Dervishes and spacemen set for sound festival

Ensemble al-Kindi & the whirling dervishes of Damascus will perform. Picture: Contributed
Ensemble al-Kindi & the whirling dervishes of Damascus will perform. Picture: Contributed
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ANCIENT music and devotional dance from Syria that sees men spin like planets, a parachutist who made a record-breaking leap from the frontier of space, cutting-edge contemporary music, Alfred Hitchcock and Prokofiev for seems that Aberdeenshire’s sound festival knows no bounds.

The month-long festival, which opens on Wednesday, may spell its name with a lower-case “s”, but there’s nothing low-key in its adventurous and innovative programming. Take its opening few days, which commence at that most creative of farm steadings, Woodend Barn in Banchory, with the premiere of Framed Against the Sky, a collaboration between North-Irish composer Brian Irvine, Stirling’s “roofer poet” Billy Letford, the Red Note Ensemble and a community choir.

Then on Friday, Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree will present Ensemble Al-Kindi and the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus. Led by the French qânun zither virtuoso Julien Weiss, the ensemble specialises in sacred and secular classical Arab music, including playing for the extraordinary devotional whirling practised by the adherents of Sufism.

The festival’s director, Fiona Robertson, is keeping her fingers crossed that the ensemble will make it out of their war-torn country. “We’ve always known that it was a risk, and I think we won’t really know until they’re here but we hope that it will happen. Amid the news coverage of the troubles there we can easily lose sight of the wonderful creativity that continues to flourish in Syria.”

While sound is primarily concerned with contemporary music, Al-Kindi’s performance is part of a four-day symposium, Beyond the Semitone, exploring microtonal music, being hosted by Aberdeen University which, with Woodend Barn, is a key mover of the festival. “For thousands of years, music from all over the world has used tuning systems different from those most commonly used in western music of recent times,” says Robertson. “We’re more used to hearing microtonal music in jazz and blues but increasingly contemporary composers are experimenting with the form.

“We’re offering the opportunity to experience a haunting, traditional form of Arabic microtonal music alongside more contemporary works.”

Out of town and, indeed, into the woods, artist Gill Russell will create two light and sound installations, Where Long Shadows Fall and Talla an-t-Sithein – the Hall of the Fairy Mound, in Glenbuchat Woods, Strathdon, informed respectively by local people’s accounts of their lives there and by Gaelic folklore.

This year is the centenary of the birth of the composer Ronald Centre, who spent much of his life in Huntly (where his pupils included one James Naughtie). The festival marks the anniversary with the Isla Quartet performing his 2nd String Quartet along with a new work by David Ward, in the community hall, otherwise known as “the Tin Hut”, in Gartley.

Another centenary, that of Benjamin Britten, will be marked in the rather more august surrounding of Migvie Church, at Tarland, with the Edinburgh String Quartet playing Britten’s String Quartet No 1 as well as James MacMillan’s Why is this Night Different?

One of the festival’s patrons (along with MacMillan and Evelyn Glennie), the British-born Sri Lankan cellist and contemporary music specialist Rohan de Saram, returns to perform and give a talk on his 60 years as a musician, encompassing both western and eastern music, while percussionist Joby Burgess presents Powerplant at the Lemon Tree with sound designer Matthew Fairclough and visual artist Kathy Hinde.

Neither Burgess nor the festival organisers can be accused of elitism – Burgess also presents a “Big Bang” family concert, with works by Steve Reich, Prokofiev and Xenakis, as well as also leading workshops in schools.

“Joby’s great to work with,” says Robertson. “He’s not only an amazing percussionist but is quite relaxed about being sent into tiny venues in the wilds of Aberdeenshire. We’re trying to develop this idea of concerts aimed at young children that aren’t patronising. So they get a 45-minute percussion recital that’ll give them a new musical experience they’ll really enjoy. Last year the Glasgow-based Daniel’s Beard ensemble came up and the children were really entranced by it.”

Community engagement is a prime concern of sound: witness Irvine and Letford’s Framed Against the Sky project which over the past few weeks, according to Robertson, has seen a series of flash-mob-type events and workshops in places as diverse as pubs, schools and art galleries. “The final piece is inspired by these experiences,” she explains.

“Billy and Brian are just amazing at communicating with people and getting them involved and the project already has a really nice feel about it. The challenge is how to create something that will bring in the community yet still be a piece of good new music.”

• sound runs from 23 October until 12 November,