Monday, 12 May 2014

Tectonics Festival Glasgow, 2014

Review Tectonics Festival, Glasgow, May 2014


The Tectonics Festival returned to Glasgow for a second year this weekend. Originally devised by conductor Ilan Volkov with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in Rekyavik, he brought it to Glasgow last year. Since then it has grown arms and legs and been a platform for local and international, experimental and modern classical music in Adelaide, Tel Aviv and this year, New York.

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

The programme this year did not jump out at me the way it did last year. I don't think I was alone in finding this, as audience numbers, although decent, seemed a wee bit down on last year's. I wasn't really familiar with any of the composers being performed. However, Volkov with his previous Tectonics programme and the free "Hear and Now" concerts which he still performs with the BBC SSO for Radio 3, is always a reliable guide. This meant that I was happy to be led by his reliable judgement. The Glasgow based BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have surely became one of the world's foremost interpreters of modern classical music. This weekend they were again given the opportunity to perform musical notation which at times can have more in common with a child's drawing book than a traditional orchestral score.

I wasn't able to attend the opening concert at St Andrew's in the Square, featuring many of the artists and composers who'd be performing across the weekend. With Bill Wells, Thurston Moore, Takehisa Kosugi and Richard Youngs amongst others on show, I was sorry to miss it.

Saturday night started with the BBC SSO, led by Volkov, performing French-born American composer, Christian Wolff's Ordinary Matter (version for two orchestras). Visually and aurally it was an interesting proposition as the counterpoint ebbed and flowed between the orchestra, split down the centre of the stage and led by separate conductors. It was slow, creeping and creaking. A high point was the to-ing and fro-ing between the pizzicato violin on the left and harp on the right.

A new BBC commission "'d love to turn by John Oswald was next up, a lighter affair. At times it was familiar, almost bursting into The Beatles "A Day In The Life" at one point, but with more assault on the piano strings in the style of Tom and Jerry. It ended with a moment of coitus interruptus, as the two percussionists raised their cymbals, then failed to climax.

The falling and rising strings of David Behrman's How We Got Here was a gentler affair, being swept away by Georg Friedrich Hass's more grandiose pieces following it. These were the highlights of the evening, with droning strings and brass, full of bombast in the Concerto Grosso No.2 for ensemble and orchestra. This was followed by his Saxaphone Concerto, with Swiss saxophonist Marcus Weiss playing in front of the dark tones of the full orchestra with his baritone sax.

Sarah Kenchington's Sounds From The Farmyard

In the interval we were ushered to the recital room where beautiful Heath Robinson style instruments constructed by Sarah Kenchington awaited our input. As shy Britons we gamely pottered about with them, deigning not to speak to one another or work together (the pipes were never going to work until someone decided to work the bellows). As the evening wore on people were more willing to give it a go. I couldn't help thinking that a bunch of kids would have made more "Sounds From The Farmyard" from it.

Muscles of Joy in The Fruitmaket

Set up next on the floor of The Fruitmarket were Muscles of Joy, a Glasgow band who I've seen before, supporting Tuneyards in Oran Mor. As before I found them interesting if a bit unengaging. They did highlight the gap in genders though as many of the performers, like them, were women whilst most of the pieces played over the weekend were composed or conducted by men. Perhaps it is a generational thing, as there were, particularly on the Sunday, several compositions by younger women.

Four men stare into a piano (whilst performing Behrman'sWavetrain

Back to City Halls where Icelandic composer/performer outfit S.L.Á.T.U.R. took us through Christian Wolff's Metal and Breath (where they either made noises with bits of metal...or their breath). Then Wolff's piece For One, Two or Three People was performed quietly by Wolff, Behrman and Kosugi. Their deferential respect for each other stole some dynamism from the piece. David Behrman's Wavetrain was excellent though, where Wolff, Behrman and Kosugi were joined by Volkov to place pick-ups on the strings of the prepared grand piano and play with the feedback.

Feedback was the watchword in The Fruitmarket for the late concert. Thurston Moore (off of Sonic Youth) wrestled with his guitar whilst Dylan Nyoukis provided accompanying noise and voice. I was amused to see the contrast between someone's child happily playing about to the noise produced and the older attendant from the halls standing behind the musicians with eyebrows more scornfully raised.  There are links appearing here, as Sonic Youth at times played the music of Christian Wolff . Scottish musician Gordon Sharp finished off the evening with his band Cindytalk.

Sunday's programme ran from 3pm until 10.30pm. One problem with this, as on Saturday, is that the performances are fairly constant. Obviously you can dip in and out of things, but I'm always afraid that I'll miss something special. Although the Merchant City is awash with bars and restaurants, there ain't no sandwich bars, cafes or fast food outlets on the weekend which makes getting food quickly an issue. As I'm diabetic, planning when to take my meals and insulin maybe means I'm a bit more obsessed with this than most people, but City Halls has no catering so maybe having a "street food" stall, music themed cafe or meal breaks in the programme could be considered in future outings? Some people came along with sandwiches but I opted to eat first and therefore missed Usurper in The Fruitmarket (who were apparently inviting us "to join them for an early tea".

SLÁTUR and their electronic score

I did catch the end of S.L.Á.T.U.R.'s performance, where their musical notation on the screens recalled the video game "Guitar Hero". The audience watched for their clapping or stomping cues. Two orchestral performances by composers from this outfit will be on show in  Glasgow in October. This highlights the fact that Tectonics is a platform for living, working composers. With its younger than average audience for "classical" music, sitting in a concert hall, pint of lager in hand, it is an idea I think is worthy of praise.

The next 90 minutes were of varied vocal/ choral music. Vocal ensemble EXAUDI, led by founder James Weeks, sang six varied pieces, three of them by Wolff. The main thing to shine through from this was the virtuoso performance of the singers in performing these, at times, challenging pieces. Leaving the hall, more cacophonous voices greeted us in the foyer as members of the Glasgow Chamber Choir and Glasgow University Chapel Choir performed James Weeks's piece, Radical Road (accompanied by pots and pans of gravel and clacking stones).

Next it was time for the BBC SSO to dust off their instruments again with music from two British composers, James Clapperton and Michael Finnissy. Catherine Lamb's "Expand" and "Saturate" from a longer work were excellent and reminded me of the soundtrack score for "Under The Skin" by Mica Levi. They both had some echoes in the final piece in this section. A new BBC commision, A Thin Tree by Austrian composer Klaus Lang, it had a lovely timbre (see what I did there?), which grew and stretched. A lovely piece, utilising the full orchestra.


Takehisa Kosugi's set up

Next we had one of the highlights of the weekend as 76 year old Japanese musician Takehisa Kosugi, once of Taj Mahal Travellers collective. He hunched over a table of electrical odds and ends in the darkened Fruitmarket and produced 30 minutes of electronic noise and interference with light sensitive switches making this improvisation entertainment for the eyes and ears. A treat which showed up some of the other music across the weekend for its lack of ambition.

Volkov and the BBC SSO in The Fruitmarket

Finally the musicians of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra arranged themselves around the Fruitmarket Hall for the closing concert. It was great to see Richard Youngs, who had his guitar on the rack on stage here, take on something of this scale. With electronic sounds, guitar feedback and drums on stage, the strings were arranged around the Fruitmarket hall were the audience milled, brass on the balcony and Volkov conducted from a platform in the midst of it all. An appropriately eclectic performance to finish the evening.


Another enjoyable weekend, lots of composers here to hear their music performed and talk to the audiences. The earth maybe didn't move for me quite as much as it did at last year's Tectonics but some fabulous musicians performing for three nights in some fantastic venues. A real treat and I look forward to it's return next year.

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