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 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

Sunday 22 October 2017

Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Tron Theatre, Glasgow.

Review: Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Tron Theatre, Glasgow. October 2017

Just writing down the date at the heading of this piece, "October 2017", is a reminder that this month marks the centenary of the October Revolution. One hundred years ago the workers and peasants of Russia, led by the Bolsheviks, overthrew the Tsarist state and established the "dictatorship of the proletariat".  Though he died in 1881, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's works demonstrate the tumult of ideas and debate that were going on in 19th century Russia. I find it surprising that there has been very little reflection or analysis in the arts or media about the events in Russia of that time. 

With that in mind I came to see the Tron Theatre Company revive the 1981 dramatisation of Dostoyevsky's most famous book, The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky's final novel is often thought of as his masterpiece, a lifetime of thought distilled into 900 pages of psychological angst. The author's own life was no less dramatic than his novels. His early belief in utopian socialism, led to the terror of a mock execution, then banishment to Siberia. He returned to society with his religious beliefs reinforced and his characters often try, often fail, to live the nihilistic or pious ideals that many people of his time believed or feigned. He was also deeply affected by epilepsy, a condition practically untreatable in his time, that often gave him a feeling of profuse calm before a seizure, but then left him drained for weeks afterwards. Epileptics often feature in his stories, most notably Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. In Karamazov the seizures of the fourth, illegitimate brother, Smerdyakov, feature prominently.

The other three Brothers Karamazov (Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha) have all been neglected by their depraved, wealthy father. Ivan is a revolutionary intellectual whose nihilistic belief, like Raskolnikov, that there is no God and "all is permitted" is tested when someone takes him at his word. Alyosha is a pious, Christ-like figure, who follows the religious teachings of the elderly monk Zosima and tries to put his Christian love into practice. Dmitry is a passionate and hedonistic man, who competes with his father for the love of Grushenka. When their father is murdered, circumstantial evidence points the finger of blame at Dmitry. 

I have written before about Dostoyevsky, and I love reading his meaty books. However Karamazov is not one of my favourites. As ever Dostoyevsky sets out the debate between different ideals before you and gives equal weight to all sides. In this instance few readers get to the end of the book and feel, like the narrator, that Alyosha is the hero of the story. I was inevitably rooting for Ivan, who is driven slowly mad by the guilt he feels for advocating free choice to others. 

So how do you cram 900 pages on the moral disintegration of society into a 2 hour play with four actors? 

On a stark stage, with an earthen floor, the four actors perform as the brothers, taking it in turns to don a fur coat or cloak to become their father Fyodor Karamazov, the devil, Zosima or the Grand Inquisitor of Ivan's poem. Whether the stage is meant to represent a crucible or a gladiatorial arena the performers do at times struggle to clamber clumsily around it, and the long speeches used to convey the arguments from the book are also handled incredibly clumsily. As they launch into another lengthy elucidation of a theory, it comes over like a child reading a poem learned verbatim at school. All the words are there, but the meaning and emotion is lost. 

The performers try their hardest. Thierry Mabonga as Dmitry has an energy that would make you want to spend time in his company, Tom England's Alyosha is a suitably young naive. Sean Biggerstaff makes the most of Ivan's inner turmoil, whilst Mark Brailsford's hammy Smerdyakov leans too much towards caricature to carry any of the malevolence of the book's character. Act 1 is heavy going at times, and there were several people in the audience around us who did not bother with the second half, which was a shame, as things picked up in Act 2. The courtroom scenes allow the arguments of the story to be made in a less contrived manner. The occasional a cappella singing was rather more dystonic than was maybe intended, and did not create any atmosphere of a Russian Orthodox polyphonic chanting, but rather jarred. 

Dostoyevsky can be successfully brought to the stage, as the Citizens Theatre showed with last year's Crime and Punishment. This Brothers Karamazov as it is performed here, does not wrestle with any of the ideas or philosophy in the novel. The parricide could be presented as the people overthrowing the Tsar or any other dictator and dealing with the consequences. Or you could focus on Ivan, who has dreamy ideals of being able to do whatever he wants, but then is faced with someone acting upon these ideals. The resonances of these notions in the October Revolution, or in nationalist debates in Europe can easily be found, but not in this rendering of the story. The actors don't convey any meaning in their long, expositional speeches, they just batter through the words in the script. Maybe taken at a slower pace, the same script read over an extra hour, it would have room to breathe, but perhaps I am clutching at straws. Sean Biggerstaff has played alongside Alan Rickman in several of the Harry Potter films, and it was Alan Rickman who played Ivan in the original 1981 production. This thought did leave me feeling rather envious of those who saw the play back then.