The BEASTdome at the University of Birmingham played host to three concerts of electronic and electroacoustic music as part of the institution’s Crosscurrents festival. Saturday night’s gig was produced in collaboration with SOUNDkitchen, with Justin Wiggan returning to perform his Dead Songs project following its SOUNDkitchen debut last year. That first show had been in stereo, but in the BEASTdome Wiggan had the multichannel BEAST sound system to play with, drawing on the assistance of Charlie Lockwood to diffuse the sounds around the space. It worked brilliantly well, especially when the relationship between Wiggan’s performance in the centre of the room and the speaker array circling the periphery became more apparent. His singing, heard from the middle and then echoing from speakers high up at the top of the dome, was a good example of this. As Wiggan played records that had been buried until their sleeves melded into the vinyl, Lockwood spun the chugging, oddly plaintive noises around, the travel of the music sometimes reflecting the circular motion of the turntable, but not in too obvious a way.
The other two pieces of the evening both created impressions of weather systems. Jo Thomas’ recorded extract (she was unable to perform due to illness) rumbled with distant wind and thunder, a dense, dark, and slightly ominous sound. SOUNDkitchen’s own Annie Mahtani and Iain Armstrong presented a work constructed from field recordings made in Birmingham, rain falling on a range of different surfaces to produce varying timbres. Later on in the piece, I heard whirring clockwork and a soft ambient drone embellished with what sounded like guitar flourishes. Many of the field recordings were treated electronically to the point where they weren’t really recognisable as such, and it made for an absorbing and transportative work.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a much revered singer of Qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis, and on Sunday film footage of him and his group performing in Birmingham in 1980 was mixed with additional audio and video by the Qawwali Research Unit. The piece retained the energy and intensity of Khan’s performance, while the added elements brought out a sense of temporal distance and almost mystical detachment. An interesting contrast was provided with oud and electronics by Eliot Bates, another musician diving deep into the music of another culture.
Tsun Winston Yeung’s ‘(un)touched’ was performed using a wireless motion-sensing interface, and the lack of the conventional wires or gloves made his ‘sculpting’ of sounds from thin air seem all the more natural and convincing. His improvised noise was pleasingly bracing and rough, and the interface allowed for some surprisingly subtle manipulations. At times Yeung’s hand movements reminded me of the butoh of Kazuo Ohno, such were their deftness and intricacy — integrating that aesthetic more fully into the performance could take it in some very interesting directions.
Michael Edwards’ ‘hyperboles 5 (“the seven stars go squawking”)’ for live cello and electronics was performed with confidence and control by Ellen Fallowfield, but in the end I wasn’t really sure what the electronic sounds were intended to bring to the piece. David Ogborn’s ‘Sinfonia’ was also performed live, but in addition to Scott Wilson and Luca Danieli on laptops in the BEASTdome, the composer was joined by tabla-player Shawn Mativetsky and soprano Kristin Mueller-Heaslip via real-time internet connection from different locations in Canada. The Atlantic Ocean seemed to disappear as the performers worked through a range of melodies, tonal harmonies, and regular metres, moving through beautiful sine waves and tabla, Sakamoto-like piano and electronics, and a raucous crescendo in the final movement, before gradually dying away until Mueller-Heaslip’s held voice brought the performance to a spellbinding close. ‘Sinfonia’ was ultimately about the music, not about the tech, and sounded all the more glorious for it, rounding off a couple of great evenings at one of Birmingham’s unsung cultural assets.