Cosmic Dance: Semibreve 2023 Reviewed

Braga’s Semibreve Festival returns stronger than ever, with a curation of acts including Emeralds, Pedro Cunha, Loraine James and Inês Malheiro, who push the boundaries, expectations and confines of some unexpected performance settings

Thomas Ankersmit, all photos courtesy of Adriano Ferreira Borges / Semibreve 2023

Brazilian artist Pedro Cunha’s Deep Dive is a virtual reality experience from the perspective of a fish. The installation, part of Semibreve 2023 in Braga, Portugal, drops the user into an aquarium, a cylindrical tank to swim among the other sea life. Outside, visitors, in this case anthropomorphic cats, amble around. You hear their conversations, from struggling writers to animal rights activists and a disgruntled aquarium employee.

It immerses you in a multitude of experiences moving through a fixed space. Frequently, the cat’s tales have them trying to wrest control of their lives – the writer desperate to pursue his dream, the cleaner frustrated with their routine being determined by the carelessness of the aquarium’s patrons. As a fish in the tank, you have a choice over who or what you focus on. The threat of the shark you share the tank with never gets too close. But you’re nevertheless confined.

There’s an echo of the panopticon in how Cunha’s aquarium is built, but the lines of observation are multi-directional. Fish occupy the centre, encircled by spectators who look in. Subtle differences don’t make the apparatus any less oppressive. Unlike Jeremy Bentham’s prison, you can see exactly who is looking at you and when, and who is ignoring you. Likewise, you can look at and hear them. It’s an odd power dynamic where an inability to consent to being viewed is compensated for with the opportunity to witness the viewers themselves. You can see how the structure works, but not how to escape it.

It’s a heavily layered, highly effective work of art which provokes countless different readings. One of Deep Dive’s inspirations is Brazil-based environmentalist and activist for indigenous people’s rights Aílton Krenak’s essay, ‘Life Is Not Useful’. Not as misanthropic as it sounds, the essay interrogates ways of being that have “shaped the world as a commodity”. As Aílton, a member of the Krenak people indigenous to Brazil, writes: “Life is so wonderful that our minds try to put it to use, but that’s bullshit. Life is joy, it’s a dance, only it’s a cosmic dance, and people want to reduce it to ridiculous, utilitarian choreography.”

Cunha’s exhibition carries themes which jump into many of the musical highlights at Semibreve festival. This edition fully embraces sound’s possibility as both a disruptor and a connector. How it can twist a setting and escape boundaries. The ways it can be a means to acknowledge expectations and traditions, but also subvert them.

A sense of possibility is palpable in Loraine James’ set at gnration, the festival’s club space, on Saturday night. Her whole performance is a burst of pure ragged light. Leaning away from the soulful songcraft of latest album Gentle Confrontation and more towards the shuddering beats that underpin it, traces of the warmth her music carries at its most gentle can still be felt throughout. My notes say “Angry set..?” but with hindsight the negative connotations of that word don’t fit. There’s a hopeful line of flight in how her glitched beats jump start the room into elated states. James turns abstracted sounds into means of connection rather than alienation. Which is to say, there are a lot of reasons to be royally pissed off right now, but James shows music might be the way to channel that into solidarity rather than despair.

This energy is shared in the following set by NON Worldwide co-founder Nkisi. Her music is a serrated yet vibrant zone where hypnotic vocals, roaming synths and ruptured beats summon a frenzy that spills from the stage into the audience. Whole aesthetic treatises should be written about the distortion that occasionally tears through Nkisi’s tracks. It isn’t a generic wall of noise but tactically placed. A startling, razor-edged punctuation that gives the impression a new world is puncturing through the soundsystem, and a slab of synthetic percussion might fly out and strike you at any moment. It’s a liberating coarseness, the stuff of business techno producer’s nightmares. It’s one of many reasons why, although Nkisi’s music might typically be presented in dancefloors, it relentlessly challenges the confines of those contexts.


Sound’s visceral potential re-emerges in the drastically different confines of the Salão Medieval da Reitoria. Here, Thomas Ankersmit delivers a solo performance on the Serge Modular synthesizer, explaining at the beginning that the only addition to the instrument will be using a laptop to sample it, and the natural reverbs present in the medieval salon at the University of Minho. What unfurls is a beguiling demonstration of sound as physical force. At points the room feels suspended on a knife edge as high frequencies yawn through it, expertly held on the precipice of serenity and chaos. The set peaks with an immense cushion of bass frequency, a persistent, fluctuating throb which gives the impression the centuries old building has been consumed into a gently ticking over, city-sized motorcycle engine.

Sometimes these moments of sound warping space come more subtly. For me, the most startling moment of the festival comes in Nexcyia, aka London-based Adam Dove’s set. After a gentle rise of lulling, bass heavy rhythms, a smudged vocal sample surfaces. As this loop keeps spinning and accumulating, I reflexively twist my head around convinced someone in the audience has started whooping. This happens a few times, and it takes me a while to be certain these flickers of voice-like ghost frequencies are coming from stage rather than crowd, so real is their spectral presence in the space. A mystifying, magical act of sonic disorientation which adds eerie depth to Nexcyia’s music, and the room it’s diffusing through.

