Wysing Polyphonic review – explosions in the sonic inventing shed

Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire
Moor Mother and Paul Purgas curate an inspirational gathering where electronic artists, dancers and poets freely test the boundaries of expression

‘Noises of spoons!” I’m in an octagonal wooden structure that’s half Grand Designs man-shed, half denouement to a slasher movie, in a field in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Elaine Mitchener is kicking things off at Wysing Polyphonic, delivering scat poetry that’s as light, intricate and unmappable as rain falling on a roof. Alongside her is Neil Charles, tapping his double bass’s body like a faith healer, a tambourine tucked in its neck. Mitchener’s spoon mantra dissolves into stutters. She clicks shells and stones in her hands, as the bass fumbles and shuffles – the pair are trying to put something or other back in one piece.

This is one of the most valuable music festivals in the country – one that refuses, inspirationally, to put anything neatly together. Curated this year by avant-gardists Camae Ayewa (AKA Moor Mother) and Paul Purgas, it’s a loose study of corporeality and groove.

One of the highlights comes early on from a group led by Last Yearz Interesting Negro (AKA artist-dancer Jamila Johnson-Small) and Phoebe Collings-James. Their contemporary dance performance may not be virtuosically athletic, but it is a universe of feeling. Five women, clutching odd egg-like totems, shuck and jive, a coven of witch-dancers. As the soundtrack builds – a study of club culture through reggae, house and R&B – a centrifugal force ties them together. Are they drawn by female solidarity, dance history, or dream logic? As Marvin Gaye’s I Want You glitches around them, erotic and stumbling, they fall apart. This is a magical ensemble that deserves a bigger stage.

Back in the wooden shack, Ewa Justka and Poulomi Desai deliver magnificent fork-in-the-socket jolts of noise, built out of hardware and abused strings; their energy-saving strobe bulb is like a possessed Ikea demonstration. Soon after, Oretha plays a DJ set that should enshrine her in the underground circuit: an astonishingly accomplished tour through trap, ballroom and the sound of unsheathed swords. A race-flipped take on Bhad Bhabie, a downtuned Clipse, and a mournful edit of EDM stars Disciples are just some of her nettle-grasping dares.

Moor Mother herself plays a typically astonishing set. Merry Clayton’s vocals to Gimme Shelter holler into a collage of violence: “My body was scattered across the back road,” Ayewa spits, as doo-wop singers cheerfully, grotesquely chime into the mix. Her bass vibrations lift and tickle individual parts of my T-shirt. Almost like a standup comedian, she sketches out her scorched landscape: “It ain’t about enjoying it, like you’re going to whistle along or some shit.” But her righteousness is too bracing not to be in thrall to.

Just as the festival nears perfection, though, there is complacency. The way Mutamassik plays a tambourine through a plastic bag is queasily brilliant, but her set descends into self-importance. Lafawndah is blessed with an incredibly tight drummer who tethers her R&B reveries to the dancefloor, but there is a hole where the top lines should be – she tries to coast on hipster goodwill but her heartfelt work is simply too melodically slight. And Aisha Devi similarly lets the incredible soundsystem carry her undercooked studies in static and bass: it works as pure affect, but not as rounded music.

No matter: over in the third room is a speed garage set for the ages, while AGF, like the proverbial wolf, blows the wooden house down with her ultra-emotive, hierarchy-scorning minimal techno. After one brutally funky number, she chuckles, accurately: “That was an evil beat.” But so much of this festival is profoundly good – a place where the best new ideas in music take hold.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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