After two years of being a purely virtual endeavour, this year’s Tectonics was live and in person once again. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m actually quite a fan of virtual festival, and the way that they open up more unusual or specialised events up to audience that couldn’t normally access them, for geographical, financial or other reasons. However, it was undeniably better to be at the festival in person again. It was definitely a smaller scale festival than it had been in the last few years before the pandemic – there were no late night sessions this year – and apparently until a couple of months ago they weren’t even certain that they’d be able to run it in person which no doubt impacted various parts of the festival. There are undoubtedly elements of the festival that just don’t work as well virtually: the sound art installations in the Recital Room – this year a piece called Noiseem by Japanese artist Fujiiiiiiiiita involving a self-made pipe organ, some aquarium bubblers and some hydrophones – are notably more engaging in person.
The weekend got off to a promising start with Silvia Tarozzi in the Grand Hall. All the music was taken from her 2020 album which was apparently inspired by the work of Milanese poet Alda Merini, and based on this concert is well worth tracking down. The band were a delight, their little interactions and asides were a delightful reminder of the sheer pleasure of live performance both for audience and musicians. They were an excellent choice as an opening act, being avant garde enough to be constantly surprising and delighting the audience but not so left field that they would alienate someone not there to see them specifically. I felt like they set the tone for the year’s festival, finding joy and pleasure in the absurd and experimental, rather than taking it all too seriously.
Oddly enough, in the best part of a decade of attending Tectonics, both in person and virtually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a concert that featured either of those stalwarts of electronic/experimental music the theremin and the prepared piano. Yet on Saturday two different acts were using the theremin and on Sunday two different acts used prepared piano in very different ways. Despite my longstanding fondness for the theremin, while I was delighted to see it in action, I was considerable more excited to see the prepared piano. Particularly James Clapperton tackling Janet beat’s tape machine and prepared piano extravaganza, Piangam, perhaps because a theremin is an instrument that while decidedly esoteric and arguably hard to master, you don’t get on stage with a theremin unless you’re already confident you can use it, but if you’re using a prepared piano, especially when you’re going to have to change the preparation between movements, during the piece, there’s far more danger of something going wrong, or at least not turning out the way you hoped.
It was as always a please to see the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in all their glory, I take particular enjoyment in watching an orchestra tackle something esoteric or at least outside their wheel house – though at this point I’ve seen this orchestra wrestle with more avant garde and modern classical music than I have the more traditional fare, to the point that it was downright weird to see them play Tchaikovsky a couple of years back. This year was no exception with their Sunday session being a particular joy. A lot of this year’s orchestral pieces had a heavy influence of the natural world, as though a lot of composers had spent an unexpected amount of time outside by themselves lately and been changed, or a least influenced by it.
And I can’t really talk about this year’s festival without taking about Janet Beat whose work was at the heart of this year’s Tectonics. I managed to miss the interview that Radio 3 did with her over that weekend – she’s in her 80s now so isn’t performing any more – but it’s always a delight to discover new female electronic music pioneers, especially Scottish ones! There were two sessions specifically revolving around her work one on each day of the festival. I preferred the Sunday session in the Grand Hall, with it’s focus on showcasing her compositions, rather than the one on Saturday that was more about showcasing her influence and impact on other musicians. I’m sure the Saturday session was great if you knew her work and could read the interactions and influences going on there, but as someone who had been previously been unaware of her work, I think I’d have got a lot more out of it if they’d been scheduled the other way round.
Nearly every time I’ve attended Tectonics in person there’s been a stand out performance, something almost transcendent that makes everything else, good or bad, fade into the background of memory. It almost always happens in The Fruit Market – not that every session there is stand out, I’ve seen my share of duds in there too – and nearly always a piece that takes into account and advantage of the space itself. This year’s was no exception, Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh’s collaboration with members of the BBC SSO was something extraordinary. This is apparently her first work for orchestral instrumentation, but you wouldn’t know, it really exploited the potential of both the instruments and the space, using timbre and exploring sound waves – it felt very much like someone had thought hard about attack and decay in sound wave and decided to play with it – to delightful effect, and leaving the audience feeling a little unmoored in time.
I’ve done my share of sitting on the floor of The Fruit Market at Tectonics, I’m short enough that if the artist isn’t performing on the actual stage I need to be at the front to see, but tall enough that unless I get there first I can’t do that without looking obnoxious, so cross legged on my coat it is. (I’m not as organised as the woman who was sitting along from me in this session, who’d brought her own cushions – I salute that level of commitment!) But this is, I think, the first time I’ve attended a session where it was not only permitted, but actively encouraged. To the extent that the two or three people in the middle of the circle who chose to remain standing were definitely being glowered at by their neighbours.
The musicians were arranged in a wide circle, with conductor Ilan Volkov on a small low podium in the middle and the vast majority of the audience sitting on the floor – or on one of the handful of chairs provided for those who would struggle to get back up from the floor once they got down there – around him and facing out to the musicians. It was immersive and strange and wonderful and would have been a perfect end to the weekend had there not been another session after it, which I felt suffered in comparison to it’s immediate predecessor which was in fairness a very hard act to follow.