Portugal’s Semibreve Festival Was the Most Comfortable Avant-Garde Experience Imaginable
We went to Braga to enjoy performances from Andy Stott, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Ron Morelli, in a quite extraordinary setting.
Photos via Adriano Ferreira Borges.
You've just eaten a massive meal. A huge meal. A needlessly large meal. A meal of bread and olives and meat and starch and carbs and wine and more wine and even more wine. The kind of meal that leaves you dizzy and dazed, fearing early-onset gout and a hangover of Oliver Reed proportions. You are in good company, and good spirits too. You hold the restaurant door open for a friend who was a stranger just hours ago. The warm late-evening air smells of salt and cigarettes. Church bells peal in the near-distance.
Stumbling down cobbled side-streets, you end up on a flower-buttressed boulevard, jostling with lovestruck teenagers and their elderly mirror images. There's a theatre in front of you, and in front of that theatre is a sea of beards, bobs, and badly rolled black jeans. The conversation clicks in a tongue you do not understand, but that lack of comprehension isn't a cause for concern or consternation. You embrace, in a silent way, that sense of incommunicability. This is silence as appreciation. You walk into the theatre's foyer, admiring the deep red of the plush carpets. You find yourself ushered into a curtained-off box and take a seat. You stare at the ceiling in amazement. You stare at the stage in amazement. You are here, in Portugal, at Braga's Teatro Circo, to enjoy the fifth installment of the Semibreve festival.
Life moves differently on the continent, especially when we're seeing the squares and plazas, the cathedrals and churches, the tapas and antipasti, through the rosé tinted glasses of a holiday. The thing you tend to notice about the UK when you leave it is just how astoundingly awful it is when it comes to public space. We box off the countryside and turn our cities into uninhabitable zones of pure, rank, unconcealed capitalism. The small towns that make up the bulk of this under-nourished and increasingly dismal nation are a series of boarded-up pubs and abandoned precincts. We're herded into coffee chains and multi-storey supermarkets, never allowed to forget that all that matters in life is how much money we have—and how willing we are to spend it.
As the sun shone down on this sleepy city—nestled in the north west of the Iberian peninsula—and I sipped on cold bottle of beer that cost me less than a quid, I thought, as all of us do whenever we're out of England, "I could move here."
This, of course, is the delusional fantasy each of us will ourselves into mistaking for truth and possibility as soon as we're wearing a t-shirt in October and eating a cheap lunch outside a cosy restaurant. It is nothing but a form of self-seduction, a enjoyable foray into the possibility that you—yes you—could start your life all over again. You'd learn the language and clean pools and get interested in the local historical reenactment society. Before I did all that, though, I had to get through a weekend's worth of forward thinking avant-garde electronic music.
Semibreve was, in some ways, your standard European Electronic Music Festival experience: expertly curated, effortlessly well-organized, and largely attended by the kind of people who buy cosmic jazz records and have strong opinions on the collected works of Bela Tarr. This, of course, is never a bad thing and, indeed, there's something comforting about it all—it's the experimental rendered real, in a cardigans and desert boots way. For those of us who enjoy spending our time and money on watching the kind of musical performances that'd leave our mothers wondering how exactly they'd fucked us up that much, the average weekend's worth of collaborations, one-offs, and piss-ups in Cologne, Cagliari, or Cadiz, is as welcome as that first pint after work on a Friday night.
What made Semibreve stand out was the fact that what seemed like a relatively slim bill was in fact an incredibly carefully put together set of performances that complemented one another to a stunning degree of subtlety—the kind of long weekend of wonders that lives long in the memory. Or at least longer in the memory than the almighty hangover that follows devoting a few days to consuming a microbrewery's worth of lager, and doubling your own bodyweight in custard tarts and pork. Anyway, that's enough about the food and drink, onto the music!
