ROUND-UP REVIEW: Sound Unbound Festival at the Barbican

The Firebird at Sound Unbound
Photo Barbican / Mark Allan


Sound Unbound Festival
(Barbican and surrounding venues, 29th-30th April 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

While all of Twitter has been lol-ing and lulzing about the Fyre Festival debacle (LINK) and file under God-sent Schadenfreude...an extraordinarily well-organised festival took place in and around the Barbican Centre in London, with sixty-six events over two days, involving hundreds of musicians, at a bargain price. In its second incarnation, Sound Unbound has a mission to bring new audiences to the repertoire and sounds of classical music, and to extend our understanding of these by mixing them up with diverse genres, electronic elements, and site-specific installations.

Our weekend began with a charming concert in St Giles’ Cripplegate of songs by Renaissance composer and lutenist John Dowland. Golden-voiced countertenor Iestyn Davies informed us that BBC Music Magazine pronounced his accompanist Thomas Dunford “the Eric Clapton of the lute.” Their last song cheekily segued into the Dowland-esque melancholy of Clapton’s Tears In Heaven which was both hilarious and remarkably affecting.

While listening to the Scottish Ensemble perform a string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in LSO St Luke’s, we realised we must have been ear-wormed because the lively fourth of the thirty variations really did sound like Tears In Heaven. It is conjectured that pi contains every sequence of numbers conceivable. Bach is like pi: he contains all conceivable music, including Eric Clapton. Cosmologist Carl Sagan, when consulted on which composers’ work to include on the Voyager space probe, reputedly said “Why not just send Bach?”

Performed in Brahms’s harpsichord transcription by Jean Rondeau in his concert “Shock of the Baroque” in the atmospheric Pit theatre space, Bach wrote his Chaconne in mourning for his wife. The desolate sense of its primary theme and recapitulation, its raging floods of notes, testify to a coruscating outpouring of grief, as well as displaying formal perfection and Bach’s customary ingenuity in virtuosically connecting unlikely sequences of chords.

Liam Byrne
Photo credit: Mark Allan / Barbican

The chaconne form is a stately dance in triple time that was popular in the eighteenth century. In contrast to Bach’s tortured subversion of it, Jean de Sainte-Colombe’s Chaconne is funky and fresh, in an eighteenth century way. On the bustling open ClubStage Liam Byrne performed it on the viol (viola de gamba), the 7-string fretted guitar-cum-cello that fell out of favour around 1800.

“Old Strings: New Sounds” was an apt name for a concert that mixes up these old instruments and forms with new technologies, in a programme including works by Nico Muhly pairing the viol with laptop drones, Edmund Finis’s 2014 work Lines Curved, Rivers Mirrored and a debut piece by Alex Mills Suspensions and Solutions for electronics and viol. It is de-centred and ambiguous, making powerful use of the unique resonances and harmonics of this fascinating instrument.

Resonances and harmonics come into play accidentally during the concert at LSO St Luke’s by players of the Guildhall School with LSO players, when I start to experience auditory hallucinations that will follow me around all weekend. Something to do with the way St Luke’s, one of the churches designed by the “Devil’s Architect” Nicholas Hawksmoor, amplified certain overtones that led us to imagine hearing singing in unison with the top-line violins.

The ensemble played without a conductor, a decision that connotes a nervous spontaneity. As with several groups this weekend they played standing up, which heightens the anti-stuffy approach to classical music, and their selections were from the popular side.

If you tend to think of Tchaikovsky as borderline ‘light music’ then his Orchestral Suite No 4. Mozartiana will not thrill you. In tribute to Mozart it’s a comely, limpid piece and one of the composer’s own favourites, a moment of bright light in a dark life. The ‘holy minimalism’ of Arvo Pärt’s Summa displays the same chiaoscuro effect, like a candle burning slowly with a pure steady flame.

Nordic Noir at Sound Unbound
Photo credit: Mark Allan / Barbican


Estonian Arvo Pärt is especially beloved among the composers of the ‘Nordic neoclassical’, Mari Samuelsen tells us during “Nordic Noir” with the 12 Ensemble at Milton Court. The violinist has a star’s touch with her searing vibrato, tone at pace and grace in fingering, command in bowing, and leather trousers. A concert of contemporary Scandinavian works from her forthcoming album Nordic Noir includes works by Broadchurch composer Ólafur Arnalds. The Scandi approach can be c/rudely characterized as involved arpeggiations overlaid with long searing vibrato strokes, in fairly basic chord progressions with a simple and gut-wrenching potency. While an inspiration to these composers, Arvo Pärt’s works spare us such heart-rending histrionics and tend to be darker and more ambiguous.

In Fratres some extreme high notes in the violin mimic the overtonic resonances that naturally occur in a room, such as the holy ghost notes we experienced at St Luke’s. During the intro to Fratres Samuelsen uses the technique of emphasising harmonics by positioning the bow close to the bridge for that thin whistling sul ponticello sound.

Pärt is also a big influence, alongside folk and drone musics, on German Sven Helbig’s suite I eat the sun and drink the rain, for choir and live electronics, performed in Milton Hall. Slowed down distressed film footage depicts Nordic-looking landscapes, threatening grey seas, light in forests. The choir, dressed in black hooded robes, are put through digital processing that makes the hall of Milton Court sound like St Mark’s Basilica. A series of deep choral encounters with sparse electronic beats, the experience is a moving and satisfying synthesis of the visual, electronic and choral: liturgies for the frozen damned.

