Photos by Adriano Ferreira Borges
If we’re being honest, Braga is not a place that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of electronica. In fact, if we’re being very honest, Braga is not a place that immediately springs to mind. Perhaps a few bitter Liverpudlians will remember it as the Portuguese city that knocked them out of the Champions League a couple of years ago. Save for that, your best chance of having heard of it is if you stumbled off a train as part of some ill-fated Atlantis2Interrail back in your youth. Or if you just plain love churches. Its church game is admittedly very strong.
But, if we are being honest (which I think by now we have established as a thing that we are being) it’s maybe not the most likely candidate for holding a brand new electronic music festival. So to find myself there for the purposes of reviewing one, Semibreve, is somewhat unexpected.
At the welcome lunch for press and performers Luis and Tiago, two of the organisers, smile as they introduce themselves, and after they leave to fetch our press packs, we marvel at their serenity. These are not the faces of two people about to see the culmination - or potentially, the collapse - of six months hard work. "You seem so calm," we tell Luis. "You must run a lot of events." He tells us Semibreve is his first, and also that we must try the fish. It’s a speciality. This is around the point that Kosmische music progenitor Hans Joachim Roedelius sits down next to me and asks for the salt. I brace myself for a weird weekend.
In keeping with this, the first ‘act’ in the program is not a musical performance at all, but a round table discussion. The topic of choice is the purpose of performance; to our great relief, it is conducted in English, though at points I suspect this would not have gravely impacted upon my understanding. Ominously, for a festival that had sold itself on the harmonious coexistence of visual and aural art, the conclusion reached by most of the panel seemed to be that their music would be best appreciated in total darkness. All in all, it was an interesting discussion, though perhaps slightly deflated by the last-minute withdrawal of The Wire’s Tony Herrington (for reasons no doubt only truly comprehended by The Wire’s Tony Herrington).
By this point, I should say, we have all been won over by the ineffable charm of our hosts, and so it is disquieting when we enter the auditorium on the first day of the festival proper and find attendance is a tad sparse - a situation only emphasised by the expansive grandiosity of the Theatro Circo. But this, it swiftly transpires, is only a cultural prank; Bragans do not like to be hurried, and so it distresses the organisers not a bit as the audience continues to arrive throughout Qluster’s set, who opens proceedings with a beautiful, improvised assortment of warm analogue tones and pensive piano melodies, during which we are instructed not to take photos. The real star of the performance, however, is video duo Luma.Launisch, whose reanimated photographic landscapes mould the music into something much more memorable. Memory, indeed, seems an apt motif for a performance that feels not so much improved as it does recalled at the expense of great effort - a bricolage of fond recollections. At the end of the hour, the concert hall is completely full, and Roedelius - who humbly describes himself in interviews as "nothing more than a sonic masseuse" - comes to the front of the stage to thank us all for watching. "What a nice man!" we all think, in unison.
As we descend to the lower auditorium for the second act, transcontinental soundscapers Taylor Deupree & Stephan Mathieu, it’s clear that Semibreve has not just sold well: it’s sold out, and impeccably fashionable Portuguese line up outside in hope of gaining entry. Meanwhile the rest of us enter to find a table laden with strange instruments and contraptions, illuminated by a single white stagelight shining from directly above. Deupree and Mathieu are the only act at Semibreve not to include a visual element, and it’s clear they’ve decided to keep things sparse. We are told we’ll hear a premiere of their 2009 album Transcriptions - though it is uncertain what is meant by this exactly, considering the whole act is to be improvised. As it happens, we are exposed to a tight spectrum of constant sound, which Deupree and Mathieu proceed to morph and sculpt, albeit at a frankly glacial pace. The experience is not unpleasant, but after 45 minutes we don’t seem to have travelled too far from where we started, and the intense concentration on the faces of the performers as they arrange and rearrange their curios is starting to look like an affectation. Still, I thought the overhead verdict of one audience member - "it was like listening to paint dry" - was just a touch uncharitable.
Back in the main auditorium, Jon Hopkins makes an executive decision not to fuck about. His is the most animated display we’ve seen so far, and as he flicks and twiddles with great panache I wonder if it’s inappropriate for the audience to remain seated. Certainly, having been deprived of something so gauche as an actual drumbeat for most of the evening, many now start to jerk and twitch like addicts in time with the music. Hopkins has had no shortage of praise, from Chris Martin to Brian Eno, and its easy to be impressed by both his technical prowess and his range. His style is difficult to pin down, running the gamut from faux-dubstep to glitchcore; highlight track ‘Light Through The Veins’, which Coldplay liked so much they ‘re-appropriated’ it for their own album, evokes the term ‘euphoric trance’ far better than that genre ever did itself. The performance is broken up by a couple of solo piano tracks which are pleasant enough, but feel like too self-conscious a riff on Drukqs era Aphex Twin. When he comes back on for his encore, to rapturous applause, I can’t help but feel disappointed it’s only for another ‘Avril 14th’ moment. But neither this nor the unremarkable visuals spoil what is ultimately a fantastic end to the night, and a promising augur of things to come.
