Review: The Scotsman, 26 October 2020

Sound festival reviews: Grey Area | Le Sirenuse | Covid-19 Sound Map | Exaudi | Ben Goldscheider

It may have been forced online by Covid-19, but Aberdeen's sound festival is as eclectic as ever, writes David Kettle

Even in former times, with live performers and a live audience all in the same room (remember that?), Aberdeen’s sound festival of contemporary music prided itself on the breadth of its offerings. This year, for obvious reasons, sound has gone online, and it’s spread across two weekends – one just gone, the other to come in January. If anything, it feels more eclectic than ever. Okay, there were a few minor technical issues with some of the streams. But that aside, its opening October weekend was generously stuffed full of fascinating things, and you couldn’t have hoped for a wider casting of its net.

Just take Grey Area (*****), for example - a film-with-music about skateboarding, directed and scored by Irish composer (and skater) Sam Perkin, and played with panache by his compatriots in the crack Crash Ensemble. It’s a thing of mesmerising beauty, a thoughtful unfolding of a skater’s exploratory journey through Dublin synchronised beautifully against Perkin’s sumptuous, sometimes Reich- or Bryars-like music, interrupted occasionally by frenzied activity from showy skate manoeuvres accompanied by vicious clattering percussion. Grey Area makes for ideal online viewing, but it transports you, too, back into an older world of greater freedoms: it’s inevitably rather sombre to experience now, but quietly transcendental in its own entrancing way.

Or take Le Sirenuse (***), another film with music, this time by sonic and visual artist Carrie Fertig, which focuses on a bewitching array of specially made glass instruments – fragile bells, for instance, or sturdy goblets, or ridged tubes filled with iron filings. The instruments are the stars of the show, but what Fertig does with them feels rather more like a demonstration of their sonic and sculptural possibilities rather than anything compellingly musical: an ambitious project, certainly, but one whose end result didn’t quite match its potential.

The festival’s offerings felt most powerful, perhaps inevitably, when they tackled the challenges of the pandemic head on. Festival Chair Pete Stollery (an effortless presenter of the online relays throughout) gave an illuminating talk about his own, Google Earth-based Covid-19 Sound Map (****), in which he crowd-sourced the sounds (and absences of sound) encountered across the world since March’s lockdown. It was as revelatory as it was melancholy.

Ace choir Exaudi (*****) – pared down to two singers plus founder/director James Weeks on piano – offered a hugely moving recital, relayed live from Aberdeen’s Arts Centre, based around ideas of loneliness, isolation and connection, from the on- and off-stage antiphonies of Cage’s Ear for EAR to the soft yet intense focus of Lisa Robertson’s winding Almost, ending with the quiet resilience of Rodney Lister’s Robert Frost setting Devotion, embodying the strengths of patience and resolve.

The festival has been celebrating ‘endangered’ instruments for a few years now, and while there might not be too much danger of the horn being overlooked or forgotten, exceptional young performer Ben Goldscheider placed it firmly centre stage in two recitals. An evening concert with pianist Huw Watkins (****) made a strong case for the horn as a jazz instrument, but Goldscheider’s earlier lunchtime concert (*****) pitted his remarkably focused, lyrical playing against live electronics from Stollery to magical effect. (It was all the more magical, in fact, because of its long-distance collaboration: Goldscheider had recorded his part alone in London, then emailed it to Stollery, who added the electronics separately.) The standout work among a concert of surprises was the 1978 Fantasie for horns II by Canadian Hildegard Westerkamp, which contrasted a live Goldscheider on orchestral horn against more prosaic signal horns recorded across the world – train horns, foghorns, factory horns, boat horns, even alphorns. It was a beautiful, deeply melancholy piece, brought wonderfully alive in Goldscheider’s supple, subtle performance, as though a refined concert instrument were calling for connection with its more functional siblings. In that and Exaudi’s extraordinary recital, the sound festival provided exactly the music you didn’t know you needed in our challenging current times, but which you really did.

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