“I eat the sun and drink the rain as quiet as the moon”, said the old woman, and closed her eyes…

Quasi-religious or ritualistic meditative experiences, and the sonic overtones, harmonics and hallucinations that promote them, are crucial to the performance of Michael Gordon’s Timber, an hour-long work for six planks of wood. A composition of stringent minimalism and all the contradictions of that word: it’s a work of sonic and mathematical super-complexity. It’s almost unique in being a work that was written mathematically with the instrumentation being chosen subsequently, the choice made being planks of the second-cheapest available two-by-four timber.

The first 15 minutes explore pure sound, followed by 45 minutes pitting time signatures against each other in every conceivable combination. Performed in the glass gardens of the Conservatory, it is an immersive, potentially arduous experience, long-haul but absolutely thrilling as a full-body inspirational experience. Technically speaking the harmonics and overtones predominate over the fundamental tone of the timber, which is mentally unsettling as there is never any sense of tonal resolution. Delta waves fire in the brain, and, in a meditative state, the hallucinations begin again.

Anna Meredith's Hum
Photo credit: Mark Allan / Barbican


Immersive experiences continue with installation art performance works in the Curve Gallery, the Barbican’s long thin winding exhibition space. Young Scottish composer and performer Anna Meredith’s Hum involves thirty people in UV-reflective eye-masks windmilling fluorescent whirly tubes (we will see more toys and toy-like instruments elsewhere). The whistling, ghostly, siren-like tones and harmonics resonate across the full length of the space.

In artists Bill Leslie and Stephen Cornford’s Tuning Up, large helium balloons are attached to harmonicas and released. As the air rushes through the harps in different keys, a similar effect to Anna Meredith’s tubes and Michael Gordon’s timbers is set up of cacophony that is somehow so far out it comes back in again as your brain looks for the musical sense in it.

To be immersed, excluding the world, is why people wear headphones on the tube. On the Conservatory Terrace, Silent Opera: Carmen Remastered is a twenty-minute romp through the world’s most popular opera, with Bizet’s severely ear-worm inducing ringtone music remixed but not unrecognisable, broadcast to the audience through earphones along with the voices of the four opera singers, who brawl and pace among the audience members.

Sound Unbound made creative use of almost every space of the Barbican, with Pop Up Horns and Street Orchestras out on the lakeside and in the foyer, all free and meeting enthusiasm from all ages. The Electronic Music Department of the Guildhall School brought on volunteers to assist with the performance of Haydn’s Toy Symphony, handing out hacked musical children’s toys. For the more hipster twenty-something audience, each night Gabriel Prokofiev and the Nonclassical curated late night club sessions with electro-classical DJing and performances.

The Sound Unbound festival is a virtuoso feat of outreach and organisation. Virtuosos were given strong billing too. Remy van Kesteren spent twenty years performing the classical repertoire for the harp, but now performs his own music, which recalls classically-tinged electronic composers like Nils Frahm, one of whose compositions opens his concert. He also has a ‘delta harp’, which is like the keytar version of the harp, handheld and sent through looping pedals and electronic effects.

The finale to both Sunday night and the festival is less future-time oriented, with performances of three stone-cold masterpieces of “third stream music” the so-called category arising from the fusion of jazz and classical. (Link to review of this concert)

Chilly Gonzales.
Photo credit Barbican / Mark Allan


By now you’ve forgotten the ear-worm Tears In Heaven so it is my great, I mean, grisly pleasure to introduce you to “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis. This red, white and blue terrace anthem takes the place of the theme from Purcell in Canadian crossover artist Chilly Gonzales’s “sequel to Britten”, The Young-ish Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. “A theme should be something that lives already in people’s subconscious” he explains, though when he later tried to get everyone to sing along with it he may have realized he had overestimated Oasis’s appeal among a classical-crossover demographic not lacking in sophistication.

Saturday night’s concert took us through the orchestra piece by piece, with example extracts including the greatest, most powerful and luxuriant reading of the clarinet introduction to Rhapsody In Blue I expect I’ll ever hear, and the synth-harp figure from “Still D.R.E.” played on a real harp, which was ace. Chilly Gonzales described the orchestra as a toy - clearly a toy of a different order of magnitude to our earlier toy orchestra.

Before the final tutti - the moment when the whole orchestra played Champagne Supernova together, Chilly introduced his conductor Jules Buckley, neatly tying together thoughts we’ve discussed [?] about the role of the conductor, the meaning and purpose of the festival, and including a hopeful message for the future of music and even humankind:

“The conductor is the leader, that’s obvious. There’s different ways of being a leader. The main model for conductors in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is of fairly autocratic, scary dudes (and mostly dudes sadly). They would generally use fear as a method — it’s a legitimate method ;-) — but recently a new wave of conductors has questioned that model and decided for inclusiveness and togetherness and a musical humanism that crosses all musical styles. A big part of Sound Unbound’s message is that musical humanism. In these times it’s nice to have an example of leadership as inclusive and not based on fear.”

Listening to the gramophones outside
Photo credit: Mark Allan / Barbican


AJ Dehany is a poet, playwright and musician who writes about jazz and art

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