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Challenging sounds from both sides of the pond

Extraordinary Music from downtown New York and Birmingham is being celebrated in a major new festival for the ears. Graham Young reports

Ed McKeon is curator of the Frontiers Festival 2014 and will be bringing weird and wonderful uses of sound to Birmingham

Mozart, Beethoven and Bach were writing classical music long before moving pictures arrived.

But once cinema was invented, we became so enthralled with moving images it took decades for sound to begin to catch up from The Jazz Singer (1927) onwards.

Even today, it could be argued that we still live in an age where what we see is considered to be more important than what we hear.

But, if Ed McKeon has his way, sound is going to play an increasingly important and experimental role in explaining how we feel about ourselves.

As the curator of Birmingham’s new Frontiers festival, he’s staking his reputation on it after organising 200-plus events and commissioning more than 100 works and new collaborations during the last 13 years.

Frontiers: Extraordinary Music from Downtown New York & Birmingham is being presented by Ed’s own company, Third Ear, in conjunction with Birmingham Conservatoire and Birmingham City University with support from Arts Council England.

“Sound is the first sense we get, at the age of about 19 weeks,” says Ed.

“And they say it’s the last sense to go before you die.

“My father died recently and he had Alzheimer’s.

“He couldn’t remember what he’d done 10 minutes earlier, but he could sing songs he used to sing in his teens and twenties.

“Sounds are deep parts of us which we tend to visit at particular moments, whether it’s music, performance or poetry.

“We tend to take ourselves for granted, but through sound we can find out some extraordinary things about ourselves.

“Instead of chin scratching, it makes us playful and it’s not something that needs a big explanation.

“Your perception can be as valid as anybody else’s and the artists we are bringing over will make connections with other people.”

Confirmed artists visiting Birmingham include US accordionist and composer Pauline Oliveros, who was a central figure in the development of post-war electronic art music; avant-garde trumpet player Rhys Chatham, Pulitzer prize winning composer David Lang and Sonic Youth singer and guitarist Thurston Moore.

Object Collection offers the UK premiere of Robert Ashley's celebrated Automatic Writing
Object Collection offers the UK premiere of Robert Ashley's celebrated Automatic Writing
 

Visitors can also expect film screenings in association with the current Flatpack Film Festival, musical workshops and talks.

Highlights include the first ever performance of the late Robert Ashley’s String Quartet Describing the Motion of Large Real Bodies (1971), in which 42 laptop artists perform alongside the Elysian Quartet.

Pioneering American composer Pauline Oliveros – now aged 81 – is leading a real-time improvised performance using super-fast broadband linking artists in Birmingham, California, New York and Montreal.

It will be the first time she has attempted such a feat in the UK.

There will also be a special appearance by drummer Warren Smith with Thurston Moore and the festival will culminate in June with David Lang’s Crowd Out, a new piece for 1,000 voices.

Ed sees Birmingham as the perfect place for the festival to take off due to its nurturing of musical talent.

The Conservatoire is one of only nine UK institutions training musicians to rarified levels of solo performance, composition, chamber music, orchestral playing and jazz.

In 1993 it became the country’s first music college to have an active research programme into composition, performance, live electronics and musicology.

Venues will include lots of corners and spaces in the Library of Birmingham, which will embrace performances for the first time since it opened last September.

Ed explains how great leaps in sound technology were made thanks to the military demands of the two world wars, the latter leading to electronic forms of music.

One performance at the festival will even enable the audience to hear a piece composed by a Microsoft programme using information gathered during the financial crash of 2008.

“A crisis never sounded this good,” smiles Ed.

“It’s fun when you can see the world change at 90 degrees and show that everyday life can have something special.

“From John and Yoko lying in bed to beat poetry, abstract expressionism, minimalism, post punk... so many movements have come of out of the energy in New York. And Birmingham is a city that is always looking forward to the next thing.

“Some of the work has never been performed before, even though it has been worked on for 40 or 50 years.

“Pauline Oliveros is like a Jedi Knight of music – someone who understands what ‘The Force’ is in terms of music.

“She’s 81 now, and a black belt in karate but has been fascinated by sound since 1953.”

Ed says that one of the benefits of technology is that it has been able to help us to hear things that we haven’t heard before.

“Pauline’s performance at the Conservatoire will use 1GB of broadband speed to unite musicians in California, New York State, Montreal and Birmingham in real time.”

In the first performance of Robert Ashley’s String Quartet Describing the Motion of Large Real Bodies (1971), 42 laptop artists perform alongside the Elysian Quartet.

Considered too technologically difficult to perform before, this will be its first fully-realised performance, some 43 years after it was written. Only seven laptops will be used to prevent a crash, but each will have six mini-controls.

The Elysian Quartet perform alongside 42 laptop artists in the first ever performance of the late Robert Ashley's String Quartet Describing the Motion of Large Real Bodies.
The Elysian Quartet perform alongside 42 laptop artists in the first ever performance of the late Robert Ashley's String Quartet Describing the Motion of Large Real Bodies.
 

Sadly, its American-born pioneer died on March 3 at the age of 83, but having met him, Ed will ensure that Robert’s wishes are met in order for the Quartet’s sounds to be slowed to a thirtieth of a second of their normal speed in real time.

“The technique is difficult for musicians,” says Ed.

“But it also means we’ll hear sounds which we didn’t even think existed.

“It’s all about teamwork and for it to be effective you have to listen to each other and be open to what’s under your control or what is not under control... there’s something quite utopian about it.

“We want to invite people to suspend this sense of disbelief.”

Ashley’s early classic Maneuvers for Small Hands will also get its European premiere and first performance in 40 years by the Dutch pianist Reinier van Houdt, whilst Object Collection offers the UK premiere of Ashley’s celebrated Automatic Writing. Ed himself used to play the tuba of a fashion and learned the piano for 11 years.

“But I wouldn’t have the temerity to charge anybody for it,” he says.

One of the events he’s looking forward to is the UK premiere of A Secret Rose by avant-rock pioneer Rhys Chatham.

This will be performed by an orchestra of 100 electric guitars and an appeal for musicians has been wholly successful.

Indeed, some are flying over at their own expense from the US and one man is even funding his way from Buenos Aires to take part.

“When people travel this far it shows that the piece works,” says Ed.

“As a guitarist, how often do you get to play with 99 others?

“I think that for anyone who takes part or who hears it will be telling their friends about it for years to come.

“I like music that surprises me.

“I want music that gives me something different each time I listen to it.”

Other events include the Frontiers Marathon, a “festival in a day” with sounds, performance and film.

Classic works by Philip Glass will be presented by Frontiers’ resident ensemble Decibel, whilst the “king of sampling” Carl Stone presents his latest work Fujiken in which the sounds of south east Asia shape-shift into clouds of sound.

Cult group Apartment House will rework Lou Reed and John Cale’s tribute to Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella.

The Frontiers Festival will also look to the do-it-your-own-way traditions of New York and the sounds, ideas and iconic moments from that city which have fuelled music culture.

Birmingham’s own vibrant music scene, with its strong young voices and bold new work, adds to the programme.

One event that won’t take place is a replication of how the late cellist Charlotte Moorman played Sky Kiss while being suspended from helium balloons.

Ed discovered the helium alone would cost more than £4,000 while the only company that could stage such an event is in Holland.

“We were hoping to do it either in the Bullring or at the new library,” he says.

“Oh well, if Frontiers takes off there might be the opportunity to sound it out again in the future.”

* Frontiers runs until April 5 and from June 2-8 at venues across Birmingham. Full programme and ticketing information at: www.frontiersmusic.org

 
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