I have to admit to feeling pretty deflated on the way home on Saturday night. Was it me, or was this year’s Instal really as dreary as it seemed? I embarked on Sunday’s proceedings several rungs down on the ladder of expectation. Fortunately, the evening went some way towards redressing the inspiration / desperation balance.
Nobody made me want to throw things this evening, but neither Seymour Wright nor the duo of Sean Meehan and Taki Unami exactly set the pulse racing. Both acts definitely fell into this year’s themed trap of doing very little for a very long time. Wright is a saxophonist. In the spirit of Instal, of course, he did everything but play the damn thing. He blew whistles through the mouthpiece, rubbed it against his trousers and rattled it against a battery operated fan amongst other fairly pointless activities. I didn’t even understand what Meehan and Unami were actually doing. Meehan had a snare drum and a couple of cymbals which he seemed to barely touch. Unami had a laptop and some trays of what looked like dried rice. He clapped every now and then. The trays rattled every now and then. Er, that’s it.
To be fair, they were the low points of a night on which standards were fairly high. Rolf Julius used field recordings of crickets, birds and pond life, and then mixed them and rerecorded them and remixed them etc etc. The result was a gentle, but continually changing sound that seemed to snake around the room. Sometimes it sounded pastoral, sometimes alien – a sort of avant-garde chill out music.
Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide‘s set was divided into three parts. Sachiko fiddled with some contact mics for a while, gleefully creating a series of snap, crackles and pops – like an amlified bowl of Rice Krispies. Otomo played a strange looking pair of pianos, somehow hooking them up to a guitar amp, causing oscillating feedback of various pitches. It was interesting, but I’d like to have heard it used in a more musical way. The pair then played their improv piece “Filament”, a duet for turntable with no records and sampler with no samples. It was a spacious piece, full of longeurs and near silence, punctuated by static crackle, feedback squeals, and the beautiful, rhythmic sound of needle on turntable.
I ventured in the small Studio Theatre on a couple of occasions this evening. Fraser Burnett, Jean-Philippe Gross and Grant Smith created an enjoyable and rhythmic scree of noise using a trio of mixers. Neil Davidson and Hannah Eliul on guitar and clarinet respectively created some delightful improvised music, let down only by vocalist Ben Knight who seemed to be convinced he was an extra on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Back to the main hall, and possibly the best two sets of the entire festival. Gross reappeared with Jérôme Noetinger, seated at opposite sides of a table situated in the middle of the arch. It was covered in all manner of electronic gizmos with cables and wires sprouting in all directions. They proceeded to create a maelstrom of electronic noise. Sometimes it was intense and dense as Merzbow, sometimes it used extremes of pitch like Pan Sonic, and sometimes it almost purred like a contented cat – albeit one with a very short temper. It was visceral and physical and rather wonderful.
The final set of the festival brought back memories of Maryanne Amacher’s extraordinary 2006 performance, in which she produced frequencies of sound that seemed impossibly loud, and also seemed to emanate from inside your head, but yet allowed you to have normal volume conversations at the same time. This time Jean-Luc Guionnet and Taku Unami somehow tuned in to the frequencies of the actual building. Using speakers set around the room, and the sort of sub bass frequencies that would have your average dubstepper gazing slackjawed in amazement, they produced a deep, rumbling barrage of noise. It wasn’t constant in pitch and tone, but oscillated, making the very fabric of the building seem to vibrate. At one point, my skeleton seemed to be jingling around in my body! The volume was high, but not excessively so – this wasn’t a performance that left your ears ringing afterwards. It was all done using frequencies of sound. Quite an experience.
It has to be said that the highlights this year weren’t plentiful. Sunday was the best day by far. There was too much stuff that seemed to lead up blind alleys, and not a great deal that felt inspiring. When the outer limits of what could be considered music are being explored, it’s always going to be hit and miss whether the results are enervating, excruciating or exciting. It’s the possibilities that keep me coming year after year. Even when the festival is below par, there is always something magical to take away from it.