Thursday, 20 March 2014

Solarference present Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Exeter Phoenix

Solarference are a duo, Nick Janaway and Sarah Owen, who make electronic music which uses traditional folk song as its familiar source and emotional anchor. The resulting hybrid, which the name poetically evokes, successfully casts both forms in a new light. It reflects both the rural character of their Westcountry background and the experimental musics which they encountered in the course of an art school education in London. This blend of musical traditions follows an oral lineage back through the generations and introduces an exploratory use of new technologies, drawing on paths forged in the era of post-war modernism. Such a superimposition of old and new raises the spectre of hauntology, that awkward academic term which has been applied to certain kinds of music and graphic design invoking the ghosts of memory inhabiting a post war period which ended with the onset of the 80s. These ghosts are also often imbued with more ancient layers of time and folk memory, reflecting the fascination with the deep history of Britain which was prevalent in 1970s culture. It has to be said, the term often seems to function largely as a label which its supposed practitioners can reject or express bewilderment as to the meaning of. Whatever terminology is applied, however, the drawing together of the old songs, which seem to rise with uncanny familiarity from some collective strata of the unconscious, with electronic sounds and digital concrète manipulations redolent of an age super-saturated (and perhaps sated) with technological magic, produces a bewitching and very powerful effect.

This fusion of old and new was lent a further dimension on March 9th at the Phoenix in Exeter when they provided a live, semi-improvised accompaniment to the 1920 film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of hubristic scientific alchemy and the duality of the human soul, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The digital projection was taken from a poor quality print, the shadows and fog of the gaslit London street scenes rendered even more murky and obscure by the abrasion and chemical erosion of time. This made for an interesting disjuncture with the duo standing to the side of the stage beneath the screen, their studiously intent features illuminated by the megabyte glow of their lectern-perched laptops. The impression of eras facing one another across a century’s gulf, analogue and digital interpenetrating in some interstitial zone beyond normal temporal bounds, was reinforced by the Victorian/Edwardian casual garb which the two musicians wore for the occasion.

The film, with John Barrymore in the dual lead role, was the most prestigious of three versions made in 1920, and really served to establish the portrayal of the Jekyll and Hyde personae, and set the accepted tone of the story, in the popular imagination. Jekyll is upright and observant of conventional Victorian middle-class social etiquette; Hyde is bent into a devolved, simian stoop and is amorally intent on sating any of the sexual appetites of venting any of the violent urges which define his being. This idea of Hyde as the embodiment of the repressed side of the superficially noble and respectable Dr Jekyll which physically manifests itself as an ape-like monster was first put forward in J.R.Sullivan’s 1887 theatrical adaptation. It was not an interpretation which pleased Stevenson himself. But his creation was soon developing into something beyond his control. The film drew on this sensational and highly successful stage version, and the transformation scene became the central dramatic moment, a testing challenge for actor and special effects artist. There is a definite aura of the limelighted stage suffusing the 1920 film Another faultline between the ages is evident here – the grand world of the late Victorian theatre suddenly fixed on the screen in the new global medium of the movies.

In this instance, it is a rather less successful conjunction. Many of the drawing room scenes are stilted and dull, and John Barrymore’s broad gestural acting can come across as the most overcooked ham in the unforgiving close-up glare of the studio arc lights. His transformation scene in particular raised unfortunate titters and snorts of derision. He mugs frantically, grasps his throat and seems to throw himself bodily about before finally taking a spectacularly melodramatic dive onto the laboratory floor. His performance as Hyde is at times memorably flesh-crawling, however. His lank hair is clammily pasted to his temples and his skull disturbingly distended (a phrenologist’s dream, or nightmare) in the shape of a coconut husk or a bulbous spider’s abdomen. There is indeed one truly horrific fever dream sequence in which a giant, hairy spider with Hyde’s leering face at its head clambers stiffly up onto the four poster bed in which Jekyll restlessly sleeps, crawls over his body and settles down to merge invisibly into it. The figure who then wakes up is, of course, Hyde.