His peformance at Auditorio de Sao Frutuoso merges stasis and movement, coalescence and fragmentation to sit in a more layered, oneiric space than the recordings I’ve heard. The collaging of fidelities brings to mind Organ Tapes alongside the deeply layered techno found in Gerald Donald and James Stinson’s productions (the similarity between the names Drexciya and Nexcyia is not a coincidence). But seeing Dove perform his music live, it’s the strategies of a dub producer that give his music its aliveness. The sounds archived on his laptop are not inert, but changing with the situation they’re projected through. For Nexcyia, pre recorded beats and samples are living matter, a material to enter conversation with rather than repeat or manipulate. Grooves are shaded in the moment with gusts of delay that warp fixed metres into new forms. Glitches expand discrete events. Beats feel wizened by reverb and filters. This tactility is brought home by the gestures that start and end the set. Dove begins by fading up the initial beat, as if sensing the sound system’s limits and the acoustic contours of the venue. At the end, a rogue loop of effects drenched sound continues, as if the tools took on a life of their own after the human input stopped. Manipulating pre-recorded sounds in real time, Nexcyia bridges the past to the present moment. At Semibreve, this evokes a conflict between competing desires for familiarity and change, consistency and progress.

These sets survey what makes Semibreve so exhilarating this year. It’s my third year attending the festival in the historic mountain town of Braga. And while each year the curators excel at placing artists in unexpected settings, here more than previous years there’s a sense that the acts are pushing the boundaries, expectations and confines of the places they play.

Sometimes, these moments can spiral out from a single gesture. A pluck of cello from Clarice Jensen at the spectacular Bom Jesus church overlooking the city on Thursday evening is the festival’s first sound. That initial note is instantly morphed into something utterly alien to its source, Jensen’s small selection of pedals converting it into a deluge of possibility. Her set doesn’t pay deference to the reverb offered by the church but instead builds a cavern within it. While elements of her playing resemble what could be called neo-classical music, the sheer level of mutation escapes the cello’s limitations and histories to become the sonic equivalent of a magic eye picture. Conjuring the width of a Morton Feldman piece but with far more harmonic movement.

Something similar happens the following day with Porto-based artist Inês Malheiro. Where Jensen turns a traditional instrument into something else, Malheiro turns perhaps the most traditional instrument into something unfamiliar. Her voice has a soulful, jazzy delivery and the fact she’s not afraid to belt adds to the delirium in her vocal and effects pieces. Exaggerated breaths and whispers filter through her machines into a demonic ASMR. Later, a bed of pitch bent babbling loops has her briefly dancing along with her digitally induced glossolalia. Content follows form, her lyrics grapple with the borders between self and social, the set opening with the line “I’m listening to other’s words while I try to write my own”, sung relatively cleanly as effects gradually seep in and take her voice somewhere else. Similar themes keep recurring throughout her set, the balance between euphonious and synthesized mania she conjures making the questions and confusions in her words all the more tangible.

This year sees Semibreve focus on collaborations between sound and visual artists, and it hits an emotionally devastating peak at Teatro Circo with Eiko Ishibashi and film director and screenwriter Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Gift, a sound and visual performance stemming from the latter’s most recent film, Evil Does Not Exist. Following their previous collaboration on Drive My Car, Ishibashi’s music feels more integral here. The film presents – to massively paraphrase its depth and nuance – a small rural community in Japan faced with big business looking to set up a glamping park. More than embellishing the film’s mood at key moments, Ishibashi’s score gives us a perspective through the story. Her music has a playfulness and sweetness at odds with what’s happening on screen, reflecting and amplifying the innocence of the child at the centre of the plot. Sometimes the music changes angle, puddles of Jack DeJohnette style cymbals, electronics and more sinister orchestrations making it clear when less innocent motives are in play. Sound becomes the film’s setting as much as what’s on screen in ways which are heart-breakingly effective.

Eiko Ishibashi and Ryūsuke Hamaguchi

There’s a different, inverted effect in Tujiko Noriko and filmmaker and visual artist Joji Koyama’s set at the same venue the following night. Centered on the songs from Noriko’s 2023 record Cr​é​puscule I & II, Koyama’s black and white films accent the lulling shadows and spooky crevices haunting the music, sound and image shrouding the colourful auditorium in noir hues. The result is equal parts tender and surreal, creating a dreamlike intimacy in the vast space.

One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend comes with Emeralds, Semibreve hosting one of a handful of European shows from the trio of John Elliot, Steve Hauschildt and Mark McGuire, who are returning after more than a decade on hiatus. My favourite Emeralds live experiences first time around tended to be when they were pushing the limits of the PAs at smaller venues, so their billing in the ornate hall of Teatro Circo had me slightly concerned, but it turns out to be masterstroke. The trio’s synth and guitar induced dream states are reinforced by the auditorium’s decadent stuccoes and neo-baroque ceiling, while the immense soundsystem gives their music foundations from which to truly erupt. Accompanied by grainy visuals, it’s a well-balanced comeback most-closely tied to the zones, if not the exact raw materials, of Solar Bridge’s gravity distorting drones and Does it Look Like I’m Here’s shimmering arpeggios. Their cosmic music is allowed to fully unfurl and rise through the building, hitting floor shaking levels of bass and riding sky-facing escape trajectories. The time away seems to have given the trio a greater patience and elegance in their interactions, while warm beds of luminous texture throughout suggest the constant evolution that shaped Emeralds’ music first time around hasn’t been stalled by the break in activity. The slew of reissues that emerged in recent years always seemed slightly at odds with Emeralds, fixing in the archive a project whose greatness was its freewheeling open-endedness. But this show puts those concerns to rest. Nodding to the past, there are also suggestions this could be the beginnings of a next step for a band that never really stood still.

While there’s no shortage of inner-city music festivals in Europe, what makes Semibreve so exciting each year is the way its art installations and music performances integrate into the fabric and character of the city. Finding common ground between club and gallery spaces, on both the architectural and conceptual level it brings you into contact with the structures that surround us, and how they might be poked at and flipped out of convention. More than a festival for what could broadly (and inevitably inadequately) be called experimental art and music, it’s an exploration of the powerful dialogues both can hold with locations and situations.

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