Tectonics Glasgow Festival

Tectonics Glasgow Festival

4-5 May 2019
City Halls, Glasgow, UK
Event website: http://www.tectonicsfestival.com/

Reviewed by
Iain Campbell
November 2019

Returning to Glasgow for its seventh year, Tectonics is the British Broadcasting Corporation Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s (BBC SSO) festival of “new and experimental music”, and it understands those terms in their maximum extension. Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell’s programming, here as in previous iterations of the festival, takes as its mainspring the well-known lineage of musical experimentalism emerging in the 1950s and 1960s through canonical figures such as John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer. But in line with recent musicological work on the “experimental music” of this period and afterwards, the curation of Tectonics adopts a complicated and fragmented notion of experimentalism; one that serves to undermine stark boundaries and distinctions like those drawn in Michael Nyman’s influential 1974 account Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond.

Even more than in scholarly work like Jennie Gottschalk’s 2016 book Experimental Music Since 1970, which presents a vastly pluralised and diversified image of a non-unified “experimental music”, Tectonics has embraced how experimentalism’s formative moments have had an impact far beyond the institutional homes of new music. Taking advantage of the unusual degree of conversation between disparate fields that has long characterised Glasgow’s musical life, Tectonics extends its reach towards the underground — entering into proximity with another of Campbell’s co-curated festivals, the committedly internationalist Counterflows—and on this occasion turned an eye to some veterans of the UK’s DIY experimental scene. This may suggest a wispily indeterminate conception of the field it’s engaged with, but commonalities emerged throughout the music presented over the festival’s two days, provoking consideration of how to conceive of the curators’ broad sense of “new and experimental music”.

Genevieve Murphy’s Calm in an Agitated World, performed by the BBC SSO with Brighde Chaimbeul on pipes, took as a starting point a quote from the philosopher Bertrand Russell — “it’s coexistence or no existence” — and the reflections on fragile coexistence described in Murphy’s spoken word accompaniment set a theme to which much of the work that followed returned. So too did her use of the orchestral form, with the piece’s tentative and decidedly non-exhaustive examination of motifs unfolding like a fractured counterpart to classic minimalism’s tendency towards absolute comprehensibility. In one of several illuminating artist Q&A sessions across the festival, Murphy revealed that the piece stemmed from her experience of arachnophobia therapy — at once a less grandiose topic than the “life and art in the Anthropocene” theme it first suggested to me, but also suggestive of a blending of intimacy and grandness. What seemed at issue for Murphy was an ethics of living with nature, expressed through a musical and textual thematisation of the difficult coexistence not only of disparate entities, but of entities across vast scales.

The UK premiere of Jennifer Walshe’s The Site of an Investigation spoke to these themes more explicitly. Walshe took on the role of a wandering voice, moving through a playfully varied orchestral arrangement and reciting a rich, diverse text that Liam Cagney has aptly described as being akin to a journey through “the fifty open tabs on your Firefox browser” [1]. Spanning themes of grief, biotechnologies, “normality”, and interplanetary travel, Walshe’s investigation seemed held together only through an at times delicate thread of memory and humanity, and the site being investigated seemed at once the world — or the solar system, or perhaps a little more — and the singular individual; a messy individual, constituted by the regulation of the precarious relational networks in which it lives, in the face of an endless torrent of emotions and data.

Tectonics’ constant reference point of early experimentalism was most clearly evident in the presence throughout of Christian Wolff, with many festival participants taking part in the foyer performance of his celebrated Burdocks that opened the two days, and his Old Shoe, New Shoe, a rare orchestral work for Wolff, also premiering. Its title refers to one of John Cage’s many gnomic anecdotes, and in his Q&A Wolff discussed the by now well-rehearsed thesis of the authoritarian character of the orchestra, with the richly textural, semi-improvised elements that were the highlight of this piece standing in marked contrast to the problems Cage himself famously encountered when demanding restrictions in the freedom given to performers. But the piece itself also recalled Cage, its concern with conflicting elements — here the orchestra on one hand and the percussion of Joey Baron and Robyn Schulkowsky on the other — reminiscent of Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra. Where Cage, however, at that point in his career, sought to bring these elements into unity, in Old Shoe, New Shoe Wolff is happier to produce a multiplicitous coexistence, though perhaps not as successfully here as in the more fluid and welcoming performances of Burdocks.

