Tectonics Festival, Glasgow

Photo courtesy Alex Woodward/BBC

Anyone who’s part of the new music world will probably have heard of the cross-genre experimental music festival Tectonics. It takes place in an ever-growing list of cities, including Glasgow, Reykjavik, Adelaide and Tel Aviv, and features performers and composers from a wide array of classical, jazz, rock, free improv, experimental, visual arts and spoken word backgrounds.

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Founded by the tirelessly energetic and insatiably curious conductor, violinist and improviser Ilan Volkov, and (in its Glasgow incarnation) co-curated by Alasdair Campbell, musical omnivore and creator of the Counterflows Festival, Tectonics stands out in a number of ways. While experimental music festivals often exist at the fringes, surviving on a shoestring and performing to a handful of new music lovers, Tectonics is generally anchored by major orchestras, with a healthy audience that extends far beyond the usual experimental music-going suspects. It is superbly curated: not only are the pieces well chosen and (usually) programmed in such a way to set them to best advantage, but the whole festival is programmed so that concerts react to and reflect upon each other. Most composers have multiple works performed, most performers play in multiple contexts and most musical and extra-musical themes are addressed in multiple performances. Tectonics Glasgow makes full use of the available spaces at City Halls – the small, airy Recital Room, the spacious, acoustically excellent Grand Hall, and the atmospheric Old Fruitmarket. Presenting different pieces in different locations not only allows each to be heard in the most suitable setting, but also gives listeners time and space to consider each piece or group of pieces separately. The walk from one hall to the next works a little like the coffee bean in a wine tasting.

While experimental music festivals often exist at the fringes, Tectonics is generally anchored by major orchestras, with a healthy audience that extends far beyond the usual experimental music-going suspects

My first foray into Glasgow Tectonics 2017’s offerings was an intimate installation/performance of Dead Plants and Living Objects (2016) by Belgian composer and percussionist Pierre Berthet and UK-based Japanese artist Rie Nakajima. This magical work combined the sound-making potential of a variety of found objects into a mesmerizing, ever-shifting soundscape. Vegetable brushes and tin cans scuttled across the floor like noisy insects; plastic bag hot-air balloons hovered in mid-air, dangling from them gently rustling wool, eggshells and a dead pitcher plant; vibrating wires attached to old metal buckets resonated overhead. This use of detritus to create such an intricate, fragile and playful beauty was both comforting and poignant, and felt just right for our precarious times. It was also a perfect introduction to this year’s festival, embodying as it did two of its recurrent themes: improvisation and nature.

Saturday night’s orchestral concert, though different in scale, developed both of these themes. The opening piece was Kassandra (1977) for large ensemble and tape, by French composer and founding father of zoomusicology (the study of the relationship between animal songs and human music) François-Bernard Mâche. Kassandra is a work of continually morphing sound: a recorded rainstorm gives way to a chorus of insects and frogs turns into live instruments turn into bees turn into a wild celebration of shawms turns into a call to prayer turns back into instruments turns into speech turns into racing machines. It feels a bit like traversing the entirety of natural and human history in 23 minutes, but the sounds themselves provide continuity, even when the ideas referenced are disparate. The musicians blended so seamlessly with the tape that I often had to look to see whether they were playing or not.

American-born, Canadian-based composer Linda Catlin Smith’s Wilderness (2005) also reflects on the natural world. This is an introspective work, a contemplation of nature’s vast expanses and subtle shifts of light and movement, occupying a beguiling middle ground between stark minimalism and lush romanticism. Beautiful solos from principal violinist Laura Samuel soared above the rich orchestral harmonies. Seattle-based cellist and improviser Lori Goldston’s newly commissioned piece That Sunrise (2017) is a quietly radiant, gentle exploration of sonorities and texture, with the orchestra serving as a richly coloured extension of Goldston’s cello. The players didn’t sound entirely comfortable with this aleatory score, but they performed well for something so far outside the orchestral norm.

I was unable to listen to any more music that evening – my ears were saturated from the sheer quantity of sound.

The concert closed with Elemental, a 47-minute graphically notated piece composed by and featuring Australian experimental jazz trio the Necks (Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton) along with the BBC SSO. If Smith’s Wilderness allowed us to contemplate the natural world from a safe distance, Elemental put us right in the midst of the elements. From a quiet gathering of disparate sounds, it developed into a shimmering, mutating mass of sound, growing in intensity and density. I thought of lava, of tidal bores, of hurricanes – and yes, of tectonic plates. Though the energy ebbs and flows, there are no silences or pauses, which give the piece both a magnetic attraction and a sense of claustrophobia. After about 40 minutes I wanted to leave (and a number of audience members did), not because I disliked it, and not because it was too long, but because my ears were saturated from the sheer quantity of sound. I’m glad I stayed, but I was unable to listen to any more music that evening.

