Sound Festival 2020 (Part 2)

It’s highly impressive what soundfestival has done to counter the limitations impacted on it by the pandemic restrictions. What would normally have been a single, annual full-length live event last October went online like every other festival in these restricted times. More interestingly, it was split in two: one reduced instalment staged back then; the other held over to last weekend (28-31 January), and despite inevitable last minute rearrangements and postponements, running smoothly and with remarkable cohesion.

This latest mini-event continued soundfestival’s ongoing focus on endangered instruments, centring on the French horn, and in particularly a glorious recital by the Glasgow-based Rookh Quartet. Filmed in its ambient home base at the city’s south side Episcopal church, St Margaret’s Newlands, the diversity of music by Jamie Keeseker, Violeta Dinescu, Drew Hammond and Elizabeth Raum for four horns reflected the range of potential expressive possibilities of this ensemble, from brooding darkness to tumultuous resonance.

In another thematic focus, a mix of music, film and discussion threw the spotlight on the power of creativity to inspire composers on the autistic spectrum. If Siobhan Dyson’s audio-visual Sound commission, Listen Carefully, was a super-sensory eye-opener into her personal perceptions of the world, her music also featured with other autistic composers in a rerun of the Hebrides Ensemble’s award-winning Diversions programme, a collaborative performance with the Drake Music Scotland Digital Orchestra filmed in 2019 in Edinburgh and replacing an intended fresh programme by Red Note Ensemble.

Nonetheless, Siobhan Dyson’s Long Sharp Winds for solo violin (Elizabeth Wexler) packed vibrancy and punch, idiomatically indebted to Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale in part, followed by Joe Stollery’s The Skene Obsession, a wild reel infused with ghostly harmonic warping. Then to Rylan Greave’s moody and deep thinking Permanent Address, Benjamin Teague’s soliloquising Miniatures for Clarinet, Sustain and Snap by the late Lucy Hale, Jason Hodgson’s The Destination is Obsolete and the rich pulsating textures of Ben Lunn’s Symphonies of Instruments. 

But if anything really spoke for current times, it was surely the one genuine live event, in which the combined forces of the North East’s contemporary music ensemble Any Enemy and the Brandon University New Music Group of Canada committed to “going live” albeit via Zoom technology, each player contributing in real time from the isolation of their own home either side of the Atlantic, but somehow managing to feed meaningfully into the challenge of creating spontaneous group performances dependent on collaborative improvisation.

Echoes of E M Forster’s novelette The Machine Stops sprang immediately to mind, where individual human isolation is imposed, and any attempt to manufacture physical societal interaction struggles to achieve genuinely visceral impact. Give these musicians credit, though. This remotely combined ensemble of soprano and instrumentalists did an estimable job in making corporate sense of a very big ask.

Yes, it took time to settle. Passing the metaphorical baton between players in Pete Stollery’s Social D(ist)ancing, a wistful muse on the daily rituals we currently undertake when encountering others in the street, fell victim to the idiosyncrasies of Zoom. The luminous melancholy deep-rooted in Melody McKiver’s All My Requests also succumbed to technical fragmentation, diminishing its instinctive cohesion. 

With Michael Ducharme’s Social Bubbles weaving snippets of Covid public information announcements through a sequence of five brief movements, its snappiness was its winning charm. Keith Hamel’s Three Years achieved its cumulation of mournful images, but it was Ollie Hawker’s It’s More Than Just Midi To Me, read from a self-generating midi roll score, that inspired the most gripping, improvised results, a resolute journey from confusion to clarity.

There was something oddly dystopian about the fragility and disconnect implicit in this ambitious programme that provoked a far deeper question about what makes music vital, and what it is we are desperately without at the moment: which is the confluence of real performers and real listeners in real performance spaces. 

The notes might look good on paper, but without the spark of human presence on both sides of the equation its mind-blowing potential is incomplete. This soundfestival had lots to say and offer, but that was perhaps its most poignant message.
Ken Walton

Selected programmes are still available to view at