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No Bounds Festival 2019: Caterina Barbieri / Graham Dunning / Lee Gamble / Rob Gordon / Memory Dance / Ellen Arkbro

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'Free For All' (dir. Martin John Harris, David Rea, 1976)

By Jack Buckley

Caterina Barbieri

An eagerly anticipated performer at this year's No Bounds was Italian modular synthesist Caterina Barbieri. Barbieri has seen her profile increase over the past few years thanks to records like Patterns of Consciousness, Ecstatic Computation and a series of well-regarded live shows. As with all of Friday night's audio-visual performances, Barbieri played upstairs in a vast, tiled room at Kelham Island Museum. The stage was minimalist, with just a table holding a large modular synthesiser case.

She opened her set with an aggressive burst of static noise before slowly introducing the evolving sequences she's become known for, using a complex, physically-modelled, plucky synth voice, before filling the room with the sounds of a synthesised choir. A large screen showed recordings of nature, sometimes intercut with a car shooting down a deserted road, which had been edited and distorted to uncanny, alien effect. The screen showed sped-up storm clouds as Barbieri cloaked her sounds in huge slabs of reverb, then the beautiful greens and blues of the northern lights as she filled out her arrangement with ricocheting delays.

the audience was floating in space

The constantly shifting sense of depth in Barbieri's arrangements made it feel like the audience was floating in space. At one point the visuals showed the earth from space, frantically spinning as the camera seemed to fly off into the cosmos, and then like the sound was rattling inside our heads the next.

Throughout, Barbieri's intersecting, heavily-modulated sequences moved from hard and percussive to progressive and ambient, travelling through registers that at times incorporated the deep bass and soaring leads of trance into her unique brand of baroque ambience. The peak came when Barbieri stood in profile against a sunrise rendered in deep greens and sang long, choir-like sustained notes into her modular setup, which were then looped into a wall of sound.

Graham Dunning

Graham Dunning's mechanical techno set was a perfect fit among the old machinery downstairs at Kelham Island Museum. His experimental approach to live composition involves stacking modified vinyl records onto a single turntable which are read by an equally precarious tower of needles and pressure sensors. These in turn are fed into a table full of synths and effects pedals.

It would come across as gimmicky if the results were not so successful. Piece by piece Dunning constructed then deconstructed grinding, whirring techno loops with a swing that would otherwise be impossible to conjure using traditional sequencers. It's a joy to watch a performance where the visual impression of the artist creating the music is as integral as the music itself. In this spectacle, snare drums are needles dragged across tape, hi-hats are triggered by small pegs hitting sensors, and it all comes together in an uneasy tower of rhythm.

a real sense of joy and humour

There's a notable dubstep influence to the murky low-end and loping grooves which persists until Dunning introduces a steady pounding kick and it becomes a slice of Berghain-ready industrial. Each small shift of the sensors creates a dramatic change in the feel of the rhythm and allows Dunning to constantly vary the arrangement. One highlight of the performance was when he added a high-walled record which he slowly poured ping pong balls into, introducing an element of chance to the synth blips that they triggered.

There was a real sense of joy and humour in how Dunning created his stark music. At one point he triggered a clap by adding a record with 'Clap!' written in a comedy typeface, that sounded each time the needle passed the exclamation point, creating a visual joke for the overhead camera.

Lee Gamble

Not visible on stage, Lee Gamble's set switched between furious, kick-heavy IDM and swirling ambience without ever being over-serious. Instead of appearing onstage, giant screens displayed spiky, psychedelic images where neon pinks, greens and yellows spilt across a dark black background. The visuals sometimes showed a recognisable building or some text, before digitally-rendered household objects such as sofas or cars piled on top of each other until they filled the screen before exploding into colour again.

Gamble repeatedly played with recognisable dance forms

As the set hit its stride, the ambience snapped into focus with highly-pitched and cut-up vocal samples making way for stomping, metallic techno. This is all before Gamble pretended to crash his computer, with error messages filling the screen while the music skipped uncontrollably. This was revealed as an absurdist joke when the music snapped into focus again and a chopped-up jungle-style break and acid bassline was introduced. Gamble repeatedly played with recognisable dance forms, introducing them before abstracting them beyond recognition. No bar was repeated and not even the drum breaks seemed like they could have originally been played by a human.

