Music review: The Sound Festival, various venues, Aberdeen

A harbourside performance incorporating ships’ horns was among the highlights of this year’s Sound festival, writes David Kettle

Call, by Pete Stollery, was performed by the harbour and incorporated ships' horns PIC: Colin Black
Call, by Pete Stollery, was performed by the harbour and incorporated ships' horns PIC: Colin Black

You couldn’t accuse Aberdeen’s Sound Festival of laziness in the face of the pandemic. Forced to abandon its usual live events last autumn, the festival replaced them with two online weekends in October and January. More immediately, They’ve also been one of the first Scottish events to open back up to live audiences, with a weekend of typically eclectic events around the city that brilliantly encapsulated sound’s pioneering, outside-the-box ethos.

Saturday night’s opening concert (****) was the most traditional, though even bringing performers and a live audience together in a room – in this case Queen’s Cross Church – felt like breaking new ground. With three world premieres from the Red Note Ensemble – on cracking form – it was most in the audience’s first experience of live music for several months, and there was expectation in the air. Which made Aileen Sweeney’s opening Feda all the more powerful: inspired by an ancient Celtic alphabet of trees, it was an exquisitely scored, persuasively played trio of movements, with a gentle breeze stirring the aspen leaves, and a gnomic harp solo representing the stand-alone rowan. Poignant, thoughtful and bracingly fresh, it proved the ideal piece to mark a somewhat cautious return to live music.

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There were similarities in sound, intimacy and fragile beauty with Rylan Gleave’s carefully orchestrated UNSUNG II; even from a loved one. Here, however, despite eloquent singing lines for violin and cello, his material was much more nervy, voices cracking as the music seemed on the verge of disintegrating – in line with its themes of voicelessness and broken trust. Though brief, it was immensely powerful, and it trod a carefully balanced line between joy and despair. Horn player Richard Watkins closed the concert as the commanding soloist in Philip Cashian’s madcap, Calvino-inspired Scenes from the Life of Viscount Merdado, a tall tale in music that was dashing and vivid by turns.

On Sunday, two informal al fresco events no doubt surprised residents and visitors enjoying the near-tropical temperatures in Footdee at Aberdeen’s harbour mouth. Esther Swift’s lyrical The Call (***) had been created jointly with a small ensemble of amateur and professional musicians: guided by flags brandished by the conductor, it got plenty of attention from toddlers and their parents visiting the playground where it was performed.

More ambitious was sound chair Pete Stollery’s similarly titled Call (*****), which seemed to convey so much about our need for contact and communication as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic. On Footdee waterfront, a single horn soloist – a superbly athletic Andy Saunders – gave a fiendishly virtuosic, sometimes angst-ridden solo, before cautiously welcoming several companions, then another distant group on the other side of the water, and ultimately the horns of passing ships and vessels further away inside Aberdeen harbour. It was a remarkable achievement, technically complex (and requiring the cooperation of harbour authorities), but also deeply moving in its constantly expanding sonic horizons, the symbolism of which won’t be lost on anyone deprived of contact over the past year. It was a sublime achievement – and one that brought quite a lump to the throat too.

The weekend concluded back in Queen’s Cross Church, with a concert from Red Note bringing together short pieces by six neurodiverse composers (****). While Jason Hodgson’s playful, sometimes downright silly Dimensional Shift had the Red Note musicians’ activities dictated by the changing faces of a Rubik’s Cube, there were more serious offerings, too, in the shape of Siôn Parkinson’s exquisite, Feldman-like Phantosmia, inspired by smell hallucinations that can precede epileptic seizures, and the aching lyricism of Joe Stollery’s captivating Seely Circles.

The festival hardly opted for straightforward options in its return to live, in-person performances, but it was a brilliantly conceived weekend of music that managed to console, celebrate and challenge in equal measure.

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