Tusk festival review – multisensory showcase of sonic adventures

The Sage, Gateshead
Terry Riley, one-note symphonies and bearded men in dresses all find their place in this uncompromising celebration of experimental music

In darkness illuminated by spooky projections, Cee Haines AKA Chaines fuses guitar, clarinet, keyboard, looped banks of her own singing and at one point screaming to produce a mesmeric collage of ecclesiastical beauty and creeping dread. When a young woman in the crowd performs bizarre, interpretative dance movements in slow motion, it’s difficult to work out whether she is part of the audience or the performance. Now in its third year at the Sage, after intimate beginnings in 2011 at the Star and Shadow cinema, Tusk is a three-day festival of the experimental, weird and wonderful that features artists who rarely play in the UK. Ramones, Blondie and the Fall producer Craig Leon spotlights his lesser-known yet enduring guise of electronic composer. With longtime synth partner Cassell Webb and a string quartet, a superb performance draws from 1981’s pioneering proto-techno work Nommos and his forthcoming Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music vol 2: The Canon, blurring the divide between contemporary classical, synth punk and banging techno.

Lea Bertucci at Tusk festival.
Pensive, beautiful noise … Lea Bertucci at Tusk festival. Photograph: Ken Drew

There is much to see and hear, from the visually stunning and hypnotic mechanical humming lyres of Newcastle’s Drone Ensemble (in the nearby Workplace gallery) to the furiously intense free jazz of Irreversible Entanglements and local artist Joseph Hillier’s thrillingly disorienting Blind Blind Blind Blind installation: sculptures bonded to four simultaneously playing vinyl copies of Talking Heads’ Blind interfere with each turntable’s stylus to create a constantly changing cacophony. The festival’s uncompromising spirit is such that comically chaotic Blackpool avant punks Ceramic Hobs – bearded men in dresses, a topless, beer-bellied singer and songs about mental health and curry sauce – are among the more conventional offerings.

“If it’s too much, earplugs are available,” says the woman welcoming anyone tiptoeing towards Otomo Yoshihide’s experiments in extreme noise, using an electric guitar and record decks. The Japanese avant garde master submits the latter to such sonic and physical assaults – pounding them with his fists – you suspect he will eventually be arrested for crimes against musical equipment. New Yorker Lea Bertucci’s experimental music is easier on the ear, but no less adventurous. She uses visuals, but her vast, spacious fusion of clarinet, sax, glitch and echo and is best experienced with eyes closed, when her pensive, beautiful noise hits like a multisensory massage.

Bertucci also helms Double Bass Crossfade, in which two upright bass players playing with bows fill the vast Sage concourse with improvised sub bass. Also from NYC, guitar/percussion duo 75 Dollar Bill channel Sun Ra, Middle Eastern and African music into mesmerically repetitive, urban desert rock. Sarah Davachi’s stellar Sunday set combines electronic hums and string players, who hold each solitary note for minutes at a time, building to a gradually evolving symphony of stillness.

Bradford’s Hameed Brothers Qawwal and Party pull one of the biggest crowds to the largest hall for a euphorically received set of Punjabi singing, dizzying tabla and percussion. A similar throng assembles for legendary minimalist composer Terry Riley, with his son Gyan. Playing piano and electric guitar, the father and son have an almost telepathic connection as they lock into the 83-year-old’s subtly jazz-influenced repetitive grooves before the younger man hurtles off into another dimension. Blasting from a symphony of Clangers-like noises to a sublime piece for melodica and guitar epitomises Tusk’s celebration of sound and possibilities.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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