Counterflows Festival 2018: The Review

Glasgow's experimental music and sound art festival returns with a typically diverse and exciting line-up

Live Review by James Hampson | 16 Apr 2018
  • Counterflows, Susie Ibarra

Counterflows is Glasgow’s annual festival of experimental music, attended by a relatively small but certainly dedicated crowd. This year’s featured artists are Usurper from Edinburgh, bookending the weekend and starting proceedings off at The Stand with a suitably absurd and amusing set of, well, we guess you’d call it theatre. A vocal track of an endless, surrealist board meeting is played over cartoons and a video of them banging objects on a table, whilst the duo themselves vape through oversized cardboard masks on stage. The audience titter and we wander to the next venue wondering what else the weekend could have in store.

A trio of acts who prioritise vocals in their work follows, starting with the throbbing electronica of Cucina Povera before moving on to WIDT. WIDT sing operatically over shifting sands of static and washed-out synths whilst live visuals on the wall behind hypnotise us all. This is one of the strongest sets of the festival as their music has a strangely timeless quality, the first act to truly captivate the audience. They’re more than adequately followed by Zywizna, a duo whose scratchy, jazz guitar underlies a full-throated belting out of Polish folk songs. It’s perfect music to watch the sun go down to, and sets up the rest of the festival properly.

Friday begins with a mystery film, the identity of which (for suitably opaque reasons) we're not told about until it begins. It turns out to be Full Mantis, a new documentary about free-jazz drummer Milford Graves, featuring his charismatic storytelling and curious takes on neuroscience and rhythm interspersed with shots of his over-flowing wild garden as perfectly representing his music.

One of Graves’ former students, Susie Ibarra gets the Friday evening started later on with a tighter, more controlled drum set than we heard from Graves, but one which loses none of his energy. As with Zywizna the night before, this is one of many moments during the festival in which a performer gives the audience something so original that they hold us in the palm of our hands.

A further film screening follows the next day – Le Plein Pays is a curious French documentary about Jean-Marie Massou, a man who lives a hermit-like existence in the French woods, preoccupying himself with digging up giant rocks to build a temple, and making recordings of himself singing ditties about the population crisis over snatches of French radio. This is followed by a ‘diffusion’ of his work in a neighbouring venue which is basically the same as the film but with a PowerPoint instead of footage.

After an exuberant late-night social, most of the audience need Sunday to be perhaps a little gentler than previous days and Counterflows duly provides. Eva-Maria Houben plays a set of such perfect, minimal piano that takes the audience away and, as she puts it herself, could have happily gone on until midnight. Her work is centred around the importance of silence and the gaps between notes, making it all the more distracting that it takes place in a hot room as people creakingly walk around.

Following this, in Tramway we have Lucy Duncombe’s exploration of the individual in pop music. In practice what this means is repetitions of pop tropes – lyrics, melodies and dance moves – like those deconstructed classics they make on Masterchef sometimes. It’s as mixed a result as you get on Masterchef too; sometimes sublime, sometimes slightly ridiculous, sometimes a little boring. It is, however, followed by Rhodri Davies’ specially formed ensemble. Six musicians, playing instruments as diverse as a zither and theremin, sit in their own pools of light which throb in synchrony as they emit gentle whispers and squawks, playing unrushed over half an hour. Its bald simplicity and audacity is striking, and after the chaotic and rhythmically punishing previous two days, the entire performance has a cleansing effect on the audience, never developing beyond its gentle pulse, and never having to.

Sofia Jernberg’s festival-closing set is one of the most extraordinary and original things we’ve seen in years. A 20 minute a capella routine takes us on a journey of everything the human voice can do, most of which are unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t seen Jernberg perform before. Scratching, wrasping, clicking and warbling, often at the same time, she eventually gives way to full-on, monotonal wailing, her voice warbling slightly as it shifts octaves seemingly randomly. She sounds like every strange and weird sound we’ve heard throughout the festival distilled down into a single performance and is thus the perfect closing point to end this year on.

Counterflows is a unique festival in that the audience are almost exclusively committed to the music, which we think it’s fair to say a lot of festival crowds aren’t necessarily. But more than that, they’re committed to trying new things and letting music take them places they haven’t previously been, which, again is something a lot of festival audiences aren’t interested in. It’s credit to Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope for putting clear effort into a programme that unfolds over the weekend and broadens the musical horizons of all who attend.

Walking home from the easy-going closing social at Glad Café, we felt we’d arrived at some new destination at the end of it all, and how often does any live experience make people feel like that? Here’s hoping Counterflows continues its good work.