One of my best friends at school, and this was some time ago, worked at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop which operated from 1958 -1998 out of studios in London’s posh Maida Vale. As the name implies, it specialised in electronic music, its most famous piece being the Doctor Who theme, with which my friend was involved. His instrument, his synthesizer, was the size of a large wardrobe. It had no keyboard and its fuzzy buzzes and high-pitched whines were produced by patch-boards, knobs, switches, various bits of tangled wire and the odd dollop of BluTack. But it did the job. Nowadays you can get a more sophisticated and versatile synth via an app on your smartphone. My friend is still an active musician – playing double-bass in a trad jazz band.
Electronic music was primitive and crude, rarely hitting the mainstream. The Beach Boys used a ring modulator on Pet Sounds and there were avant-gardish bands like Kraftwerk, but it was still a bit nerdy. The very un-nerdy Laurie Anderson provided the acceptable face of avant-garde electronic music with a hit single and album in 1981 and she is the star of this year’s Rewire Festival in The Hague.
Mr Moog’s and Korg’s affordable(ish) early synths and the advent of the home computer made it possible for creative musicians to write more than just pretty pop songs. The floodgates have really opened in the last ten or fifteen years when sophisticated keyboards and software could provide the means of infinite expression to anyone with imagination and some technical knowhow.
The amazing number of exciting experimental musicians, both groups and individuals, is demonstrated in this year’s Festival where, over three days, more than one hundred acts perform in a dozen venues. There were also lots of talks and discussions. Also, if you had time to kill, Underbelly Books and Vinyl set up shop in the foyer of Paard on Friday and Saturday and in the Korzo on Sunday with lots of . . . err . . . books and vinyl to keep you occupied between events. Food was also readily available in most of the venues and the sun was shining. What more could you want?
We were obviously only going to be able to cover a handful of the events but we aim to provide a flavour and maybe a small insight into experimental music.
I decided to spend the first evening at the only venues outside the city centre, Zaal 3 and the adjacent Electriciteitsfabriek, to see what turned out to be three very different concerts.
First up was the Royal Conservatoire String Ensemble performing Tristan Perich’s Active Field. There is something about industrial sites that complements contemporary music and the vast girdered space at the heart of the disused Electriciteitsfabriek really put us in the mood as the ten young violinists filed on to stand in a straight line across the width of the make-shift stage.
It all started quite slowly with two or three of them repeating a simple phrase. Gradually they all joined in as subtle variations and nuances crept in until the middle section when they all stopped and stood quietly waiting while a hidden synthesizer continued the piece until they all joined in for the final movement. This was a fine composition by Tristan Perich’s, who has several other events scheduled for the Festival, and it was executed with confidence and style by the students.
For our second concert of the evening we made our way to the nearby and much more intimate (and warmer) space of Zaal 3 to hear Raphael Vanoli, an Amsterdam-based artist, composer and improviser who presented a solo performance on a Fender Strat, perched behind an impressive array of pedals. Guitar it may have been but there wasn’t much picking or strumming going on.
He proceeded to blow on the neck of his guitar as if it were a flute, drummed, tapped and seemed to kiss the frets and strings to produce something akin to a primeval soundscape – sounds were hummed and hissed, overlaid, repeated rhythmically. I’m certain there is much more to this artist than tonight’s offering, but to my mind, his hermetic performance lacked the necessary structure to create a satisfying spectacle. There was no rapport with the audience and consequently it was difficult for us to become involved in the music.
No such problem for our final visit. For us the night climaxed with a performance by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of their The Music of Stranger Things. However, the word climax does not really do this show justice. It was more than that, totally engulfing, both emotionally and physically, everyone in the packed space back at the Electriciteitsfabriek.
There used to be tourist attractions called Son et Lumière, maybe there still are, which involved lights being played on cathedrals, and the like, to the strains of some schmaltzy classical music. Tonight’s offering was anything but schmaltzy and could have been sub-titled Son et Lumière et Fumée – not only was the music enthralling but the hall was full of smoke and ever-changing coloured lights. In fact, there was so much smoke that if there had been a fire, nobody would have known. When we left the smoke was even billowing into the street. But the effect of the smoke at the concert was to fill the air and make the whole environment a tangible entity; you really felt you were inside something much more than just a building. We were standing near the front, near the smoke machines, and at times, as it swirled around us, it was like flying through a cloud with the only other thing you were aware of was the music. Total immersion the like of which I haven’t experience for a very long time.
Dixon and Stein sat at their desks on a raised plinth on the stage directing operations. Never lit and only occasionally visible in silhouette they were like pilots at the helm of a giant spaceship as it hurtled through a galaxy of sound. It would not be too far from the truth to describe the concert as mind-blowing, as they used to say. Michael Hasted and Astrid Burchardt 7th April 2018
Click here for full programme and tickets