Sonica 2015

Order & After, Jompet Kuswidananto - red flags flying in the mist

Sonica is a biennial arts festival in the city of Glasgow, focusing on new art with both sonic and visual components. This remit covers everything from installations combining sound and sculpture, through audio-visual performances and screenings, to music composed and performed in response to particular visual or architectural stimuli. As well as breaking down conventional boundaries between artforms, the festival also frequently integrates innovative digital and analogue technologies in order to express ideas or facilitate interactivity. For the 2015 edition, a large number of performances, installations, and events took place over two weekends in late October and early November.

In addition to theatres and gallery spaces, interesting use was made of several unconventional venues such as Govanhill Baths, a former council swimming baths now run by a community group. There, Robbie Thomson presented an installation of rusted metal kinetic sculptures that whirred, clanked and whistled with the uncanniness of industrial machines abandoned to decay, though the persistent ugly clanging sound in the pool room’s huge ventilation pipes sounded incongruous and hid the subtler sonic details of the installation. For Jompet Kuswidananto’s ‘Order and After’ another empty pool was filled with mist, through which three red flags were just about visible, flapping in the breeze from a wind machine. An audio track played a capella songs composed using texts related to the recent political history of Indonesia: a torturer’s remorse, an account of a violent protest, and a president’s apology for past state crimes. Affective and haunting, the work was given extra pathos by the dense mist and the periodic lowering and raising of the flags.

Of Kathy Hinde’s two installations, ‘Submerge’ was my favourite: a map of the Glasgow area showing all the different streams or burns that run through and under the city, with a novel pen interface that allowed people to play back recordings of different burns by tracing their course, and activate different filters related to water properties such as pH, mineral content, etc. It was essentially a way of live mixing field recordings, but the interface served to visually and tactilely underscore the nature of the sounds: the contact medium for the pen wasn’t the standard glass, but rather a shallow layer of water (the table-based installation thus being a ‘water table’ — geddit?). I could have mixed those waters for hours. ‘Onion Skin’ by Olivier Ratsi (Antivj) was a technically impressive piece of abstract audiovisual wizardry, but for all its perceptual illusions and retro video game imagery it ultimately didn’t move me.

The performance receiving the biggest cheer from the audience was perhaps Myriam Bleau’s ‘Soft Revolvers’, and it was well deserved. I caught an early version of this piece in Birmingham last year and liked it, but in Glasgow everything was slicker, more seamless, and more fun. Bleau brings an engaging showmanship to her performances that carries the audience along with her, and the torrent of beats, drops, scratches, and time-stretches controlled via her four vinyl-like spinning tops shows that she doesn’t just reference turntable culture, but lives it. MortonUnderwood demonstrated with their performance ‘Octavism’ that they also know how to engage an audience, the huge tones from their Giant Feedback Organ augmented by Sam Underwood’s roving tuba, which at one point he directed into the mouth of a large empty tank to produce elephantine shuddering blasts. Yet there was a great deal of subtlety here too: the interactions between the different low pitches and their harmonics created beautiful microtonal chords and beating patterns.

Lauren Sarah Hayes’ ‘15 seconds’ took place in perhaps the most striking venue of the festival, the huge chapel tower of the Hamilton Mausoleum. This building is famed for its record-breaking reverberation time of 15 seconds. After a fascinating tour of the (now-empty) crypt, Hayes set the tower ringing and thundering with a haunting and otherworldly performance for voice and electronics, the scattering, fragmented tones ricocheting up to the roof high above. The music of Henrique Roscoe and North of X wasn’t to my taste, but they both managed to convey the connections between sound, vision, and idea in convincing and intriguing ways; Roscoe’s shooting laser beams could have so easily been just a tacky special effect, but in the context of his neurology-themed performance were surprisingly evocative of the firing of neurons.

Sonica’s slogan is “sonic art for the visually minded”, and from the performances and installations I experienced this is clearly more than catchy rhetoric. The senses don’t work in isolation, but rather inform and influence one another, and many of the works presented made use of this physiological fact: Kuswidananto’s flags in the mist transforming the meaning of his songs, MortonUnderwood’s giant pipes giving clear visual form to the massive sounds they made, and the function and architecture of the Hamilton Mausoleum drawing out the otherworldly aspects of Hayes’ music are but some examples among many. It’s clear that producers Cryptic are thinking deeply about how we listen and look, and that thinking is reflected not only in the advertising and programme notes but also in the works themselves. Musically speaking I would’ve liked to have heard fewer conventional beats and more listening-led risk-taking, but overall Sonica thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of the most innovative ear- and eye-catching festivals around. (Henrique Roscoe)

Listing image: Order and After by Jompet Kuswidananto, photo by Louise Mather

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