i don’t know which felt more strange, being in Huddersfield for a music festival in February (rather than November), or the fact that, somehow, for two decades the university’s Electric Spring festival has entirely passed me by. Better late than never, i suppose, especially as this year’s festival, which took place over five days last week, was celebrating a double anniversary, both the 20 years that Electric Spring has existed as well as the 10 years during which it has been run by composers Monty Adkins and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (an era which has now ended; in future the festival will be curated by a newly-formed committee).
In addition to various daytime activities—including workshops on sound projection (using Huddersfield’s 48-speaker HISS diffusion system) and live coding (supplemented by a late evening ‘algorave’), as well as an MSP symposium and the ‘Yorkshire wiggle’ modular synthfest—Electric Spring centred on five evening concerts, featuring a headline act and opening with a short work by a different composer. The latter varied considerably in terms of both imagination and execution. Ben Potts‘ Cuboid was wilfully obtuse, bookended by bouts of tickling a kind of suspended multiple wobble-board, in between which non-sequitur bursts of shifting bandwidth came and went; it was at least mercifully short. Roberto Gerhard‘s DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile No. 2), composed in 1963, formed the soundtrack to a film by Hans Boye and Anand Sorhabal. This felt problematic in a similar way to some of the film accompaniments by Bernard Parmegiani, insofar as the visuals in no way lived up to the more experimental qualities of the music. Where the film was characterised by symmetry and anecdotal references, full of cycling images with large amounts of repetition, Gerhard’s music, encompassing an extremely wide dynamic range, seemed to follow its own predominately amorphous nose (revealingly, he described it an “aleatoric soundtrack”). The audiovisual combination caused a sharp aesthetic jarring that could only be solved by shutting one’s eyes. β Pictoris b by Olivier Pasquet referred to specifics in its programme note—”an extrasolar planet located approximately 63 light-years away”—but his music could hardly have been more generalised, a study in texture formed from the movement and juxtaposition of a body of timbrally similar particles. This was interesting in and of itself, but how Pasquet’s somewhat psychobabbular description matched his material was mystifying. The highlight of these openers for me was guitarist Diego Castro Magas’ rendition of Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, completed as far back as 2007 but only now receiving its world première. i’m not sure which aspect was more jaw-dropping, Magas’ performance—involving incredibly fast hand and finger agility, racing up and around the fingerboard, to and from the tremolo bar, while operating two foot-pedals—or the resultant music which, apart from a section toward the end, sounded about as far from guitar music as one could imagine. There was, admittedly, a surfeit of information to grapple with on this first listen, Magas positively ploughing through Cassidy’s layers of simultaneous action (one of the most frantic passages can be seen in the excerpt above), but its soundworld could not have been more urgent and inviting. i can’t wait to hear it again. And again.
The main sets that followed, each lasting up to an hour, brought together a fascinatingly eclectic mix of compositional thought. Being an anniversary year, the opening concert took the opportunity for a fresh examination of its mainland roots, exploring the music of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. Hearing their work is vital if they are to avoid always being presented merely as eccentric women whose unconventional musical outlook was tolerated with a smirk and a cocked eyebrow by their male overlords at the BBC. That’s the context in which they worked, of course, but the fact that these strictures did not meaningfully inhibit the music they each composed is important. It was then, and remains still, deeply unusual and strikingly modern. Derbyshire, who stuck it out at the Radiophonic Workshop until synthesisers looked set to take over, was the more meditative of the two. She may always be remembered as creator of the justly famous Doctor Who theme, but works like Blue Veils and Golden Sands and The Delian Mode make it clear that ambient music as we recognise it today was being created over a decade before Brian Eno gave it a name (Derbyshire rather charmingly described it as ‘music to watch sculpture by’). The Delian Mode is particularly impressive in this respect, an exquisite exercise in the careful placement of sounds within a sparse, spacious environment. Oram, who quit the Radiophonic Workshop within a year of it opening, despite having campaigned for its existence for many years, took a more radical approach to the creation of sound, informed by developments on the continent. Her works—created using the ‘Oramics’ system, a machine of her own invention—are less concerned with the manipulation and treatment of existing sounds than with entirely synthetic timbres and textures. While sometimes exploring soundworlds akin to those of Derbyshire—Four Aspects is a lengthy ambientesque meditation—her readiness to embrace the abstract potential of deeply abrasive timbres, heard to remarkable effect in Rockets in Ursa Major, sets her entirely apart. What this concert brought greatest clarity to, though, was the seriousness that pervades both composers’ work. Documentaries about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and its protagonists tend to accentuate an omnipresent sense of fun, as though it was all larks and japes, composition reduced to a jolly wheeze; the bracing, breathtaking works heard on this opening night reinforced just how much depth lies beneath the superficially effervescent context of their creation.