Solarference draw on the wide folk ballad repertoire which mournfully tells of false love and tragically thwarted romance to accompany the scenes involving the ‘pure’ object of Jekyll’s repressed affections and the musical hall artiste (played by Nita Naldi, the future co-star of Rudolph Valentino in some of his biggest pictures) who falls prey to Hyde’s unsubtle and ruthlessly calculating advances. Many of these ballads have appeared on the death-haunted late 60s albums of Shirley Collins (The Sweet Primeroses, The Power of the True Love Knot and Love, Death and the Maiden), on which she was often accompanied by the hauntingly fragile piping of her sister Dolly’s home-built portative organ. It’s possible that it was here that Solarference discovered the songs – a fine source if so. They certainly create a cohesive, melancholic mood which emphasises the female aspects of the story’s tragic trajectory. Barbara Allen and The Sweet Primeroses are both songs of false and violently opposed love. The latter has a verse which begins with the line ‘So I'll go down to some lonesome valley/Where no man on earth shall there me find’, which is used for some of the darkest parts of the story. The words are cut and repeated, creating a truncated echo which makes it seem as if we really have descended into that deep, desolate valley. Barbara Allen, a tale of love scorned and mocked by its object, is particularly appropriate for the scenes in which Hyde taunts and dismisses the musical hall artiste whom he has reduced to his domestic drudge, and whom he later encounters in the opium den. Go From My Window also has the highly apposite line ‘oh the devil’s in the man that he will not understand, he can’t have a harbouring here’. Solarference have evidently chosen these songs with great care and attention to detail.

Black Ships Ate the Sky
They also use the old Charles Wesley hymn tune Idumea to stunning effect. Its opening question, ‘and am I born to die, to lay this body down/and must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown’, once again highlights the tragic nature of the story, its inexorable progression towards a fatal conclusion. But it also points to the spiritual anxieties which underlie Stevenson’s stories. The concern for the state, or even the existence of the soul in an age of scientific breakthrough – of the telescoping of time into geological millennia, and of psychoanalytical and evolutionary theories which began fundamentally to change humanity’s perception of itself and its position in the scheme of creation. The song was also incorporated into the eschatological worldview of David Tibet and his Current 93 project. It was sung by a number of people on the Black Ships Ate the Sky album, one of whom was Shirley Collins.

Much of the soundtrack was created on the fly from numerous ‘concrète’ sources, sounds recorded and instantly transformed by a powerful and swiftly responsive sound-editing programme. Comb teethe were thumb-raked, miniature music box handles cranked, the bodies of glass bottles chinked and their mouths breathily blown across, Chinese-sounding flutes piped, paper slowly torn and a dulcimer plucked. The resultant noises were expanded, multiplied and dispersed into rich and colourful fogs of sound. The principal source was the human voice, however, the vast potential of which was used to produce whispers, clucks, slurps, sighs, shhhhhs and grunts. These sometimes lent the sequences they accompanied an inner soundtrack, as if they were sounding out the film’s subterranean layers of meaning. For the scene in which Hyde enters the Limehouse opium den, for instance, the recorded voice was atomised, replicated and scattered. This expressed both the fragmentary, partial nature of Hyde’s persona, and the dislocated dreams drifting up from the squalid pallets of the dazed pipe smokers. For the dinner party scene in the Victorian parlour, we heard a layered swarm of sibilant whispers. They were somewhat akin to the susurrus of inner voices heard by the angels in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire as they watch over the readers in the Berlin State Library. This parlour whispering was interspersed with slurping, sucking and the smacking of lips, suggesting that this was a milieu in which the appetites for food and gossip were indistinguishable.

Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian
The extended vocal techniques, subsequent electronic transformations and their expression of inner states brings to mind the 1960s and 70s collaborations between Italian composer Luciano Berio and his then wife, the soprano singer Cathy Berberian. Her extraordinary vocal performances on Visage and Sequenza III take the listener on an intense, kaleidoscopically shifting voyage through a dizzyingly fragmented mirrorworld of psychological moods. It feels discomfortingly at times like experiencing a monumental breakdown from the deep interior of an individual psyche. Berberian also sang Berio’s more straightforward Folk Songs suite, which gathered together folk melodies from various countries (and included the modern standard Black Is The Colour of My True Love’s Hair), providing a further parallel with Solarference’s blending of the experimental and the traditional. Berio would have created his vocal collages through a thousand cuts and splices of tape, of course. A modern artist who has used less fiddly and laborious (although in their own way equally painstaking) digital means to make music from the isolated, compacted and stretched sounds of the human voice is Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin), whose latest album, R Plus 7, is another point of reference. The isolation and reproduction of fragments of human utterance also served to create syllabic rhythms, which provided a propulsive sense of momentum to some of the film’s more dramatic moments.

