Review of the Ideas of Noise Festival

ideas of noise logoThe Ideas of Noise Festival that took place in Birmingham over the weekend (3rd to 5th August) is a wonderful addition to the range of relatively small but significant music festivals that take place in the city.  It presented an excellent range of music that took in a number of genres yet had an overriding and coherent theme brilliantly curated by the two directors, Sarah Farmer and Andy Woodhead.  Moreover, the festival created an inclusive and friendly atmosphere at the two venues, The Edge and Vivid Projects at Minerva Works, both informal venues in the Digbeth area of the city.  Key to this friendly atmosphere were the volunteers helping with general organisation and also serving foods and drinks at the bar; these volunteers included music fans and musicians, whether they were performing or not, and Andy’s parents who prepared a lot of the food.

Ideas of Noise is an excellent title for the festival and it gave the context for a whole range of music with each day having a particular focus.  Friday mostly concentrated on free improvisation with violinist Richard Scott playing at Vivid Projects surrounded by his own recent artwork.  He actually began outside in the courtyard and it seemed somehow appropriate in the philosophy of ‘noise’ that much of his playing there was drowned out by a rock band rehearsing the adjacent building.  Upstairs we were able to hear his interesting take on improvisation that mixes drones with folk music.

Back at The Edge the solo, duo and trio improvisations by Angharad Davies, Rhodri Davies and  Mark Sanders, curated by Fizzle and TDE Promotions (I should declare an interest here) were a particular highlight of the weekend.  Angharad Davies played a solo violin set that developed through a series of beautiful contemplative sections; I particularly enjoyed the passages towards the end of the set when she paused between a number of short statements, thereby creating a tension that was resolved by the next statement.  Rhodri Davies and Mark Sanders then followed playing a very exciting improvised set full of drum driven grooves from Sanders and powerful rhythms on Davies’ electric harp that inevitably led to a few broken strings – very much part of the performance.  Angharad joined the duo for a final trio set that continued in the vein of the duo set: strong grooves and drama.

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Rhodri Davies Photo by Guri Bush

I was unable to attend the afternoon performances on the Saturday, but managed to catch the evening programme.  Here the theme was broad, but everything seemed linked to the integration of electronics with other genres.  The collaboration between ELDA, the duo of Andy Woodhead on electronics and trumpeter Aaron Diaz, and two musicians originally from Zimbabwe, Millicent Chapanda on mbira and vocals and Didier Kisala on guitar and vocals, worked really well with electronics and trumpet blending brilliantly with the African rhythms and vocals to produce something unique.  The project was supported by the Celebrating Sanctuary organisation, and it is to be hoped that the collaboration, like the Ideas of Noise Festival itself, has legs and will continue to develop.

The programme later in the evening involved three sets, all with a strong element of electronics.  It began with an impressive solo set from Anna Palmer, leader of the Dorcha band, followed by the Gonimoblast duo of Chris Mapp and Annie Mahtani, playing an absorbing set that integrated samples of material from the full Gonimoblast band with their own interactions.  The final set from Dan Nicholls’ Strobes was very powerful with dramatic surprises from Dan and Matt Calvert on electronics, plus strong grooves from drummer Dave Smith, who has now rejoined the group.

Sunday’s programme was a real eye-opener presenting some fascinating takes on contemporary music performed by musicians from different traditions, notably contemporary classical and jazz.  The New Noise Collective put together by composer/singer Georgia Denham presented four original pieces developed for the festival played by young players studying either at Birmingham Conservatoire or in the Music Department at the University of Birmingham and on either classical or jazz programmes.  Each piece had a mixture of composition and improvisation and each had its own particular character.   I enjoyed each of the four pieces, but especially the final one entitled Graphic Score; this had an interesting contrast between Shivraj Singh’s double bass lines that drew on improvised jazz, and the ambient sounds created by the synth effects of Ollie Farrow and the vocals plus electronics of Georgia Denham.

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Maya Verlaak and Robert Blatt Photo by Guri Bush

Post- Paradise featured two duos, one with guitars and one with keyboards, both set up facing each other, seemingly trying to compete one with the other, but in fact interacting very collaboratively.  I loved the duo between Maya Verlaak and Robert Blatt who played two guitars (one each) laid out flat on a table.  They played opposite each other creating very strong electronic sounds with different devices in different structured sections.  The first was with sex toys, two each, the second was with various attachments to the guitar strings and the third was with violin bows.  The way the two interacted both musically and physically with the objects across the table was amazing.  Somehow it reminded of part of an Indonesian wedding ceremony I attended a few years ago where the couple being married compete jokingly in various tasks to see who will be the dominant partner. But in this piece it wasn’t a question of dominance rather that of selfless interaction between the two players.

The final performance of the evening and of the festival was the commission for flautist/saxophonist Xhosa Cole for string quartet plus himself just on flute on this occasion.  The piece, entitled The Greek Suite, was a wonderfully mature piece that brought together a number of attractive textures and rhythms.

As I stated at the beginning of this piece, this was a very successful festival.  It drew excellent audiences and created a special atmosphere in the two venues. Let’s hope it becomes a regular feature of the music scene in Birmingham.

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