I’m not going to many festivals this year, but I made the effort for Faster Than Sound because I enjoyed its first incarnation three years ago so much. Sadly I missed it last year, but regulars have informed me that it’s been soaking up refinement by osmosis from the associated Aldeburgh classical music festival over the course of its life.
Housed on Bentwaters cold-war era air force base, and as mentioned, associated with a classical music festival, it has dash of the unlikely from its beginnings. Faster Than Sound is a festival of noise/avant garde/installation art based festival which seems to attract glow stick wielding ravers and the more experimental end of the opera fan spectrum.
The first year I went the ex command-centre of the base, complete with blast walls, hosted various installation pieces and a few small scale musical performances. It may have looked familiar to some of the audience – that’s because it was used for that Channel 4 series where reality TV wannabes were fooled into believing they were going into space; bits of the set were still visible. Two other stages had more conventional dance music. The organisers were apparently still worried that it might be a bit mundane, so threw in an aircraft hanger (complete with signs explaining what to do with unexploded ordinance still visible inside) with a giant framework ball which could be rolled around, causing it to make weird noises from electronics attached to each vertex. (I’m afraid that I can’t write that last sentence in any other way to make it seem more plausible.)
This year’s events were unfortunately a little more conventional. Performances took place in a sound proofed hanger designed for testing aircraft engines (where else?), and proceedings were reproduced through an extremely crisp 8 channel surround sound system. Stand out performances came from Exile and Plaid.
I’m told Tim Exile was using his performance as part of an MA course, in which he took live vocal samples from two trained singers who stood on stage in front of him, and melded them into his trade mark mash of distorted rhythms and processed samples. His performance shifted from melodic and repetitive through to a few moments of straight-ahead jungle towards the end, and he took full advantage of the massive PA to hammer the audience with occasional walls of noise.
Plaid produced the only genuinely accessible performance of the night, playing more or less their normal fare. However, uniquely among the artists, they made impressive use of eight speaker stacks encircling the audience, sending sounds spiralling round us and bouncing all over the place.
Site specific theatre group Punchdrunk also performed in the hanger, simulating air raid sirens, playing “it” with the crowd and trying to evoke a general sense of a fear of flying. I enjoyed the performance, however my friends were a little more sanguine and pointed out that in such a dramatic setting a little more might have been achieved.
This point was forced home latter when the electric doors of the hanger unexpectedly closed accompanied by the sound of a wailing siren. The fire brigade (who were already there, presumably in case an aircraft hanger sufficiently fireproofed to test aircraft engines should spontaneously ignite through the presence of 150 opera fans) rushed in and eventually the doors were reopened. It certainly constituted a dramatic use of the space.
I have to come clean and admit that that I can’t appreciate all the performances I seem to see where a musician uses an effects pedal to mangle the sounds of an attack on an orchestral instrument. Sometimes I think I’m getting something; other times I’m definitely not. However, what made the first year’s FTS so good was that when I got bored of a man playing a cello with a spoon accompanied by time-lapse videos of plant growth there were plenty of other things to go and look at.
This year really only had one focus of attention, and, unfortunately, frequently no focus, since many of the acts took 15 minuets to set up.
Having said all this, the basic premise still functions. Where else do you get to see a miniature mechanical orchestra perform in the darkened recesses of the nation’s cold war infrastructure? Gentlemen, you can’t use a sampled Theremin in here! This is the war room!