Last weekend Birmingham was treated to what will surely be regarded as one of the highlights of the 2014 electronic music calendar. Presented by Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), Pioneers of Sound was a 3-day festival primarily exploring works by three of the central figures of acousmatic music, François Bayle, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Parmegiani. What made the weekend so special and so poignant was that only two of that triumvirate could be there to present their music; the absence of Parmegiani (who died last November at the age of 86) was conspicuous and keenly felt throughout the weekend.
Contemporary music concerts continue to be somewhat cliquey events; contemporary music festivals are even more so, borderline nerdathons; festivals of contemporary music organised and dominated by the ideology and practice of a single university music department are perhaps the apogee of such occasions, and Pioneers of Sound had its fair share of new works that felt trapped by the combined weight of aspirational pastiche, island mentality and compositional peer pressure (masquerading, as it always does, as camaraderie). These were isolated to the three concerts that bookended the weekend—two on Friday, one on Sunday—given over to compositions by current and recent students of Birmingham University’s music department. It’s a personal thing, but whenever i hear composers utter the word ‘granular’ i instinctively want to poke them in the eye. The predilection for making music that does little more than imitate the effect of sticking your head under the shower has always somewhat baffled me, and it didn’t make the first concert too easy to sit through. Some of the pieces took one straight back to the 1980s; perhaps they were intended as homages, but they were neither new nor interesting. There was also a bit too much evidence of composers luxuriating over sound that didn’t warrant much more than a passing glance; audiences these days are not so easily beguiled.
However, the best pieces were very impressive. Manfredi Clemente‘s Les dimensions du réel conjured up fascinating textures that demonstrated the truest kind of acousmatic verisimilitude, positioning his sounds at the liminal point between abstract and anecdotal. Wake by Charlie Lockwood seemed to have rather too tenuous a connection to its folksong source material, yet Lockwood’s intuitive sense of play led to an engrossing sequence of vivid and unpredictable episodes. But the most striking of these new works were those that demonstratively broke free of all-too-familiar structural and behavioural norms. Julien Guillemat‘s Sonnation I was a fabulous exploration of bell sonorities, while Alistair Macdonald revelled in a gorgeous slow unveiling of deep resonance. His piece, Scintilla, revealed rather too starkly how hackneyed and interchangeable so much of the weaker pieces were, exhibiting what one is tempted to call ‘compositional testosterone’, subjecting materials to the roughest of treatments, success measured in the violence of its subsequent contortions. Indeed, Tim Moyers‘ otherwise engaging rethink on the idea of travelogue in Namaste was marred by the bullishness of his approach that seemed entirely at odds with both his material and the solemnity of his title. Without wishing to labour the point, some of the most telling music in these peripheral concerts came from women composers (who were, it must be said, noticeably under-represented during the weekend), all of whom came at the acousmatic principle from much more individual angles. Norah Lorway‘s Shine lived up to its name, often filled with radiance; it created an interesting context for sounds from the mysterious world of numbers stations, a context that was in many ways just as cryptic. Stations of the railway kind were the subject for Helene Hedsund‘s 9 Stations, a work that opts for cool indifference and dynamic stasis, whereas Brenna Cantwell scrutinised every last morsel of sound in her startlingly visceral Balisong, clouds of noise and semi-identifiable shards whirling past with a ferocious intensity redolent of Autechre. Adrian Moore‘s recent work The Battle was the undisputed high point of these concerts; Moore’s compositional vision has always been hugely imaginative (his 1996 piece Requiem has long been a personal favourite), and this new work—available for free download via Moore’s website—despite its pugilistic title, incorporates considerable subtlety and an impressive lightness of touch.
The epicentre of the festival, though, was where the music attained real heavyweight proportions, in a pair of concerts filling Saturday evening. Bayle and Dhomont were at the helm for both of them, diffusing their works alongside those by Parmegiani. The breadth of invention heard here makes description very much more difficult (my notes were reduced to the barest of one- or two-word triggers), but certain traits made themselves apparent with a clarity i hadn’t hitherto appreciated. Bayle’s work often felt the most obviously processed of the three, rendering the music a kind of glorification of the new sonic worlds opened up via technological means. This often went hand-in-hand with a profound sense of convolution and depth perception; Univers nerveux, for example, felt as though it had multiple focal layers, Bayle moving freely between them. Dhomont projected the most overtly electronic personality, moving farthest from the organic nature of his sources. This led to some incredible flights of fancy but Dhomont’s sensibility seemingly has strong leanings toward a kind of inner stillness, which keeps these flights in check. His À propos de K was a case in point, drawing parallels with ambient music, while Vol d’arondes, for all its excitable, burbling asides, remained entrenched within a prevailing state of bliss. Despite being in the presence of such masterpieces, Parmegiani’s work made the most dramatic impression of all. In contrast to both Bayle and Dhomont, Parmegiani keeps his sound sources close to the surface, some of which recur regularly in his work, particularly birdsong (so similar in many ways to electronic pulses) and the crackling of fire. His 2002 work Espèces d’espaces pursued that approach by creating a kind of biological music, like an exceptionally diverse collection of alien sonic ‘breeds’, made all the more thought-provoking by closing on human and animal sounds. Rêveries demonstrated real sonic extremity (the lack of much music prepared to explore extremes was a disappointing aspect of the weekend), but this was almost as nothing next to the remarkable sense of shock induced by Capture éphémère. Composed as far back as 1967—nearly 50 years ago—Capture éphémère is a breathtaking compositional achievement, both technically—requiring Parmegiani to use the most minute, accurate tape-splicing—and aurally, never losing sight of its origins (a bird’s beating wings) yet exploring one of the most dazzlingly multi-faceted, ever-shifting textural fabrics i’ve ever heard. It was, literally, amazing, and it was clear that mine was not the only mouth falling open in astonishment.
BEAST, led by the indefatigable Jonty Harrison, have done audiences a profound service in presenting such a thoughtfully-conceived and (as ever) superbly executed weekend of concerts. Pioneers of Sound didn’t always convince when attempting to point the way forward, but in terms of demonstrating how acousmatic music reached unimagined new heights of brilliance, it was a revelation.