And what great music it was! The opening night saw us slide into the Teatro Circo for a double whammy of trance-inducing performances from a pair of musicians currently straddling a strange world that sits somewhere between The Wire and an Urban Outfitters playlist: Kara-Lis Coverdale and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. It's fair to say that Coverdale—a former organist who crafts the kind of luminous compositions that force the organic and the unreal into a distinctly disquieting space—and Smith—whose most recent record, the Buchla Music Easel-mangling EARS is an undoubted experimental highlight of 2016—probably won't be gracing the front cover of the NME anytime soon. Yet there is an incredible un-pretentious directness about what they do with modern composition and the outer limits of ambient music, that gives them an appeal far outside the staid world of the conservatory. This was music for the body, mind, and soul: pulses and shimmers, moods and shades that demanded the kind of complete concentration that allows the mind to wander into its own nooks and crannies.
Still, if Coverdale and Smith had us thinking about drifting off into a deep sleep, the night's other acts—Andy Stott and Nidia Minaj—were soon to put a stop to that.
Just down the road from the theatre sits GNRation, a multi-purpose space that was the site of Semibreve's clubbier excursions. It's unadorned white spaces were a million miles away from the rococo flourishes of their grander sister venue, and that simplicity lent itself well to a series of sets that explored the possibilities of rhythm. Stott kept things stop-start; a percussive flurry would be followed by gaping silence, thick pillows of bass slid into the far reaches of the room before tearing themselves open on the jagged nails of curdled-melody that the Modern Love producer had thrown around. It was a somewhat frustrating hour or so of music that never become the all out clanking monster if threatened to, with moments of stunning brilliance—a jittery avalanche of D&B at one point threatened to rip the roof off—clashing with stretches of avant-tedium.
If Stott's set was all about spatial exploration, Minaj's was a strictly physical affair. The Príncipe wonderkid just wanted to get the heaving room dancing—which she did with aplomb, each creaking transition sounding like the rub-and-tug of tectonic plates. Tracks smashed into one another at a ferocious rate, each sounding bigger than the last, creating their own kind of internal logic. And that's the joy of the Príncipe sound—external cohesion is irrelevant. This is transformative music that's genuinely looking to the future. We left GNRation elated. Knackered, too.
Saturday began in slightly more sedate fashion. After a morning of coffee—ah, Portugal, the country that pretty much runs on incredibly cheap, incredibly strong espressos—and sightseeing, we found ourselves sat on the long grass that nudges up against the back of Casa Rolão, an absurdly gorgeous house that sits next to a McDonalds and a CEX and is now filled by a fantastic bookshop. I say "fantastic" but not being in possession of any Portuguese whatsoever, I didn't actually read anything. Instead, I sat out in the garden, listening to a conversation between the Wire's resident cosmic jazz bod Stewart Smith, and Tyondai Braxton, formerly of Battles.
The Q&A was hampered by sound issues, but those certainly weren't a problem later in the evening when Braxton trod the boards down at the Teatro for a performance that saw him explore the middle ground between abstract experimentation, contemporary clever-clogs composition, and good old fashioned dunder-headed 4/4 thuggery. It was—and this is a word that floated through my mind throughout the entirety of the festival—a dissection of what we talk about when we talk about disorientation. There's a school of thought—that largely meets in my head after four pints on a week night—that thinks that experimental art of any kind is inherently about disorientation above all else. We look to it as an escapism—not the 'easy' escape we're offered by pop music or trashy Hollywood films or pulp sci-fi novels, but a kind of escape into the part of us we view as clever and understanding and worthy. And that's a disorientation—a means of getting lost in the recesses of that self. At least that's what the notes I made that night suggest, anyway.
That could all be bollocks, obviously; the half-formed thoughts of a half-cut Brit abroad, drunk on freedom. If anything at Semibreve convinced me that, yes, my orientation theories might have possibly been a little half-baked, it was a set that I'd been anticipating with a feeling that had been edging towards eagerness. Surely, I'd reasoned, the combination of Basic Channel founder Moritz Von Oswald and Mr Dubplates & Mastering himself, Rashad Becker, was going to be one for the ages. It had to be! That pairing! This room!