In the second part of the evening, Solarference returned in modern day civvies to play a small selection from their album Kiss of Clay (the chilly phrase deriving from the haunting graveside song Cold Blows the Wind). The record is, perhaps understandably, more solidly song-based, with the experimental elements restricted largely to creating background colour and atmosphere. Live, however, those elements came to the fore, and the songs were allowed to stretch out into more unusual shapes before returning to their melodic harbour. It was a genuinely thrilling and innovative balance of the traditional and the experimental. The harmonies were lovely in themselves, particularly on the bilingual Welsh song which they ended with, Ei Di’r Deryn Du. This is a fusion music which really works in exciting ways, without sounding remotely contrived or forced. It manages to unite the seemingly alien and irreconcilable worlds of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry with those of Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs. The folk tunes and the tales they tell form the human heart, the familiar core, but they are moulded into all manner of new and strange configurations, whilst never losing their essential character.

After the final song, we were invited to come and look at the technology involved, and ask any questions which might occur. Looking at the sound wave patterns and the shadowed sweeps which gathered selected splinters up to transform them, it became evident how intuitive and visually cued the process was (once thoroughly learned and absorbed, of course). This is sonic painting or sculpting in real time, a digital development of the ideas of drawn sound synthesis which Daphne Oram in Britain and Eduard Artemiev in the USSR experimented with in the 1970s. This invitation to come and talk and see how things were done pointed to a real desire on the artists’ part to reach out and communicate their own excitement about their music and the ideas behind it. It was an excitement and daringly exploratory spirit which came across forcefully in the committed and immensely enjoyable performances they gave at the Phoenix in Exeter.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Un Homme Qui Dort

Un Homme Qui Dort is a 1974 film based on a short novel of the same name by the French author Georges Perec, published in 1967. Perec himself collaborated on the adaptation of his work with the director Bernard Queysanne, so this can be seen as an authentic translation of his ideas and intentions onto the screen. Perec loved to play linguistic games. His novels and stories are as much about language and its structures, the way in which they shape our view of the world, as they are about narrative and character. He was a member of the Oulipo group. The neologism Oulipo was itself derived from a linguistic game, a condensation of the opening letters from the grand banner L’Ouvroir de Litterature Potentialle. A rough translation would be ‘the workshop of possible stories’. The group set restrictive parameters and delimiting rules around the use of language, making a game or puzzle of the art of writing and storytelling. The skill lay in creating something meaningful rather than merely mechanical, dryly mathematical or annoyingly clever from the means available. The imagination could be channelled down new paths and surprising byways by the application of such strictures.

Georges Perec
Perec’s most extreme gesture in this mode was his novel La Disparition (The Disappearance), published in 1969, in which the letter ‘e’ was entirely absent, as if it had been erased from the alphabet. In an equally astonishing intellectual feat, which took the art of literary translation to new heights, the author and screenwriter Gilbert Adair produced an English language version of the book, an endeavour which was in effect an Oulipoean game in itself. Perec also wrote Life: A User’s Manual (1978), whose chapters were all based in the individual rooms of a Parisian apartment block, and whose narrative structure was largely determined by the moves of a chess game plotted out on a diagrammatic chart of the building in question.

Un Homme Qui Dort was written before Perec joined the Oulipo elite, but clearly points to his interest in linguistic experiment in its use of the second person singular throughout. This creates both a sense of distance and of intimate address, implying a certain narrative omniscience and even control whilst inviting the reader to identify with the nameless protagonist (the ‘you’). In its original French incarnation, the ‘tu’ has additional nuances, implying either comfortable familiarity and intimacy or a belittling condescension reserved for someone too insignificant to merit the formal, polite ‘vous’. The equivalent of talking to someone as if they were a child, a bit simple.

