City Halls, Glasgow
The latest post-pandemic cultural reinstatement got underway at the weekend with the first live Tectonics Festival in three years. Nothing has changed from the now time-honoured format, save the actual music of course, which is, as ever, cutting edge and slightly off the beaten track.
It has remained contained within the City Halls complex in Glasgow – a timetabled procession, hither and thither, between the august Grand Hall, the cobbled Victorian street ambience of the Old Fruitmarket and the blinged-up retro elegance of the Recital Room. The mark of cofounders Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell persisted through the customary matrix of installations, discussion and concerts. New sounds, familiar setting.
It’s strange to think that the music of Janet Beat still counts among the former. Now in her eighties and quietly retired, it’s easy to forget that she played such a pioneering role, especially as a woman, in the development of electronic music, yet her music has remained in the shadows. Day 1 of Tectonics 2022 witnessed the first of two tribute concerts, The Beat Goes On, in her honour. At its heart, a performance in the Old Fruitmarket of Puspawarna, her 1989-90 piece for voice, gong and electronics, with Juliet Fraser as soprano soloist.
There’s an alluring datedness to the electronics dimension of this work, dominated – aside from Fraser’s dazzling incantations and the tolling gong – by the pungent persistence of a rhythmically sidestepping keyboard riff, much in the mould of early Messiaen. This was a captivating performance, surrounded either side of the Indonesian-influenced Puspawarna by contrasting improvised responses to Beat’s music.
While Japanese sound artist Yosuke Fujita’s Installation in the Recital Room remained self-functioning throughout the weekend, his live presentation on Saturday was the most visceral way to experience it. A thing of visual intrigue – three miniature aquariums, from which he has synthesised water sounds, set around a primitive pipe organ and mixing desk – Fujita added his own vocalisations to the gradually metamorphosing soundscape, sometimes subliminal, other times gutteral, always with a sense of the spiritual.
It was back to the Old Fruitmarket for a brief double bill presented to some extent as a gladiatorial combat between Volkov and the BBC SSO in the world premiere of Joanna Ward’s “from the trees and from my friends (bean piece 3)” and Jamaican multi-instrumentalist Douglas R Ewart’s Red Hills, spiritedly performed under his direction by the super cool Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.
Each band occupied opposing ends of the venue, requiring the audience to do a 180 degrees about-turn between pieces. First up, the awkward fascination of Ward’s itinerant experiment, SSO players constantly swapping positions as if engaging in some cross-contamination of musical chairs and speed dating, the music unfortunately forgettable. Ewart’s Red Hills, though, was an exuberant counterweight, its initial sultriness and composure exploding into a jam so energised and frenzied it had the joint jumping.
The big event on Saturday was the BBC SSO’s evening programme, which centred on premieres by French experimentalist Pascale Criton, American-born composer and sound designer Amber Priestley and the Norwegian visually-inspired composer Kristine Tjøgersen.
Criton’s Alter, written during the pandemic and with a focus on the elemental transformation of sound and texture, re-introduced singer Juliet Fraser, whose own words fed into a vocal line initially inconsequential, but later powerful in echoing the increasing dramatic narrative of the music.
The SSO, as always, found infinite purpose in Alter’s expressive message, equally so in Priestley’s For Jocelyn Bel Burnell, its title referring to the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars, the process of which Priestley reimagines as a conflict between gravitational references to Beethoven by the main stage ensemble, and ephemeral overlay by the assorted musicians spread all around the audience. The surround experience was exhilarating, the piece itself unhelpfully prolix. What started as a mesmerising juxtaposition turned eventually into an alien invasion.
Volkov saved the best till last, Tjøgersen’s Between Trees, its provocative colours and delicate nuances magically assimilating in a performance that matched ear-catching detail and ample literalism (the odd cuckoo among a clamour of birdcalls and other allusions to the natural world) with the collective clout of its structural arch. Tjøgersen’s background observance of traditional vocabulary made her exploration of new horizons all the more exciting.
(Photo: Alex Woodward)
The majority of Tectonics performances were recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 & BBC Sounds