Music review: Counterflows, Glasgow

Zeena Parkins used her harp cruelly to create harrowing chaos. Picture: contributed
Zeena Parkins used her harp cruelly to create harrowing chaos. Picture: contributed
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WEIRD joy of experimentation wins over a fan of nice tunes

MUSIC festival

Counterflows

Various venues, Glasgow

Star rating: ***

Now in its fifth year, Counterflows is a winningly uncompromising festival devoted to marginal underground music. It is held at various Glasgow venues – principal among them the Centre for Contemporary Arts.

Over three industrious days, this year’s roster was, whether by accident or design, an eclectic celebration of the possibilities of improvisation and controlled chaos.

I like a nice tune – you’re forced to, aren’t you? – but even a fusty formalist such as myself can appreciate the weirdly joyous nature of experimental music at its best.

I was particularly won over by the opening concert from pipe organist Aine O’Dwyer and violin/fiddle trio Mythos of Violins.

Set within the balefully red-lit, pin-drop environs of the Glasgow University Chapel, O’Dwyer’s solo organ piece was an arrestingly atmospheric medley of ominous rumblings, piercing oscillations, atonal jabs, haunting wails and unsettling stretches of heavy silence.

Eventually it blossomed into beautiful layers of melancholy monk melody spliced with discordant horror music, like something from a Dario Argento film. It was ugly/beautiful: Counterflows in essence.

Mythos of Violins were equally hypnotic. They made judicious use of the venue as they circled the pew-bound audience, unfurling a tapestry of intense scratches and squeals – as if the cloisters had been infested by an attack of rabid rats – fused with discordant prettiness and yearning hints of Celtic folk.

How I’d love to hear this piece on Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs.

I’ve always felt that punishingly experimental music becomes especially enjoyable if you regard it as a Dadaist joke designed to annoy and provoke.

Taken in that context, harpist Zeena Parkins and her New York via Scotland ensemble are anti-comic geniuses to rival Andy Kaufman and Stewart Lee.

Inspired by “the intricacies of Shetland lace” their opening piece was an improvised assault of glitches, scrapes and bangs – the latter provided by, it would appear, Fidel Castro on drums – during which Parkins abused her harp with unabashed cruelty.

Using such a beautiful instrument to create harrowing chaos is boldly amusing in itself. Not pretty, but it wasn’t supposed to be.

Their performance climaxed with a horn-assisted cacophony resembling an elephant being torn apart by jackals whistling half-remembered fragments of the Laurel & Hardy theme tune. Hats off to ’em.

Further highlights included avant-garde jazz pianist Pat Thomas, who performed with his back to the audience in almost complete darkness, bashing out a highly dramatic, doom-laden suite, half of which he spent inside his ornate instrument. Who knew that such varied and terrifying sounds could result from attacking a grand piano’s innards?

I was also taken with Brazilian art-terror group Chelpa Ferro, a bunch of austere, ageing boffins – who probably live together in a workshop – machine-gunning the crowd with bowel-shredding slabs of electronic noise and guitar abuse. It was quite magnificently horrible, even heroic in its complete devotion to assaulting the senses.

If that doesn’t sum up the spirit of this commendably niche festival, then I’m a monkey’s aunt and uncle.