In the film, passages from the novel are read out by a neutrally-toned narrator. This is a literary adaptation in which words and images remain, at some level, separate. There is no dialogue and little natural sound in the film. It is, to all intents and purposes, silent, with recorded sound subsequently overlaid. The words came first, but it often seems as if they are providing a commentary for pre-existing images, rather than the images giving visual form to the words. For the English-language version, Shelley Duvall voices this neutral tone perfectly, and also captures the quality of reverie which permeates the film – a reverie which can bring small details into sharp focus whilst blurring the wider world into a confused fog. Her voiceover recalls her character Millie in Robert Altman’s 1977 picture 3 Women at the end of the film, when her ceaseless stream of empty babble ceases and she speaks in similarly abstracted tones – a voice of almost inhuman clarity. In Un Homme Qui Dort, however, it is not without an undertow of pity and compassion. The narrative voice articulates the protagonist’s otherwise impenetrable inner life. It almost seems to direct him at times, and is an aural manifestation of the surrendering of his free will. But it could also be heard as a voice wholly unallied with his own consciousness and being; a voice which is trying to break through the into the sphere of his isolated orbit, to make him perceive his lonely world with greater clarity, and thereby to prompt him to save himself. This voice is even given watching eyes: the surveillance cameras which are seen at various points throughout the film, swivelling and focussing on their iron pedestals to observe his passing below.

We first encounter the ‘tu’ of the film in his small garret room, the archetypal Parisian dwelling of the struggling artist, existential philosopher or (as in this case) penniless student. He experiences some undefined moment of inward ontological crisis in which the quotidian observances of his life become drained of meaning or purpose. Attempting to approach what is essentially a breakdown with the intellectual rigour and control of an empirical philosophical investigation, he decides to systematically reduce his existence to some absolutely fundamental level. To this end, he strips away all personal and social elements and condenses essential functions into repetitive, reflexive actions, which are performed with mechanical affectlessness and lack of conscious thought. These actions are precisely delineated and enumerated – the 6 socks washed in a pink bowl, the tasteless steak eaten at the nondescript bar – until they become overdetermined and wholly detached from the broader canvas of actuality.

Un Homme Qui Dort could almost be seen as a satire on fashionable existentialism, of young men who adopted the hip pose of alienation and a studied and verbose disaffection with the superficiality of modern society. This is the kind of alienation which fed into the countercultures of the 60s, and into the rock music which was its soundtrack. The protagonist even looks a little bit like Eric Burdon from The Animals. There may be an element of that. But this is also, despite its second person narrative voice, a very personal film, deriving from a very personal novel, which draws on Perec’s own experience of mental breakdown as a young man. The remove granted by the narrative device may have been necessary for him to achieve a certain distance from and objectivity towards those painful experiences. The protagonist’s state lies within his own fragmented self, ultimately arising from his failure, or refusal to connect with the world. In this case, the problem is located within the individual rather than in society. The Escher print on his wall provides a diagram of the confused knots of his mind, stairways climbing the walls at impossible, self-contradictory angles which are at odds with the universally held, empirically verifiable laws of the universe. And yet there they are, seemingly abiding by their own hermitic logic.

The protagonist self-consciously cultivates his mental breakdown as if it were a reaction against the imbalance of the modern world. The controlling limitations he imposes upon his own existence (Oulipo rules applied to real life) follow on from an initial moment of slippage, of consciousness falling out of sync with what is expected of it. He pretends to himself that this is something which can be managed, an act of self-collusion which denies the possibility of help from others. He is in effect declaring himself to be self-contained, a monadic entity. There’s a strong current of egocentricity to this choice. As the narrative voice in the book declares, he becomes, in his own mind, ‘the master of time itself, the master of the world, a watchful spider at the hub of your web’. Out of such willed disconnections are destructive power fantasies made manifest. On the other hand, this is also an act of self-erasure, a depressive stumble towards complete disappearance, the invisibility attendant upon ‘your vegetal existence, your cancelled life’.

Having withdrawn from human society, the protagonist becomes an observing eye, wandering the streets of the city. The city becomes a reflection of his inner state, a mental street map. We get to see it afresh through his detached, floating viewpoint. This is the Paris of the surrealists - of depopulated dawn streets; canalside paths lined with neat, regularly spaced trees which appear to lead to arboreal gateways at the vanishing point; narrow, café-lined evening back roads and broad, stately boulevards; drowsy afternoon cinemas; empty shopping arcades; spiralling stairwells; and parks in which old men sit with statuesque stillness, lost in inward contemplation. It’s a city which seems full of immanent meaning, of mysteries on the verge of revealing themselves. A humming, distant drone infuses the senses with sense of the interconnectedness of the material and the immaterial, an intuitive mysticism made audible. The protagonist sits for ages staring raptly at a knot in the bark of a pavement tree. Its complex detail seems to open up whole interior spaces, new worlds for him to get lost in, like a tree in a Magritte painting. Magritte, in fact, is something of a presiding spirit in the film, along with de Chirico.

