Pantry Sessions

BEASTdome at University of Birmingham, domed roof with speaker array

January 2015

For two nights in January, the Dome rehearsal room at the University of Birmingham’s Bramhall Music Building played host to Pantry Sessions, a new series of events organised by SOUNDKitchen and Birmingham Electro-Acoustic Music Theatre (BEAST). A total of seven acts performed, with each taking advantage of the venue’s world-class 30-channel sound system, the BEASTdome.

The first night opened with Manfredi Clemente’s concise set in which recorded acoustic and electronic sound sources were mangled, shattered, and spread out around the room in a manner that struck me as vaguely INA-GRMish, in a pleasing way. In Samuel Rodgers’ and Kostis Kilymis’ performance on live piano, field recordings and electronics, a fine balance was struck between an intense presentness and awareness on the one hand, and an impression of contingency and generality — of the world at large — on the other. The challenge with such an approach is always the temptation to play too much, of taming the sounds into figures and thereby distancing them too much from the general hubbub of things, but both players showed the ability to listen and respond in just the right measure.

Eliot Bates’ performance with oud and loops was an impressive feat of musicianship, though the faithful recreation of a live band sound ended up sounding a little flat and lacking in energy compared with a real live band. Thor Magnusson rounded off the evening with an engaging performance using his Threnoscope, an audiovisual compositional system which in this instance acted as a live coding environment, with an elegant visual interface representing the various elements of the music as they were created and manipulated on the fly. Magnusson’s ambient, gently undulating music was absorbing enough to stand on its own and not merely as a by-product of a tech demo, and the introduction of sampled piano, in a nod to Rodgers and Kilymis’ earlier performance, lent a nice sense of cohesion to the evening as a whole.

On the second night I sat close to the central ‘sweet spot’ of the surround sound system, and it made a huge difference to the convincingness of the effect. The brief, rapid succession of bell chimes with which Ângela Da Ponte opened her performance was extraordinarily effective in creating an acoustic and imaginative illusion of mediæval religious architecture; the variety of sounds, both ‘indigenous’ (chants, chimes) and ‘extraneous’ (electronic tones and pulses), with which composer then filled this space all seemed like they belonged there. At points during Wet Ink Ensemble’s performance, the three musicians seemed to pause and listen, for example to the tinkling sonic rain that fell from the top of the dome onto their thick violin and piano drone; if they had spent the whole set in this frame of mind then I probably would’ve liked it more, but this was a case of different strokes for different folks I think.

Chris Herbert and Nicholas Bullen rounded off the Pantry Sessions by reviving their collaboration that was first heard at SOUNDkitchen in November. On the BEASTdome multi-channel system the music seemed a little less weighty, but much clearer and timbrally richer; subtle degrees of ambient discord created a hazy yet uneasy tension. It was a fine close to an event that managed to get everything right: just the kind of imaginative, immersive music the BEASTdome was created for. More please!

Photo: The BEASTdome at Bramhall Music Building, University of Birmingham

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