up intestines.

Anne Bean and Richard Wilson are now known primarily as visual artists, but throughout the 1980s were two-thirds of the legendary Bow Gamelan Ensemble (along with Paul Burwell, who died in 2007). In a festival coup, Bean and Wilson have been persuaded to take their instruments (fashioned from retrieved industrial scrap) out of storage for a performance entitled NALEMAG (2015). A spooky séance for the ruined East London of thirty years ago, their set is lit by flashing sodium lights, flickering televisions, fistfuls of exploding bang snaps and the glow of the blowtorches they use to shatter sheets of glass (in the evening’s second instance of real danger). The ghost is summoned through the eerie sounds of their gong sculptures and Bean’s wailing vocals.

Move to California; live forever

It’s easy to think of the history of American experimental music as being a primarily East Coast / New York phenomenon. The festival addresses and redresses that revisionism on its ‘West Coast Night’. Very early pieces by Henry Cowell (The Banshee, 1925) and (at that stage in his career LA resident) John Cage (First Construction In Metal, 1939) sound fresh and exuberant: only slightly less up-to-date than more recent works by John Luther Adams (Among Red Mountains, 2001, a crashy piano solo) and Catherine Lamb (the frail and interesting Frames, 2009/13, performed on the edge of silence by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and contrabass recorder player Lucia Mense).

Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros are now both in their 80s, but play two of the most energetic solo sets of the whole festival. Oliveros, in particular, gives a startling performance on her digital accordion, wresting a fiery orchestra of sounds from the instrument. Also in the later stages of his career, poet Otis O’Solomon recites his beatific evocations of peace and love. The Californian lifestyle apparently leads to something approaching immortality.

The best music exists primarily in space

‘Five Ways To Kill Time’ is the theme of night three, paradoxically bookended by music that primarily exploits physical space. Ellen Fullman’s ‘long string instrument’ is presented here in a twenty-metre incarnation, bifurcating the hall. Fullman walks its length, fingers touching strings, releasing unexpected sprays of harmonics and ancient/futuristic sonorities. Stephen O’Malley’s version of drone metal is a pure demonstration of the power of the backline. In his festival set, sound dances on every resonant surface. It’s refreshing and energising, like a cold, loud shower.

Violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and artist Tim Etchell’s collaboration Seeping Through (2015) has an anxious quality. Etchells repeats his spoken phrases, sometimes loaded with suggestions of dire scenarios ("how fast can you drive, we are in a hurry"), sometimes absurd ("distorting the property market by spreading rumours of buildings that need exorcism"), incrementally altering his emphasis and delivery against Orazbayeva’s scratch-tone loops. It’s playful and powerful: two performers chasing each other’s tail, finding new emotions and associations with each passing moment.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. (Psalm 104:25-26)

Chris Watson has become the mascot of sound recording, elevating the critical and popular reputation of the medium. In a tribute to this achievement, day four of LCMF is devoted solely to his new work, Okeanos (2015). This is Watson’s hour-long hymn to the sea, a journey from pole to pole, comprised mainly of hydrophone (underwater microphone) recordings, projected in eight-channel sound.

The audience displays a curious set of cognitive biases before the piece begins, spreading out as if ready to be soothed by a relaxation tape: a kind of sea-yoga. But Watson’s vision of the ocean is an ambivalent one. This is a zone more unknowable than the surface of the moon, where sirens and monsters might exist. In his introduction to the piece, he cites the memorable image of orcas picking seals from ice floes "like cocktail sausages", and the ensuing sounds are full of tension and turbulence, the darkened venue becoming an oil tanker’s hull, rocking perilously.

Opera must be built (or trashed)

‘To A New Definition Of Opera II" poses a number of vital questions about this messy, malleable art form, binning the etiquette and assumptions provided by the 19th century archetype.

The evening’s provocations begin with a screening of the unmistakeable Ryan Trecartin’s CENTER JENNY (2013), a cascade of cinematic cuts, almost never lingering on a shot for more than a second.  The script is a nightmare combination of reality TV vernacular and ‘YouTuber’ narcissism, in which post-human American sorority girls scream endless non- sequiturs at each other, or to camera ("don’t bite the hand that fucks you in college"). Is it an opera? If nothing else, it has an operatic overstatement and concern with how the voice might drive or derail the delirious narrative.

