[sic] Magazine

Instal 2009

Weird and wonderful, exciting and excruciating, Instal can be all of these things and more. It’s become Scotland’s premiere experimental music shindig since its inception in 2001. Each year, a bunch of musicians from various fields descend on the city to showcase their art. Nobody tries to pretend that it’s all going to be equally enjoyable. There is a Reithian spirit to the event – inform, educate and entertain – and sometimes it does feel that the third of those noble aims has been tacked on as an afterthought. The reason it’s always worth it is not just the considerable horizon-broadening that it offers, but also that there is inevitably something that absolutely takes your breath away. Last year’s three hour set by Japanese quartet Marginal Consort definitely fell into that category.

f622aeb634.jpg?v=0″ height=”200″ width=”200″ />The duo of Jean-Luc Guionnet and Toshimaru Nakamura (pictured) were much more interesting. Guionnet helmed the organ with Nakamura providing accompaniment using a mixing desk that input its own output creating feedback loops of electronic noise that he could then manipulate. The music was highly abstract, but not without concrete form. It was almost like a gallery of aural paintings evoking an industrial landscape. There were vast locomotives, steamships in fog, colossal machines and the hum and crackle of power stations – all topped off with a dash of Universal horror and Colin Clive zapping kilowatts of electricity through poor old Boris Karloff . It ranged from thunderous rumblings to delicate fizz, and restlessly moved ever forwards. Hugely impressive.

Kogawa.gif” height=”200″ width=”300″ />Two of the evening’s more successful conceptual pieces were provided by Tetsuo Kogawa (pictured) and NikosVeliotis . Kogawa used four radios, three transistors, his hands and a few glass slides to manipulate radio waves. The resultant sound was a symphony of pitch and crackle. But by having a close up camera on what he was doing projected on to a screen, we could observe a fascinating process, even if the sound wasn’t particularly musical in any accepted sense. Veliotis’s “Cello Powder” consisted of the playback of a CD of looped cello drones that he’d recorded, while he and an assistant destroyed the instrument he used using an axe, electric saw, wood chipper and finally food blender to turn it into sawdust. This was then put into jars, and each CD would be sold with an accompanying jar holding part of the cello. A power failure half way through didn’t help, but although the drones were fairly captivating, the visual element of watching wood chips being ground to powder did get a bit boring after a while.

Drones are good. I like my drones. They do seem to have become totally ubiquitous in experimental music making, to the point of being about as experimental and avant-garde as a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop song. Used in conjunction with other elements, drones have a contemplative power. Used on their own, there has to be something other than empty pitch to make them interesting. Veliotis’s use of drone at least had other things going on, even if they were merely visual. Rad Malfatti and Klaus Filip used trombone and laptop and very low volume to produce a 40 odd minute piece that went precisely nowhere. Michael Pisaro’s “An Unrhymed Chord” used twelve musicians, grouped in three quartets, on instruments as varied as trombone, guitar, laptop, sax, cello and piano, to produce a long, quiet drone that altered only as the various players came in and out. The piano (which obviously is incapable of producing long, sustained notes) occasionally chimed in with a single note repeated at intervals. This went on for over an hour, with a five minute pause of silence in the middle. Why oh why does everything always have to be so damn long? Is there special merits given for testing the listener’s patience? Is it some kind of statement against the attention deficient pace of modern life?

Sachiko M (left) and Otomo Yoshihide’s set was divided into three parts. Sachiko fiddled with some contact mics for a while, gleefully creating a series of snap, crackles and pops – like an amlified bowl of Rice Krispies. Otomo played a strange looking pair of pianos, somehow hooking them up to a guitar amp, causing oscillating feedback of various pitches. It was interesting, but I’d like to have heard it used in a more musical way. The pair then played their improv piece “Filament”, a duet for turntable with no records and sampler with no samples. It was a spacious piece, full of longeurs and near silence, punctuated by static crackle, feedback squeals, and the beautiful, rhythmic sound of needle on turntable.

I ventured in the small Studio Theatre on a couple of occasions on Sunday. Fraser Burnett, Jean-Philippe Gross and Grant Smith created an enjoyable and rhythmic scree of noise using a trio of mixers. Neil Davidson and Hannah Eliul on guitar and clarinet respectively created some delightful improvised music, let down only by vocalist Ben Knight who seemed to be convinced he was an extra on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Back to the main hall, and possibly the best two sets of the entire festival. Gross reappeared with Jérôme Noetinger , seated at opposite sides of a table situated in the middle of the arch. It was covered in all manner of electronic gizmos with cables and wires sprouting in all directions. They proceeded to create a maelstrom of electronic noise. Sometimes it was intense and dense as Merzbow , sometimes it used extremes of pitch like Pan Sonic , and sometimes it almost purred like a contented cat – albeit one with a very short temper. It was visceral and physical and rather wonderful.

The final set of Instal 09 brought back memories of Maryanne Amacher’s extraordinary 2006 performance, in which she produced frequencies of sound that seemed impossibly loud, and also seemed to emanate from inside your head, but yet allowed you to have normal volume conversations at the same time. This time Jean-Luc Guionnet and Taku Unami (pictured) somehow tuned in to the frequencies of the actual building. Using speakers set around the room, and the sort of sub bass frequencies that would have your average dubstepper gazing slackjawed in amazement, they produced a deep, rumbling barrage of noise. It wasn’t constant in pitch and tone, but oscillated, making the very fabric of the building seem to vibrate. At one point, my skeleton seemed to be jingling around in my body! The volume was high, but not excessively so – this wasn’t a performance that left your ears ringing afterwards. It was all done using frequencies of sound. Quite an experience.

It has to be said that the highlights this year weren’t plentiful. Sunday was the best day by far. There was too much stuff that seemed to lead up blind alleys, and not a great deal that felt inspiring. When the outer limits of what could be considered music are being explored, it’s always going to be hit and miss whether the results are enervating, excruciating or exciting. It’s the possibilities that keep me coming year after year. Even when the festival is below par, there is always something magical to take away from it.