Sonica 2015 promises audiovisual treat

Olivier Ratsi's audio-video installation Onion Skin
Olivier Ratsi's audio-video installation Onion Skin
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The second Sonica festival promises an eclectic programme of genre-busting melodies, finds Ken Walton

We’re getting used to exciting forms of multi-platform performance in Scotland. It’s not long since 20,000 Edinburgh Festival revellers stood in Lothian Road to view the Usher Hall bathed in a sensational hi-tech lighting show synchronised with the music of John Adams’ Harmonium. If that whetted the appetite for another multi-sensory fix, then Glasgow’s the place to be this week and next for the city’s second biennial Sonica festival.

Herman Kolgen

Herman Kolgen

It’s an event that comes with proven credentials: not just through the success of the 2013 festival, but because it’s an ongoing brand linked to Cathie Boyd’s groundbreaking production house, Cryptic, which has been exploring the outer limits of multi-genre performance uniquely, creatively and successfully, and gathering international renown, since she founded it 21 years ago after graduating from the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).

“Cryptic has been presenting visual music over the years here in Glasgow”, she says. “And for that we’ve commissioned lots of music theatre. But I wanted to create an opportunity in Glasgow where we could present the best visual music from around the world, to showcase emerging British talent abroad, and to find a way in which existing new works could have second or subsequent outings. As producers, we’re very focused on commissions, but sometimes we only see that new work once.”

Boyd describes Sonica as “basically music which is presented visually, or visual art that is sonic”. Since its 2012 launch, it has existed both as a year-round programme of events that has included tours as far afield as Scandinavia and Brazil, and as the keynote biennial showcase festival in Glasgow. So what can we expect over the 11 frantic days of Sonica 2015? The statistics are impressive: 30-plus artists from five continents, and 120 events that include five world premieres and 13 UK premieres. The artists are major, in an out-of-the-mainstream way: from the live and intoxicating sound world of Australia’s Speak Percussion to the mesmerising audio-visual creations of “audio-cinematc sculptor” Herman Kolgen; from the challenging graphic installations of Oliver Ratsi to a fascinating electro-acoustic project invoking the ghost of Enrico Caruso by Glasgow-based Irish composer David Fennessey.

The venues are anything but standard, ranging from the Ladies Pool at the old Govanhill Baths and Hamilton Mausoleum (with its famous 15-second echo), to Glasgow’s Science Centre, where hi-tech installation techniques will share the floor with the mellifluous Italian Renaissance music of Palestrina.

Boyd is particularly thrilled at the latter prospect. “It’s Unesco’s International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies,” she explains. “So we’re celebrating that with Helmholtz, the first major installation by emerging artists Wintours Leap, first performed last year as part of London’s Reverb Festival.

“It uses LED lights to visualise sound,” she adds. It runs as a straight installation in the Glasgow Science Centre from now till beyond the festival itself, ending on 29 November. But during Sonica’s opening weekend, says Boyd, “live musical performances will make the lights light up”. On Saturday afternoon, accompanying music is by the Scots-based Maxwell Quartet, performing string quartet music by Philip Glass, Anna Meredith and Arvo Pärt, while on Sunday 1 November, the Dunedin Consort sing those five-part motets by Palestrina.

Among the less familiar names on show is the fascinating Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto, whose ORDER AND AFTER has been commissioned by Sonica especially for Govanhill Baths, and whose work formed part of Cryptic’s Discover Indonesia celebration last month in Glasgow. “We have been late in discovering him in Britain,” says Boyd, who has long admired Kuswidananto’s work through major presentations at the Lyon Biennale and in Taipei. He uses a unique form of kinetic sculpture, often figures or images that are strangely and evocatively disembodied, to explore issues of self-identity within Indonesian culture and society. “I think he will create something very special for the extraordinary environment that is Govanhill Baths.”

Commissions are an important defining aspect of Sonica, but so is existing work. “Quality is what matters”, she believes. “I also think it’s important that the music connects with you; work that’s memorable. People don’t often realise it, but I do like a melody.” Which is why Boyd is particularly looking forward to the UK premiere of French visual artist Olivier Ratsi’s audio-visual installation Onion Skin, which “questions our perspectives of space in a fictional three-dimensional environment”, with an hypnotic score by collaborating French artist Thomas Vaquié.

“It will be amazing,” Boyd promises. “I first saw it in Rio, in a jungle festival. It’s an extraordinary piece that you can literally spend hours in front of.” Onion Skin is on at the CCA throughout the festival.

Sonica is not just about importing the best new work from outside Scotland. It has a proven reciprocal success in exporting Scottish creative product overseas. “That’s a growing part of what we do,” says Boyd. “Take Tipping Point [a sound sculpture exploring the sonic complexities of changing water levels in glass vessels by Kathy Hinde], which we commissioned in 2013-14. It moved on to London, Bristol, Brighton, Lyon and Brazil. A lot of our work goes out afterwards. We also invite international promoters to see Scottish work in Glasgow.”

All in all, she says, Sonica has generated nine world premieres, exported new work to 13 countries, and reached 28,000 people. It is, in short, a valuable cultural investment that is paying off in both economic and intellectual terms.

“More importantly, the brand is exportable,” she adds. “In February 2016 we will have a Sonica weekend in London, based at King’s Place. Sonica enables us to show the world what Glasgow is capable of.” n

• Sonica 2015 runs from 29 October until 8 November in venues around Glasgow, www.sonic-a.co.uk