Tim Parkinson’s Time With People (2012/13) is the dramatic antithesis of Trecartin’s frantic film. Described as "apocalyptic", but actually much more benign than that might imply, Parkinson’s work has many of the trappings of a "real" opera: a set (a huge scattering of rubbish), voices, movement and words. What it lacks is theatrical motivation; test tones prompt actors to answer random questions on cards, performers sort through the trash to make instantaneous instruments, only to discard them when the time is up, and fragments of Berlioz blare from the PA and stop mid-phrase. This is opera made from (and about) nothing: both charming and unsettling.

Even more curious is the UK premiere of selections from poet, erstwhile fascist and occasional composer Ezra Pound’s opera Le Testament de Villon (1926), his sparse setting of François Villon’s 1461 poem. It’s appropriately dour and medieval, especially as staged on Parkinson’s tip. Soprano Lore Lixenberg is game in portraying an ageing prostitute, bewailing her fading looks with her false breasts dangling out. Lixenberg is surely one of the most versatile opera singers out there; she returns later in the evening, in the pose of the Virgin Mary for the UK premiere of Stockhausen’s Pietà (1990/91, taken from his seven-opera cycle Licht), a breath-taking scena featuring quarter-tone flugelhorn (played with interstellar dazzle by Marco Blaauw) soloing against swirling synth sounds.

There is a wet, pink slug inside your head

Craig Raine’s poem A Martian Sends A Postcard Home lends a title to an evening exploring the concept of ‘alienness’. Like John Berger’s ‘visual essays’ in Ways Of Seeing, it draws an ingenious connection between superficially unconnected music. Helmut Lachenmann’s Toccatina (1986) makes the violin strange to itself, exploiting the wraith-like noises of atypical collisions of bow, wood and string; Hanna Hartman’s Mezcal No. 8 (2014) conjures drone music from pots, rubber tubes and rocks; and readings of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s futurist poetry are the Klingon music that is the Russian language.

Composer Christian Kesten (together with percussionist Serge Vuille) gives a deadpan rendition of his own Zunge Lösen (1990/99), in which the only sounds and images (on close-up video) are the performers’ tongues moving about inside their mouths, before venturing out across their faces. It seems increasingly supernatural; what is this wet, pink slug inside us?

Andrew Hamilton’s music for people who like art (2009), scored for a solo singer and small ensemble, is the work of a trickster, in which fragments of music and yelps ("Yeah!") skip like a malfunctioning CD player until the simplest arpeggios begin to seem magnificently odd and unpredictable. The repetitions accumulate in an unstoppable flow: a tap that just won’t turn off.

The Internet is an unreliable deity

When Gutenberg introduced movable type to Europe in the mid-1400s, no one wrote paeans to printing; instead, a lot of bibles were produced. Our contemporary, analogously revolutionary technology, the Internet, seems to be attractive subject matter to artists in itself. The quality of the results, judging from the festival’s final night, is mixed.

Most interesting is Jennifer Walshe’s The Total Mountain (2014), a mercurial 40-minute solo performance, accompanied by a hyperactive video with echoes of Trecartin’s film from earlier in the week. It uses the Internet as a filter for Walshe’s own, restless thinking: a whirlwind self-portrait. This includes a mash-up of her browsing history, spiralling down the wiki-wormhole, a pop interlude about IBM in the style of a 1950s industrial musical and a sequence of iPhone-generated footage of overstated domestic disasters (robot tanks annihilating a bedroom, etc.) with Walshe announcing, "THIS will happen!"

Two airless, strangely lifeless sets close proceedings: Felicita (of the PC Music scene) and James Ferraro, both resembling bored kids staring into their laptops, intentionally in the case of the former, ambiguously in the case of the latter. It’s strange to witness this vacant finale, after a week of such ambitious programming. But perhaps that’s the thing about LCMF; there are no easy ways out, no lazy assumptions, no certainties. The destination is bound to remain somewhat unknown when you’re on such a wild journey.

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