Sunday, 9 April 2017

Counterflows 2017 - Festival review.

Counterflows Festival. Glasgow. April 2017

Over several years now Counterflows has established itself as a regular event on a crowded calendar of music and performance in Glasgow. Showcasing experimental, marginal and DIY music from all around the world the number of performances this year which were sold out in advance shows that there is a healthy audience for this music in the city. In part that is due to the efforts of curators Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope and the many other people involved in organising the weekend, whose obvious enthusiasm for what they are doing holds the whole thing together. 

This year, for their sixth edition, the music was as varied and eclectic as the venues used to host the events. Over four days we visited Glasgow University Chapel, The Centre for Contemporary Arts, The Glad Cafe,  Garnethill Multicultural Community Centre, Glasgow School of Art, Langside Halls and Queens Park Bowling Club. That's before we even get to a performance at the Laurieston Arches, just across from where my great-grandparents lived in the Gorbals. Going between places of learning, community halls and contemporary art spaces is a good metaphor for the success of the festival, where performers are always part of the audience. Sociable, entertaining and always an education.

Day 1 - Thursday 6th April 2017

University of Glasgow chapel
The opening concert of the festival this year was in the old chapel of Glasgow University. The high space here was filled with birdsong as the five performers of Pancrace Project started their performance. Using everything from the church organ, to Uillian pipes, "piano paysage" (the belly of a piano) and Hurgy toys (which looked like hurdy gurdys) the spectacle was as integral as the sound created. It was nice to hear the organ given a good work out, as sometimes I have attended contemporary music concerts involving a church organ, where the aim seems to be to get as little sound out of it as possible when really what everyone wants to hear is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. 

Pancrace Project
Their performance may have benefited from some trimming, but in part this was my impatience to get to the second performer of the night, Japanese composer and percussionist Midori Takada. She held us spell-bound from the moment she entered the hall, proceeding up the chancel of the chapel accompanied by her chimes as she stalked through a passage of cymbals. Whether giving an extended solo on the gong, playing marimba or on the drums her performance was hypnotic and utterly captivating. With echoes of the music of Steve Reich often in my mind, her performance itself was really like nothing I had seen before. Unique.

Day 2 Friday 7th April

Carnatic music is a form of Indian classical music from Southern India. Usually accompanied by the drone of a tambura the music goes back hundreds of years and is associated with Hindu worship. Last year the festival ended with the Carnatic Music Ensemble and this year there is a deeper exploration of this form of music. This included traditional musicians working alone and with contemporary artists to produce new music. Mark Fell's electronic piece at the CCA based on the rhythms of Carnatic music was enjoyable but the best parts of the performance were when the Indian musicians were playing their own combination of improvised and composed music, accompanied by the rhythmic drumming of Mysore Vadirajmore on his mridangam.

A Carnatic Paradigm
A short walk round to Garnethill followed, always nice to come back here for the cheap bar prices, where Sue Tompkins was first on the stage which faces the wall of Chinese dragon heads high on the wall opposite.

Garnethill Multicultural Community Centre
A visual and sound artist she merges borders between concrete poetry, visual and performance arts. Flicking through the pages of a magazine she emits phrases and snatches of song in a rhythmic manner whilst bouncing about on stage. The nearest thing to it I have seen is Dutch performance artist Jaap Blonk. I enjoyed seeing him perform whilst my kids nervously snorted in derision and that was the kind of mixed reactions the audience gave Sue Tompkins.

American musician and composer Ashley Paul is the featured artist of this year's festival and her first performance of the weekend was phenomenally good. Accompanied by Stevie Jones and an ensemble of musicians of percussion, keyboard, double bass, tuba, saxophone and clarinet it felt improvised but looked tightly composed. A remarkably impressive collective effort. Her floaty singing and energetic musicianship on saxophone and electric guitar was engrossing and reminded me of Julia Holter's performances but with more jazz, more texture and energy. I look forwards to seeing more performances by her over the coming days.

Ashley Paul Ensemble

Day 3 Saturday 8th April

There were many events over and above those which I am writing about here, late into the evenings and on Saturday afternoon, but sadly I was not able to see everything. As I was working at Firhill on Saturday I was not able to see Takahiro Kawaguchi and Utah Kawasaki or attend several of the talks and films on show that afternoon. However as compensation I did get to see Partick Thistle reach the top six of the Scottish Premiership for the first time in a few decades so, swings and roundabouts.

