BEAST – Emergence / Envision

Freida Abtan - the hands of the dancer, video still of a crouched dancer, manipulated and distorted, against a black background

Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre’s autumn season featured two concerts titled ‘Emergence’ and ‘Envision’, involving guest artists as well as performers associated with the group and with the University of Birmingham’s Electroacoustic Music Studios. The first concert featured Denis Smalley’s performance of three movements from his ‘Fabrezan Preludes’, which was partly inspired by the harmonies of Debussy’s ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (‘The submerged cathedral’). Gleaming shimmers against a deep, dark background created an immersive underwater world; later, howling gales and a terrific hailstorm evoked the fierce winds that frequently batter the area of France around Fabrezan where the work was mainly composed, as the drowned cathedral emerged from the deep.

Christopher Haworth’s ‘a<<<>>>b’ brought a pleasing blankness to proceedings with subtly modulated flat white noise created by the feedback between his laptop’s internal speakers and microphone. The two sections were nicely balanced and contrasting, and Old Joe (the university’s clocktower) chimed in just as the piece was ending with some serendipitous live accompaniment. Emma Margetson’s ‘Cimbaal’ was an intriguing take on a staple electroacoustic sound source, namely cymbals: her sharp, dynamic tones rarely sounded like their source instruments at all, yet they had a similarly broad pitch spectrum and nice ringing bite.

 

 

The focus of the second concert, ‘Envision’, was on works that combined audio and visual elements in some way. Jean Piché’s pioneering ‘eXpress’ felt like so much more than simply a music video or a soundtracked film: the video, like the music, had multiple different layers, and changed at different rates in a similar way to the shifting spectral character of the audio, with some layers remaining the same for a long time and others switching rapidly. Luigi Marino’s laptop improvisation was nicely paced and varied, with a thrumming tonal section contrasting well with two sections of controlled hiss and buzz.

Freida Abtan’s two pieces both involved footage of moving human figures that were heavily manipulated and distorted in various ways, melting into glowing molten liquid or vanishing to leave only an outline behind. The artist told me afterwards that she used to be a figurative painter, and the influence of this background on her current dreamlike work made perfect sense. I was left wondering if this work somehow prefigures how technologies will transform how we understand our bodies, in the same way that Cubist and Surrealist experiments in the early 20th century pre-empted the enormous changes in our understanding of bodies that have occurred since then.

Nikki Sheth’s audio for ‘Oneirology I’, her collaboration with generative artist and designer John Lucy, featured an unusual and striking mix of jazz sax, field recordings, and electronic ambience. Lucy’s visuals suggested different conceptualisations of what could be sound, from nodes in a network, to radiating concentric circles, to surging waves, yet I failed to detect much in the way of correspondences between the audio and visual components of this piece. Tsun Winston Yeung’s ‘nootherthanthevoid’ got off to a slow start, but the composer and improviser was soon producing some of the dirtiest, grungiest sounds I’ve ever heard coming out of the BEAST sound system, using force and muscle sensors to control an increasingly brutal stream of noise; in short, it was great.

The idea of themed concerts to introduce people to BEAST’s wonderful and eclectic sound worlds is a good one, and the audio-visual mashup one worked particularly well (and was blissfully free of beat-heavy music videos to boot). More please!

Image: Still from ‘the hands of the dancer’ by Freida Abtan

Denis Smalley

Christopher Howarth

Emma Margetson

Jean Piché

Luigi Marino

Freida Abtan

Nikki Sheth

Tsun Winston Yeung

BEAST

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