Music review: Sound Festival, Aberdeen

YOU’D be forgiven for being surprised to find bagpipes at a contemporary music festival.

Red Note Ensemble and the Orchestre dAuvergne put in some very demanding pieces. Picture: Wattie Chung
Red Note Ensemble and the Orchestre dAuvergne put in some very demanding pieces. Picture: Wattie Chung

Sound Festival

Various Venues, Aberdeen

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But they were there all right – and prominently – throughout the opening weekend of Aberdeen’s Sound festival – which was only appropriate, given the theme this tenth-anniversary year of new approaches to traditional music.

They were there in spirit, if not literally, in Glasgow’s-born composer William Sweeney’s Absence, which got its world premiere on Friday night, part of a bicultural collaborative programme that brought together Scotland’s crack Red Note Ensemble and the Orchestre d’Auvergne from Clermont-Ferrand, Aberdeen’s twin city. Sweeney’s new piece made great use of the piobaireachd Highland bapipe tune Lament for Captain MacDougall, sung out to rousing, poignant effect by the Orchestre d’Auvergne’s strings against glittering percussion interruptions, in an intensely lyrical offering. The concert’s other Scottish commission, Brian Irvine’s hugely demanding Of the Breathing Land, put its conductorless Red Note 11-some through all manner of interlocking rhythmic interplay, but drew a fearsomely committed performance.

The concert’s highlight, though, was the enigmatic Ñawpa by French composer Thierry Pécou, a study in vivid musical images that had eloquent solo violinist Léonie Delaune sliding around in harmonics and whispered half-tones while her orchestral colleagues processed solemnly on, and then around behind audience and off again, leaving her alone with thudding, growling basses and cellos. It was theatrical, even ritualistic, and clearly had something to say – although what that was remained a mystery. But full marks to sound for providing an opportunity to sample these provocative French composers and performers, in a relationship that’s planned to continue.

If it was proper bagpipes you’d been after, though, Saturday night’s Vox/Nu-piping #2 concert would have done you proud – although the ominous presence of loudhailers on stage perhaps indicated that the show’s two singers were going to struggle to be heard. In fact, those riot-police items were used to great effect in narrating the two darkly humorous tales of Oscar Strasnoy’s Hanokh, against spiky pipe interjections from Breton bagpiper Erwan Keravec, pictured below, who also supplied angry, siren-like wailing in Jose Manuel Lopez Lopez’s equally angry No Time, getting its world premiere. The whole project had been Keravec’s idea – to remove the bagpipes from their narrow cultural context and explore their musical possibilities in a contemporary setting – and he was a charismatic presence, detuning his drone pipes to ear-bending effect and summoning such rich, scintillating minimalist textures you’d swear a whole band was playing, as he’d also done in an improvised performance in Aberdeen Art Gallery earlier in the day. There’d been some minor resistance to his breaking the rules of tradition in his pipe experiments, he admitted in a post-show discussion, but they showed beyond doubt the richness of his instrument’s sonic possibilities.

Also pushing boundaries were Argentinian quartet Fulgor al Bies, who set out their manifesto to break away from Astor Piazzolla’s tango nuevo in a concert mixing sound collages, prepared piano and improvisation later on Saturday night. It was ironic, though, that when the foursome’s raw, sometimes chaotic music was strongest, it drew most clearly on Piazzolla’s smoky, sultry tango – as in bandoneónist Eliseo Tapia’s Robert Fripp-meets-Piazzolla Fripolla. Maybe it’s wiser to stretch ties with tradition, rather than severing them entirely.
Seen on 24/25.10.14