The UK’s Best Experimental Festival: LCMF Reviewed

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London Contemporary Music Festival booked a very daring music and art program with James Ferraro, Visionist and PC Music at the helm.

Since its first edition in 2013, the London Contemporary Music Festival has become perhaps the UK’s foremost festival for truly daring music. LCMF fills memorable venues with blockbuster programs, which makes it feel more targeted than an EDM monolith and a damn sight more fun than a bogstandard concert. In recent years, experimental music’s pioneers have rubbed shoulders with the scene’s contemporary crop at a disused car-park in 2013, and then at a former carpet factory in 2014. LCMF’s most memorable past nights have paired Hyperdub’s Fatima Al Qadiri with knotty compositions by Luigi Nono and Cornelius Cardew under the banner “Marxist Chillwave” and been dedicated to the music of film composer Ennio Morricone and staunch modernist Helmut Lachenmann. These precise but bizarre concoctions are the festival’s hallmark, and this year’s seven-night Christmas special features US provocateur James Ferraro, Buchla synth pioneer Morton Subotnick, doom demigod and Sunn O))) founder Stephen O’Malley and even thorny 20th-century poet Ezra Pound. It’s all housed in Ambika P3, a 14,000 square foot hall three floors deep in the University of Westminster.

LCMF 2015 opens boldly with Collective Capital, an evening celebrating the cooperative spirit of London’s sprawling experimental scene. Edward Henderson is a driving force behind the capital’s Bastard Assignments series, which presents punky, conceptual performances in living rooms and disused spaces. His festival opener Tape Piece is a characteristically impish acclimatization to Ambika P3, where seven performers attach sellotape to separate fixtures and slowly unroll them, making glitchy bursts of noise and a waist-high lattice across the bunker space. Tape Piece forces the audience into unexpected configurations: as punters move out the way of an incoming tape thread, they listen in to different parts of the cavernous space. It works a treat as a one-liner on the physical impact of sound, but the night’s real meat comes courtesy of two world premieres by British composer Neil Luck and visual artists Anne Bean and Richard Wilson.

Physical interrogation reaches an absurd zenith with Luck’s Via Gut, a theater piece graphically obsessed with both commercial entertainment and tapeworms. Luck and his ensemble squib-box alternate between chat-show sleaze and cascades of maniacal burps. It feels psychotically logical, even as a tapdancing, squealing guitarist is overwhelmed by an army of tapeworm balloons. The set-up for visual artists Richard Wilson’s and Anne Bean’s NALEMAG , an astonishing portrait of the Thames and its shipbuilding communities, is gigantic. Behind flickering bulbs, Bean and Wilson dance precisely between blow torches, oil drums, fog horns. Balloons scream a cluster as they rise one by one to the ceiling, panes of glass shatter under flame, firecrackers writhe on Ambika’s walls.

Tonight I feel for PAN affiliate and Codes boss Visionist. Accompanied by visuals of a fleshy avatar merging with liquid topographies, Louis Carnell’s grime arabesques seem a fitting culmination of the mechanical poise, bass brutality and warped lullabies of previous sets from John Wall, Shelly Parker and Claudia Hunte. But on a night where collective energy and spatial play reign—and deprived of a club context—Carnell and Kevin Bray’s A/V show feels a little flat. A London postcode can’t disguise the fact that, stylistically, Visionist is stranded.

Plunging back underground the night after, I discover that the crowd has nearly doubled for a night dedicated to searing, meditative experimental compositions from American West Coast mid-century luminaries such as John Cage, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and Subotnick. For those like me, who have bolstered old-man-and-his-dog audiences at back-room experimental gigs all year, there’s a genuine thrill to being amongst so many bodies, and it’s one of LCMF’s huge achievements that the hundreds packed in on a Saturday night seem primed to listen hard. It’s characteristic of the festival’s savvy programming that the performances feel as personable as they do seismic thanks in part to the way that they permeate all of Ambika’s corners.

Sandwiched in between urgent student renditions of John Cage’s and Terry Riley’s classics First Construction (In Metal) and Keyboard Study No. 2, Watts prophets legend Otis O’Solomon pops up on a small blue plinth, addressing his utopian street poetry directly to the London crowd, asking, “Love me if you love me, and if you don’t—love me anyway.” O’Solomon’s direct connection helps imbue the more canonized pieces with the tangible, human touch so integral to the West Coast legacy, reminding us that Cage and Riley’s music, as much as O’Solomon’s proto hip-hop, is made to be loved.

The reverence fizzing under the evening’s first half properly explodes as Deep Listening guru Pauline Oliveros modestly takes to the stage. Prior to tonight, my knowledge of Oliveros’ work is slight, and the barbed music she wrenches from her electronic accordion shatters any preconceptions that her output might be a little cultish. Oliveros is a magnetic combination of brute force and sensitivity, and her spasmodic convulsions of MIDI voice, slap bass and saxophone sounds deserve exactly the breathless adoration they receive. It’s a mark of the moment’s ecstasy that I spend most of Subotnick’s closing set simply trying to calm down.

LCMF’s marathon evenings can produce musical revelations, but they’re also exhausting, and I’m happy after a night off that Monday’s program features simply one piece: a Chris Watson world premiere. Since his Cabaret Voltaire days, the founding member has carved out a formidable reputation as perhaps the world’s foremost sound recordist, honing his craft on the BBC’s nature documentaries with David Attenborough and translating them into a series of mind-boggling solo releases on Touch. Okeanos is, for my money, his strongest work since 2011’s El Tren Fantasma.

