Tuesday, 16 September 2014


St Andrew’s in the Square/City Halls/The Old Fruitmarket

All photos courtesy of Alex Woodward (www.crimsonglow.co.uk)

‘There is an option to fail, which is totally fine,’ says curator Ilan Volkov at his introductory talk – and he means it. He and Tectonics co-curator Alasdair Campbell have programmed more than 40 wildly diverse performances over three days, including numerous vastly challenging orchestral premieres. There are plenty of opportunities for disaster.

Improvisation and new contemporary composition are still at the core, but there’s a stronger song-based current this year. Friday begins in St Andrew’s church with a beautifully poignant song cycle from pianist Bill Wells and vocalist/violist Aby Vuillamy, accompanied by a small BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra ensemble. Richard Youngs and Anakanak also offer songs – the former, an a cappella declaration of love and trust that weaves in and out of the rafters’ ecclesiastical acoustics; the latter, an innovative web of vocal loops that hints at but mischievously frustrates dance music. More abstractly, Collective Endeavours offer an interpretive invective against fracking, in which Jer Reid stacks up harmonium loops while dancer Solene Weinachter endures violent contortions, ending up shattered and broken. The sumptuous, time-suspending drones of Klaus Lang, Catherine Lamb and Marcus Weiss, as well as Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir’s ultra-minimalist precipice-of-silence viola piece, offer deeply meditative, engaging experiences.

Collective Endeavours

Much of Saturday is given over to largely orchestral works by the festival’s big hitters. As its name implies, Christian Wolff’s ‘Ordinary Matter’ seems to evoke different physical states: liquid drones, fizzing Brownian clouds, vast slabs of solid granite. John Oswald’s big, bold ‘I’d Love to Turn’ is a brash repurposing of formative influences, in which the Beatles, Ligeti and Riley are smooshed together into a cohesive whole. Fragile, sparkling drones and jazz motifs characterise David Behrman’s ‘How We Got Here’, the fantastically evocative climax of which reaches for the celestial with suspended chords. Behrman and Wolff also present some small-scale structured improvisations, replete with grunts and boings and scrapes. Best of all is Behrman’s ‘Wavetrain’, in which a grand piano and pickups generate vast, intersecting rushes of noise, reaching colossal volume, like an earthquake wrestling a Branca guitar ensemble.

Wavetrain - David Behrman, Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi and Ilan Volkov.  

This year’s strongest offerings revel in a playful sense of curiosity, exploration and engagement. This is perhaps best embodied by Sarah Kenchington and her wondrous, interactive installation of hand-built sound-making machines, constructed from junkyard detritus – a bicycle, tubas, foot pumps, plumbing, wine glasses, a vintage pram. Whether operated by Kenchington and her friends or by delighted passing punters, her parping, honking, creaking creations inspire considerable delight. 

One of Sarah Kenchington's creations (the machine, not the man). 

Sunday’s afternoon performance from Edinburgh’s Usurper and friends also capture this spirit, with an absurd set that’s equal parts dinner party, slapstick routine, experimental vocalisation and object-based improv. One of the weekend’s most instantly appealing sets comes from Icelandic composers’ collective S.L.Á.T.U.R, who produce complex, fascinating outcomes from simple techniques, via projected graphic scores that make the compositional process open and accessible – and funny, too. And then there’s Takehisa Kosugi – a man of advancing years at play in a self-made world of lights and wires and boxes, making proto sci-fi soundscapes and deliciously controlled chaos, his joyous, celebratory noise an inspiring vision of creative contentment.


Much excitement surrounds Sunday’s finale – Richard Youngs’ 'Past Fragments of Distant Confrontation', his first-ever orchestral piece. He and Volkov take the orchestra out of the concert hall, and install it in the more informal Old Fruitmarket, the musicians placed around, amid and above the audience. Strings drone incessantly, then horns blare in a discordant, warlike fashion, followed by a brief cacophonous assault from BBC SSO percussionist Dave Lyons (playing the unusual role of D-beat drummer), Youngs on guitar, and frequent collaborator Andrew Paine on scathing electronics. These three elements cycle and repeat and repeat and cycle, as Youngs toys with and disregards the narrative expectations of orchestral music. Visceral, naïve, unkempt, surprising and a tad cheeky: a massively enjoyable bit of a shambles.

Ilan Volkov conducting Richard Youngs

Though still a young festival, Tectonics is rapidly carving out a thrilling niche, in which the furthest fringes of the outer frontiers seem less and less remote. While others may revel in their otherness in a way that makes them appear prickly and aloof, Tectonics is pointedly welcoming and inclusive – and all the more daring for that reason. The option to fail may be there, but it hasn’t been exercised yet.