Sunday, 29 October 2017

Sonic-a 2017 Review

Review: Sonic-a 2017. The Glasgow Music Festival "For the Visually Minded".

Curated by Cryptic.


Sonic-a is always a highlight of the calendar for me in Glasgow. The biennial festival is a mash-up of music, performance and visual arts that always turns up some real gems. This year it brings together artists from around the world for 11 days in the city across a variety of venues. The full programme is available from their website, with many family-friendly distractions among the varied films, performances and installations. 

AquaSonic, Tramway 26-28th October 2017


AquaSonic. Photo from their website
The concert in the Tramway which I saw on the opening night of Sonic-a was quite spectacularly breath-taking. Five Danish musicians from Between Music sang and played their specially constructed and tuned instruments, submerged in huge tanks of water. If the premise sounds weird, the execution of it was phenomenal, one of the most entertaining and enchanting pieces of theatre I have seen. I was there with my 10 year old daughter, whose mind was buzzing about it afterwards, and her enjoyment was contagious. 

On a dark stage eerie sounds start to emerge with clever illumination of the tanks then revealing where the sounds are being made. The musicians bobbed to the surface to gulp breathes of air, then went under to continue their performance. Alongside recognisable violins and percussion instruments - singing bowls, gongs, triangles and a darboukha - were beautiful, custom-built instruments, such as a rotacorda, a hydraulophone and an elegant crystallophone. The singing varied from amplified voices on the surface of the water to a peculiar technique of underwater singing which managed to avoid expelling any air. Added to the background drips, plops and bubbles a mysterious sound was created which sounded like Bjork and Sigur Ros in a dialogue with mermaids and whales. 

During the hour long performance the visual and aural spectacle was mixed up at times, with the performers fading into the darkness whilst they blew bubbles into mic-ed up pillars of water at the front of the stage, or hidden behind an unexpected downpour from the sprinklers overhead. Despite all the earnest intent, it looked like a lot of fun and thoroughly deserved the standing ovation the sizable audience gave it at the end.

AquaSonic - singing and playing the hydraulophone. Photo from their website


Govanhill Baths - 
Buzz Aldrin Syndrome, The Extended Tension, Chijikinkutsu, Phase Transition.


Govanhill Baths, Glasgow
Several years ago, against the wishes of the local community, Glasgow city council closed Govanhill swimming baths. Since then locals have been campaigning for its repair and re-opening, whilst running it as a local arts and culture venue. Every nook and cranny of the building is being utilised at present for four installations as part of Sonic-a. 

Upstairs, among the cubicles where the old slipper baths still sit, Japanese artist Nelo Akamatsu has installed a delicate sound installation, Chijikikutsu. Magnetised needles float in glasses of water around dotted all the upper floor. Walking quietly around the ghostly abandonment of the cubicles, many still filled with assorted detritus, the gentle tinkle of needles tapping against the glass as electric currents create magnetic fields creates a fascinating atmosphere. I reminded me of my recent trips walking through some of Glasgow's closed railway tunnels, where the only sounds are the gentle drip of water which are hard to place in the darkness.

Part of Chijikikutsu by Nelo Akamatsu
The two swimming pool halls have been fitted out with noisier exhibits. Manuel Rocha Iturube from Mexico has strung up two electric guitars above the empty pool. The Extended Tension speaks of metaphorical tensions in 20th century music and performers, but basically it is a lot of fun just walking about and getting to twang an electric guitar in an empty swimming pool (if you are tall enough to reach them, I would have had them lower down). 

In the other pool Kathy Hinde presents Phase Transition which  has funnels of ice melting under lamps. As the water drips onto metal trays below the sound is amplified and echoes around the room, driving turntables as they go. It is  hypnotic sight, in a Heath Robinson kind of way. I had heard of French scientist Joseph Fourier, born in 1768, but had little notion of what he achieved. As well as developing theories on the behaviour of sound waves, he also came up with the climate change theory which we now know as the Greenhouse Effect - a perfect person for a contemporary sound artist to create works on.

The extended Tension, by Manuel Rocha Iturube
Buzz Aldrin Syndrome by Quentin Euverte and Florimond Dupont from France, looks like a steampunk off-licence, with assorted bottles of murky liquids suspended from rusty scaffolding poles whilst unrecognisable music from old sci-fi films is amplified around the room. Peculiar, if rather humdrum.

