Festival review: Sonica, Tramway, Glasgow

Sonica, Glasgow’s lovingly leftfield festival of audio-visual art and performance, celebrated its fifth edition with its most varied and ambitious programme to date, centred on its Tramway hub but also venturing into new and underused spaces.

Ela Orleans

So the ugly brick wall of the walkway outside the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland became the unlikely canvas for He Did What? (****). This ten-minute street opera by Belfast’s Dumbworld literally took place on the street, with the audience listening to the music on headphones while animated visuals and supertitles were projected on to the wall.

Composed by Brian Irvine and directed by John McIlduff, He Did What? had all the treachery, betrayal and heightened emotion you might want from a grand opera but was shot through with colloquial conversation and a wicked seam of black comedy as an outraged wife plotted revenge on her philandering octogenarian husband.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Shrill with indignation and abetted by the dramatic dissonance of the music, the aggrieved protagonist resolved to “shoot the fecker in the pecker” before revealing the shrewd ulterior motive for her revenge attack. The cartoon visuals were basic but there was no stinting on musical craft in this pithy, irreverent, inventive, entertaining and accessible vignette. Back at Tramway, Polish-born, Glasgow-based composer Ela Orleans was not going to let a broken foot get in the way of performing Night Voyager (****), a new electronic suite inspired by 18th-century poet Edward Young’s nine-part work Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality and accompanied by archive Nasa footage of the Apollo space programme.

Orleans was given unlimited access to Nasa’s rich film archive to create her collage, marking the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings with clips of celebratory cigars in the mission control room and astronauts’ families too tense to watch proceedings beside the more familiar grainy footage from the lunar surface.

Orleans, wearing her own natty Nasa jumpsuit, was confined to a wheelchair but made a theatrical virtue of her relative incapacity, as she was wheeled up and down stage between her keyboard, violin and that most space age of instruments, the theremin. Her singing voice was suitably unearthly too, resonating spookily over a bed of analogue synthesiser, funereal organ, glitchy disturbance and even a spot of bassy funkiness.

Norwegian sound artists Verdensteatret covered the larger space of Tramway 1 in silver metallic flooring, creating their own lo-fi lunar landing landscape of droids, drones, aerials and mini modules. But where Orleans’ performance was focused, atmospheric and engaging,Hannah (***) was a more scattershot multi-media work, employing digital graphics, surround sound, the geometric positioning of coloured glass panels, footage of power stations and throat singing to more oblique ends.

In contrast, Foxconn Frequency (No3) (****) was an edge-of-the-seat thriller, inspired by the poetry of Xu Lizhi, who wrote about the dehumanising effects of working for Taiwanese multi-national Foxconn before his suicide in 2014.

In this intense performance piece, three pianists in surgical masks were stationed at their keyboards, poised to receive instruction via computer screen and execute those commands accurately within a prescribed timeframe.

Tension mounted along with the industrial clatter on their frantic production line as they endeavoured to meet targets, maintain competency and avoid incurring failure in individual, collaborative and competitive tasks, some onerously repetitive for the performers but riveting to behold.

Sonica also headed out of town for an absorbing pop-up satellite show in Greenock’s 19th-century Tobacco Warehouse. The B-listed bond has been used in its time by whisky distillers and to accommodate GIs during the Second World War but was transformed for the Tobacco Warehouse Takeover (****) into a cool – literally and figuratively – cavern of son et lumiere with low lighting in its murky corners, bright, geometric laser patterns cutting through the gloom and a suitably immersive musical bill curated by the Scottish Alternative Music Awards.

Young Fathers associate and self-taught multi-instrumentalist Callum Easter has sonic creativity to spare, as richly demonstrated by his current album Here or Nowhere. His one-man band set-up was lo-fi – he even triggered his own lightshow, comprising two pound-shop strobing spotlights – but greatly impactful.

Easter’s more-ish performance was bookended by throbbing sub-bass but centred on his soulful voice and new favourite instrument, the accordion, which he fed through a range of effects to create a disorientating backdrop for his visceral songs of war and peace. Catch him soon before he switches format, then catch him again.

Luke Sutherland is another charismatic creator with various bands under his belt and a recurring role as touring violinist for Mogwai. His latest outfit, Rev Magnetic, combined the catharsis of a tight rocking five-piece band with a mesmeric maelstrom whipped up from behind an ample bank of effects pedals and Sutherland’s soaring violin piercing the miasma. Fiona Shepherd