If (like pretty much absolutely everyone) your approach to recreational listening is based around streaming 3-4 minute studio-produced tracks, then ‘experimental’ music or sound-based art can seem needlessly abrasive or plain boring: a half-baked soundtrack with no film to animate.
Sound, though, can do some pretty electrifying things to us, and the key is context. Abandon Normal Devices 2017 brought together an excellent programme of leftfield music and sound installations and put it all in an unparalleled space for active listening: the dark, reverb-heavy cave chambers of Peak Cavern.
The opening night presented Nkisi and James Ferraro, two boundary-flexing producers. Whilst headliner Ferraro divided the crowd with a laboriously repetitive set (accompanied by equally laborious, incongruous visuals), Nkisi presented an excellent live techno set to a decidedly non-techno crowd: young and old, rural and urban, bunched together in a cave intently listening to drum machines and dark synth lines hard and jagged as the surrounding rocks. There’s something surgically modern and determinedly robotic about a lot of new techno that chimes with the pace and essential mechanicality of life as we know it today. Lifted from its usual late-night club context and put in a cave during the evening brings that element to the forefront, allowing us to confront the onslaught of noise head-on like a steam train, which is, come to think of it, very techno indeed.
AND’s core audio programme was collected together into a guided cave experience through three sound installations, Listening To The Dark. As a massive believer in the agency of high-quality carefully synthesised sound played bone-rattlingly loud in enclosed spaces, I found Beatrice Dillon’s Listening to The Dark Residency (set to tour to Somerset House as Taut Line, taking place in a rarely accessible space called The Deadhouse, a tunnel running underneath their courtyard) phenomenally good.
This piece, with no visual elements (other than the dark and vast ancient cave housing the piece), was composed of six rising, falling and interweaving sine waves – the simplest form of sound – played loud through large soundsystems positioned at intervals around the cave. The interlocking waves were an echo of a knot used locally to make a particularly hardy rope. Consuming music predominantly through laptops or headphones, we can forget how intensely physical sound can be – how it can vibrate our deep muscles with sub-aural frequencies that can only be felt: not ‘felt’ in a vague new-age sense, but with a very real trembling movement resonating through us. The sound rang harshly off the hard cave walls, creating tunnels and pockets of noise that you could walk around in, discovering invisible boundaries here and there where the soundscape changed dramatically depending on whether you moved six inches forwards or backwards. The effect was rapturous: sound became a three-dimensional textured fabric that you could move through at will, discovering “sweet spots” where the sine waves harmonised for a moment and left you feeling utterly electric.
Hive, from Ikbal Simamora Lubys, Tony Maryana, and Laurie Crombie (of Liverpool’s Kazimier Productions), featured a specially made electronic Gamelan which hung from the ceiling like a chandelier, its notes triggered by tapping pads on a hexagonal console with a partner. There was no rhyme or reason to the layout of the ‘notes’, leaving people to tap around and explore the layout. Doing this in conjunction with a partner (particularly a stranger) created a situation in which you feel your way around something together; hitting discords, navigating dissonance and eventually finding melodic harmonies. It acted as a collaborative reflection on the pushes and pulls of how we all get to know each other, dancing and fencing around, figuring out where the harmonics lie and moving into those.
The final piece, Mark Fell’s Expressionless Thought Points, was a suspense-laden A/V piece, with blinding strobe lights alternating with long stretches of pitch blackness. It was the most cinematic and performative of the three: after a tense intro, a long spell of roaring low-end sub and bursts of crackling synths, the air cleared, the lights steadied and a soft, dreamy pop tune came on. With ears accustomed to knife-edge high-volt noise, hearing gently rolling guitars again felt like accidentally hitting on a radio station from a satellite. Like many other aspects of AND, its charge came from this process of de/recontextualistaion.
Getting people intensely engaged with sound works best when presented in carefully produced atmospheres that are immersive and cinematic. When done well, it encourages us to refocus the lens through which we observe sound and music. There is, of course, always a place for background listening – the music we work to, or the soundtracks that decorate the time between our walk from A to B – but there’s also something to be said for active listening, giving ourselves up for transformation the same way we give ourselves up to cinema. Delivered in the right way, it can be absolutely metamorphosing.
Abandon Normal Devices is a biennial festival of audiovisual art, new cinema and digital culture. Taut Line by Beatrice Dillon is touring to Somerset House, 7 December 2017. Part One (Visual) here.
Jacob Bolton is a writer and music producer based in Liverpool. T/I @bacobjolton.