Bristol New Music 2022
(various venues in Bristol, 5-8 May)
Angel Bat Dawid + Bendik Giske + Ligeti Quartet + Shirley Pegna/Dominic Lash/Angharad Davies + Kelly Jayne Jones + Sarah Davachi
Gert lush Bristol got gert lively this week with a broad-minded programme of challenging and exciting music, sound and performance in venues groaning from ear to ear of England’s chillest—and repeatedly voted best—city. The delayed fourth biennial Bristol New Music festival is a self-confessed ‘festival by committee’ organised by a collective of Bristol arts organisations including the Beacon, Arnolfini, Spike Island, St George’s, and the University of Bristol, but while this consensus-loving democratic outpost sometimes struggles to achieve consensus to take action on socio-political issues (in the local elections happening during the festival it voted to remove its own position of city mayor), a packed and well-devised programme rolled out without noticeable hitches, though taking a somewhat Bristolian approach to start times.
The 2022 festival was a reminder and something of a showcase of the creative punch of Bristol as an artistic hub and home to an eclectic range of working artists in all disciplines. Its joy even ranneth over, with students at the University of Bristol organising their own ‘festival fringe’ programme Distance Through Time on Sunday presenting the work of fifteen composers exploring the interaction between space and time. Stretching time in a sonic environment without much sense of form but closing the main BNM programme, the dense metallic sound world created by pianist Sarah Davachi’s naif style using saturated echo as acoustic source was at its best at its most dense and plangent. You wonder if this kind of music might work better as a durational performance or an installation, but the concert format does admittedly force you to immerse yourself rather than wander off to the next thing.
No wandering out of artist Kelly Jayne Jones’s performances in the actual vaults of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The hot ticket for only 11 lucky people at a time inside Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s stunning bridge over the Avon gorge, which can accurately be described as iconic. The hollow vaults underneath were only discovered in 2006, and are accessed wearing helmets and PPE down a dizzying ladder. Within, the curved space opens out like a church, with string-like stalactites hanging thirty feet down from above. Jones’s lithopoeic practice involves the use of stones and in Sedimentary Stone Tape aimed to explore the resonances of the bridge’s stone, banging small stones on a pressure pad in an electronic soundscape with live flute. Projections onto the coarse texture of the high walls looked great, and the slightly eerie atmosphere in the artificial grotto — an audiovisual clash of natural and artificial, in an incredible space.
In the Dark Studio of the Arnolfini Gallery, sound artist Shirley Pegna continued the stone theme with Earth Din, made from field recordings and sounds created from electrical currents picked up by radio receiver and seismic activity picked up in Bristol from Indonesia, Greece and Fiji: a sense of space rather too vast to imagine, and the sound feels abstract even when you know the interesting back story. Two cello-bass-violin trio performances with familiar improvising musicians Dominic Lash and Angharad Davies engaged with this sound world, which becomes a sort of audio score to spur creative playing, and the electronics essentially become non-essential backing—necessary for the player rather than the listener.
The theme of darkness continues with Ligeti Quartet’s performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet no. 3 In iii. Noct (2001) in complete darkness at the university building the Victoria Rooms, with all sources and cracks of light extinguished, covered over with black bin bags. With the players in each corner of the room, the 40-minute work teased your spatial sense (I picked up a bottle from the chair next to me but when I tried to replace it I could not find the chair again), and your sense of time. Hallucinations begin, or do they? If you recall, Phronesis’s concerts in darkness were an artistic response to Jasper Høiby’s sister’s blindness, whereas Haas’s explorations of music in darkness seems a bit more cerebral. It certainly demonstrated the Ligeti Quartet’s abundant virtuosity. The rich music could stand on its own right without the compelling gimmick of pitch dark performance, but it was of course sensational, in an anti-sensory kind of way.
Saxophonist Bendik Giske’s music similarly distorts time and space. Alone on a bare stage, the awesome figure in high-heeled boots, PVC trousers and black open shirt, with gold ear-rings and cropped genderqueer hair style, four blinding stage lights introduced a striking silhouette. Forty minutes of circular breathing with only brief pauses between pieces represent an astonishing feat of endurance and technique. Giske’s multiphonics are emotionally excoriating, in a way that you don’t find so much with the great Colin Stetson, who can feel like sports bagpipes compared to the hauntological drama of Giske’s dark formal arcs—these pieces have kind of A and B themes to vary the mood in a structure, even while they are propulsive and hypnotic. An arpeggio figure is set up, usually in triplets, sometimes in more involved rhythmic figures including a seven, with the fingers tapping out the rhythm on the keys of the horn. Unusual and non-standard fingering combinations create unusual sounds and chords that are hard to play: the physicality of the instrument is foregrounded, with the audible breath sounds indicating how hard it is to achieve sound from these impossible fingerings, and yet the sound is huge and powerful, not least when controlled high-note overblowing creates the equivalent of themes over the rhythms—barking, tearing and heart-rending, sometimes bleak, but beautiful: lashing out like solar flares, like fire flickering from a flame. When the tapping fades slowly away, Bendik steps forward with a wry smile—the smile of Rutger Hauer—knowing and illuminated: a compelling performer of rare depth, and a contemporary icon in the making.
If Bendik knows how to make an exit, Angel Bat Dawid—Chicagoan composer, clarinettist, singer & spiritual jazz soothsayer, apparently now resident in another anti-hypey city of chill Berlin—knows how to make an entrance. I once saw her literally roll onto the free stage at the Southbank during the London Jazz Festival. She entered through the auditorium, a commanding physical presence singing; her rich voice tremendous voice and dark piano vamps made me think of another avant-garde icon, Diamanda Galás. Down-to-earth yet wildly cosmic, the performance was as much an audience-artist bonding experience as much as a musical one. Dawid loved the Bristol audience’s responsiveness to her conversations about life energy and social-politico-historical issues—energies that affect us in direct and physical ways that require special work to address. Spiritual and emotional work is real work, the unearthing of what has been buried. “Why do we bury things?” she asks. Responses come: to forget them, shame, guilt, regeneration, being a worm… “Wow,” she says. “Pretty deep, huh? That’s where we went? Everybody actually went there together.” She adds “There’s no performer and audience, that’s a myth,” which people say, but at that moment—that space, that time, beyond space, beyond time—it’s really true.
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
LINK: Bristol New Music