Juliana Hodkinson too, in her All Around, challenged the norms of the orchestra, distributing players around the hall, but seemed less satisfied than Murphy and Wolff to take this as an opportunity to thematise harmonious coexistence. The effect was rather a primarily jarring one, with rich string textures battling for attention with shocks of percussion. Likewise, Andrew Hamilton’s c exploded a slapstick refrain before concerning itself with a strained attempt to reconstruct it, ending with what felt like melancholy resignation in the face of a lost unity. Mario Lanza’s Experiments in the Revival of Organisms too worked between unity and disunity, building from the tentative beginnings of a discordant organicism into a stirring romantic refrain, before retreating into more pensive and unsteady territory. And Martin Arnold, with his The Gay Goshawk, deployed a “slackness” written into his instructions for string players to leave space for the Scottish ballad that served as the material for the piece, with scattered pizzicati and tentative melodic lines accommodating Arnold’s melodica, Angharad Davies’s violin, and Sharron Kraus’s voice. In each case, the composers seemed to take as a key concern the tenuous coexistence of the orchestra-form itself, following Wolff in perceiving this as something rendered invisible by historical authority.

Sarah Davachi’s Oscen, performed, like all of the aforementioned pieces, by the BBC SSO, provided perhaps the most subtle use of the orchestra over the festival. What movement there was came by degree, producing an understated, meandering calm, reminiscent of the work of John Luther Adams, but without some of that composer’s more epic intentions. In this sense Oscen seems to fit readily with what George Grella has recently called “the ambient influence on contemporary music” [2], but perhaps better suggests a continuity between the two that is often obscured by institutional borders: Davachi is also well known as a producer of ambient and experimental electronic music, and her easy movement between fields reflects recent trends towards unmooring the history of electronic music from any latent notion of it as a purely academic concern.

Within the scope of Tectonics, this suggests a link not only with the electroacoustic music represented in the performance of Luc Ferrari’s Programme commun pour clavecin amplifé et bande magnétique, but also with the rich, distinctly non-institutional exploration of electronics that gestated at the edges of the UK’s post-punk and post-industrial underground, here represented by Andrew Paine and Drew McDowell. The undulating drones of Paine’s SW/I-IV (The Domestique Tunings) aptly stood for a tradition of electronic music that has often been considered separate from its academic counterpart, but perhaps need not be. These diverse lineages could be heard even in Julia Reidy’s Brace, brace, a piece not for electronics but for 12-string guitar, with a use of that instrument’s capacity for both meditative drone and metallic clatter that put the electronic and the acoustic in closer proximity than may be expected. So too with Mahan Esfahani’s superb renditions of harpsichord works by George E. Lewis, Anahita Abbasi, and Miroslav Srnka. Finding inspiration in Afrodiasporic quilting aesthetics, Lewis’s Timelike Weave demanded a remarkably physical performance from Esfahani, but equally revealed the harpsichord’s peculiar digitality, an element also emphasised in Abbasi’s and Srnka’s use of electronics that tended towards being indiscernible from the harpsichord itself.

Other pieces fitted less neatly into the narrative I’ve proposed here. Angela Sawyer’s Hi, a shaggy dog story about strange jobs, music writing, and the guru / outsider musician Father Yod, accompanied by an occasionally raucous barnyard animal orchestra of attendees at the rear of the room, provided lightness and humour to the proceedings. So too did Mik Quantius, whose circle of (cheap) keyboards suggested a virtuoso performance and not the clattering, chaotic exhibition we received; though perhaps accidentally triggering a tinny “rock” beat when dropping one keyboard onto another qualifies as virtuosic. Finally, the festival-closing performance of Scratch Orchestra member Dave Smith’s Diabolus Apocalpysis, frankly, eluded my comprehension — a long string of horror-soundtrack chords and meandering organ lines that beat me into submission.

It seems apt to how Tectonics appears to understand its broad scope of “new and experimental music” that the coexistence of works it enacts will not always be an easy or neat one. Such a difficult coexistence was thematised throughout the festival in diverse ways, and largely successfully. What it may have left unasked, however, is what happens when coexistence does not occur. The music presented across Tectonics presented an image of contemporary music and its relation to the contemporary world that is very far from the aggressively oppositional stance that once characterised new music, and it is with good reason that the singular modernist violence of some of that work may not appeal today. But what we have in its place may tend towards being too comfortable, too satisfied to lean into the small victories of forging one harmonious relation or another. What if coexistence is not enough?

References and Notes

[1] Liam Cagney, “The Site of an Investigation — a symphony for the modern age,” RTÉ, 15 February 2019, https://www.rte.ie/culture/2019/0214/1029594-the-site-of-an-investigation-a-symphony-for-the-modern-age, accessed 23 October 2019.

[2] George Grella, “Imaginary Places: The Ambient Influence on Contemporary Music,” VAN, 18 July 2019, https://van-us.atavist.com/imaginary-places, accessed 23 October 2019.