Through the sound barrier
SARAH URWIN JONES
ABERDEEN is famous for many things - oil, granite, oil, maybe helicopters - but contemporary music is not one of them. Asked to pinpoint the locale for a festival in which you can hear a man playing a Celtic war horn one night - the indomitable carnyx - and the Black Lips strutting their Southern punk stuff the next, a cutting-edge chamber ensemble in one hall and a man 'playing' a laptop in another, it's pretty safe to say you wouldn't pick Aberdeen. This, after all, is the city where orchestras touring from the central belt traditionally remove the 'contemporary' item from their programmes in favour of a 'safe' bit of Mozart.
But in the words of Kevin Costner, "if you build it, they will come," and right on cue, Aberdeen's contemporary music-curious audiences have been sidling out from their granite townhouses to their very own musical field of dreams, the sound Festival.
Set up in 2004 as a four-day pilot, the brainchild of Mark Hope and Pete Stollery, two contemporary music nuts from Woodend Barn - the local arts centre run by the Woodend Arts Association in Banchory - and run part-time from home by director Fiona Robertson, Scotland's only dedicated contemporary music festival is flourishing.
"People have been surprisingly easy to convince, right from the start. We had James MacMillan up in 2005 doing a mad day workshop, and we co-commissioned Sally Beamish," says Robertson, who saw the festival expand to a month-long fiesta in its second year. Even the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov will make an appearance. "Contemporary music is so difficult to get played, generally, that people are keen to have a new place to do it in. We're starting to get audiences not just from Aberdeen but all over. We even had a man who'd come especially from Australia. We'd been chuffed when we saw one girl had come up for a week from Dorset, but Australia really took us by surprise."
Ask someone on the street what contemporary music is, and you'll probably get a range of answers from 'popular beat combos' for hyperactive toddlers, to a bunch of intellectuals sitting in a room listening to a man scratching his fingernails down a blackboard for six hours. But neither sound, nor contemporary music, is about pain or stereotype. Even Morton Feldman, the American contemporary composer whose compositions frequently lasted longer than the World Cup snooker final, was perfectly happy for his audiences to drift in and out during performances - the door, that is, not consciousness. The best contemporary music is, after all, about doing something new, creative and innovative.
"When we started, in 2004, it was mostly about electro acoustic and contemporary classical music, but we wanted to widen it out to bring in interesting music like Damon and Naomi, the Black Lips and Marcia Blaine School For Girls, for instance," says Robertson, referring latterly to the Glasgow-based electronic music trio who will play alongside Black Affair and Erstlaub.
"We're basically interested in anything contemporary, new or innovative, whatever the genre, so we give audiences a chance to 'cross over'. They may not like it, but at least they're taking the risk."
Some might say it's too wide-ranging, given the Aberdeenshire demographic, but Robertson thinks the opposite. "The way the festival is created is very organic, inviting guests, but also approaching local music groups or visiting orchestras and asking them to put on a piece of contemporary music in their programme in November. We're not trying to be your average contemporary or new music festival, we're not Triptych, we're not Huddersfield," she says. "Let's face it, Huddersfield isn't run part-time from home by a woman with a baby. We just have a lot of volunteers and very big mobile phone bills. We're trying to do something a bit different. Our next step is to make clusters out of some of the concerts, so there's more to see in any one week."
Mr McFall's Chamber, the innovative Edinburgh-based chamber group moonlighting from the ranks of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, among others, played their first sound Festival concert last Wednesday. Mr McFall's, who have a strong following in the central belt, are less well known in Aberdeen, but founder Robert McFall is optimistic about the future. "There seems to be a lot beginning to happen, musically. The festival is terrific. They've got a wonderfully equipped, vibrant music faculty at Aberdeen University, and I think a lot of things are spinning off from there." Indeed, the Aberdeen Music Prize, set up in 2005 and unique in the world in awarding prizes to the composers of the future, will, next year, move its September judging to November to coincide with sound.
Mr McFall's contribution was the first in a series of concerts organised by Bows Arts for the centenary of Grieg's death, inspired by an unfinished piano quintet by Grieg, which was then worked into a new piece soaked in contemporary Norwegian folk by Aberdeen-born composer James Clapperton, before rounding things off with a "trance-like" gamelan-inspired live electronics string piece by Thomas Stronen. "It's a bit like Steve Reich or Philip Glass," says McFall.
Steve Reich is also the inspiration for the very different Marcia Blaine School For Girls, the Glasgow trio named after the fictional school in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie - Dave Donnelly, Bryan Kerr and Ruaridh Law - who run the Numbers club night in Glasgow, a mix of electronica and DJing. The band was formed while Kerr and Law were at Park Mains High School in Erskine, with Donnelly joining when the three met at Glasgow University. "We all studied music from a young age, and were exposed to classical and modern classical music, so we knew about Reich and Philip Glass. We were also discovering electronic music, so we decided to stick them together."
Marcia Blaine released their first album in January, Half Way Into The Woods. "We were thinking about calling it "Twelve years and this is all we've got to show for it," says Donnelly, on a tea break during a rehearsal for their Sound Festival gig. "We've been battling away for quite a while now. We were rubbish for five or six years, and that's not false modesty," he jokes. The band aim to make every gig different, and Aberdeen will be an audio-visual experience, constructed with the help of a friend from Numbers, the evocatively named Retina Glitch.
"It's our kind of festival really, more relaxed than something so time-limited as Connect. We're also going to improvise the first 20 or 25 minutes, which is a first for us," says Donnelly, chiming nicely with the innovative agenda of sound. "We're writing individually right now, it'll be a total surprise. We're interested in doing something more spontaneous, looking towards our second album, which may be one continuous piece."
Very much like their peers in the contemporary classical world, Marcia Blaine know they have a niche market - so much so that they've all got day jobs too. Donnelly works for Glasgow council, Law is a manager at a food conglomerate, and London-based Kerr is a dentist. "He made the best choice. But these are just jobs to keep us playing music," he explains. But it's not all rock'n'roll in their spare time. "Marcia Blaine doesn't go out and drink 20 pints of beer and dance 'til you're sick, it's more chilled out than that. If we're DJing, we're a bit more hedonistic, but it's all very well being rock'n'roll - you've still got to be able to play."
Their worst gig was at Club 69 in Paisley. "A girl got on to our equipment and time-stretched her voice, droning 'gonnae-bring-the-fast-bit-back' over 20 seconds during a little ambient interlude. Some people don't get that we're not techno."
Their ideal gig is a sit-down concert, something they rarely get in Glasgow clubland. "The perfect gig would be much like the set-up in Aberdeen, where we can extract everything from our gigantic egos and let everyone hear it," Donnelly grins, then adds, "With Steve Reich on support."
copyright Sarah Urwin Jones - published in Scotland on Sunday
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