But in the end, no Buddhist-style enlightenment is afforded by the retreat from the world and its sensory pleasures and comforts, the erasure of desire and emotional attachment. The point at which dreamlike detachment descends into nightmarish disconnection is indicated by a switch to a scorching, overexposed pictorial style. Details become blanched, contrast bleached out, a visual analogue of a mind losing any element of cohesion or self-control. Expressionistic sound design further adumbrates this frightening state. Whereas before, the distant drone accompanied blissed-out, solitary perambulations, now there are irritating, repetitive tapping and knocking sounds. They are amplifications of the permanently dripping tap in the corridor outside his room, and of his own neurotically drumming fingers. These sounds mock the reductive routines which have come to measure out the daily progress of the hours. Close-up shots of him chewing his fingernails are interpolated into the increasingly frenetic, off-kilter rhythms of the editing, creating an uncomfortable, edgy ambience. This is no longer an experiment in detachment, but a descent into a genuine breakdown. The controls are falling away, the self-delusory barriers crumbling. Any idea of penetrating beyond the surface of things, of attaining some elevated vision, is burned away in the harsh magnesium flaring of burnt-out synapses.

La Reproduction Interdite (Not to be Reproduced), the Magritte print on the wall above the head of his bed, turns out to have been a warning. The typically anonymous Magritte figure stares into a mirror, but the reflection is of the back of the head which we see in the frame. Such intense self-reflection doesn’t reveal a true image of some essential core of being; just another blank surface, a short back and sided void. A more constructive direction lies perhaps in the unobtrusive image on a small postcard at the foot of the bed, neglected and incidental. It’s a portrait of the medieval scholar Erasmus. He serves as a symbol of contemplation, learning and curiosity, but also of a desire to travel, to share knowledge and to delight in the exchange of ideas in the company of others. To connect with the world, in short.

The film ends up as an essay in the dangers of falling into the illusion that the individual intellect is sufficient unto itself, that it can be a self-contained, monadic world. In the final shot of the film, the camera pulls back from the protagonist as he wanders lost and bewildered down a dark, sloping alleyway (bringing to mind those haunting late photos of Nick Drake on the pathways leading to Hampstead Heath). The city is now a maze inside his head, locked and turning endlessly in on itself. The camera steadily zooms out until we realise we are looking at precisely the same cityscape which opened the film. We have turned full circle and gone nowhere. The city remains as mysterious and unknown as it was at the beginning, as does our nameless protagonist. His explorations have, in the end, been shallow and self-deluding, revealing nothing. Now he must find help, a guiding thread to lead him back out of the labyrinth.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Keith Tippett and Ellen Fullman at the Bristol New Music Festival

The first Bristol New Music Festival took place over the weekend of the 21st to the 23rd of February. Events were distributed across the Western part of the city in buildings which reflected something of its rich history and culture; Georgian churches, harbourside warehouses, Victorian concert halls, arts centre attics and University rooms. Some prominent names from the new music canon were to be found in an eclectic and wide-ranging programme. The music of Frank Zappa, John Cage, Christian Marclay and Harry Partch was played in various contexts and configurations, with Ensemble Musikfabrik performing on reproductions of Partch’s incredible microtonal musical sculptures. Experimental music and improv stalwarts John Butcher and David Toop were also present. Butcher played, under the guise of Tarab Cuts, in a duet with Mark Sanders, both of them in turn duetting with old 78s of Sufi traditional music, recordings on a fragile, sonically weathered medium which is inherently ingrained with time and history. Toop collaborated with Emptyset, a Bristolian electronic duo, and with the Turkish artist Cevdet Erek, who also created an installation for the gallery at Spike Island, the arts space fashioned from a monumental old redbrick cube of a warehouse.

I travelled up through the flooded Somerset levels (the train looping of on a picturesque diversion past Westbury and Bath) to see Keith Tippett and Ellen Fullman. As a Bristol boy, born and raised, this was home turf for Tippett. He’s part of a significant lineage of adventurous Westcountry jazz and improvising musicians; a lineage which includes the likes of John Surman, Don Rendell, Andy Sheppard, Keith Rowe, and long term residents Lewis Riley, Lou Gare, Mike Westbrook (who studied art in Plymouth), and Kate Westbrook (who attended the artistically progressive Dartington Hall School). The New Music Festival could be seen as an elaboration of the Rare Music Clubs which Tippett organised in Bristol in the 80s and 90s (and which made it down to Exeter on a couple of memorable occasions). Deliberately setting out to dissolve preconceived generic boundaries, these were triple bills juxtaposing artists from the worlds of jazz and improv, classical and experimental, and folk and world musics. The idea was partly to expose people who came along to hear a particular artist to sounds they might not otherwise have entertained, offering familiar flavours alongside others untasted.