I was just barely ready to hear music again in time for Sunday’s opening concert, Eddie Prevost’s venerable Spirals (1968), performed by 20 or so of Tectonic’s musicians. Improvising percussionist, and co-founder of the experimental improvisation ensemble AMM, Prevost seeks in Spirals to create non-hierarchical musical relationships as the musicians search together for new sounds. The combination of exploratory music, the darkened performance space of the Old Fruitmarket and the performers dressed in shiny tunics created a pleasantly retro-futuristic atmosphere. Although Spirals no longer sounds as radical as it was did, its inclusion was an important acknowledgement and celebration of the 50-year history of free improvisation.

A chamber recital in the Grand Hall allowed a brief respite from the intensity of the rest of the weekend. Smith’s attractively reserved, deceptively complex Ricercar (2015) was performed with beautiful clarity by Baroque cellist Alison MacGillivray. In Morandi (1991), also by Smith, two pianos and two vibraphones work together as one instrument, creating an apparently infinite variety of shimmering, living tones. American ensemble Yarn Wire’s performance was warm and vibrant. The concert ended on a humorous note with composer-performer duo Parkinson Saunders (James Saunders and Tim Parkinson). In Saunders’ in which one thing depends on another (2016), the performers developed a series of arbitrary relationships between words and a collection of found-object noise makers. The piece consisted of both the ridiculousness of the sound–object pairings and the growing tension as the list becomes harder and harder to remember accurately. By turns musical, comedic and ritualistic Parkinson’s Songs (2011) also relied on the sounds of found objects and spoken words, in this case taken from a marketing survey. Songs was enjoyable, at times strangely moving and surprisingly catchy.

We returned to the Old Fruitmarket for Glasgow-based artist Ash Reid’s performance piece, which dealt with how sexism and classism exclude people from performance and social spaces. The topic, texts and imagery were effective, although the pacing of the performance felt a little uneven. Ironically, the inclusion of one piece about exclusion served to highlight other exclusions at Tectonics. For example, although the line-up of artists was by no means all white, it was whiter than Glasgow as a whole. And although Tectonics musicians came from a wide variety of musical and artistic backgrounds, there were none from the traditional music background in which Glasgow and Scotland is so rich, nor from any of Glasgow’s immigrant communities.

Edinburgh-based composer Shiori Usui’s unique from scratch (2007), for spatially arranged orchestra, improvising percussionist, live electronics and vocal soloist, deals with nature at its most local – the human body – as Usui explores her own experience with eczema. Scratchy sounds were intensified with scratchy visuals – a percussionist loudly scratched sandpaper on his legs, instrumentalists scratched each other on the back and Usui vocally and physically embodied itchy agony. This is an intense, uncomfortable and intriguing piece, simultaneously intimate and revolting, attractive and repellent. The listening experience was somewhere between concert and haunted house. The freely improvised set by Tim Hodgkinson, Paul May and Shelley Hirsch (a stunning performer) that followed was light and playful, providing a welcome balance.

We returned to the Grand Hall for the final four works of the weekend. Young Manchester-based composer Lawrence Dunn’s Ambling, waking (2017) was an enjoyably melodic piece, which often captured the experience of ambling in the outdoors but occasionally felt a bit disjointed. Linda Catlin Smith’s Adagietto (2014) was a beautiful, slow-motion exploration of stretched and extended harmonies. James Saunders’ alternate between attention and ease (2017) paired a series of words with aleatory, notated orchestral interjections. Though I’m not sure how effective it was in purely musical terms, it was enjoyably thought provoking to see and hear an orchestra used in such a non-traditional way. Conversations (2014), a joyous and bright transcription of five improvisations by Roscoe Mitchell, was a suitably celebratory festival closer. Mitchell performed as soloist on one of the movements, impressive in his virtuosity and musical vigour.

Roscoe Mitchell and Gianni Trovalusci with the BBC SSO conducted by Ilan Volkov perform Roscoe Mitchell’s ‘CONVERSATIONS for orchestra’ at Tectonics, City Halls, Glasgow, 7 May 2017. Photo courtesy Alex Woodward/BBC.

Tectonics does many things right: the intriguing mix of musicians and genres, the wise use of different performance spaces, the reasonable cost (£26 for the entire weekend). My heart was warmed to see a baby and a couple of toddlers in the audience, their parents bringing them in and out as the kids’ patience permitted. Tectonics is a flexible, welcoming festival, and we need more of this in the world. Yet there are still some small ways it could be made even better. The schedule is relentless: if I missed your concert, I’m sorry – I was probably nipping out for dinner. A bit more breathing space would allow us not only to eat but also to absorb and reflect upon the music more deeply, to mingle and discuss it with one another. And I’d love to see more interaction with the musicians and artists that make Glasgow Glasgow and Scotland Scotland – not only because I think it’s important for festivals to be as well integrated locally as possible, but also because I’m really curious to see what interesting musical pairings and juxtapositions that would lead to.

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