Branded the ‘world’s first industrial city’ and ‘cottonopolis’ due to its vital contribution to the Industrial Revolution, Manchester continues to bind itself to a strong historical narrative of technological advancement. This history has been reshaped recently with the redevelopment of Salford Quays into MediaCity UK, now home to TV and radio departments belonging to international broadcasting companies such as the BBC, which were previously based in London.
Given the city’s evolving fascination with and reliance on technology as its contextual backdrop, this year’s Cut & Splice Festival – held over the weekend of 10–11 March – took on a special significance. [wcm_nonmember]..
Curated and performed by Manchester-born ensemble Distractfold, in association with BBC Radio 3 and national new music charity Sound and Music, the festival was in the North West for the first time and presented a delicate yet highly sophisticated alternative listening paradigm: ‘an exciting and groundbreaking programme of music that explores technology as an unreliable narrator – a witty, distracted, vague, at times misleading ally’. Distractfold themselves stitched together a programme that gestured towards a sense of sharing and ‘arriving home’ – in the words of the ensemble’s artistic co-director Mauricio Pauly – while folding inside out the ominous surrounding narrative binary between ‘technology’ and ‘reliability’.
The festival’s logistics and scale saw the ensemble move from their usual humble performing base at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation and into the larger venues of Hallé St Michael’s and Hallé St Peter’s, both in the newly revived, former industrial inner-city area of Ancoats. There was also the option to take part in a real-time unfolding of the Mancunian sound-world Electrical Walks (2008) by Christina Kubisch. This piece – a walk guided by the composer herself – began at Manchester Victoria station, where participants received a pair of specially adapted headphones that made audible any nearby electromagnetic fields. Several spaces were made within the walk where it was possible to roam freely and explore the nearby environment, and it soon became possible for one to engage with what Kubisch terms ‘parallel soundscapes’: the different frequencies emitted by, for example, carpark ticket machines, security cameras, ATMs, overhead wires and light-up advertisements. Progressing slowly towards the Arndale centre, and then later to Debenhams, the walk became an insightful experience, which ultimately demanded that the surrounding technologies unveil omnipresent, resonating, hidden truths.
Distractfold housed the rest of their ‘Sound Art Programme’ in Hallé St Michael’s. Lee Patterson’s performative installation The table upended, its content strewn across the floor (2017) saw the composer explore and negotiate the sounds of heavily amplified everyday objects using the dense crackle of burning nuts, the deep fizz of chalk dissolving in water and the dark resonances of different-sized vibrating springs exposed to a small handheld fan. Patterson would also blow air through a thin tube to poignantly push a vibrating spring beyond ethereal overtones to a sharp, jolting, point of clanking exhaustion. In contrast, the interactive ‘kinetic sculpture’ installation by Adam Basanta, entitled A Truly Magical Moment (2016), exposed technological limitations – but not those the artist had seemingly intended. Using the iPhone FaceTime facility to re-enact ‘[t]wo lovers in the middle of the dance floor’, two individuals would call an iPhone fixed opposite to one another on a mechanised framework. Once the call was accepted, each individual would continue to look at their own phone and the mechanism would begin to spin to music, where at its peak speed ‘the background blurs and warps, while the image of your dance partner remains in focus’. However, because the concept relied on a strong mobile data signal, sometimes the ‘truly magical moment’ would not materialise. Instead, both the background and the dance partner’s image would morph into one another, and the spinning sensation would stall into stillness.
The Mancunian new music scene has increasingly flourished in recent years recently, exhibiting along the way an astonishing level of dedication, capability and professionalism – even if its performances are often overshadowed by its northern counterpart the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. (I’m thinking specifically here of 2015, where, prior to and during HCMF, the Royal Northern College of Music welcomed France-based duo Scapegoat, as part of the m62 project, as well as Quatuor Diotima with oboist Christopher Redgate and composer Brian Ferneyhough, while the IABF also hosted Germany-based Ensemble Interface.) In Cut & Splice’s offering of a much broader public platform, Distractfold’s opportunity to curate the festival was therefore not only richly deserved, but also needed. Two evening concerts were held in Hallé St Peter’s, which showcased the remarkable performance abilities of the ensemble, as well as several electroacoustic works. Each piece seemed to challenge and expose vibrantly the narrative binary between ‘technology’ and ‘reliability’. For example, Hack (2014–16) for two connected guitars is described by its composer Sivan Cohen Elias as playing on ‘different imagery and associations: computer hacking processes, an animal-prey relationship, anonymity, illusion, the expanding/contracting instrument and [the] player’s body’. Its programmed performance unexpectedly occurred while audience members seemed to be still arriving and talking. In turn, the performance successfully enacted the composition’s own conceptual dealings: an external source that quickly wormed its way into multiple private conversations.
The festival opened with the UK premiere of The man who couldn’t stop laughing (2009–14), a music theatre piece for amplified quartet and playback by Steven Kazuo Takasugi. Previously performed by Distractfold at the 2014 Darmstadt Summer Courses – the same year they were also awarded the prestigious Kranichstein Music Prize for interpretation – this is a composition that requires the ensemble’s expert brilliance. As part of the composer’s larger scale Sideshow, this piece is designed to be ‘a meditation on virtuosity, freak shows, entertainment, spectacle, business and the sacrifices one makes to survive in the world’. Sat in a straight line, the quartet captivated and cradled the audience on thematic pivots such as humour/cruelty and freedom/torturous restraint, while the playback ensured that the performance itself blurred the lines between illusion and fact. It was an intense achievement, one that ultimately suggested that the audience is masterminding a highly uncomfortable human puppet show. In contrast, Agricola IXe for bass clarinet and string trio by Fabrice Fitch required a much more focused listening practice. Part of the composer’s ‘agricologies’ series, this piece weaves the crossing of two contextual antennae: borrowed material from composer Alexander Agricola (c1456–1506) and the ‘Agricola’ sculpture cycle by David Smith (1906–65). It was beautifully performed, encouraging the listener to navigate their own way through the reliability of arguably one of the most intricate and complicated of all technologies: the internal workings of the human auditory system. It was therefore in showcasing such a broad span of entwined compositional perspectives that Distractfold delightfully construed a programme that was not only colourful but also personal, prising wide open their proposed alternative listening paradigm.