north east scotland's festival of new music

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Music preview: The Sound Festival, Aberdeen

Written by Susan Nickalls, Scotland On Sunday

Reproduced by kind permission of the author

article | Scotland On Sunday


AS THE Minimal festival at Glasgow's Concert Halls winds up this weekend, the minimalist baton passes to Aberdeenshire's Sound Festival, which kicks off its three-week jamboree of contemporary music on Wednesday with Less Is More, a five-day feast of minimalist-inspired performances.

Both festivals have generated a huge buzz amongst aficionados as some of the best musicians in the business head north to play music by genre greats such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams, John Cage and Michael Nyman.

Minimal closes today with concerts featuring music by Reich and Glass, with the latter's family sci-fi adventure Icarus At The Edge Of Time narrated by actor Billy Boyd. There's plenty more Reich and Glass to be heard in the north-east this week, though, including the Smith Quartet's performance of Glass' Complete String Quartets and Scottish virtuoso Colin Currie leading his group of percussionists in Reich's iconic work Drumming.

Sound co-founder Pete Stollery points out that although the minimalist movement is now 50 years old, it is increasingly being used as an access point into new music.

"The vast majority of this type of music is tonal and its focus on minute changes in a piece demands a different way of listening than to pop music or Mozart or Haydn," he says. "People now know a lot more about the big names like Glass through the symphonies he did with David Bowie and Brian Eno and his music for films."

Although Stollery describes the Sound Festival as "just the right Goldilocks size", within a short space of time it has become a magnet for enthusiasts and big names. One of the rising stars is Graham Fitkin, performing in Scotland for the first time with his new band the Graham Fitkin Ensemble for ECAT in Edinburgh on Wednesday night and in Aberdeen the following night.

Barely a year old, the nine-piece band, which has Fitkin on piano, boasts a stellar line-up of musicians: percussionists Aidy Spillett and Joby Burgess (both of whom also play in Currie's group), trumpeter Noel Langley, saxophonists Simon Haram and Nick Moss, harpist Ruth Wall, guitarist Alan Thomas and John Lunn on bass.

When I caught up with Fitkin earlier in the week he was in Dartington in the middle of a three-day rehearsal of his pieces, some of which were barely ink-dried.

"A few of them were just finished off this morning whereas others are over six months old but none of this music has been played in Scotland before. I started the band last year in a slightly experimental way not knowing if it would work but it just clicked immediately and the whole thing has worked really well. For me personally it's the most exciting thing I've been involved in. I'm so excited I can't stop smiling."

Fitkin's music, a high-octane blend of rock, pop and jazz, has been described as minimal and post-minimal but the composer himself is reluctant to define his latest work too rigidly.

"It's complex, upfront, dynamic music with a hint of gypsy folk about it. There's so much going on as the music chops and changes from one place to another with lots of grooves and repetitive procedures involved. It has a slight primitive or bawdy quality, like the sounds of medieval sackbuts and shawms, but is very in your face and lively."

As well as appearing with his own band, Fitkin will also perform in Portsoy with his partner and band member, harpist Ruth Wall. The programme includes his own work alongside that of Reich and Cage juxtaposed with music from the Robert ap Huw Manuscript.

While he is in the north-east, Fitkin is looking forward to hearing many minimalist classics again as he believes the genre has much to teach everyone. "The techniques are now becoming more widely used so it's good for people who use these in popular and commercial music to go back to where it started from and hear things from the 1960s and 70s."

The Sound Festival begins on Wednesday with the Red Note Ensemble's world premiere of Gabriel Jackson's new work for strings, Doonies Hill Antiphon, inspired by the RAF radar station which helped guard against attacks on the east coast of Scotland during the Battle of Britain. As a composer better known for his prolific choral output, Jackson believes strings are the closest instruments to the human voice, describing his new work as a "secular votive antiphon" that contains "folk-fiddling filigree and ecstatic polyphony".

Jackson's richly layered music is anything but minimal, but for budding amateur musicians keen for a more hands-on experience of the genre, there's a chance to play Terry Riley's minimalist classic In C in a special one-day workshop next Sunday followed by a performance as part of a NYOS Futures double bill of Reich's Eight Lines, both conducted by William Conway.

This article has been reproduced by kind permission of the author.