Classical & Opera: Rich and strange on the planet of Sound

The Lapland Chamber Orchestra are making the trip to Aberdeen
The Lapland Chamber Orchestra are making the trip to Aberdeen
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Aberdeen’s annual music festival will be jammed with new music including a focus on Scandinavia, much vocal work and a bizarrely titled experiment

IF YOU’RE wondering where contemporary classical music is at in Scotland at the moment, there’s only one place to be from next week, and that’s in and around Aberdeen. Starting a week on Friday, and lasting a whole three weeks, the North-east’s annual Sound Festival looks set to be as busy and challenging as ever, with over 70 events in a myriad of city and outlying venues.

Once again, the mix is mesmerising: from electro-acoustic performance to traditional vocal music; minimalist music theatre to standard chamber ensembles; web-based installations to film and dance; there will even be a performance from Mercury nominee King Creosote and a curious interactive work for 20 cassette recorders.

But what makes this year’s Sound Festival all the more vital is a conference running throughout the opening weekend led by the newly formed network New Music Scotland (NMS). No prizes for guessing what it’s all about, though it’s worth getting one or two words of explanation from Sound’s programme director Fiona Robertson.

“The idea was mooted during previous festivals by Aberdeen University’s music professor Pete Stollery and former head of music at Napier University Steve Davismoon, amid concerns that something had to be done to bring everyone in the contemporary music field together – composers, festivals, promoters and composers – to share ideas and expenses,” she says.

“They wanted to find ways in which communication between these people could operate better across Scotland, so we invited as many people as possible involved in new music activities to attend a meeting last September in Edinburgh’s Napier University. These were mainly the small-scale operators, not the orchestras.

“Out of that – over 60 people attended – there was huge enthusiasm for setting up an informal network rather than creating a new institution, which would share information through a web-networking facility, and in turn help to mend the gulf that not only appeared to exist between the central belt and us here in Aberdeen, but even between Glasgow and Edinburgh.”

It was an idea that found particular support from Creative Scotland, and the decision was taken to showcase the initiative as a major part of this year’s Sound programme. Thus the stand-alone opening weekend, jam-packed with vital new works and a keynote conference speech – “New Music: Is anybody listening” – by Jonathan Cross, professor of musicology at Oxford University (22 October).

It opens on the Friday night (21 October) with Scotland’s own Red Note Ensemble, and a physically condensed version in Woodend Barn, Banchory, of the production of Philip Glass’s extraterrestrial opera 1000 Airplanes on the Roof which the ensemble originally premiered in the Concorde Hangar at the Lammermuir Festival a couple of weeks ago in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland.

“This is challenging for us in terms of space, so instead of using the live actor the audience will see him on projected film,” says Robertson.

As for the remainder of the initial weekend programme, Robertson and her NMS colleagues put out a call for submissions of works in all contemporary genres and were delighted to receive around 30 submissions.

As a result, there’s hardly a point in the entire weekend where music isn’t being played or discussed somewhere. There are ten separate events on 22 October. The Viridian Quartet play music for amplified string quartet and electronics, including David Fennessey’s Graft. From lunchtime, visitors to Aberdeen Art Gallery can experience a multi-channel live performance using archive recordings of war testimonials, conceived by Ross Whyte.

Other Saturday afternoon events include a performance by Scots-based Ensemble Thing of Louis Andriessen’s Dutch minimalist classic Hoketus, alongside the world premiere of Distopia, written collectively by members of the band.

Rory Boyle’s Tallis Lines receives its first performance that evening in an event promoted by the John Armitage Trust and featuring the joint university choirs of Edinburgh, Aberbeen and St Andrews, alongside the Pure Brass ensemble. But still to come that night are Red Note, joining forces with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra in Noisy Nights in Banchory, and electro-acoustic artists Hanna Tuulikki and Matthew Collings at Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree.

Sunday is equally hectic, ranging from the electro-acoustic music of Graeme Truslove, to the more conventional Scottish Ensemble and pianist Alasdair Beatson, and not forgetting that piece for cassette recorders – cryptically entitled Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo – in which the audience, in possession of portable recorders, are asked to reflect on the culture of the recording media.

But that’s just one weekend. Elsewhere in Sound the density and variety of music is extraordinary, although there are a couple of common strands that pull it all together.

One of these is a highly visible Nordic thread, emanating from stage one in a three-way partnership between Sound and the cities of Bergen in Norway and St Petersburg in Russia. The other is a major presence in the programming of vocal music which, says Robertson, is a direct response to public demand. “They said there wasn’t enough, so we’ve given them what they asked for.”

Occasionally both strands come together, as in two concerts late in the festival featuring the Stavanger Vocalensemble in music from both contemporary Norway and Scotland. But the ongoing creative aspect of the Nordic alliance is best visualised in the all-day Three Cities Project electronics workshop and performance at Aberdeen University on 29 October.

Using recorded material collected by Pete Stollery in a recent visit to Bergen, workshop participants will spend the day creating pieces of music and sound art to be performed at the evening concert, alongside new electronic works by Stollery himself, Suk-Jun Kim and Ross Whyte.

It’s all a sign that Sound has its finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary music in Scotland. And there are plans to further develop its activity, says Robertson, though not in a way that would place pressure on its already fragile budget: “We don’t want simply to get bigger and bigger. We’re limited in what we can afford, and there’s always a danger that local funding could get scaled down. It’s more sustainable for us to stick to small venues and develop these, and where possible widen the geographical spread of such events.”

Robertson cites as an example the Aberdeen Art Gallery concerts, where they have concentrated on building loyalty from a local audience, an where attendance figures used to be between 50 and 60, but are now sitting at over 120.

Whatever the economics, Sound is living up to its name in terms of cracking the hard egg that is contemporary classical music.

Correction: We mistakenly attributed the show Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo to King Creosote, and apologise for any confusion.

• Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival runs from 21 October until 13 November. Tel. 01224 641122 or visit www.sound-scotland.co.uk