Points of Contact: MANTIS Fall Festival 2010

The biannual MANTIS Festival at the University of Manchester presents fixed media works and works with live electronics, performing these over a large sound diffusion system that comprises around 40 loudspeakers. The concerts over the Halloween weekend showcased the work of students at the university, that of invited guest composers and included the first collaboration between MANTIS and the university’s newly appointed Contemporary Ensemble in Residence Psappha.

MANTIS sound diffusion system

As often at these festivals, it was student works that stood out. The droning, carelessly assembled ambience of Dominique Bassal’s festival-opening portrait concert on Friday night was quickly overshadowed by the work of students at the NOVARS Research Centre that displayed varied but consistently crafted approaches. It is not often that people laugh at the wit of electroacoustic music, but Donal Sarsfield’s Of Noise Alone achieves this with a little gentle subversion. The work takes the sound of applause and clapping as its source material and, as the audience put their hands together, the piece seemed to reignite acoustically, briefly illuminating something faintly ridiculous about the ritual of performance and applause.

Irma Catalina Álvarez’s Windslley Street achieves a remarkable steadiness and long-breathed form as numerous, seemingly autonomous little mechanisms each follow their own gradual development. In stark contrast to the tendency for a ‘whizz bang’, causal language, this work’s quietude and repetition manages to never seem repetitious while never breaking from a sense of steady progression.

The latest and longest work by Sam Salem, Dead Poets, further explores his interest in using a specific city or place as the acoustic ‘subject’ of a work with a 20-minute, 4-part reflection on New York. Perhaps Morton Feldman’s title ‘The viola in my life’ — much loved by Helmut Lachenmann — should be adapted to this kind of work. Far from being a portrait or documentary of New York this work is perhaps ‘New York in my life’. Again wit was in evidence as the story of a tramp unfolds to end with his sorry protagonist being told to ‘Go fuck yourself’. Some remarkable, ominous sounds taken of the wind howling through the shuttered and derelict fairground rides of Coney Island complemented more familiar sounds like subway trains in what seemed an altogether darker work than its excellent predecessor Public Bodies.

As well as other student works by Oliver Carman, Mark Pilkington, Josh Kopeček and Richard Scott, we were given the chance to hear El Espejo de Alicia by 47-year-old Chilean composer Federico Schumacher. Subject of a — by all accounts excellent — portrait concert at this year’s Festival Acousmatique International in Brussels, Schumacher is not someone I had come across before, but this work was crisp, delicate and tender, exhibiting both the technical precision we’ve come to expect of this music and — more unusually — an ear for affecting and musical ideas. A lot of his music, including El Espejo de Alicia, is available for free as mp3s here. I’d recommend a listen.

Live Wires: Psappha & MadLab

Psappha Logo

The Sunday gave us a chance to hear MANTIS’s large rig of loudspeakers pitted against the live instruments of Psappha’s Tim Williams and Richard Casey in three works for percussion and piano with electronics. Manuella Blackburn’s Cajon and Joao Pedro Oliveira’s Maelstrom are both accomplished works — the former for the eponymous cajon and the latter for cimbalom — but they were hugely (and perhaps unsurprisingly) overshadowed by Stockhausen’s Kontakte. I heard Kontakte performed by Nicolas Hodges and Colin Currie at the Proms in 2008 and found myself rather irritated by it — unlike my reaction to Gruppen, which was exhilarating — but on Sunday the work’s incredible, ineffable logic and scope really drove home how short-sighted or simplistic much music for instruments and electronics is. There is at no point a straightforward concept of interaction to grasp hold of. Rather, the three parts — piano, percussion and electronics — are allowed to circle each other, finding points of contact and drifting apart in a shower of sounds. This is no soundworld piece, it embraces countless sounds — with the pianist equipped with a percussion set-up almost as large as that of the percussionist — and all the sounds coexist unsegregated. It is hard to specify how this work holds together. There is something still very contemporary about the construction of meta-instruments out of collections of percussion so that a single gesture can begin on a guero and end in wind chimes, giving those sounds an organic, physical logic that somehow transmits to the acoustic. Casey and Williams’s performance was gripping to the last and it was exciting to hear so clearly how important this music is.

MadLab logo

Sunday evening brought the usual relaxed finale to the festival, this time relocated from Nexus Art Café to Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab). After a series of fixed media and audiovisual works, we moved onto live performances with the circuit-bending of Rodrigo Constanzo and Mauricio Pauly, followed by the synth and video efforts of Mark Pilkington and Thomas Bjelkeborn. Reflecting MadLab’s remit of promoting community discussion and sharing technical expertise, the evening ended with a preview screening of a rough cut of Ricardo Climent’s documentary film VIP Lounges Are For ALL about S.LOW Projekt, which he ran in Berlin this summer and I wrote about here. A simultaneously humorous and serious look at the paradox of working in both academic ‘centres of excellence’ and ‘low’ arenas in Berlin’s can-do arts scene, the film poses questions about the quality of artwork and what constitutes value as well as giving an insight as to how this somewhat ad hoc, improvised festival that involved around 40 different artists ran. Here’s an excerpt to finish off with:

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