Instal 09. Day One (Glasgow University Chapel, 20/3/09)

Weird and wonderful, exciting and excruciating, Instal can be all of these things and more. It’s become Scotland’s premiere experimental music shindig since its inception in 2001. Each year, a bunch of musicians from various fields descend on the city to showcase their art. Nobody tries to pretend that it’s all going to be equally enjoyable. There is a Reithian spirit to the event – inform, educate and entertain – and sometimes it does feel that the third of those noble aims has been tacked on as an afterthought. The reason it’s always worth it is not just the considerable horizon-broadening that it offers, but also that there is inevitably something that absolutely takes your breath away. Last year’s three hour set by Japanese quartet Marginal Consort definitely fell into that category.

Every Instal has a slightly different format. This year, the first day of three was held, not in its usual haunt the Arches, but at the Gothic pile that is the Glasgow University Chapel. The interior of the building is like one of Britain’s great cathedrals, only in miniature. It’s a splendid mixture of towering, gabled roof, columns and arches and is dominated by a large stained glass window at the eastern end. The reason we were all there was that the night’s performances were all using the chapel’s organ. It’s a strange beast – the pipes stand out proudly on the north wall, but the actual organ is hidden away in an alcove high up on the south side – invisible to all but a few of the audience. This means that the entire evening’s visuals consisted solely of the building’s impressive architecture (I particularly liked the heavy wooden saints (disciples?) who jut out of the beams at right angles, dangling chandeliers on long chains – but would feel a bit vulnerable sat beneath one).

The first performance was by German minimalist composer Eva-Maria Houben. The description of her work as ultra-minimalist in the programme was an understatement. For 45 minutes she played a practically unwavering low volume drone – a harmonic of sorts with a low frequency rumble and a high frequency pitch. The boredom threshold was severely tested. I began to think I was back at school in Friday afternoon detention.

The duo of Jean-Luc Guionnet and Toshimaru Nakamura were much more interesting. Guionnet helmed the organ with Nakamura providing accompaniment using a mixing desk that input its own output creating feedback loops of electronic noise that he could then manipulate. The music was highly abstract, but not without concrete form. It was almost like a gallery of aural paintings evoking an industrial landscape. There were vast locomotives, steamships in fog, colossal machines and the hum and crackle of power stations – all topped off with a dash of Universal horror and Colin Clive zapping kilowatts of electricity through poor old Boris Karloff. It ranged from thunderous rumblings to delicate fizz, and restlessly moved ever forwards. Hugely impressive.

Hermann Nitsch was probably the star attraction of the evening – perhaps of the whole festival if fame is your yardstick. A founder of the post-war Aktionist movement in Austria, his art has always been confrontational and multi-disciplinary. Tonight, though, we were treated to a series of organ pieces. According to the notes, the music was designed to conjure up images of the cosmos. That was certainly true, but only in the way that it conjured up early Tangerine Dream’s attempts to do the same. The music was simply a series of sustained chords (sometimes dischords) layered and in sequence. It was interesting for about ten minutes. After an hour it just sounded tired, lazy and uninspired. Many artists in experimental music suffer from the same fault – take an idea, but then stretch it well beyond the point where it ceases to be interesting.

Tonight was an interesting experiment, but the lack of a visual element (even just being able to see what the artists were doing) and the static nature of most of the music made it a fairly dull experience – Guionnet and Nakamura excepted. To the Arches, then.

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