I remember reading a survey of Birmingham audiences that concluded that they have essentially mainstream tastes and eschew the more contemporary and avant-garde. I don’t remember the figures, but I do remember that Birmingham came out as being more conservative in its musical taste than other UK cities. I believe that this is beginning to change and that programmes of more adventurous and experimental music have established a niche in the city’s varied musical programme. The annual Supersonic Festival has been a trailblazer in this gradual change and the round the year Fizzle programme (strengthened by the TDE Promotions events) have played an important role in developing audiences for this area of the music.
All of this has created an environment in which the Ideas of Noise Festival, which has run from 23rd January to 9th February, can present a wide range of experimental music and draw good audiences. The wide musical mix of the programme is excellent and undoubtedly one of the reasons for its success. The programme has included a contemporary opera, spoken word, free jazz, a top New York jazz trio, a night of Queef music (Queer Experimental Freedom Music), a day of organ related and church bell music at St. Paul’s Church, African music, contemporary classical and performance art. I’m sure I have missed out several other categories.
Full reviews will appear, I believe, on London Jazz News and The Wire, so here I will pick out my highlights.
The day at the beautiful St Paul’s Church on the edge of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and in its only surviving Georgian square was brilliantly conceived with contemporary organ pieces written either for the organ alone and for an organ electronics duo. It was good to hear a piece by Olivier Messaien in this context (Joie et Clarté De Corps Glorieux); it fitted in extremely well, though I’m convinced that Messaien himself would not have agreed! There was also an attractive duo of cello and electronics (no organ) with the name Hyphae that created a beautiful sound in the acoustic of the church.
The highlight of the afternoon performances was an amazing performance by Yodest, a Polish performance artist, who created a wonderful array of sounds with a connected shaver as he completely shaved both his beard and head hair over a 30 minute period. This was an amazing, if occasionally disturbing, performance that seemed appropriate in a church where it reminded one of acts of penitence.
The Pendulums, composed by festival co-director Andy Woodhead, brought together a group of seven improvisers (two trumpets and four saxophones plus Andy on electronics) and eight bellringers. The piece started with the bellringers, then moved to the improvising group, then into a section with Andy’s electronics drawing on the sound of the bells. There were two sections where the improvisers interacted with the bellringers and a final bellringing section where the pattern of the bells simulated a rhythmic groove. Two fascinating aspects of the collaboration: the bellringers were up in the tower of the church and the band was down in the church, so communication between them during the performance had to be done through Whats App. The bells can only be heard outside the church, not inside, so their sound had to be relayed into the church through speakers.
The collaboration created many absolutely beautiful and unique passages of music and fully deserves further performances.
The final set of the night at St Paul’s presented Kit Downes and Tom Challenger in the Vyamanikal duo. This saxophone organ duo fitted both the programme and the church environment perfectly with its range of moods and provided a stunning conclusion to a very stimulating day.
It was very pleasing that a contemporary jazz programme with free improv and a top trio from New York formed part of the programme. I say that this because this area of the music tends to operate in isolation, and also because curators of festivals with a relatively wide range of music such as Ideas of Noise sometimes neglect free jazz. The festival opened with the Tom Rainey Trio with Mary Halvorson and Ingrid Laubrock playing a totally absorbing set of 75 minutes plus encore; the music was based on a number of tunes which provided the structure for a series of open improvisations. It was a classic case of the distinction between the structure of composed material and the improvisations becoming blurred.
Trumpeter and journal editor Nate Wooley (Sound American journal) gave a well-structured seminar in which he talked of how he likes to draw on other art forms to generate creativity in his group performances. Later in the day, he gave similarly well-structured solo trumpet improvised performance. He started by whistling before going into a series of fascinating improvisations which were broken up by a story and by a song. There was a warmth and humanity in the performance that created a strong empathy with the audience.
The cooperative quartet Paul Dunmall, Percy Pursglove Olie Brice and Jeff Williams played the Claptrap venue in Stourbridge. This was free jazz at its most powerful with superb interaction between all four players; it was fascinating to hear Paul and Jeff playing together for the first time. But here too there was a warmth and humanity about it all, plus a strong commitment to the music.
Finally., I caught two performances of the Waste Paper Opera commission: syrup tracing (or, on the significance of rising and/or falling) . I enjoyed the second performance at Moseley Community Hub much more than the first which was part of the programme at the Claptrap in Stourbridge. The Community Hub gave them much more space and it seemed a more relaxed performance. The opera is a rapid fire piece, which moves seamlessly between one zany scene to another. It is occasionally funny, occasionally bewildering, always attention grabbing and ultimately good fun.
I am grateful to Rob Bishop and Mike Fletcher for conversations which informed some of the comments I have made here. I am also grateful to Dave Stanley and Anna Palmer for the photo of the Tom Rainey Trio. I should also declare an interest: as TDE Promotions I was responsible for the Tom Rainey Trio gig at mac.