Successive evenings moved away entirely from the kind of fixed sonic art of Derbyshire and Oram in favour of music using electronics as an integral component of live performance (which i must briefly say i thought was a shame; the total absence of contemporary sound sculpture was conspicuous and keenly felt). Loops formed the basis for some of these interactions. Radek Rudnicki utilises modular synths to create beat-based textures that are tweaked, adjusted and shaped in real time; Rudnicki’s focus on the shifting surface materials meant the music had a longer-term sense of directionlessness, but there were episodes of real hypnotic intensity (and beauty) along the way. In her Isnaj Dui persona, Katie English presented an extended sequence of pieces also founded upon loops, some of which are from her most recent album Euplexia. Created from a mixture of acoustic sources, her use of alto and bass flute in particular combined with repeating overlapping modal phrases lent the music a pronounced retro flavour, evoking a kind of lo-fi 1960s/70s folkadelica (think Ghost Box but less aesthetically fetishistic). It was a bit like being on The Wicker Man‘s Summerisle, a sublime melding of entrenched elements of folk wisdom placed into an experimental crucible such that each piece felt part of a gently pagan expressive act. It was a beautiful performance, entirely authentic, but one had to try and ignore English on stage, as her labour-intensive activities often proved distracting to the ethereal soundworlds being created.
Kasper Toeplitz took a more uniform approach, his set playing with sound at the liminal point between being solid or vaporous. Beginning from a long drone, bowing and scraping his electric bass, Toeplitz gradually injected varying quantities of noise, acting to undermine the drone’s fundamental and threaten its integrity. This friction resulted in large enveloping episodes of storm-like intensity, but ultimately found a much more concrete zenith, climaxing in a cacophonous chorus of piercing high whistles, seemingly the product of a flock of huge calling birds. Having established such immensity, Toeplitz swiftly allowed the texture to fizzle and disperse; another surge—perhaps even bigger, one that would really hurt—might have been nice, but the experience had been undeniably impressive. Robert Henke, who brought the festival to a close on Sunday night, presented his 45-minute work Dust. Anyone familiar with Henke’s work in recent years would have found (as i did) nothing especially new here. However, an over-arching structural sense in Dust seemed almost entirely absent; certainly after the first 20-or-so minutes, Henke’s gradual shifting between granular and cloud-like sources had become frustratingly arbitrary. That being said, all was by no means lost: the sense of perspective was extremely strong—his understanding and command of the surround sound environment was superbly demonstrated—and the palette of sounds complemented each other perfectly.
More subdued and more implacable—but perhaps the most impressive of all the evening performances—was the work of visual artist Laurent Segretier, whose video compositions involve manipulations of images from macro recordings of display screens, individual pixels forming the grain of the imagery (music is usually provided by long-term collaborator TNEM). In this respect, Segretier literally blurred the distinction between carrier and content, arriving at a new kind of expressivity. The results were immediate and highly emotive; Segretier’s love-homage to his geographically remote wife, Noli me tangere, was especially poignant, rendered from a slowly shifting pixelated closeup of her face, aching with a sense of melancholic longing. Other times the visuals were so magical they disrupted one’s ability to resolve their character; on the one hand Skyler and Bliss alone featured clearly recognisable images—an icebound coastline—yet the way it slowly morphed and modified its shape combined a sense of time-lapse photography with generative fractal landscapes; perfectly combined here with Monty Adkins’ light yet immovable music, the work was utterly mesmerising.