No. No. No. No. No. Their performance—which was billed as, "the natural sound of a piano, over-exposed by playing only a single note (b) that passes through varying paths of electronic convolution, gathering all kinds of electric patina and evoking echoes, clones and caricatures of itself, ultimately acting as a sonar impulse sent out to machinery to be informed and invaded by its circuitry,"—was the worst kind of avant-wank, a stultifyingly boring insight into absolutely nothing. Nothing happened. At all. And not in the good nothing-happened way, either. The most charitable I can be about it would be to say that that level of hubris is sort of commendable in an abjectly perverse way.
Happily Portuguese experimentalist Jonathan Uliel Saldanha was on hand to rescue things with one of the most astonishing sets I've ever witnessed. Tucked away in the Teatro's slightly more totalitarian basement room, Saldanha bathed an over-awed audience with an almost unbearably gorgeous ambient wash; it was angelic and hallucinogenic, too. Sounds emerged and disappeared, never really there, never really anywhere. The hour long piece moved at a stately pace, uncoiling inch by inch, as the room filled with fog. We sat in the deep red of the dark, lost in a moment. It was the exact tonic we needed after the onanism that had marred the earlier section of the evening.
Over at GNRation, Laurel Halo and Ron Morelli were keeping things relatively simple, with the latter's rough-hewn acid abrasions complementing the former's slightly cooler sound perfectly. Neither set was especially life-changing or thought provoking, but this was a Saturday night and, honestly, who amongst us wants to battle with polyrhythmic complexity and Lacanian theory on a Saturday night? What we wanted was what we were given: contemporary dance music played at ridiculous volume to a room full of people in various states of inebriation. All that was missing was an ill-advised donner wrap and a two hour journey home on the N21.
Sunday saw us indulging in yet more coffee, pastry, and lager, leaving our waistline feeling slightly less happy than we did, even if we attempted to walk it off over a series of strolls that were peppered with pit-stops for, yep, coffee, pastry, and lager. London based cellist and composer Oliver Coates was the first act of our last day at Semibreve, and his A/V set was a difficult, demanding, occasionally frustrating but often exhilarating insight into exactly what can be done with a fusty old instrument and a few effects pedals. Coates' sound—somewhere between the easy-sadlad appeal of Max Richter and the gnarled-nu-metallic vibe of Oneohtrix Point Never's most recent material—found a perfect foil in Kode9 collaborator Lawrence Lek's visuals.
Lek's work saw us traverse what seemed to be an approximation of a wrecked and ruined east London. Presented as a gun-less first person shooter, it asked the audience to consider their relationships to both reality, and it's simulated cousin. Lek's world was one in which walls and ceilings, floors and doors, were denied any kind of physicality; the world was radically transformed into a zone of total liminality. Nothing was there. Nothing was real. Given the repeated shots of the poems you see on the tube (funded by various councils and government schemes) and the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, I'll let you work out what Lek was getting at.
The weekend was rounded off in suitably crushing form by artists Paul Jebanasam and Tarik Barri, whose Continuum was "Inspired by the poetics of energy and living matter's eternal resistance against entropy...explor[ing] the compositional space of synthetic audio and visual materials pushed to limits of technological possibilities," and was, in a word: stunning.
A genuinely cacaphonic, catastrophic thing of blackest ever black beauty, it was the sight and sound of the world imploding in itself. I imagine that, stripped from the properties bestowed upon anything that's presented in a setting as grand as the Teatro Circo, it might loose some of its heft, its power, its sheer fucking size. But in there it sounded bigger than Jesus—all volcanic swells and power station hiss—and looked bigger than life itself.
As we hopped on a Porto-bound train on Monday afternoon, our time in Braga at an end, we had time to ruminate on Semibreve as a whole. It was, for a festival that only nodded ever so lightly towards the more mainstream end of the underground, a refreshingly unpretentious experience. The artists mingled with their audience, new friendships were struck up over mutual interests in Godflesh or Michael Moorock novels, and everyone you came across seemed to enjoy a beer or six.
This, I thought as the Portuguese countryside rumbled past me, was everything a small festival should be: engaging, intriguing, and resolutely devoted to giving it's audience the best time possible. I might not be moving to Braga just yet, but the notes of this weekend will linger long in the memory.