There was a certain echo of such open-eared syntheses in the festival performance, too. Tippett was performing in The Lantern, a recently refurbished Victorian theatre space adjoining the more imposing Colston Hall. The latter venue is very familiar to him. In an interview in the May 2001 issue of The Wire, he recalled having heard the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands there, experiences which had a profound effect on the young Keith’s musical education.

He was leading an octet in this late afternoon performance, and there was a definite sense that this was a new generation of musicians which he was nurturing. Tippett has long been involved in musical education, having run a jazz and improvisation course alongside Lewis Riley at the Dartington Summer Music School for many years. He shared the stage in comfortably familiar partnership with drummer Peter Fairclough, a regular collaborator over the years. The young bass player Tom McCredie completed the rhythm section, and to the right of the stage sat a five piece brass ensemble.

It was the compositional side of Tippett’s multi-faceted musical personality which was on display on this occasion, something made visually apparent by the multiple sheets of manuscript paper progressively concertinaed out across his piano stand. The octet were playing his suite The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon, which draws inspiration from Irish traditional music, culture and landscape. It began with a chaotic weave of fragmentary, staccato voices crossing and swooping in abstract, arrhythmic fashion. They were emulating the darting patterns of the subjects of the first section, which was entitled ‘The Dance of the Return of the Swallows’. There has always been a distinctly elemental cast to Tippett’s music, perhaps expressing the rural environs of the Westcountry in which he grew up. His solo piano improvisations seem to summon up the sounds of the weather – wind, rain and sun-dappled haze – alongside the complex whirl and eddie of riverrine flow and the upper-register trilling of birdsong. This evocation of the natural world goes hand in hand with a strong spiritual dimension. Whilst remaining at a far remove from blissed-out new age self-narcosis, Tippett has always been clear about the sacred aspect of his music, its indivisibility from the spiritual dimension of being. Joy and love are words which he is unafraid to use to distil its essence, and in the Wire interview, he summed up his musical mission by simply stating ‘I’m interested in moving an audience. That’s my job’. It’s a refreshing change from the distancing abstractions and affectlessly academic approach offered by many involved with supposedly ‘difficult’ music, which can serve to put off all but a dedicated hardcore of bold listeners. Such an openly spiritual outlook is reflected in the titles for some of the suite’s nine sections, such as ‘The Dance of the Intangible Touching’, ‘The Dance of the Sheer Joy of It All’, and ‘The Dance of the Day of Observance’.

The suite shifted through moods of quiet reflection and soft melancholy, bursting out at regular intervals into joyful, unsuppressible exuberance. The fragementary dabs and darts of the opening gradually coalesced into one such outburst. Here and at various points throughout, there were definite echoes of the Ellington and Basie bands which Tippett had heard next door (where Colston Hall is currently being refurbished), as if he were picking up on reverberations which had never quite died out. It was the lush Ellington and Strayhorn sound inflected with British and Irish accents. Elsewhere, there were elements of plangent brass bands, of pastoral English chamber and orchestral music, and of folk tunes and limpid Irish airs. At some points, emphatically stabbing Bartokian chords (with a dash of Monk and Stan Tracy blended in) powered driving off-kilter rhythms. Tippett rose from the piano stool at key moments to co-ordinate unison brass shouts with dramatic gestural conduction.

It all ended with Tippett’s piano voicing solo, Messiaen-like chords with whispered spaciousness, the last one left to drift off into the air. A few moments of silence settled, and then the audience showed how much they had been moved in the time-honoured fashion. Tippett generously directed praise towards his young musicians from his position at the side of the stage. He thanked us in turn, and finished by requesting that we didn’t reveal the rugby scores. He may regard his music with the utmost seriousness, as a matter of sacred trust and spiritual calling, but he is evidently also a refreshingly down to earth man.