Buzz Aldrin Effect

CCA, Glasgow - ZZZZZZZZZ, Singularity, Nearer Future


As well as hosting talks and performances, the CCA on Sauchiehall Street also has a couple of installations and a VR film on the go in their cinema space.

ZZZZZZZZZ
ZZZZZZZZZ by Manuel Rocha Iturube has a turntable sitting alone on an old chair, with the vinyl record playing the repetitive sounds of snoring. The blurb accompanying it makes great play on the tension between the irregular snoring and solidity of the chair, comparing snoring to the tides and the sea, but anyone who has nodded off in a chair will know that the lack of tension between the two is more of an issue. I mustered a yawn.

In the darkened theatre space of CCA Heather Lander's Nearer Future is running, an hypnotic 3D projection of abstract shapes accompanied by Robert Bentall's ambient sounds, Telian. The music has Scottish tinges to it, though played on a Swedish nyckelharpa apparently, and the vector graphics of the visuals at times gave the appearance of the viewer trying to fly through the vector graphics of an 80s video game. 

Singularity is another audio-visual work, viewed on a TV screen with headphones worn, by Norwegian Solveig Settemsdal, and Kathy Hinde, who also has a work on show at Govanhill. Accompanied by the slowly building music from a string quartet we watch an extreme close up of an abstract white shape worming its way into a black space. The 10 minute loop is playful and intriguing, without ever bursting into life.

CCA Glasgow - Collisions by Lynette Wallworth


Martu elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan
Of all the works on show at the CCA, the most interesting is the film Collisions by Lynette Wallworth. The Australian artist and filmaker has filmed the story of indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan of the Martu tribe of remote Western Australia. Filmed in 360 degrees you don a VR headset and headphones to hear the story of this man, immersed in his environment and able to look around at his world. We hear about his first dealings with Western culture in the 1960s when, without explanation, he was an unwitting witness to atomic bomb tests. It is a preposterous story and heard in his words, in this way, very powerful, particularly the closing scenes of him "mosaic burning", clearing the scrub to prevent the country catching fire. Quiet music from Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Max Richter adds to the piece. It is not a story I had heard before, and I still have it turning over in my head.

Titan: A Crane is a Bridge, Michael Begg. Clydebank


Titan Crane, Clydebank, late October 2017
With pieces in swimming pools, swirling vortexes of water on installations at The Lighthouse and musicians playing music in fish-tanks, water is a recurring theme this year. One other waterside musical extravaganza was happening 150 foot above the former basin of the John Brown shipyards. Although many of us would still prefer to hear the music of hammer on steel, building great ships down here, those days are gone.


The Titan Crane is all that remains of the shipyards in Clydebank, the land cleared and awaiting redevelopment. The shipyard that built the Lusitania, the Queen Mary, HMS Hood and the QE2 finally closed in 2001. My great-uncle Andy worked in the yards as an engineer, as a teenager when the workers celebrated the news of the end of the First World War, on night shifts through the Clydebank blitz and in my pram as a baby I joined him and his colleagues on the UCS demonstrations, when the workers fought to keep the yards open in 1971.


I find it now a sadly forlorn place, a complete contrast to its former glory. The Titan Crane opens through the summer months for visitors to ascend and hear about the crane and the yards, but otherwise recognition of the works that built the town are sorely lacking in Clydebank.

Sound artist and experimental composer Michael Begg was commissioned by Cryptic to produce a work using the crane as his starting point. He has turned it into a giant musical instrument, a colossal version of the instrument invented by Soviet physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termin, a theremin by the Clyde.

Wheelhouse of the Titan Crane, Clydebank
Once the elevator takes you to the top you can see the electronic wires and strings on the upper platform contributing to the sound, but within the wheelhouse, where the giant coils of steel ropes sit. The ambient and gentle sounds here for me were frankly overwhelmed by the beauty of this engineering creation, and the views we were lucky enough to enjoy on a clear and frosty late October day in the west of Scotland. I did not feel any sense of peaceful calm, we were not atop a mountain, despite the prayer flags, but in someone's place of work, whilst all around was desolate wasteland.

Prayer flags wired up to the sound installation

Views east over Clydebank College to Glasgow, with the River Cart flowing into the Clyde


  • Sonic-a runs until November 5th 2017 in many venues across Glasgow


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