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27 October - 28 November 2007
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The Herald
5 September 2007

A northern network in sweet harmony

WITH the launch this week of the third sound festival of contemporary music, featuring 67 concerts in 26 venues across the north- east of Scotland in late October and throughout November, it might appear that Scotland's youngest festival is coming of age.

After all, there will be top-drawer flagship concerts starring percussionist Evelyn Glennie and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; most of Scotland's leading chamber groups, including the Hebrides Ensemble, Mr McFall's Chamber and the Edinburgh Quartet will be in residence; and there will be a series of world premiere performances, including new works by composers as diverse as James Dillon, John Kenny, James Clapperton, Thomas Stronen, Fred Frith, David Ward and Pete Stollery, alongside a stream of extant works by Judith Weir, Lyell Cresswell, Kenneth Leighton and others.

But look beyond the list of names and you will discover the curious nature of the animal that is the sound festival. It's almost a chimera. There's hardly anybody there. There is no festival director, no team of programmers, no pyramid structure, no thematic programming, little discernible core, a tiny budget and little deliberate editorial control over exactly what is happening where. So what exactly is this species?

The festival, a modest, unpretentious and economical affair, was not created as a shop window for the great and the good of modern music. Nor was it devised as a platform from which to make any grand political point about the performance of modern music. "In fact, the original idea was not necessarily to put on a formal festival, but just to encourage people to play contemporary music," says Fiona Robertson, coordinator of sound.

Even so, she and her like- minded colleagues encountered the usual wall of scepticism: there's no audience for it. Nobody's interested. There's no regular practice or concert-going habit with contemporary music in Aberdeen.

Fair enough, though one should point out that Aberdeen was never a wasteland, having hosted in the early 1970s performances by Steve Reich's Musicians with his then new epic piece Drumming, a performance of Stockhausen's Stimmung by the Collegium Vocale of Cologne, for whom it was written, and an explosive appearance by Peter Maxwell Davies and his supergroup The Fires of London in a performance of one of his seminal (and shocking) music theatre pieces - Vesalii Icones, as I recall.

But by and large, the north-east of Scotland could hardly have been regarded as fertile ground for a sustained festival of contemporary music. So what did the enterprising creators of the sound festival do? They came up with the novel idea of establishing a network throughout their geographical area. The north-east was already, like most regional areas in Scotland, a hive of musical activity revolving around music clubs and societies which, on a monthly basis, entreated professional groups and musicians, sometimes pretty big names, to include visits to the clubs as part of their own touring circuit. Add in local promoters of all hues - jazz, rock, electro-acoustic and other mediums - plus academic institutions such as schools, colleges and Aberdeen University, all of which have their own performance programmes, and the area is buzzing.

If, however, the institutions, clubs and societies could be persuaded to encourage their visiting artists to include contemporary music in their programmes then, across the area, an integrity could begin to form and a contemporary strand begin to emerge. From the successful implementation of this philosophy, the sound festival developed.

From the very start of the first festival, what was desirable became mandatory. Only if performers would include a piece of modern music in their programme would that event become part of the festival.

Everybody - absolutely everybody - came on board. Music societies in Aberdeen, Aboyne, Strathdee, Banchory, Upper Deeside, Newton Dee Community, Monymusk and Inverurie joined the network. The university and other institutions formulated their own programmes. Promoters and venues including the Lemon Tree, Peacock Visual Arts and Interesting Music Promotions piled in. The network was established and the festival was off and running, with a raft of concerts and an integral programme of talks, workshops, masterclasses and educational projects.

Audiences turned out and it was a success. Last year a second festival, on a smaller scale and featuring more chamber music, appeared to establish the venture in the north-east. "There's now a sense that it's linking city and shire (which was a sensitive political issue) and is becoming part of the Aberdeenshire landscape. It's got a good feel about it," says Fiona Robertson.

And the network principle, she adds, is the "bedrock" of the festival. That still creates a few problems. "A lot of people just don't understand how we work. It's a strange festival. We don't control everything. The partners in the network organise their own concerts. We don't pay for them. We don't organise or control what they do."

It's a bit like a commune, where members each make their own distinctive contributions to the community, preserving individuality while establishing a bigger identity. (It's not a free-for-all. sound organisers have a veto over anything that might be deemed irrelevant or inappropriate.) And it's all done on a shoestring. The budget is around £108,000, of which about £80,000 is allocated to events that sound pays for directly. Funding comes from the city and shire, the arts council, sponsorship and trusts. All of it is on a year by year basis.

That fact alone would undermine the stability of many organisations and their need to plan ahead. Critically, it's not such an issue for the organisers of sound. "The way it has developed, it's a sustainable model," says Robertson. "If the funding drops, we could still manage to do a festival, because the network partners would be putting on their own programmes anyway. It could be two weeks, not four. It's a flexible model, too."

There are no signs of shrinkage, however. "In fact, it's now clear that we're going to have to sit down and think much harder about next year's festival, and the one after that. It's becoming better known and there's now a huge number of musicians who want to come."

And the traditional scepticism about modern music, she senses, is weakening as she and her colleagues watch the slow development of a "crossover audience" which is beginning to accept and attend concerts with unfamiliar contemporary music in the programmes. "There was always a resistance to bringing contemporary music to Aberdeen. We were told we wouldn't get an audience. We've slightly proved all that wrong."


Reproduced with the permission of The Herald, Glasgow © 2007 Herald & Times Group



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