BEAST FEaST 2022: Resonances (Part 1)

by 5:4

The key word, i think, is “feast”. There was something gloriously gluttonous about the quantity of music performed at BEAST FEaST 2022, though considering the festival was celebrating both the 40th anniversary of the founding of Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre and the recent 70th birthday of its founder Jonty Harrison, such enthusiastic generosity seemed appropriate. Due to this dual celebration, in addition to presenting new works the eight concerts were also used for a retrospective, bringing back music and composers associated with BEAST during the last four decades. This was illuminating and revealing, in all sorts of ways.

Apropos: some overall observations. First, considering the fact that a great deal of UK-based acousmatic music is not (and has never been) widely available on easily obtainable recordings, the opportunity to hear such a large amount at this festival was invaluable. Of course, being performed on BEAST’s own bespoke multi-channel setup made this an ideal listening context. (The concerts were also all streamed on YouTube in binaural sound, enabling viewers to experience something similar at home.)

Second, there was a tendency in the earlier days of BEAST (and in contemporaneous acousmatic music from outside the UK) for much of the music to have a somewhat metallic patina, making any and all natural sounds overtly ‘machine’ – no doubt a side-effect of the comparatively more primitive technology being used at that time. It’s something i clearly remember from my days as an undergrad at the Birmingham Conservatoire, when i would regularly head over to the University to get my fill of electronic music at BEAST concerts. i discussed this in my Dialogues with BEAST alumni Natasha Barrett and Monty Adkins (the latter of whom was curiously absent from the festival), and it was interesting to hear it vividly demonstrated in many of the older works heard at BEAST FEaST 2022, perhaps most prominently in Denis Smalley‘s 1992 Valley Flow.

Third, tangentially connected to the issue of the metallic patina, hearing so much of this music at once could only highlight the enormous similarities so many of the compositions had to each other, primarily in terms of timbral and gestural considerations. This isn’t by any means limited to the vintage works, and it was often surprising to hear more recent pieces sounding strikingly similar to their predecessors. Perhaps it’s the inevitable outcome of a compositional niche within a niche, where traits are more likely to be shared and reinforced. Nonetheless, it meant that the music that made the strongest impression was generally that which deviated from, or at least played fast and loose with, this notion of a “BEAST aesthetic”.

Fourth, where are all the women? 80% of the pieces performed during BEAST FEaST 2022 were by men, and at all of the events the vast majority of attendees were men. This always seems to have been the case – and Natasha Barrett specifically talked about it during our Dialogue – but the fact it’s evidently still true in 2022 is troubling.

The performances took place in two spaces within the Bramall Music Building, the Dome Room and the Elgar Concert Hall, each of which housed an extensive multi-channel speaker system. While it was in the Dome Room that i heard some of the most outstanding music during the festival, this space was marred by being afflicted, at quarter-hour intervals, by the merciless clanging of the nearby clock tower. Anyone who happened to be performing on the hour was doomed. Happily, many of the best pieces managed to avoid the bongs. Emma Margetson‘s Elapsing, the first piece in the first concert, was a nicely soft-edged stream of consciousness, mixing field recordings with mild pitches, getting the festival up and running in a vaguely ambient manner. More playful was Natasha Barrett‘s new miniature Dream Awake, toying with watery impacts in a variety of guises and formations, underpinned by ground-shaking bass swells. Proximes, an 8-channel work by Christopher Haworth, was mesmerising in the way a high cluster gradually changed; it was one of the most still pieces played during the festival, but all the more effective as a result.

Emma Margetson: Dome Room, University of Birmingham, 28 June 2022 (photo: William Fallows)

In fact, though it was hardly the dominant approach, some of the most memorable performances at BEAST FEaST 2022 demonstrated a gentle handling of sound materials. Steve Benner‘s Sólheimajökull: Ice Movement wasn’t just perhaps the most extreme example, it was also the only piece to focus exclusively on untreated sounds. Its assemblage of tiny droplets, wind noise and abstract clatter could almost have been electronically-created – all the more so when sustained pipe-like drones materialised partway through – begging the question as to why more composers hadn’t opted to explore the possibilities of leaving more of their sounds au naturel. Similarly naturalistic was Joseph Hyde‘s Levels and Perspectives 2: Windpump, a short audiovisual study of a Somerset windpump. It was akin to cross between a love song and a dramatisation, creating a striking contrast between the peacefulness of the rural setting and the force of the bangs from the mechanism. Its simplicity was wholeheartedly a virtue, highlighting the inherent beauty of the pump’s sounds and timbres. Mud Roots by Mark Ferguson was in hindsight courageously restrained, its extreme quietness encouraging the kind of close listening unnecessary elsewhere. Ferguson created a world that was not so much immersive as submerged, plunging us into a heavily filtered noise bath, occasionally embellished by the strains of a reed warbler. It was deeply impressive, and received an especially warm response from the audience.

In the same concert, Kevin Buckland‘s Sons Libérés used gentleness as a concluding foil to a progression through variations of density, sparse impacts over bell-like resonances and torrential floods; ending with such contrasting delicacy was unexpected but perfect. SOUNDkitchen’s Iain Armstrong & Annie Mahtani gave a live performance of Ilha Verde, suffusing the hall with a disarmingly vivid environment, wind gusting us from all directions. Nothing about it suggested artifice, sounding hands-off, though the duo then twisted things in the opposite direction, inverting the naturalistic openness with a muted world populated by soft granular sounds, deep synthesized tones and a small menagerie of lifeforms. A composer i hadn’t expected gentleness from was Adrian Moore, but his 6-minute …prospecting… (self-deprecatingly described by the composer as a “clip”) quickly moved from tangibility into nebulous regions, living up to its title by feeling its way through soft, beautiful ambience, ending in soft chord cushions with just a hint of something moving.

Iain Armstrong, Annie Mahtani: Elgar Concert Hall, University of Birmingham, 1 July 2022 (photo: BEAST)

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