Beatrice Dillon & Keith Harrison at CentralaSupport: Copper Sounds| UUOO
February 9, 2019 at Centrala
Promoter: Supersonic Festival
Ecstatic Material is a collaborative live experiment which sees Beatrice Dillon play her elegant computer music through a multi-channel sound system devised by artist Keith Harrison. It’s the first of this year’s Outlands tours, a project looking to develop and sustain a national experimental music network. It has a slightly rarefied air: I’m tempted to include a trigger warning for Art and Ideas because I know how they can sometimes upset people. A meeting of sound and matter that is as much installation as performance, it’s set up on the first floor, towards which we will all be ushered in good time.
Meanwhile downstairs, local lad UUOO is opening proceedings with some improvised hardware techno. It starts out with some textural scrapes but is soon anchored to a deep bass pulse. He appears to be in the wrong space or time. My suspicion that this is the most up-tempo and approachable music we’ll be hearing this evening later turns out to be correct. He might have been better served by ending the night, once the crowd have massaged their minds, had a few more drinks and become more likely to tentatively get on the good foot. As it is, he’s surrounded by curious observers and photo snappers, like a rare bird or a street performer. Mid-paced dance music in a gallery setting. It’s an enviable looking little set-up he’s got, modular knobs and cables in a dapper retro suitcase; we can just make out colourful blinking lights from where the magic is happening. He could have a ventriloquist dummy in there, or a laptop. In fact you could probably make the music on a phone. The choice not to, the resurgent interest in modular systems and hardware as opposed to digital is partly a desire for a more tactile engagement with sound. An idea that gets taken in different directions by Copper Sounds.
They use four turntables on which they really do play etched copper plates, as well as lumps of rock and wonky ceramics. It’s not dissimilar to Graham Dunning’s mechanical techno and in much the same way a lot of the interest is visual more than sonic, in seeing the sound generated. Water is decanted, a rock suspended from a lab clamp bashes against another rotating on a turntable. It’s hard to shake their slight resemblance to The Chemical Brothers, if Ed and Tom were actually teaching a chemistry class. There’s no 303 squiggles or thumping breakbeats here but the sound is built from loops of texture, layering into pleasing drones. Concept-heavy and melody-free, they delight in the plastic possibilities of sound. Depending on your mood there’s something pleasingly absurd about the amount of gadgetry they employ to make music by repetitively banging rocks and pots together in the most primitive way.
Eventually we are ushered up the stairs and into Ecstatic Material. Harrison’s system is a series of stacked crates on wheels with a variety of speaker cones set in the top. There’s a quite stark functionalism about the choices but he’s still had some fun with the different colours and sizes of these things. Liquids and powders lie in the cones, cables snake all over the floor. It’s a diffusion system which is the sort of thing beloved of electro-acoustic composers, and gives a keen spatial dimension to the sound which rings out from points all around the room. This means that Dillon, in the corner hunched over her laptop, can control which speaker she sends specific sounds to. There’s an expectant but uncertain mood as the first fractured sounds start out. Shuffling and photography. As it goes on, it doesn’t so much develop as a deeper structure suggests itself, rhythm and melody appear like an after image. I’m reminded of Venetian Snares’ Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding, although as if it were asleep or something.
The materials in the speakers splutter and shake and dance with the vibrations. This is the gimmick; aside from some changes in the lighting (from bright vertical strips that stand amongst the other elements) that’s where all the movement is. They don’t overplay it. We’re watching a performance by a piece of sculpture that might not be either of those things. Happily it refuses any kind of dramatic narrative or spectacle, swerving all danger of becoming an avant garde dancing-fountain display. The music does not build to any grand finale; in that sense it’s quite static. It fills and animates the space, but it’s possible to move your attention across it and appreciate it in different ways depending on which speaker you’re stood next to. As the crowd become more comfortable with the situation they start to move around more. Thoughtful and respectful silence still prevails, but there are smile; as we come to an understanding of the piece it seems we relax and enjoy it more. And then, without warning, it stops. And it seems like it was over in minutes. . .