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No Bounds 2018: Art, Dance & Technology Festival Round-up

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Modular synthesis workshop

No Bounds began with me getting slightly lost on the way to the Testone Factory for the Modular Synthesis Workshop hosted by Rebel Technology.

Early modular synths were featured on classic albums such as Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach, but have come back into fashion with the popularisation of the Eurorack format. This workshop involved fascinating discussions around the magic of algorithms and how to utilise them in electronic music, as well as how to bridge the gap between modular hardware and computer programming languages such as Pure Data.

The most satisfying part of the workshop was when we got to experiment with the synthesisers ourselves. Passed around was a Fascination Machine, a generative instrument originally conceptualised by inventor and composer Raymond Scott but realised only recently by Rebel Technology. Finally, the workshop ended with the most anticipated part, everyone patching on the modular and making music together.

Full Mantis

The Holt provided the ideal end to the festival with a showing of Full Mantis, a documentary on avant-garde jazz drummer Milford Graves. The room retained the worn industrial elements of the other venues while creating a decidedly cosier atmosphere.

The film included archive footage of Graves exploding over a large drum kit while a band around him wrought free jazz skronk from their instruments, which was abruptly cut to Graves performing solo on a single drum. Showing his versatility, he was able to make that one drum sound as exciting as the full kit. Other footage featured a performance for autistic children in Japan, who were so moved by Graves' playing that they stood up and danced.

Graves' envious array of pursuits were all given equal attention, from the beautiful abstract mosaic he applied to the front of his house to a garden that was somehow both overgrown and carefully cultivated. We were shown his small medical lab, where he measured the electrical impulses of his heartbeat and fed them into a synthesiser, producing unpredictable atonal sequences similar to the skronk from earlier. The heartbeat, Graves explained, was the central rhythm of the human body and a good musician should seek to emulate its natural push and pull.

The title 'Full Mantis' came from one of Graves' many anecdotes. While studying martial arts, he wished to learn the Praying Mantis. When his instructor would not teach him, Graves went to the source by buying and studying a tank of mantises. 'Going straight to the source' is presented as the basis of Graves' life philosophy. At one point he eats a spinach leaf still attached to the plant, like a caterpillar, to absorb its 'cosmic energy'. The film presents a portrait of a man whose incredible skill seems only to be matched by his curiosity.

Sarah Davachi

Sarah Davachi sat on a high-backed leather chair, tinkering with the controls of the analogue synthesiser, looper and effects pedals that are arranged on her wooden desk. Flanked by two huge walls of speakers, it felt more like a job interview or a presentation than a concert.

Her performance featured one long composition, beginning with a single note looped and sustained as a pedal tone for the rest of the set. Slowly, she introduced new elements in the higher register, each addition causing the overall sound to react in new and exciting ways as the harmony moved in and out of consonance. The result was a swirling, psychedelic effect that filled the whole room and snaked between the people in the crowd. This was owing to Davachi's preference for 1970s analogue synthesisers, whose imprecise pitch creates fluctuating rhythms as the synthesisers oscillators drift in and out of sync. With each loop added these rhythms became more complex and polyrhythmic. Currently studying for a PhD in Musicology, Davachi invited the audience to experience pitch and rhythm as a singular whole, bringing to mind the work of musician and theorist Henry Cowell.

Davachi invited the audience to experience pitch and rhythm as a singular whole

Halfway through the set she introduces a powerful, deep bass tone that instantly grounds the music. The shift is recognisable, not only sonically but thematically, suddenly recalling devotional music, the organic timbres of the drones adding to an atmosphere that became almost meditational, itself juxtaposed with the industrial setting of Trafalgar Warehouse. The set ended with an emotive, cinematic chord change. The audience, having chosen to get their legs dirty and sit on the concrete floor, eyes closed, listen intensely.

Wanda Group

Wanda Group - or, more accurately, Wanda man-stood-behind-a-laptop - is the project of Louis Johnstone. His set began with thundering, apocalyptic noise like tectonic plates shifting, heavily decayed by layers of digital distortion. The sounds, while seemingly organic in origin, were too blown up to recognise, rendering them in an uncanny, alien state. What at one point seemed to be the sound of dragging stones became a monstrous gurgling brook.

