BBC Radio 3 After Dark Festival at Sage Gateshead

BBC Radio 3 After Dark Festival
(Sage Gateshead. Festival Report by AJ Dehany)

The audience at Sage Gateshead for the BBC R3 After Dark Festival. Photo credit: Barry Pells/ BBC

Sage Gateshead’s first all-night event, After Dark, was an ideal insomnia, a mind-expanding, time-bending 12-hour programme of music and more to mark the spring equinox. It offered sensational value and quality, a nocturnally-themed programme of scored and improvised music and sound, with performance and discussions from dozens of artists in an ambitious and fantastically well thought-out (ad)venture, executed with verve and without noticeable upset by the consistently slick teams of Sage Gateshead and BBC Radio 3. The multiple venues and open spaces of the Sage Gateshead complex are a great place to lose yourself and ride the alpha and theta waves of your night thoughts. 

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Late Night Improv

Contrasting semi-improvised works soundtracked Saturday’s 6.18pm nu-jazz sunset and Sunday’s 6.09am Indian classical sunrise. Saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael’s duo with Niko Ziarkas on echoey guitar moved from a gentle ambient vibe, rising in intensity as the sun fell in the sky. Her style is reminiscent of Shabaka Hutchings in expressive control for both body and mind with direct phrasing and improvisatory authority. 

Chelsea Carmichael and Niko Ziarkas. Photo by AJ Dehany

Corey Mwamba’s BBC Radio 3 characteristically uncategorizable show “Freeness” tends toward fully and freely improvised works. Skipping forward a bit, as we approached midnight in the jazz-familiar Sage 2 hall, the composer and presenter introduced a series of collaborations in the spirit of freeness with turntablist Mariam Rezaei performing with and in between sets by duos Lauren Kinsella and Dan Nicholls and the cosmic power duo Run Logan Run. “This will be exciting,” he said, and it had its moments no doubt. A band is a band is a band but I rather fear most people dread these “impromptu groups.” The difference between performance and jamming can blur sometimes, as with the 1960s supergroups for example. Usually they are opposing or contrasting impulses, and what excites is the tension as much as the frisson from watching creativity in action. Fortunately it worked out with fine experienced musicians on the case.

Andrew Hayes and Matt Brown of Run Logan Run. Photo credit: Barry Pells/ BBC

Vocalist Lauren Kinsella is like the Irish Meredith Monk. She has a similarly fluid approach to mixing composition and improvisation, and only the night before up in Gosforth I saw her perform her 2018 composition ‘Radicle’ (a plant’s first root) with Tom Challenger and Mark Sanders on the second of Jazz North East’s four-night programme The Sound of Science. In the trio her voice and Tom Challenger‘s sax played scored unisons in a single voice like counterpoint never happened. Her duo with Dan Nicholls was more inter-responsive, though from a listener’s perspective not dissimilar despite being unscored and primarily electronic. 

I remember pianist Dan Nicholls from Dice Factory and SE Collective a while back; these days he has a Gen Z haircut and an up-to-the-last-minute sound with woozy glitchy synthesis of sound-based art gestures in which jazz piano now seems to be treated as a sound rather than a means of expression in a conventional way, meshing with Kinsella’s inscrutable fragments of sound poetry (we’re still ruminating on “You arrived on glass shells like a gift delivery with no return” and “My memory box is your present moment”). Lauren Kinsella’s wry nod to the difficulty of their performance for an audience permitted to leave, “We’re gonna play one more ‘cos you’ve been screaming for it,” led to really strong short improvisation with no contrivances or sonic fat whatsoever: pure sound poetry in miniature.

Mariam Rezaei had sampled them and chopped and screwed the sounds with her turntables in a live ‘impromptu group’ with them. It’s hard to know what she is doing but the interaction works, setting up a noisy collage and it developed from there in a whole nonsensical kind of way, responding to events and rhythm rather than tonal material, so it works more like dancing than singing together if you know what I mean. In her collaboration with Run Logan Run the ‘impromptu group’ created an electroacoustic vibe that sounded a lot like late Polar Bear, with a coherence born of being an impromptu group carried by the heft of a very much promptu group. 

Run Logan Run’s duo set varied from Freeness’s usual remit in presenting written material from their two albums. Run Logan Run are the missing link between Binker & Golding and The Comet Is Coming. The duo has a rich full sound from Andrew Hayes’s tenor sax sound, heavily fx’d but never just drenched in electronics, and Matt Brown on the acoustic kit is adept at those ways responsive drummers have of hitting one thing in a thousand different ways, which is the raison d’etre of an acoustic instrument, those micro-changes and tiny differences in space or emphasis that can make a wholly different sound moment to moment.

Dan Nicholls and Andrew Hayes. Photo by AJ Dehany

After Dark main program and wrap-around events

Such micro-changes are the essence of nuance, which is of course the essence of what distinguishes great soloists and great ensembles in classic classical repertoire and in more modern and contemporary directions. The heroes of the night, who performed throughout the whole run of After Dark, forming the backbone of the main Radio 3 curated programme, were the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the Manchester Collective. It’s incredible that each ensemble managed to remain expressive and precise all night long. For most of us, Ian McMillan’s 6pm joke while introducing the festival, that there would be a “a synchronised snore at 4am” that wasn’t wide of the mark, with the main hall of Sage One done out with rather comfortable bean bags.

