Sound and Vision: A look at Cryptic's Sonic Bites series

With COVID-19 showing no sign of abating, Glasgow luminaries Cryptic are taking an ambitious new approach to live streams

Feature by Joe Goggins | 11 Nov 2020

The pandemic rolls on, and with 2021 looming, there remains no clear indicator of when we might expect something like normality in terms of live performance. The heady days of the early lockdown in March and April seem like the distant past now, partly because of the misplaced optimism of promoters (how many tours were put back until June in the hope that we’d be past the worst of it by then?), and partly because the webcam-and-acoustic-guitar live streams keeping us entertained already look primitive relative to what’s followed them. 

Sensing that chances of a wholesale return to the touring circuit will stay remote for a while, and that there’s an appetite for more considered online musical entertainment than quick sessions over Instagram Live, myriad artists have been putting together ever-slicker productions, ranging from the handsome – Angel Olsen’s gorgeously delivered premiere of her new album at an empty amphitheatre in August, for instance – to the borderline crass; a telecoms-giant-backed Phoebe Bridgers show last month urged viewers, in truly dystopian fashion, to “scream into the mic” on their devices as if they were there in person. You suspect they did so, but perhaps not for the reasons the organisers desired.

Still, there remain beacons of hope in this peculiar new cyber-live climate, one of them being Cryptic’s new Sonic Bites series. The legendary Glasgow arthouse, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, has risen to the challenge of delivering fresh and genuinely engaging content with a daring new collection of audiovisual works intended to be consumed in short, sharp blasts: “something cultural to enjoy in the daytime,” as founder Cathie Boyd puts it. “Hopefully, a welcome distraction from emails, Zoom meetings and everything in between.”

A week before the initial lockdown hit, Cryptic had streamed their first show live from the Glad Cafe in their hometown, with an eclectic line-up (Alex Smoke, LinhHafornow, Aeger Smoothie) that spanned disciplines and continents. When venues closed just days later, Cryptic went back to the drawing board. “We took time to plan and see what we liked or disliked about the different formats people have been exploring over the past few months,” explains Boyd, “and ultimately, I think Sonic Bites was in response to the many online streaming events that I felt were of poor quality.”

Accordingly, Boyd commissioned a series of short-form works that both delve into Cryptic’s expansive archive and incorporate new, experimental material from their current roster. “For its many negatives,” she says, “lockdown has also opened new windows of opportunity for artists. Josh Armstrong is collaborating with Heir of the Cursed on The Terror, and that Sonic Bite is a pre-cursor to their live performance for the next couple of years. It’s also given Ela Orleans a chance to experiment with artificial intelligence ahead of her commission for 2021.”

Orleans, a Polish-born Glasgow veteran of Night School and now Cryptic, after having signed back in January, is preparing for an imminent move south to London, but has found time to put together a remarkable short piece that ties in with her PhD work at the University of Glasgow, where she’s focusing specifically on Gustave Moreau’s L’Apparition.

“I shot some video in Salle des Fêtes, which is this very grand reception room at Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where L’Apparition is exhibited,” Orleans explains. “I wanted to bring the past and the future together, so I took footage from this very grand room, full of golden chandeliers, that’s stayed the same for decades, and I’ve combined it with music that’s arranged by artificial intelligence, and I’m going to play trombone on it, which I’ve learned to play during lockdown. It’s a meeting of analogue and digital elements that, I hope, will seem pretty futuristic.”

Sonic Bites: La Salle des Fêtes from Cryptic on Vimeo.

Orleans admits that she deliberately steered clear of evoking pandemic-related ideas directly – a tricky task, given that she usually concerns herself thematically with matters of life and death – and while the forthcoming collaboration between Glasgow singer-songwriter Beldina Odenyo Onassis, better known as Heir of the Cursed, and interdisciplinary director Josh Armstrong might not directly touch upon COVID-19, it is a deep delve into negative emotional responses – namely, night terrors.

The appropriately-titled The Terror grapples with the intense emotional experiences that provoke such episodes, as well as the inherent fear that comes with surrendering the self to the unconscious. “We need to find new definitions and not cower in the face of adversity," says Onassis of the urge to break new ground with the Sonic Bites series, “so I think embracing all mediums that get our work and art across is imperative – especially as we're faced with a government who doesn't want to support the arts or what it represents.”

Cryptic Sonic Bites broadcasts at 1pm on the second and fourth Thursday of each month
Ela Orleans’ commission streams on 26 Nov, and The Terror closes the series on 10 Dec