After a day taking in the sights of the old town I feel refreshed and ready to take in Fennesz, who immediately sets a much darker tone both sonically and visually, with the assistance of Portuguese video artist p.ma. Against a backdrop of murky brown smokestacks and static artefacts, sound is amassed and accelerated beyond the point which it can be sustained, at which point it collapses in on itself. Fennesz pores moodily over his macbook, before taking up a guitar and sending waves of distortion out into the crowd. It’s a show that relies on texture as much as melody, and the engineers manning the soundsystem deserve a lot of credit for building a rig that can trace the pits and pockmarks of Fennesz’s dissonance. As the performance progresses, however, the melodic strands become more discernible amongst the miasma, and put me in mind of William Basinki’s The Disintegration Loops; except in Fennesz’s case, the process is working in reverse. It’s not enough to convert me to a full-fledged fan of an artist I’ve always felt lukewarm about, but as the primordial growls subside for the last time, I left doubting that I’ll ever find a better forum to experience his work.
Blac Koyote are a homegrown talent that I want to like, if only for the audacity of bringing a steel drum (not the Jamaican kind; the kind you put oil in) to an electronic music festival. Alas, my good intentions are spoiled by my proximity to the speaker, which proceeds to screech ‘feedback’ directly into my ear for the duration. The music is a curious blend of garage indie band and experimental electronica; the set-up includes both a live drummer and a drum machine, with the latter set at a much higher volume, resulting in the rather jarring effect that the former seems to be playing along to some R’ylian metronome. The steel drum, it turns out, is simply one piece in Blac Koyote’s arsenal of paraphernalia, which also includes some kind of zoetrope-like device that gets played with a cello bow, and which doesn’t significantly improve a set that shows smatterings of promise a la Brooklyn’s Gang Gang Dance, or even 65daysofstatic, but feels too randomly thrown together for my liking.
In contrast, the final set of the night, from German digitalist Alva Noto, is mathematically flawless. Playing a version of his Derivative show updated for last year’s univrs LP, Carsten Nicolai gives us the closest we’ve yet experienced to a symbiosis of sight and sound. The performance opens on a complicated array of graphs and diagrams, all apparently synced to Nicolai’s console, as they animate in response to the acerbic ticks and glitches reverberating around the room. It’s only at the end of the first track that Alva Noto reveals his hand, and we zoom in for a close up of one of the components - the rest of the set plays out as a series of vignettes, each track from univrs ‘activating’ one section of the circuit, and sending it into overdrive. As the system becomes more chaotic, so too does the music, building to a truly violent assault of feedback loops and machine noise. The peak of the set, ‘uni acronym’, offers us the barest of glimpses into the potential function of Nicolai’s program, as the screen flashes up successive images of company logos and brand names. By the end, though, the gulf between raw computer data and cogent information appears unbridgeable, and I am left none the wiser, except to say that I enjoyed it immensely.
Sunday offers up a reduced schedule, with just the two acts on the bill. The first of these, Vitor Joaquim, has already put in an appearance as a speaker in the pre-festival lecture, speaking in somewhat mysterious fashion about the ‘new modes’ of performance that would have to be created in the wake of electronic and experimental music. Clearly not satisfied to leave it for others to pick up on his theory, Joaquim, along with fellow artist Hugo Olim, arrives on the scene with laptops, a projector screen covering both wall and floor, a series of lightbulbs strewn out towards the audience, and (my personal favourite) a microscope. When things kick off, Olim makes a beeline for the microscope, and proceeds to feed slides into it which are then projected large for us all to see. Quite what we are seeing is, as befitting a musician with a PhD, left for us to imagine, but a lot of thought has evidently gone into the monochrome space, which pulses from positive to negative in alignment with the music. It’s an engaging performance, and I grudgingly decide to enjoy it despite the monumental pretension of sampling a lecture on Immanuel Kant in the opening bars.
For the closing performance everybody is expecting something special, and the fact that the main auditorium has been locked since the previous night while Murcof and AntiVJ make preparations for their set has only added to the suspense. When we are finally allowed to take our seats, the pair is obscured behind a shear curtain, and it is only once the lights are dimmed that I realise this is so the visuals can be projected in 3D. The tracks are taken from across the Mexican composer’s albums, but edge towards the more fearsome end of his spectrum. As demonic orchestra swells jump out from nowhere, a tangled ball of indistinct origin suddenly unfurls with alarming speed and stretches itself out to threaten us. The effect is disconcerting, which is not to say it isn’t an impressive collaboration of sound and FX, but I am relieved when we move on to tracks from Cosmos, which are accompanied by more pleasant jaunts along star-charts and cascading lights. It’s not my pick of the festival, narrowly beaten out by Alva Noto’s wizardry on the Saturday night, but from a purely technological standpoint it’s fascinating to behold, and a fitting end to Semibreve.
It’s difficult to know what to expect with a festival’s first year, and I came to Semibreve prepared to make allowances for its youth, as well as for the esoteric idea of holding an electronica festival in Braga to begin with. In actual fact, this proved to be completely unwarranted - Semibreve was as smooth an event as I’ve ever been to, with crowds that would have been impressive for London, let alone Northern Portugal. Full credit to the vision of the organisers, who, as we left, were already planning acts for a possible second year. One can only hope the funding for events like these doesn’t dry up - Semibreve gained much of its sponsorship from the European Youth Capital Program, which seems like a prime target for cutbacks now that Europe has died hard. But the overwhelming success of last month’s festival, I think, is cause for optimism: with enough enthusiasm and meticulous planning, it is at least possible to pull off something that looks (frankly) deranged on paper, and to pull it off with consummate aplomb.