Glasgow Art School
I was able to get to Glasgow School of Art to see the "anti-performance" by Farmers Manual, an electronic and visual arts group from Vienna. This is very much my cup of tea, three guys messing around on laptops and a room filled with pings, buzzes and drones. How much is live and how much is just pre-loaded in their laptops is very much up for debate, like any club DJ nowadays, either labouring away mixing or alternatively twiddling the screen brightness control on his laptop whilst the music plays on.

Glorias Navales performing
Away from the Art School and back to the faded comfort of the Garnethill Community Centre for a quite different performance. Glorias Navales gave a beautifully unpolished performance, a group of Chilean musicians that had the whole room tapping their feet along to the tunes. Their name suggesting the Chilean anniversary of a glorious naval victories, with imagery projected behind them of Chilean ships, Chinese Socialist Realism and Pinochet's coup recalled Chile's turbulent history. With one of the musicians sporting a t-shirt with Victor Jara's face across the front, a folk singer tortured and killed by the Chilean junta, I was taken back to my childhood. My parents had friends who, as Communists, had been forced to flee Chile after the coup and had come to live in Glasgow. I had totally forgotten that I have held onto the small Chilean flag I had been given by them, but I've dug it out now after speaking to one of the musicians about his hero, Victor Jara. My parents used to often play an album of Jara's songs by a group called Inti-Illimani, who lived in exile in Germany as they were touring Europe at the time of the coup, when their music became banned. A warm and intriguing performance by Glorias Navales.

Les Filles de Illighadad
Moving across the globe the next stop-off was Niger. Les Filles de Illighadad are from the Alabak region where they sing and play their Tuareg music. Starting with the melancholic sounding voices of Fatou Seidi Ghalia and Alamnou Akrouni accompanied by tende drum and the wonder that is a gourd water drum, weaving complicated rhythms. For the the second half they donned electric guitars for a more familiar, dreamy Tuareg sound, the music being shaken up by being performed by scarf wearing women, smiling, laughing and enjoying their performance.

Day 4 Sunday 9th April

In Langside Hall in the late afternoon Svitlana Nianio from Ukraine was performing. Svitlana Nianio and her band played twinkly synths accompanied by the percussive sounds of an electric guitar, constrained at times by having a polythene bag weaved under the strings. Above this Svitlana's haunting vocals rose, making each song sound like a dark, cautionary nursery rhyme. Not many smiles were cracked on stage, their music-making a very serious business. Or maybe that was because she had to play in the chill of an April afternoon in Glasgow, in a council hall where the heating system wasn't working.

Mark Vernon in Queens Park Bowling Club
Up and over Queens Park to the next venue, Queens Park Bowling Club. I accidentally indulged in some orienteering as I headed in error to the council bowling greens in the park, before I found my way to the venue. Glasgow's Mark Vernon opened with a perfectly incongruous deck of cables, laptop and cassette players beneath the names of decades of bowling champions. His mixing of field recordings and found sounds from old tapes bought in a Portuguese market was delightful start to the evening.

Ashley Paul was back on stage, this time with German based electronic artist Rashad Becker. From Ashley Paul's squealing sax and bowed and bashed electric guitar, to Rashad's thrumming, dystonic sounds it was an energetic and woozy sonic sparring session.

Langside Hall
Hoping that some heating had been located, we returned to Langside Halls to be sent home warm by the uplifting music of Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force. A collaboration between German dub-techno musician Mark Ernestus and a group of Senegalese musicians, they had the hall bouncing from the start. No band this weekend made a more chic entrance on stage, as the musicians came on one at a time, many wearing big shades in the dark hall. Once all six musicians (four of them on percussion) were on stage, singer Mbene Diatta Seck and dancer Fatou Wore Mboup took centre stage and got everyone dancing. Their acrobatic dancer on stage and dancing into the audience was a real crowd-pleaser.

Another exhausting and entertaining four day weekend from the Counterflows organisers Yet again they managed to bring enthralling and disparate musicians from all corners of the globe to Scotland. They seem to be growing the audience, with bigger halls used and many gigs sold out. If you haven't attended any of the shows over recent years, I would heartily recommend looking out for the 2018 version.

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