The rest of the set remained intensely percussive, with elements of non-western traditional drumming juxtaposing gabber kicks and a comedy hoover rave synth lead. This then morphed into an exploded school marching band with persistent toms and stick sounds, before incorporating footwork influences, dancehall and even laid-back tropical house as computerised ovens piled up on the screen behind.

Just before Gamble finished, toxic green worms wriggled all over the backdrop as a screamo vocal sample raged above a thunderous kick and wailing synthesised horns. Suddenly the screen went black and a series of phrases such as "priority many gods your sign" flashed by, too fast to register.

Mixing Bass Music with Rob Gordon

It was a slow start to the bass music masterclass with Rob Gordon, as the Warp Records co-founder and Forgemasters member was busy tinkering with the levels of the mic and turntable. Talking to Matt Anniss, Resident Advisor journalist and author of Join The Future: Bleep Techno And The Birth of British Bass Music, Rob went into detail about his methods when mixing and mastering bass music to achieve the best results.

Using tracks from throughout his career as examples, Rob explained how he made Forgemasters' 'Track With No Name' on his living room floor, his philosophy for creating space in a mix, and why you should always test your records on the most expensive hi-fi system you can find.

Rob finished by taking audience questions that touched on his workflow, how to balance your kick and basslines, and why he avoids compression "like the plague".

Memory Dance x No Bounds 2019

Held in the Millennium Gallery, Memory Dance was a rolling screening of rarely-seen archive film from Sheffield and South Yorkshire. It featured experimental animation, school material from Sheffield Polytechnic, music videos, documentary and fiction from archives between the 60s and 90s.

Standouts included Custard (1974) by Philip Austin and Derek W. Hayes, a surreal cartoon about a worker in a custard factory. Contrasting the drab life of the worker against the luxury of the factory owner, the short outlines the alienation of the workers by separating each character into increasingly small boxes. Despite the grimness of his life, the protagonist enjoys his work, even maintaining a custard machine in his home. The film also features a custard throwing competition, a garden obsessed neighbour with a flat full of sentient plants, a woman in the park capturing dogs, and a ghoulish man dismembering an unmoved music listener before a tragic ending.

captured the uncanny, yearning surrealism of David Lynch

There was also a showing of Sheffield Polytechnic's Craft, Design And Technology Promo (1989). The promotional video for what is now Sheffield Hallam University began with shots of a paraglider and rock climbers, before a surreal synth that benefited greatly from the warble of old cassette tape played over interviews with students.

There was also Neighbours? (1987) by Mark Purcell and Sue Jennings, a student-made video that featured Paul and Gail Robinson from Neighbours embraced in a kiss. The footage had been slowed to a crawl and what was once romantic became threatening. Low-frequency drones rumbled beneath the footage, as the soundtrack was slowed and stretched beyond recognition, losing any sense of provenance. The piece captured the uncanny, yearning surrealism of David Lynch.

Ellen Arkbro installation

Contemporary composer and drone artist Ellen Arkbro's installation, hidden around the back of Kelham Island Museum, was a highlight that demanded multiple visits. Arkbro's recent works For Organ and Brass and Chords have been rooted in minimalism, and explore timbre and harmony using droning cluster chords.

This preoccupation was further explored in her installation. Standing in stark contrast to the energy and noise of the rest of the festival, the piece demanded stillness. The work consisted of a dark room densely filled with smoke. In the middle was a circle of spotlights with a smoke machine at the centre, pointed up at a white circle suspended from the ceiling. Above this circle was another spotlight pointing down. The lights would turn on periodically, and when lit from below there seemed to be a pyramid of light at the centre of the room. When lit from above the circle took on an ethereal UFO-like quality. Occasionally, smoke would shoot up to the centre of the disc, pillowing up over the edges. Sometimes the main lights in the room would come on, leaving only a dark pyramid underneath.

an immersive mediation on sound and space

Stationed around the edge of the room were speakers that surrounded the listener. Each speaker played a dubby, mid-range drone covered in digital noise. The speakers each played a different note, meaning that as the listener walked around the room different tone clusters would emerge.

The result was an immersive mediation on sound and space. Different note clusters would create their own internal rhythms as their intervals rubbed against each other. The ritualistic, monastic gravity of the spotlights, combined with fizzing drone, created a ghostly, religious atmosphere.

There was a clear feeling of that room as a sanctuary and a utopian space, something unambiguously positive.

Next article in issue 140

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