BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre) is a multichannel sound associated with the University of Birmingham’s Electroacoustic Music Studios,comprising of as many as 100 speakers. With these speakers encircling the audience, it’s possible to produce many spatial and acousmatic effects. What this often translates to in practice is a genre of music that leans heavily on fast, dynamic transitions between different kinds of sound and different positions in the aural field (that sphere around your head that establishes the distance up to which you can hear), and on sounds that uniformly impress when played on a multichannel sound system: bell-like sounds, rushing noise, and bass thumps, among several others.
Many of my favourite pieces at BEAST FEaST 2016 eschewed this aesthetic, or rather subjected the most useful parts of it to different creative ideals. Ben Peers’ soothing, quiet drones were a welcome shift of mood from some of the more aggressive aural assaults perpetrated using the BEAST system, though the lower frequency rumble seemed added simply for the sake of acousmatic convention. In Emma Margetson’s ‘Tick’, the ticking of a metronome was shifted, splintered, and refracted in the temporal and spatial domains, with subtle pitched musical tones helping to imply the space through which the ticking moved. Annie Mahtani’s ‘Aeolian’ used quiet chords in its evocation of a quiet rainstorm and its aftermath; though her field recordings consisted of often-heard staples such as passing traffic, the magic of the piece lay in how these sounds were transformed by the dampness left by the rain (even the wind sounded different). Charlie Lockwood’s fairytale ambient musicboxes got progressively darker and grittier, before ending on an elegiac note. And Helene Hedsund’s ‘Bus No. 1’, as well as using bass to make the floor vibrate like that of a bus, also featured some nice harmonies that gradually unravelled into cacophony in a very pleasing way.
Most of the above featured harmony of some sort or other, but some of the more surprising and striking pieces at the festival didn’t foreground harmony at all. I really liked Tsun Winston Yeung’s ‘Variations’, in which the composer’s EEG-measured brainwaves helped to control the sound as he meditated, read a book, did sums, and memorised text in an engaging piece of stagecraft. Another memorable performance came from Kosmas Giannoutakis, who periodically left the grand piano he was playing to walk round the circle of speakers surrounding the audience, while algorithms took the piano sounds and spun them into dense echoing textures. Luca Danieli’s ‘La Tabula Rasa’ used manipulated, machine-like spoken voice and a dose of grim humour to relate the loneliness and abjection of a web server buried deep in a network.
I was probably the only person in the Elgar Concert Hall who wasn’t blown away by Jonty Harrison’s concert-length ‘Going / Places’. This long series of aural postcards, fractured and remoulded using the usual acousmatic devices, somehow failed to remind me of the experience of being in any place in particular, except perhaps in a hall surrounded by speakers at an acousmatic music concert. Barry Truax’s ‘Pendledrøm’, on the other hand, effectively conveyed the impression of a commute through Copenhagen, in which the weary commuter is half-aware of her familiar, routine surroundings and half drifting along in a dreamlike state. As I realised during Margetson’s piece, it’s primarily by means of harmony that sounds are linked to space, much as time and space are linked by way of memory. The fact that explicit harmony is by no means essential to the transportative effects of music suggests that the former is only a smoke that both announces and obscures some other fire.
The installations at this year’s BEAST FEaST were fantastic. In John Kefala Kerr’s ‘Book of Bells’, the visitor was invited to locate passages from various antique books in order to complete a word search, ringing a different bell each time a passage is completed. In the background was a soundtrack featuring more bells and a cathedral choir. It was fun to do this task at the same time as other people, their bells ringing out at unexpected moments as I scanned yellow pages for sound references. Alexander Pospischil’s ‘Ichi-Kousatsu’ also required visitor participation, in the form of a chair positioned between a hanging tree branch and its shadow on the wall cast by the light from a projector. When I sat on the chair, branches began growing and budding out of my shadow, allowing me to experience, in a butoh-esque way, a sort of becoming-tree. The knocking together of branches in the wind in the installation’s audio component added to the overall effect.
It was recently reported that scientists have discovered a discrete region of the brain that is activated when hearing music, and only when hearing music (not when hearing barking dogs, crackling fires, or any other sound). I wonder during how many pieces at BEAST FEaST the neurons in this part of my brain forgot to fire, or fired when they weren’t supposed to. Not everyone making work for sound systems such as BEAST thinks of what they do as ‘music’ in the traditional (neurological?) sense, but I found that the pieces that most engaged me, as a non-specialist member of the general public, were the ones that more clearly embraced musicality of some recognisable form or another. If the aim is to grow and broaden the horizons of this work in order to appeal to a wider audience and diversify its pool of practitioners, this may be one way to go.
Cover image: BEAST tweeter arrays in the Elgar concert hall