The sheer size of the sound was overwhelming and completely immersive. The audience were carried along with the exaggerated sounds of a person running alongside unintelligible, pained vocal samples. The sound of wind and a loud, distorted cough pulled you into the action, like being in a horror movie with the background sounds turned up to eleven. The set ended on the sound of rodents scurrying over one another, covered in skin-crawling digital hiss.

Theo Burt

Theo Burt presented Trafalgar Warehouse with an audio-visual piece. Broken into separate segments with no fade in or out, only a black screen featuring the name of the composition, it was an instant, full-body assault.

Each segment featured a backdrop of abstract colours that resembled watercolours bleeding in and out of each other, beginning with a simple rusty brown and a blue almost like a cave painting, with more added as the piece progressed. Musically it comprised extreme remixes of pop songs at ultra-high volume. Utilising kick drums and basslines lifted from industrial techno, Burt gave Trafalgar Warehouse its first taste of music you could dance to. The treble was taken care of by breathy samples imitating human voices. The whole thing was reverbed into oblivion, adding an ecstatic, psychedelic feel that brought to mind the dancier side of My Bloody Valentine, a band who also dealt in extreme volume.

Burt gave Trafalgar Warehouse its first taste of music you could dance to

There was a winking thread of humour in the song choices. The second track Burt treated the audience to was a completely unrecognisable version of Calvin Harris and Rihanna's 'This Is What You Came For', with increasingly busy kicks and a flash of green added to the visuals, now superimposed over an image of a sport car.

The first of two highlights was Beyoncé's 'Sorry', which removed all colour from the backdrop, leaving only black and white static, with the previously breathy samples distorted into screams. Musically it resembled the cold, ambient soundscapes of black metal crossed with hard warehouse techno. The piece closed on a remix of Neon Jungle's 'Braveheart', where the chorus of the track was looped, sped up then gradually slowed down beyond recognition. The slower the track got the deeper the bass became, which at such volume shook the walls.


Foodhall held a series of exhibitions commissioned by No Bounds throughout the weekend. 'Society of Explorers' featured work made by a group of 14-17 year-olds organised by the Site Gallery. The result was a video of constantly rotating objects and images laid over pictures of dancers, nature and other footage. The objects presented were enjoyably tactile, handmade from card and foil and then manipulated digitally.

Memory Dance featured two pieces. First was 'Trades and Crafts', footage of a man carefully creating an etching of a sailboat while synthesised pulses throbbed in time with the hits of his chisel against the copper plate. Second was 'Free For All (Re)', which featured archive footage from the 1970s and 1980s with new audio remixed from the footage's original soundtrack. Highlights included a bike race, sped up then slowed down to disorientating effect, while the audio had been manipulated to resemble a sinister marching band. There was also intensely saturated footage of the Botanical Gardens that left the flowers looking like they belonged on a distant planet, with a brass band performing outside for the elderly whose music was heavily edited to create brooding pads while horn fanfares ricochet overhead. The piece reimagined Sheffield as something like the surreal, uncanny island prison of The Prisoner.

Speakers draped in red velvet played a droning soundtrack

'Forward' by Sheffield-based artist Ashley Holmes featured a screen flashing a manic procession of still images tracing the history of electronic music while enigmatic words and slogans appeared at the bottom of the screen. On either side speakers draped in red velvet played a droning soundtrack of minimal percussion, synthesiser washes and sirens.

Former Hope Works artist-in-residence J. Davis displayed a series of paintings that re-imagined traditional landscapes in agonised, sinewy forms, as well as urban settings featuring impossible structures full of negative space. Rendered in singularly detailed spray paint, the pieces showed a world mutated.

The Modern Institute

Featuring members of Golden Teacher, Glasgow's The Modern Institute began with a galloping percussion loop before bringing in other synthesised sounds. Intensely rhythmic yet loose, the lack of quantisation and the use of live drum pads created a constantly shifting rhythmic palate. With a playful selection of samples and synth tones added to this, The Institute were able to move the entire warehouse to dance.

Both dressed in black lab coats and playing a laptop and a table full of equipment, there was a sense that the music might have benefited from less frequent movement though sound and texture, as some of the most enjoyable grooves never really got the chance to establish themselves. Still, their cerebral yet silly vein of dance music translated well. There was even audience participation in the form of a giant silver sheet thrown over the crowd, inducting everyone into the Institute's modernist aesthetic.

Jack Buckley

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