BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre) is a group of composers, performers, and academics based at the University of Birmingham, and BEAST FEaST is their second big public event in 2015, following on from January’s Pantry Sessions collaboration with SOUNDKitchen. Comprising three days of performances, talks, and installations, the festival made use of both the BEASTdome sound system and a specially installed multichannel array in the larger Elgar Music Hall, both in the university’s Bramall Music Building.
The first comment should really go to the installations, both of which were of very high quality. Peter Batchelor and Ian Bilson’s “Beyond” consisted of two dome-like structures, one indoors and one outside on the university lawns, both housing a multitude of small speakers. The sounds emitted by the speakers were the standard acoustic ecology fare of birdcalls, rain, running water, etc., but the convincingness of the multichannel acoustic illusion was nothing short of astonishing: sat in the outdoor dome, listening to the sound of heavy rainfall, I felt surprised not to sense the splatter of raindrops on my head. David Prior’s “Already 289ms Away” reproduced the sound of the university’s iconic clocktower Old Joe, which stood just outside the venue; virtually synchronous at midday, the sounds of Prior’s speakers became increasingly out-of-sync with the clocktower as the hours progress, representing the delay heard at incrementally greater distances away.
Several of the stand-out performances across the weekend also made use of recordings made ‘in the field’, away from the studios and rehearsal rooms of traditional music practice. Iain Armstrong’s “Annapurna Pastoral — One Hundred Springs” wove together sounds of Nepalese culture and landscape to form an immersive feeling of a world, one given added poignancy by the recent tragic events in the region where the recordings were made. Ângela da Ponte’s “Homenagem Subconsciente” used sounds from a religious festival in the composer’s homeland of the Azores, giving listeners time to linger on each ‘scene’ before being swept up once again by the procession. Diogo Alvim’s “Travelogue #1” was also successful in conveying different scenes and the journeys between them, moving between exterior and interior at an absorbing pace.
Annie Mahtani’s “Inversions” developed out of a soundtrack written for Néle Azvendo’s compelling “Minimum Monument” collection of ice sculptures, and effectively conveyed the brittleness and precariousness of ice through glassy timbres, crackling rhythms, and quiet drips. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, I also appreciated the warm tones of Enda Bates’ “Mood Spiral”, a refreshing change from the harshness and starkness of many of the pieces heard over the weekend.
The festival featured three pieces from Manuella Blackburn, and the works shared an openness and approachability that made them stand out. Blackburn’s willingness to deploy traditional musical devices such as repetition, tonality, and even snippets of melody, and to allow her acoustic sound sources to sound clearly and identifiably, softened the intensity of the multichannel array somewhat, making for a more engaging and (to my ears) enjoyable music. The use of such techniques gave me the impression that the composer was thinking hard about the experience of listeners and cared whether they listened or not. Fans of artists such as Sébastien Roux and Helena Gough are advised to seek out Blackburn’s work.
One tendency I experienced in most of the music I heard across the weekend could perhaps be described as a ‘shock and awe’ effect. The routine deployment of shuddering sub-bass, piercing high frequencies, and rapid spatial and timbral transitions produced an aesthetic that felt to me to be somewhat Wagnerian, the circle of speakers transformed into a horde of Valkyries bearing down on the cowering audience. The aim of such an aesthetic would seem to be the total domination of time and space, an absolute control of sonic events and hence over a listening experience conceived as pure, isolated, and decontextualised. It is unclear to me how much of this perceived effect was simply an artefact produced by a particularly hefty sound system, inaudible to ears conditioned by the daily practice of working with such systems, and how much it is a conscious intention of the composer and performer. It also seemed present in the work of different composers to differing degrees. Nonetheless, I frequently felt subjected to an experience rather than a participant in one, and this somewhat marred my enjoyment of the music.
How nice, then, to hear live networked coding from BEER (Birmingham Ensemble for Electroacoustic Research — keep the excellent acronyms coming guys), Julian Rohrhuber, and the group of Rohrhuber, David Ogborn, Ian Jarvis, Scott Wilson, and Norah Lorway. Drawing in part from traditions of free improvisation, these groups’ performance strategies (which can be boiled down to simply playing together with others) involved disciplines of listening to others, relinquishing control, and making space for the contributions of others in real time. The resulting music drew me in rather than coming to get me, allowing me to dwell in and with each sound and appreciate how it changed its shape as different performers in turn made their move or held back, listening all the while as I did. If this is the shape of BEAST events to come, then count me in.
Image: Peter Batchelor and Ian Bilson’s “Beyond”