Pantry Sessions

BEAST Pantry Sessions - Hand-made Music, John Richards workshop participants performing with small circuit boards

Hand-made Music

BEASTdome is the home of Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST) and their large multichannel sound system. Thursday night’s concert in the space kicked off with a set from Birmingham Ensemble for Electroacoustic Research (BEER), performing as a trio with networked laptops. The premise of their piece ‘Switchblade’, according to the programme notes, is that each performer provides a number of live-coded layers of sound that are ‘mixed’ by a master construction algorithm that is itself live-coded and modified on the fly. I found that none of this was particularly audible for me as a listener — I found it hard to tell which performer was generating which sounds, or what decisions the algorithm was making, simply by listening. None of this need matter if the resulting sounds are interesting enough, which happily was the case, though the bleeps, chatters, and noises did seem to come and go somewhat at random.

I recently saw solo sets from Ben Peers and Manfredi Clemente at a SOUNDkitchen gig, and their duo performance in the BEASTdome was better than both of them. Peers used ambient guitar washes and delicate microsounds from amplified objects to bring wide open space and subtle detail, while Clemente’s no-input mixing desk and field recordings added welcome edge, density, and palpability. It was a very quiet set, and all the more engaging and enchanting for it; the slowness and barely-thereness of the sounds helped create an affecting sense of distance in space and time. If old photographs are like seeing memories, this felt like hearing them. What I particularly liked was that neither performer was in a rush to move on, instead allowing each sound and constellation of sounds time to gently impress themselves on the senses. It was a magical performance, and reminded me somewhat of the live work of 12k label regular Marcus Fischer — high praise indeed.

The final performance of the evening came from a group of workshop participants who had worked that afternoon under the guidance of composer/instrument-maker John Richards to build tiny electronic instruments. In a sense, their set felt like part two of the workshop — the performance part. All the participant/performers began together, their little instruments producing a multichannel rush of noise and bleeps, before one by one they began leaving the performance area, taking turns to sit out before returning to the same or different instrument, the ensemble constantly changing in number. Richards jumped in now and then with some conducting/instructing. The whole thing felt like a live dramatisation of a laptop performance, with each instrument representing a track in a digital audio workstation to be tweaked and toggled on and off. In a way, it felt as if the set was more for the performers’ benefit than for that of the audience, but it was fascinating to watch and listen to others as they learned new instruments and performance techniques on the fly, by way of trying them out. This sort of thing should be an essential part of everyone’s ongoing education. (John Richards)

Photo by Scott Wilson

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