Fuzzy haired backpackers and country gents in tweeds, trendy grandparents shepherding toddlers, skinny youths in drainpipe trousers so low on their hips crack exposure seemed imminent, teens in tracksuits and denim miniskirts with curly perms, shaggy dogs, babies, paralytic drunks, me. We all found our way to the surreally serene landscape of the Bentwaters Airforce Base to attend a music festival dedicated to the experimental mish-mash of genres and ideas.
Faster Than Sound is only in its second year, a festival put together to celebrate all sorts of musical forms that other festivals don’t cover, as an offshoot of the Aldeburgh Festival, which has been championing new ‘classical’ music for many years. However there are some classical performers who are clearly a bit too far out for the regular festival, and here they have found an outlet, alongside electronic experimenters, performance artists and installation makers. Thus choirs and cellists joined men hunched behind their laptops and DJs to celebrate all the strange things noise could do.
Bentwaters Airbase, in the middle of Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, is a location uniquely suited to this kind of sprawling creativity, arched metal hulks of hangers and low brick buildings strangely reminiscent of small town primary schools in the 70s, dotted around among inexplicable heaps of gravel and sand, criss crossed by vaguely marked roads and runways. Stands of pine trees, beneath which rabbits frolic, fill in the gaps, which were lit to great effect once the sun had gone down.
Arriving early, and not at all sure of where we were going, we wandered through a bank of sensors which growled and howled in response, a gateway linked to a performance piece, ‘Becoming Animal’, staged later by Minimaforms in the car park of the makeshift but well-stocked bar.
A Bucky Ball with its base lopped off provided wonderful acoustics in The Dome, where the Exaudi Voice Ensemble kicked off the proceedings with an oriental piece that’s best described as entertaining humming. The red lights behind them caused one already merry member of the audience to keep shouting “The red lights are evil!”, while beside me a big black dog joined in with the high hums.
However serious the choir might look, the ambient noise seemed like part of the fun. Their second, much longer piece, specially written by James Saunders for the festival was performed by various singers sampling and replaying their own voices with hand held recorders, and singing into paper cups. It’s easy to make fun of such antics, but actually it was rather dull. Although great from a sound perspective, the staging did let things down a bit, especially because so many of the performers were rather static. The lightshow consisted of the aforementioned banks of lights which sometimes changed colour – not much of an integration of sound and vision.
The star of the night was electronic composer Philip Jeck, whose powerful and invigorating composition kept me spellbound for half an hour on a very uncomfortable floor. People sat and lay around, letting the sound wash over them, occasionally starting at a sudden outburst of noise. I had been looking forward to the act that followed him, Mira Calix and Tansy Davies, who combined electronics, a string quartet and an opera singer in a new work. Although it began with interestingly low whooping and murmurs – the phrase non jamais, repeated over and over hypnotically – against taut passages from the string quartet, where flattened notes were played pizzicato, once the singer began an exchange with recorded vocals it seemed to disintegrate into a bad romantic ballad.
The second stage consisted of a large concrete circle around which six large speakers had been set up, pointing inward, offering strange changes of volume and focus as you walked through and behind them, with the performers in the centre being bombarded by their own music. Performance there kicked off at 6.30 in the muggy warmth with Hildur Arsaelsdottir, better known for her work with Icelandic quartet Amiina than solo performances. She played a brisk cello set with accompanying loops and then departed to look at other exhibits, leaving the circle untenanted for almost an hour.
At this stage in the event it seemed more like a lot of people milling in small groups than a festival. At times it was hard to tell what was ‘recorded’ music being played in the gaps and when the performers were on, some of them were so low key. But with good weather and a peaceful audience out to enjoy themselves and seemingly happy to stroll around, it mattered little.
The third ‘stage’ was the Star Wars room, located in another 70s brick hut that really did resemble a primary school. It provided a continual pumping soundtrack, and featured a number of notable electro pioneers including Pierre Bastien and Dat Politics. In the building’s smaller rooms several of the installations had been set up and were outstandingly underwhelming. Most consisted of loop video and music – a bush with strings attached, some holiday video of textures and surfaces randomly associated with a soundtrack to see if they segued at all at any point. They were visually tedious rather than hypnotic and, shown in tiny cubicles, lacked impact.
As darkness fell it was possible to appreciate greater visual opportunities the airbase offered. Nanoplex, which looked like large spinning clothes dryer overcome by a vein-like network of flashing lights, lacked scale, and the wireless walk through the woods may have had some teething problems on the audio front, but the illumination of the trees and buildings later on in the night was quite spectacular, as was Wire, an audience participation device set up on the runway consisting of a very long string and two huge speakers, which festival goers were encouraged to experiment tapping, stroking and bowing throughout the evening.
As with any festival, not every act was great, but the majority were certainly interesting. If you can go with an open mind you will inevitably enjoy such a civilised night which attracts an amazing cross section of locals and music fans, and brings them to such a unique location to listen to so man different kinds of music. And at 17.50 it’s a bit of a bargain.