“Harnessing new technologies to explore new kinds of artistic experiences and new kinds of music.” This is how composer BEN HACKBARTH describes OPEN CIRCUIT FESTIVAL, the annual riot of electronics, software, and amplification coming out of the University of Liverpool Music Department’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Composition and Technology. Sounds like William Gibson’s kind of bag. Why, then, is their Saturday night draw a Swedish man playing his trombone, an instrument that appeared in the 15th Century (as the ‘sackbut’, a name that seemed witty at first but seemed less funny each time people heard it)? Because it’s CHRISTIAN LINDBERG, he of loud shirts and louder showmanship. He’s a trombonist, conductor, and composer, showing off all three at once in his composition Arabenne, literally conducting Ensemble 10/10 (the Phil’s contemporary music ensemble) with the slide of his instrument as he plays. How does this fit into Open Circuit’s remit? It’s not always clear, but there can’t be many other pieces using medical equipment (in mini-opera Doctor Decker The Dentist, inspired by a literal hatchet job on one of Lindberg’s wife’s wisdom teeth), and there is one composition with tape, Jan Sandström’s Short Ride On A Motorbike, which starts with the virtuoso brass player running onstage bathed in red light, and ends with a very long, very high, and beautifully played note, fading away as he raises his trombone slowly into the air like some heliolator at sunset.
Another sunrise, and a showcase of electronic music and video art. ADRIANA RUIZ’s Pink Bourbon is in the same vein as Matthew Herbert’s 2011 album One Pig – every sound on the album came from the animal during its lifetime (and slightly after) – but courts less controversy by being entirely composed of the sounds of coffee production. It could be argued that the problematic animal rights of Herbert’s piece have their human rights equivalent here. It’s a charming piece, with the only downside being that the sound of sifting coffee beans is identical to a rainstick, giving off a rather mid-90s ambient vibe, doing a disservice to this tightly-constructed piece. The two video art soundtracks on show ask questions about the distinction between the organic and digital. JOÃO PEDRO OLIVERA’s Petals is a total synthesis of sound and image. Watching the intersecting slices of CGI liquid that ripple along with high-frequency distortion and ripple to the bass, you can either match the patterns with what you hear or vice-versa, or just distance yourself until they might as well be one improvisation in different media. However, FRANCIS DHOMONT’S To Uli A. And Antonio V. broadcasts tangibly natural images (flowing water and algae), but in a style that owes more to cassette tapes and that comes across glitchier and less organic. ANNETTE VANDE GORNE’s 4 Haiku: Petals perhaps comes closest to representing spring, not just with the pastoral haiku form and quotations of birdsong from Messiaen, but being the only entry focusing on the sheer biochemical activity and upheaval of nature in spring, despite having the most acoustic (i.e. orchestral) basis of any piece in the programme.
PIXELS ENSEMBLE is RLPO pianist Ian Buckle and Aurora Orchestra violist Max Bailie. Their programme, closing Open Circuit’s run of evening concerts, is based around the reworking of old compositions. There are arrangements by Buckle of Elizabethan singer-songwriter John Dowland and classical composer Robert Schumann, as well as Mario Davidosky’s Synchronisms No. 6 for piano and electronics, something of a classic since it was written in 1970. Open Circuit head honcho (and tonight’s knob twiddler) Ben Hackbarth also has a piece of his own, Liquid Etude No.2, written for Buckle and in response to the Davidovsky. The piano starts out by dodging the electronic sounds it triggers, before engaging them in conflict, using their own strength against them, until pianist and sound engineer circle each other warily like caged beasts. As Hackbarth says, there is something sinister in the unseen soundworld of electronics. A similar ferocity came during ENDA BATES’ lecture the previous day. During a demonstration of his spatial piece Town And Gown, the sound of an ‘approaching’ train was so perfectly realised in stereo that you suddenly have sympathy for those first watchers of film, fleeing from their seats during a newsreel of advancing steam engines. But back to Pixels Ensemble: the festival reaches its zenith in the second half of this concert, being solely PHILLIPPE MANOURY’s odyssey for viola and electronics, Partita I. It’s epic in scope, every sound heard on the 12-speaker setup is triggered by the viola, and after 40 minutes of turmoil and sawing with his bow, Bailie enters a calmer, spiritual realm, and even as he plays a grin spreads across his face.
“We’re all people interested in writing music for texts.” It’s HOUSE OF BEDLAM founder LAURIE TOMPKINS explaining the next hour of manic music while words are typed out and projected over the players’ heads. “The story becomes an abstract between text and sound, then it becomes an anarchic thing. Perfect for a lunchtime recital at a university.” Well, the place is full. The opener’s the highlight, Disappointment And Small, Relief, Hospital Scenes. With “a person called You, who has a smile like a strobe” as the protagonist, it’s a clinical love story set in an institution typed out in real time, a perverted reversal of silent cinema. The music’s pleasantly woozy, like a collaboration between Zappa and Gold Panda, and a gentle landing for the festival that showcases amongst the most challenging music being written in the North West today.