Music review: Counterflows Festival

Evan Parker and Sten Sandell's piece was interesting and in some places inspirational. Picture: TSPL
Evan Parker and Sten Sandell's piece was interesting and in some places inspirational. Picture: TSPL
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Experiment for Demolished Structures

CCA Glasgow

Star rating: **

Improvisations for Church Organ & Saxophone

Glasgow University Chapel, Glasgow

Star rating: ***

We NORMALLY refer to the Glasgow Underground as the dinky circular Tube system that rumbles softly under the city streets. But over the Easter weekend, the city’s cultural underground surfaced in the form of the 2015 Counterflows festival, based mainly at the intellectually hip CCA, and featuring a feast of experimental and improvised music of undefinable category from far-flung corners of the globe. Including Glasgow.

In many ways, it was like a flashback to the heady 1980s of the Third Eye Centre (the CCA’s predecessor in this artistic warren in Sauchiehall Street); a sense of chaotic excitement as the young and the old of the trendy set proceeded from one short event to the next by way of a pit stop at the chat-filled bar; and where published starting times are open to interpretation.

I caught two of the concerts: a new vocal work by Glasgow-based musician Richard Youngs, whose recent involvement with Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics Festival has seen him venture into more classical-orientated areas of composition, including his first work for orchestra; and a duo improvisation by Evan Parker and Sten Sandell for church organ and saxophone – a co-commission with Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival – over at Glasgow University Chapel that just seemed too irreverent to miss.

The latter was the more successful, in that Youngs’s Experiment for Demolished Structures came over as exactly that: an experiment, but one that went phut. In the diminutive theatre space at CCA, four singers – soprano Aimee Toshney, alto Grace Durham, tenor Jonathan Cooke and bass Dave Horton – stood on elevated platforms at each corner of the room, delivering 25 minutes worth of a cappella sound wrapped around the centrally-positioned promenading audience.

There were words, I think, “based upon demolished Brutalist structures” which the programme booklet named as a Portsmouth shopping centre, a London cinema, a Stirling swimming pool and a former Glasgow University nightclub. But I couldn’t make out a single one. Had the music been an experience in itself, that may not have mattered. Instead, we heard a seemingly random stream of slow-moving notes, rhythmless, directionless and shapeless. It didn’t get any particular point across, real or subliminal.

On the other hand, Parker and Sandell had more to say in their extended Improvisations for Church Organ and Saxophone, on the one hand about the power of acoustics in shaping a performance, and on the other, how live, interactive musical making can create a sense of infectious vulnerability and suspense.

That said, the most dynamic moments came when each musician, positioned either end of the chapel with Sandell high up in the organ loft, was in solo mode – Sandell’s growling pedal clusters overlaid with an inventive polyphony of translucent colour, from stabbing reed to tinkling mutation stops, compared to Parker’s whirlwind finger work and rasping accents.

Once or twice, their coming together resulted in a true synthesis of thought and spontaneous inspiration. At these moments, the promise of the event was entirely fulfilled, and the feisty spirit of Counterflows filled our minds and ears.

KEN WALTON

Seen on 2-5 April

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