Sonorities Festival


The Sonorities contemporary music festival has always had a sparky originality. Along with the opportunities for local composers and the visits of compositional luminaries, outreach of all kinds has been a major pre-occupation. This year the festival has been special on nearly all fronts: luminaries aplenty in the shape of Maxwell Davies, Nicola LeFanu and Anthony Gilbert; a range of performances and premieres from Irish composers; and a distinguished group of resident performers, Psappha. Location and collaboration have also been major features. The former was in evidence most spectacularly when Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donnithorne's Maggot were staged at the Parliament Buildings, Stormont. The curious blend of melodrama and absurdity which hovers over that extraordinary building provided an appropriately bizarre atmosphere for works that put greatness and madness so tellingly under the microscope. With Tony Blair's speech to encourage the "Yes" vote still ringing in the rafters, Psappha's acute performances focused attention on the skull beneath the skin, and - unusually in the setting - meant that art rather than politics was responsible for sending an audience away high as kites down the hill from Stormont to Belfast.

Away from the excitement of Stormont, Sonorities showed itself well able to offer a fresh angle on new repertoire. Contemporary music festivals come and go, but the ones that show a capacity for renewing themselves, as opposed to relying simply on the novelty of the repertoire, are worth watching. Much of the rest of Sonorities took place in the splendidly adaptable Ormeau Baths. Where once bathers plunged into the deep end, there are now four highly serviceable exhibition spaces. The new galleries were given over to a series of collaborations between the artist Barbara Freeman and four composers. The result was artwork on a grand scale in which music fed off - and provided the context for - the visual image; aesthetic qualms simply melted away in the face of an idea that genuinely extended the remit of all the artists involved. If the match between Freeman's bold set of canvases in the first gallery and the elegant craftsmanship of Ian Wilson's string trio, Phosphorus, did not quite work, Michael Alcorn's Patina, an electro-acoustic reaction to Freeman's "shieldscape" of metal sheets in various shades of corrosion was hauntingly appropriate. In stark contrast, a cool avenue of banners was the foreground for Gathering Paths, ambient sounds from the Catalonian countryside put together by David Lumsdaine with percussion etching from Nicola LeFanu.

The sound and sculptural installation was a kind of benevolent frame for a range of startling concerts: Stockhausen's Kontakte - superbly played by Psappha's pianist Richard Casey and percussionist Tim Williams - stood up well, its open-cast quarry of gestures and sounds conscientiously mined by those who now claim to find it dated. There was also a broadside of compositional energy from the younger generation. Perhaps overall there was rather too much under-powered minimalism and introspective post-romanticism, but even among these categories there was something to admire. The laws of historical shake-out will mean that only a tiny percentage of all this honest endeavour will survive into the new millennium, but that has always been the case. Never mind, Sonorities' wide-ranging panoply offered rich rewards for a broad and enthusiastic audience - much was learnt and absorbed - and the simultaneously captivating and frustrating continuity of the genuinely contemporary admirably serviced.

Barbara Freeman's installation will be on display at the Ormeau Baths Gallery until the middle of June.