Down the wires - the long string instrument
Ellen Fullman is an American musician who plays an instrument of her own devising and construction, which she has dubbed the long string instrument. In common with Harry Partch’s unconventional, self-constructed orchestra, it can be regarded as much as a sound-producing sculpture as a musical instrument in the generally accepted sense. Although in this case, given its unwieldy dimensions, it might be more appropriate to think of it as a sculptural installation. It’s designed to expand sonic possibilities, to produce tones and timbres which would be beyond the reach of the common range of instruments. It is a resonating machine which can accumulate multiple microtonal intervals along its length, amassing dense, lingering clouds of drone.

The Thekla illuminated
Anticipating a magical, semi-ritualistic experience, it has to be said that the initial impression was a little disheartening. The long string instrument was rigged up on the top floor of an undistinguished office and apartment block adjoining the Arnolfini Gallery which still seemed to be in the final stages of construction. A narrow, bare concrete staircase, which bore the builders’ chalk mark measurements, led past what looked like the corridors of student halls of residence to a fifth floor attic which had all the atmosphere and warmth of an empty open-plan office (which a large, rather forlorn cheese plant in the corner suggested it might indeed lately have been). There were only one or two chairs randomly scattered about, and the sizeable audience, who filled the space, milled about looking a little lost, some electing to squat on the hard concrete floor. Through the windows at one end, the lights strung along the permanently moored ship the Thekla (now itself a concert venue) glowed green, whilst on the other side, the harbour venues and casino sign provided seductively twinkling illumination.

The long string instrument itself was fascinating, though, and well-worth elbowing you way through the milling throng to inspect at close quarters. It took up one half of the room, stretching like twinned clusters of power lines from one end to the other, wooden boxes marking the termini and serving as resonators for the vibrations gathered in their hollow interiors. Fullman ducked into the space between and wandered up and down between the two arrays of wires. She coaxed drones from various points along the strings, rubbing them with fingers given added friction by a patina of rosin. She appeared like a curious alien giant on a desert road, looking quizzically to either side and playing the telegraph wires over which she loomed, listening with rapturous attention to the eerie sounds they produced. Her slow progress up and down the aisle was almost like a form of Tai Chi. Her fingers flexed infinitesimally, stretching out into new configurations to caress fresh harmonies from the strings on either side. It was visually very arresting. At certain junctures, a sudden swift stride to another sector of the instrument signified a shift in the shape of the drone – physical movement precipitating a new musical movement.

The drones which the long string instrument produced were not soporific, and didn’t offer a new age blanket. They were astringent, with overtones piling up in justly intoned masses, shifting in dense fogs of billowing sound. Overlaid on this sonic cloud mass, German musician and artist Konrad Sprenger (aka Jörg Hiller) sprinkled pointillistic showers of percussive notes from his virtual guitar. They were scattered in semi-chaotic flurries but more widely spaced into a patterned continuum of sound. They sounded a little bit like a cimbalom’s loosely springy jangle, with a metallic reverberation conjuring cavernous underground spaces. A steady run-off of seeping water dripping into a subterranean pool, maybe. It’s a sound environment which has been explored for real by The Deep Listening Band, adding pattering percussion to the pervasive watery splashing, as recorded on their 1990 LP Troglodyte’s Delight.

It was an effective melding of soundworlds, particulate digital bits floating like illuminated dust over the warm currents of the resonantly vibrating strings. At some point, the virtual element started to blur into smeared portamento swooshing, veering into synth-like sounds which headed towards Tangerine Dream territory. Sprenger soon reverted to his previous mode after this brief spacey interlude, however. He brought the piece to a close by systematically shifting down in key and tempo, giving the impression of strings being tuned until slack and flapping with unmusical non-resonance. Fullman slowed down in accordance, moving back towards the home base of the far resonating box (like the upper terminus at the end of cable car lines). Finally, she raised her hands from the strings, leaving the last hovering overtones to dissipate and dwindle into silence. A moment of suspension, and a bow indicated it was all over. It was an entrancing performance which, in spite of the underwhelming setting, benefited hugely from the visual experience of witnessing this remarkable instrumental sculpture tremble into living, singing motion beneath its creators shaping hands.

Neverwhere bus-stop - Brunel's underworld
After this, it was off to Bristol Temple Meads for a rather surreal journey back home, which involved descending into the labyrinthine stone underworld beneath Brunel’s grand station and waiting for a replacement bus service by a tunnel entrance and beneath a distinctly gothic railway building, above which Jupiter shone brightly. It was an atmospheric end to the day. The healthily-sized crowds at both events I went to suggest that this inaugural New Music Weekend was a success. Hopefully it marks the beginning of a long and fruitful tradition.