Tag Archives: Sound Festival

Sound Goes Live

Aberdeen’s soundfestival (19-24 October) resumes normal service this autumn with a week-long programme of live performances that includes over 30 premieres and a brand new series of half-hour Spotlight Concerts featuring emerging and local performers and composers. 

At the heart of the flagship contemporary music festival is a climate emergency theme recognising the forthcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow, which features specially commissioned works, environmentally-themed performances under the banner 1.5 Degrees, From the Coast and Distance, and a commitment from all visiting performers not to fly to the festival.

“With COP 26 putting the climate crisis to the fore we have commissioned and programmed pieces that explore the challenge that the world faces,” explained director Fiona Roberson. “We are particularly excited by our co-commission from Laura Bowler, Distance, with which we open soundfestival 2021.” It will be performed in Aberdeen by soprano Juliet Fraser with a live-streamed ensemble in the USA.

Young composers featured in the global warning programmes – also incorporating part of the new Spotlight series – include Jamie Perera, Georgina MacDonell Finlayson, Aileen Sweeney and Emily Doolittle, while established creators Pete Stollery, Pippa Murphy and Alistair MacDonald will direct workshop projects with local teenagers, helping them create electronic soundscapes from discarded waste material. The resulting “instruments” will be used in a performance of More More More, a work originally created for the London Sinfonietta by producer, writer and electronic musician Matthew Herbert.

Premieres in the wider Festival programme include works by Ailie Robertson, Luke Styles, Glasgow-based David Fennessy, and Tansy Davies’ Grand Mutation for violin, horn and piano, a co-commission streamed from France during last year’s virtual soundfestival. Among this year’s guest performers are Red Note Ensemble, the St Machar’s Cathedral Choir with organist Roger Williams and the New Maker Ensemble.

The Festival completes its five-year exploration of “endangered instruments” with a focus on the double bass. French bassist Florentin Ginot – a progressive champion of the instrument through his involvement with Ensemble Modern, IRCAM and Ensemble Intercontemporain – is this year’s artist-in-residence, and will appear as soloist and in various collaborations, including the world premiere of a new sound commission from Pascale Criton with the soprano Juliet Fraser. The scientific properties of the double bass can be explored in an interactive exhibition at Aberdeen Science Centre.

Robertson expressed delight that soundfestival has been able to return to near normal, albeit in line with ongoing COVID constraints.  “Programming a festival as we are emerging from lockdowns has not been the simplest task,” she acknowledges. “However, if we’ve learnt one thing over the past 18 months, it’s that it is important to adapt to your circumstances and just do what’s possible.”

Full details of Aberdeen’s 2021 soundfestival available at: www.sound-scotland.co.uk

UnboundSound, Aberdeen

If you consume every morsel on your plate and read books through to the acknowledgements, you will appreciate the thorough approach of Aberdeen’s “new music incubator”, Sound, seizing the earliest opportunity to finish what it began in its last programme before embarking on whatever is possible for its next one.

That meant putting on the North East’s first concert in front of a live audience on Saturday night in Queen’s Cross Church, with Red Note Ensemble and soloist Richard Watkins, and then taking full advantage of the glorious weather the following day with two outdoor performances at Footdee, to give the area known locally as Fittie its Sunday name.

Until pandemic restrictions were lifted, Sound’s recent focus on the French horn had lacked Watkins’s performance of Philip Cashian’s Scenes from the Life of Viscount Medardo. Although the soloist had performed the piece previously with a pianist, this was the world premiere of the original scoring for a chamber ensemble, bringing together top players from Scotland’s orchestras with freelance specialists under the Red Note banner.

Cashian regularly finds inspiration in literary sources, and there is a huge amount going on in this sonic realisation of an Italo Calvino novella from the middle of the last century. The coincidence that its central battle between Italy and Turkey had been paralleled by a football match the previous evening went happily unremarked. With Ruth Morley switching to alto flute and Maximiliano Martin on bass clarinet, phrases were batted across the platform, with the virtuoso soloist using the reverberation of the church acoustic as part of his performance.

The piece was preceded by two works by young composers Sound has mentored, written for the same group of players, minus the horn. Aileen Sweeney’s Feda explores the medieval arboreal alphabet in three movements corresponding to birch, rowan and aspen, with the central one exploiting the combination of harp and violin. Rylan Gleave’s UNSUNG II; even from a loved one, is an extract from a longer, personal work which utilises the classic combination of flute and harp over a rocking two-note bass figure.

What all three pieces shared were fine, upbeat, ensemble finishes, that allowed the socially-distanced audience to bask in the delight of live performance once again.

Down by the dockside on Sunday afternoon, the French horn was to the fore again in the debut of Call, composed by Sound chairman Pete Stollery. Andy Saunders led a gradually-assembled group of seven players on one side of the entrance to the harbour, exchanging calls with two more on the far bank, and ultimately with the horns of vessels in the port.