It was on a beanbag in Sage One where we cried our eyes out to the Royal Northern Sinfonia in their concert RNS Immersion. Missy Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright, for solo double bass and strings is a wonderful new Boulezian wash of inquisitive strings. The dissonant tone clusters and memorable pizzicatos of Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams’ 1993 Dream in White on White evoke the Arctic but were warmed by RNS’s immersive direction under conductor Dinis Sousa. Gavin Bryars’ 1971 masterpiece Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet has never failed to make me blub and bawl yet, and never will. The most frequently played version of this harrowing loop of a tramp shining with shimmering string variations is the 25-minute Nonsuch original, but it has been performed for twelve hours at another all-night event from 8pm to 8am at London’s Tate Modern in 2019. 

That’s 1,656 loops, countless tears to cry, far more tears than even John Dowland could have imagined, and the lachrymose renaissance composer of “Flow My Tears” is often found in the programmes of Manchester Collective. These fab young musicians specialise in bringing proper music to the people and performed throughout the four hour programme Deep Night Tracks from 1.30am-5.30am presented by Radio 3’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch and composer Hannah Peel. 

The quintet were faultless in a typically varied selection of works by Finnis, Hildegard von Bingen, Dvorak, Dowland, with a complete performance of Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” at 4:30am. It’s a half-hour piece with a beginning, middle and an end, each of which I’m sure I heard in spite of some unavoidable beanbag-dozing, and in all seriousness, it was ravishing, never more appositely curated than in such a transfigured night as this. “The appeal of a midnight wood is in its sounds rather than its sights” says writer Chris Yates in a recorded arboreal reminiscence which was accompanied by his son Memotone’s electronic microtonalities in a lovely bit of bedtime storytelling, broken up between short sets by Me Lost Me aka Jayne Dent, the superb electronic artist and singer whose voice sounded haunting beautiful in spare songs and a cappellas drawn from Northumbrian traditions and stories. 

Xenia Pestova Bennett and Ed Bennett’s deconstructions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations using minimalistic piano and electronic sound brought a sense of full circle to the emerging conflation of old and new that was a characteristic feature of the whole After Dark programme. Deep Night Tracks ended on a note of conceptual genius with Ed Bennett’s piece “End of a party”– truly strange music made from the sounds you hear at the ends of vinyl records when the music’s over. Asked by Sara Mohr-Pietsch, “Does it feel good to be playing now?” he replied “It feels strange.”

After Dark Festival is going out on BBC Radio 3 over the next couple of weeks up until the Tune in for live recordings of Matthew Sweet’s discussions “Inside the Equinox” and “Dark Places”, and The Verb with Iain McMillan, a cabaret recording at 6.30pm showcasing resolutely northern perspectives on performance poetry and the theme of change. Charles Olson might have written “What does not change/Is the will to change” but with the increasing profile and accessibility of regional vernaculars and marginalised social groups we have seen demonstrated that the notion of change is itself subject to change. 

This is so except in the case of BBC Radio’s stalwart poetry slot the Shipping Forecast, which is an unchanging monument to everything about British cultural life that is impossible to explain to non-Brits. It is an appeal to an island nation that has lost its empire (and still sees that as a bad thing) and a continual reminder of the strangeness and rough poetry of the British coasts and seas. Originally a functional broadcast to warn sailors about squally showers in Rockfall and Dogger it is now pure sound poetry to reassure your mind and lull you toward sleep, itself immortalised by Carol Ann Duffy in poetry as a prayer. BBC Radio 3’s The Sleeping Forecast takes the inspired decision to add a nocturnal mixtape to the dulcet tones of the report, and I’d have enjoyed more of Viji Alles live reading among the nice-enough music. 

Also listen out for performances recorded at Tusk After Dark, an eclectic event at the Star & Shadow the night before hosted by Jennifer Lucy Allen and organised by Tusk, the great promoters of left-field music and sound art based in the North. Manchester Collective’s Rakhi Singh’s solo-not-solo violin set including multi-tracked works by contemporary composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, set the bar far too high for a varied evening, but duo Yeah You’s uncompromising vocalising and rinsing electronic noise was everything. Their impromptu with headliner MC Iceboy Violet was less urgent, and Nyati Mayi & the Astral Synth Transmitters brought some fairly laid-back Belgian-Congolese approach to ethno-hiphop.

Harkiret Singh Bahra (tabla) and Jasdeep Singh Deegun (sitar). Photo credit: Barry Pells/ BBC

In an emerging new world of change and changing ‘change’ we welcome the less familiar more than ever, particularly non-western approaches that bring us out of our boxes. For the commendable number of people who stayed for the whole haul of the festival from sunset to sunrise it was a long journey through to the wonderful closing performances, beatboxer Jason Singh’s 5.30am spiritually-enriched electronic ambient set derived from a morning raag, followed by sitar player Jasdeep Singh Deegun’s invocation of the new day with another traditional north Indian dawn raag: a fusion of form and content opening with very loose spacious phrasing and getting perceptibly faster and faster with a gentle jolt to the delta and gamma waves to snap you into the new day, after a truly transfigured night.

AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff.

After Dark Festival will be broadcast in Radio 3’s Unclassified, Late Junction, New Music Show, Night Tracks, Freeness, Free Thinking and The Verb from 24 – 27 March,

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