Temporal Slips & The Erosion Of Time: Semibreve 2019 Reviewed

Time is of the essence at the wonderful Semibreve festival in Braga Portugal finds Aimee Armstrong

All photographs courtesy of Adriano Ferreira Borges/ Semibreve 2019

Something’s happening in Braga. Morton Subotnick is blowing and sputtering – microphone-in-mouth. This peculiar performance is taking place in Theatro Circo, a traditional venue rich in history, inaugurated in the early 20th century and restored in 2006. Subotnik’s sounds are backed by his own riveting and timeless composition, soundscapes of wasp-like menace. This was the first performance of electronic music festival Semibreve 2019, a collaboration between the now 87-year-old American electronic music pioneer Subotnick, and visual artist Lillevan.

The surround sound system makes the performance fittingly immersive, and Lillevan’s visual counterpart falls somewhere between Kubrick’s Star Gate, Stanley Brackridge and the Doctor Who video feedback time vortex. He performs his latest piece, I Live and Breathe from his much-heralded 1967 essential work Silver Apples Of The Moon. The whole thing is almost Gallifreyan in the sense that technology and nature are colliding to create something transcendent. The threat of the hornets and the wasps seems to collide with a mechanical coldness.

Midway through the performance, an audience member begins yelling things like: "We need to save the environment", and, "With only telephones communication will be dead" in Portuguese. For a while, it is unclear whether this is part of the show or an unscheduled addition to the immersive ambience. It turns out to be the latter, but in many ways, it adds uncountably to the show. Paired with the unnerving sound of Subotnik’s squelching raspberries, it encapsulates the kind of sinister unpredictably we find in nature, existence and by extent the festival itself.

This is a common theme at Semibreve – collisions of the old and the new, such as the city’s religious past meeting electronic music’s forecast future. Sound art duo Deaf Centre’s performance takes place in Capela Imaculada do Menor, a glorious church that seems to house a stand-in wooden makeshift chapel. Initially, I am taken aback. It is the first time I have been in a church since my Nan died just over a year ago, and that mournful feeling is recontextualized by Deaf Centre’s performance. The set up is a guitar strung with violin strings, and a grand piano with various delay pedals attached. Liz Harris’ live shows would be an obvious reference point for the kind of music they played.

The performance in visuals is rightfully unremarkable, it allows the air of sadness to grip the old building. Instead of looking at the musicians, one is compelled to stare around at the bold Christian iconography. Roman-Catholic aesthetics are quite pervasive in Braga’s centre, and especially so in the venues in which the festival takes place. Suzanne Ciani gives a talk in the garden of Museu Nogueira da Silva, which homes a host of gorgeous religious art. In the background from somewhere else in the city, the ghostly sound of Coldplay’s hit ‘Viva La Vida’ can be heard faintly and screwed in the background, as if in some hauntological nightmare.

A bulk of the performances take place in the aforementioned Theatro Circo, a grand old place where you’d expect to see Toska or Swan Lake. In a way, this is perfect for Drew Mcdowall’s performance of Coil’s Time Machines. It’s a record that Jhonn Balance claimed was an attempt to cause temporal slips; this rendition does justice to that statement, the drones are eloquent and lucid as too is the imagery by Florence To.

The grandeur of the setting for this and many other performances at this venue across the weekend is at times overwhelming. The high ceiling, spacious echo, the surround sound all beckon a profound sense of magnitude. Alessandro Cortini plays here and probably gives the most immediate set of the festival. Earlier I interviewed him and he spoke about his discomfort with a kind of war on memorable melody. His set sees him play Volume Massimo, unsurprisingly his loudest and boldest project to date, which fits with visuals that are both quaint, dramatic and haunting much like Theatro Circo itself.

Gnration, the venue in which the later evening performances take place, differ vastly from the norm at Semibreve, as does the music which is played here. It’s a kind of hyper-modern university-type building, scattered with beautiful installations. Electric sets from Nik Void, Avalon Emerson and Rian Treanor take place as well as a festival highlight from Kode9 which incorporate elements of jungle, post-dubstep, UK hip hop and a stellar remix of ‘Muhamdi Ali’ by Lady Lex – everything you’d expect from him really.

These late-night moments are a welcome change of pace from a festival that – not to its detriment – is a largely tranquil experience. Félicia Atkinson is a prime example, her set is gorgeous, serene and meditative bringing a slew of emotions along with it. Coming on the last day too, it may be one of the first chances to hear a human voice across the whole weekend.

Robin Rimbaud’s antics of musical deviance as Scanner have over time earned him the title of "sonic terrorist", an accolade he rejects for being "too aggressive". But there certainly is something morally dubious about his approach, as he’s been known to use software to translate radio stations and even private phone calls into art that willingly fucks with the listener’s head. But in a time where the luring figure of big brother seems at its most present an artist like this couldn’t be more important. This is in part, why he is probably one of the best performers of the weekend.

He gives a talk at the beginning of the weekend about recordings he’s made on a Walkman, only to be digitised and archived. He’s a sonic collector, and contrasts the mundane with the extraordinary. His performance later on Sunday, is full with voice clippings that I cannot not decipher. It bristles with off-kilter vibrancy created by a synthesizer that, by some word of mouth accounts, he is unfamiliar with. It doesn’t show.

The visual counterpart is made by Miguel C. Tavares and who was one of two collaborations instigated by Semibreve this year (the other being Oren Ambarchi & Robert AA Lowe). The visuals are some of the best I’ve seen in this kind of A/V show; there are some stellar drone shots filtered blood red, prying upon the naturalistic themes of Morton Subotnick’s set.

The most striking aspect is the way in which the images interact with Scanners’ body. His attire for a start – he appears to be wearing leather trousers but for large parts of his set, the lighting makes it look as if he has committed the sin of cargo shorts. He moves subtly, to aptly subtle beats. This tentative movement is rhythmic in and of itself, creating the closest Theatro Circo has come to dance music all weekend, until Suzanne Ciani.

Ciani’s music has become similarly beat-like but begins with the whooshing ambiance of something like a seastorm. She is the perfect closer. I had heard that she had visuals planned to go with her set, but instead, we just see an over the shoulder shot of her and her modular synth. This comes

off brilliantly. It is the minimal nature of the bulk of the music at Semibreve that makes small moments like this stand out gracefully. A place for both, abstract nostalgia and pondering our future at one of the most singular music festivals Europe has to offer.

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