SoundState festival review – buzzing with ideas

Southbank Centre, London
From the sonic possibilities of a ping-pong ball to Rebecca Saunders’ terrifying timbres, the five-day new-music festival offered plenty to fascinate and outrage

It wasn’t so long ago that pop music was grappling with heavy subject matter – war, politics, philosophy, art, sexuality, race – while “serious music” made a great show of dealing with nothing but itself. Nowadays, as much pop music seems to have jettisoned most notions of political or ideological engagement, contemporary orchestral music seems to be more engaged than ever. Over five days, the SoundState festival buzzed with ideas.

Across a variety of concert halls at Southbank Centre, there was music addressing all sorts of heavy subjects. Grace-Evangeline Mason’s Into the Abyss, I Throw Roses was a beautiful and muscular piece for a string trio inspired by a Nietzsche quote; Deborah Pritchard’s Seraphim explored the notion of the fallen angel through a harp solo that was played by harpist Gabriella Jones as if it had been digitally manipulated; Slovenian composer Vito Žuraj’s cartoonish composition Runaround was inspired by tennis; mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons sung the 1916 Dada manifesto as if it were a spiky operatic aria; while a piece called Where We Lost Our Shadows, featuring Pakistani singer Ali Sethi, Chinese composer Du Yun and Palestinian film-maker Khaled Jarrar, explored immigration and displacement.

Festivals of rigorous avant-garde music such as this are a tough sell, but, despite SoundState sharing the traditional strictures of the concert hall – the formal dark clothes, the respectful silences between movements – there were plenty of moments that would have appealed to music fans whose ears have been opened wide by leftfield electronica, noisenik guitar pop or free jazz. Fans of Aphex Twin, for instance, would have loved the Sunday workshop and concert exploring the sonic possibilities of a bouncing ping-pong ball, while anyone interested in the industrial soundscapes of Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Department might have lapped up the disjointed noise poetry of Ashley Fure’s Feed Forward – an oddly compelling arrangement of thuds, scrapes and squeaks that sounded like systems noise from an electrical power station.

A few of these investigations of noise entered epic territory. On Thursday, James Dillon gave the London premiere of Tanz/Haus, a remarkable piece that sounded like an arrhythmic conversation between a dozen instruments – a shimmering sound collage made up of discordant, endlessly unresolved drones. Best of all might have been Saturday’s concert devoted to Rebecca Saunders, recent winner of the prestigious Ernst von Siemens music prize. Saunders works with a limited range of pitch, but paints stunning and often terrifying images through her use of timbre. Fury II and A Visible Trace were a series of orchestrated explosions that sounded like a brutal murder being committed in slow-motion; while her lengthy piece Skin features some feverish poetry, inspired by Samuel Beckett and James Joyce and sung by soprano Juliet Fraser in a series of shocking whispers, shrieks and mutterings.

In a festival of fascinating and outrageous compositions, Saunders’ work seemed to massage the brain and stimulate emotion better than anyone else’s here.


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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