Much like O’Solomon on West Coast night, Watson breaks any pretensions of grandeur with a straightforward, modest introduction: Okeanos is an eight-channel piece exploring “planet ocean,” almost all of its sounds are recorded on hydrophones below the oceans’ surfaces and it traces a pole to pole journey through the songs of bearded seals, orcas and minute crustaceans. But to describe Okeanos’ materials gets you no closer to the sensual epiphany of experiencing the thing. The crackle of ice on the surface as Adelie penguins first take us under the surface makes my skin crawl, glitchy mollusc noises tickle my extremities, and all’s washed away by deep currents of suboceanic bass.

Most of all, Okeanos masterfully conjures up a sense of vast space. Watson must have a treasure trove of samples he could pepper his listeners with but instead, time crawls. Lilting orca song travels and decays before a mate answers from a mile away, seal yelps ring on in the void and humpback whales groan from where the light can’t reach. It’s this sense of touch and musicality that makes Okeanos so awesome, as if Watson were so in tune with the environments he’s captured that he can move at their tempo, reconjure their space, sing again their alien melodies pitch-perfect.

Tuesday’s To A New Definition Of Opera II is an entirely different proposition, and I find that UK premieres of theater works by modernist icons Ezra Pound and Karlheinz Stockhausen fall short of being properly mind-expanding. Maybe it’s the timing, but Stockhausen’s Pieta, where a blue-robed soprano is encircled by a flugelhorn player and swooping electronics, feels a little too George Lucas for my liking. LCMF are generally great at digging up forgotten gems, but on the evidence of the stodgy Le Testament de Villon, Pound is perhaps best remembered for his poetry.

The opera night belongs not to the establishment figures but to American video artist Ryan Trecartin and British outsider composer Tim Parkinson. Trecartin’s CENTER JENNY, a 50-minute film populated by a swarm of nightmarish fembots, is nauseating and fascinating in equal measure. Sitting through the hyper-edited soup of whining chipmunk voices, day-glo swimwear, and manic karaoke bouts, I realize I’m having a horrible kind of fun. Trecartin’s insistence that we all get an eye and ear full of sewage—and for a long time—feels vital on a night dedicated to age-old forms. Better to feel repelled than nonplussed.

British composer Tim Parkinson’s music-theater work Time With People is the downtrodden fallout from Trecartin’s gross excess. The pack of zombie performers—Huddersfield’s brilliant Edges ensemble—are glued to smartphones as they navigate a junk-strewn stage through disembodied bleeps. They resemble nothing if not a herd of London commuters. But the thrill of Time With People is how much heart Parkinson packs into a nihilistic landscape. This opera is made up of questionnaires, deadpan anecdotes, beaten up fridge parts, soggy cardboard boxes and rotting lentils. But it is deeply, miraculously poignant.

LCMF’s closing night ambitiously draws together digital ephemera’s finest from both the classical world and the electronic underground, with composers Jennifer Walshe, Brigitta Muntendorf and Neele Hülcker playing alongside cyber-darlings James Ferraro and PC Music’s Felicita. Now that “post-internet art” has ceased to be a hot topic for endless think pieces, Requiem For Reality is a chance to assess the work in a less hype-driven context, a privilege which leaves me feeling ultimately unnerved.

The night’s central performances are the ones that leave me feeling most confused. Jennifer Walshe’s The Total Mountain is a 50-minute multimedia performance where Walshe turns the tweets of One Direction fans, YouTube detritus and omnipresent Facebook streams into erratic character pieces both for herself and on video. It’s a precise, far-reaching diagnosis of our contemporary moment, where distraction and the enticement of celebrity pervade our physical and virtual lives, and Walshe is a mesmerising performer.

But I can’t shake feeling fundamentally undernourished at the piece’s close, just as, later on, Felicita’s bubbles and squeaks can’t bludgeon me into chirpiness. The PC Music producer’s performance consists mostly of him checking his smartphone while his Mac’s rave sequences toy with violet strobes. Maybe I’m missing something, but it’s not my idea of a fun night out. Unlike the week’s most potent programmes, Requiem For Reality lacks visceral impact, and, for all its kooky sheen, is perversely unaffecting. Happily, James Ferraro bucks the trend. Strange to think that the man who made his name with 2011’s ringtone odyssey Far Side Virtual should be the one to inject a sense of human energy at the festival’s close, but Ferraro pulls it off. The US producer drenches Siri memories of latte macchiatos and Toyota licenses in a thick LA smog, using a guest cellist to invoke a Lynchian dread.

Ferraro’s coup is LCMF at its unpredictable best. The festival distinguishes itself from behemoths like Berlin’s Atonal by really pushing the limits of what stylistically can be housed under one roof. Its nights are underpinned by the risk that things really might fall to bits, and that sense of daring makes its triumphs feel all the more real. When LCMF first set up it felt like a purposeful punt at what a festival could be in a future a little less complacent. That voracious, fearless programming has become the benchmark for events of this scale owes as much to this festival as international counterparts like CTM and Unsound. Year on year, LCMF re-injects myriad scenes with a precious strain of kamikaze zeal; you can’t help but salute it.

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