The score resolved as an overlapping chorale of the old Alexander Brothers hit The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, surprisingly moving in itself but entirely upstaged by the Cyprus-registered offshore supply ship Normand Surfer, which added its own horn as it sailed out into the North Sea.

Stollery’s work, long in the planning and superb in execution, was preceded earlier in the day and a few yards away, by Esther Swift’s The Call, a three movement work which she was refining for the forces to hand that very morning. With two fiddles, cello, electric bass, bassoon, trumpet, flute, soprano sax, her own harp and a couple of singers, it included some very creative collective improvisation and ended on a lovely song of her own composition that spoke directly to the later commission.

Keith Bruce

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 www.sound-scotland.co.uk

Sound Festival 2020

However quickly its necessarily online incarnation was assembled, there was plenty of evidence that the composers and players featured in this year’s Sound Festival from Aberdeen had thought deeply about the predicament in which they found themselves.

That was most immediately obvious is Ben Lunn’s profound Th’forst munth is th’wurst iv awl, a contemporary spoken-word oratorio in which the composer conducted a trio from the Red Note Ensemble and narrator Tayo Aluko appeared on screen above the musicians. The Nigerian actor was a compelling absent presence, even when he was not speaking, and the words he had to say, culled from the letters of political prisoners, made his every utterance essential listening.

Lunn’s selection of those will surely prove controversial if this work goes on to have the further performances it deserves. IRA hunger-strikers Bobby Sands and Patsy O’Hara sit alongside Ernst Toller and Antonio Gramsci and figures whose persecution is more contemporary. Their words are given proper musical treatment, and Aluko had some very precise cadences in his contribution, all scored to a highly listenable, but still demanding, mix of electronics and live instrumentation.

The three players, flautist Richard Craig, Jessica Beetson on viola and guitarist Sasha Savaloni, also had to turn their skills to intricate percussion as well as being experts on their own instruments. Lunn’s work is beautifully structured: nine movements in three groups of three, with an Overture and two Electronic Interludes, and it builds its smaller elements into an impressive edifice.

That very specific form of isolation from society found a much more abstract echo in the programme EXAUDI pianist James Weeks assembled for himself and singers Lucy Goddard and David de Winter.

lonesingness took its lower-case title from the short work for male voice by Greek composer Zesses Seglias, but the recital was a seamless sequence of ten works, three of them piano interludes written by Weeks. He also took vocal part in Michael Pisaro’s setting of Getrude Stein, A Bird in the Beast, in which many decisions are made by the performers, and which sat well with the choice of Cage’s 1983 call-and-response Ear for EAR to open. In more conventional art-song mode, but each very different, were the world premiere of Lisa Robertson’s Almost, Linda Catlin Smith’s setting of Shakepeare’s Sonnet No.65, In Black Ink, and the concluding miniature by Rodney Lister, using the words of Robert Frost, Devotion.

Robertson also had a work, Archipelago, among the six new pieces played by the North East’s New Music Ensemble, Any Enemy. Founded by violinist Guera Maunder and bassoonist Lesley Wilson, it was a ten-piece group in this incarnation, conducted by composer and festival co-director Pete Stollery. His own Social D(ist)ancing made instrumental play of present restrictions, as, in its own way, did Ups and Downs by former Sound composer-in-residence John de Simone, which is destined to become the opening of a larger work.
Keith Bruce

Image: Composer and conductor Ben Lunn

Virtual Sound

Like everyone else, Aberdeen’s contemporary music Sound festival has gone digital this year. But instead of the usual single autumn event, its organisers have opted for two shorter weekend packages, one running this weekend from 22-25 Oct, the other from 28-31 January.

The first of these is remarkable for the volume of streamed activity crammed into four days, which will be a blend of streamed online performances and films, and real-time talks/Q&As by composers and performers, including Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir. 

Thursday opens with a concert of five world premieres featuring flute and electronics from young Scots-based composers commissioned through Sound festival’s composer development initiative. All in all, 15 premieres will be given over the weekend, including the world premiere of Makem composer Ben Lunn’s new festival commission, “Th’first munth is th’wurst iv awl”, based on letters from prisoners. 

Key events also feature 2016 BBC Young Musician finalist Ben Goldscheider and Pip Eastop as part of this year’s “endangered instrument” focus on the French horn.

Other highlights include organist Roger Williams’ recital of music by Scottish composers written especially for the organ of Aberdeen University’s King’s College Chapel, a programme of vocal music by members of EXAUDI, “lockdown” commissions performed by the north-east’s new music ensemble Any Enemy, and the film Grey Area by Cork composer Sam Perkins in which his passions for skateboarding and music collide.

Sound festival runs 22-25 Oct. Full details on events and how to access them on sound-scotland.co.uk

Image: Any Enemy Ensemble