Edinburgh Festival (15):Technology and Art Combine – But Not Always Successfully

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Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (15) – Field Recordings: Bang on a Can All-Stars, Usher Hall, 23.08.2013 (SRT)

Bang on a Can All Stars Photo by Stephanie-Berger
Bang on a Can All Stars
Photo by Stephanie-Berger

Bang on a Can All-Stars is an amplified chamber group, formed in 1992 out of New York’s famous new-music collective Bang on a Can. The All-Stars tour around the world, and they come to Edinburgh with Field Recordings, a project that seems ideally suited to fit with this year’s Festival’s technological theme. The set consists of 12 pieces by 12 composers, each of which features an audio or a visual recording of some kind, which is then accompanied with live music performed by the All-Stars on stage. The evening is, therefore, an interaction of the live performance with the recorded one and it poses some questions about their inter-relationship: which is more important, the live sound or the recorded one?

There is a fundamental problem with an evening like this, though, and it concerns the nature of what you’ve got recorded. If the recording is exciting and interesting then it tends to distract from the live performance, whereas if it’s dull then you wonder why they bothered choosing it to perform with in the first place. I didn’t feel that any of this evening’s pieces got that balance right. There were some interesting recordings, no doubt, and I felt that the two that came closest to hitting the mark when it came to the blend of the live and the recorded were the pieces by Florent Ghys (An Open Cage) and Anna Clyne (A Wonderful Day), both of which mimicked the voice tones of the speaker on the tape. That poses some interesting questions about the role that music has when blended with speech. Some of the rest, however, suffered either from excruciatingly dull footage (Mira Calix’s video from inside an airport) or predictable sounds made simply to mimic images (Christian Marclay’s Fade to Slide). One composer, David Land, even said of his own earlier work, which he used to inspire the current one, that “the music was fun but the show itself was no good.” I couldn’t have put it better myself, David, though at least his piece made some semi-interesting sounds with metallic objects being clanked together.

Actual interest was fairly thin on the ground, and the biggest disappointment came from a new arrangement by Steve Reich of music from his own opera The Cave. This was a world premiere and hopes ran high, but the music consisted of little more than a monotone drone for about 5 minutes. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Hz was not easy on the ear, but at least he did something interesting with his recorded sound, processing and manipulating the sounds from an Icelandic power station into something fairly spooky and sinister. The piece that appealed to me the most was Michael Gordon’s gene takes a drink, which comprised video footage from a camera placed around the neck of his cat and accompanied by a repetitive but very haunting riff that grew from the clarinet and high cello to take in the rest of the orchestra. Even there, though, the music would have been successful on its own without the video footage. This patchy evening left me asking more questions about the use of technology in art but gave me few satisfactory conclusions.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson