Opera + Classical Music Features

Further Than Sound: The Aldeburgh Festival 2008

Thomas Ads’ final season, after 10 years as Artistic Director, sees the sort of wide-ranging programme one has come to expect from the annual Aldeburgh Festival.

The line-up of concerts this year includes appearances by I Fagiolini, Robert Holl, the Belcea Quartet, Steven Isserlis, the Gabrieli Consort and Players, Ian Bostridge and the CBSO.

As always, there’s plenty of less traditional happenings on offer too.

With its wide-open areas and abandoned airfields, Suffolk is maybe better-situated to exploit unusual spaces for performance than a city like London. While site-specific events of course take place in the capital, there’s less flexibility. The recent UK premiere of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo perhaps had the edge taken off it by being located in the relatively atmosphere-free Festival Hall, in stark contrast to the work’s 1984 debut in a dilapidated church in Venice.

The Aldeburgh Festival is always ready to take advantage of its situation in the rural heart of England for an adventurous programme of experimental work that spills beyond the confines of conventional music-making. Last year, a highlight of the season was Tim Hopkins’ 100 minute opera Elephant and Castle which used a number of different locations, including the outside of the famous maltings building at Snape. Without pretensions to “great art”, it trailed its audience around promenade-style to witness a multimedia show drawing on a toolbox of digital technology.

An Ocean of Rain

The festival opens this year with the world premiere of an opera, An Ocean of Rain instigated by Cathie Boyd, director of the multimedia Glasgow-based company Cryptic, with music by the Anglo-Cypriot composer Yannis Kyriakides. The book, by Canadian poet Daniel Danis, paints an impressionistic world suspended somewhere between reality and symbolism, in which three women evocatively named New York, Cairo and Kyoto – travel to the seemingly idyllic island of Haiti to help out in an orphanage (run by Sister Delhi). A local girl, Kiev, escaping from an abusive husband and the killing of a sex-trade tourist plunges them into a traumatic situation in which scales of suffering, from inner tragedy to devastating natural disaster, collide. Kyriakides’ sound world is not a million miles away from Nono, combining electronic and acoustic instruments.

Cathie Boyd told me something of the background to the piece. The idea originated with Daniel Danis, with whom Boyd has collaborated previously. He worked in an orphanage in Haiti at the age of 18 and his experiences were the starting point for the libretto. “Daniel has extraordinary dreams,” says Boyd, “and they end up on the page. The ideas were very much his and we then developed them together as a team. He’s created these cosmopolitan women, named after cities, but that’s not literal Kyoto doesn’t come from Kyoto for instance. We’ve tried to avoid obvious clichs.”

Once they had an outline, they workshopped the script and there’s both a strong collaborative and an international feel about the production. “Yannis (Kyriakides) was absolutely the obvious choice for composer,” she says. “I first heard his work at Aldeburgh, when they did the Conspiracy Cantata. This work is maybe more lyrical than we’ve heard from him before. He combines singing, electronics and music brilliantly.”

Boyd went to Haiti earlier this year to gather background information and visited the orphanage Danis worked at. What she found there she talks of the impact of the colours and smells in particular has strongly influenced the work she’s now doing, immersed as she is in rehearsal for the piece. “It was quite scary,” she says, breaking into peals of laughter which seem to go on forever, something she does frequently. “I grew up in Belfast, so I was sort of used to men with guns. I’ve spent time in Bogota which is a dangerous city but Haiti was a level above that. I couldn’t even get travel insurance to go there.” Her experiences there have helped her in understanding in a real sense what Danis has written.

Understandably, Boyd won’t be drawn on any details of the staging but she does say that the musicians are onstage, part of the action, and there is the use of projection. Midway through rehearsals, things are at a crucial stage and she speaks highly of the support she’s received from both Aldeburgh and the Almeida.

You can sample snippets of the work and hear from a number of the collaborators at www.oceanofrain.com . After its performance at Aldeburgh, the opera will travel to the Almeida Theatre, London (where musicOMH will review it) and then on to Glasgow, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Faster Than Sound

The Hush House, an acoustically sealed chamber formerly used to test jet engines at Bentwater Airbase, is the setting for an ambisonic experiment as the main event of the Faster Than Sound project. Now in its third year, this festival within a festival is a far cry from Bentwater’s former use during its heyday during the Cold War period. A diverse gathering of artists, which will include Tim Exile, Plaid, Mira Calix, Semiconductor and Stefan Schneider, working in an environment allowing up to eight different sound sources at once promises “a truly immersive sound experience”. Puccini it ain’t.

There are two further performances in the series this year: Stockhausen’s Stimmung, employing six amplified vocalists, will be presented by London Voices as a late night performance in the main concert hall at Snape and a variation on the theme Faster Than Light is an eclectic group of films showing in Aldeburgh’s cinema in the town. Dr Seuss’ only film, made in Technicolor in the 50s, will rub up against Stockhausen’s Zwei Paare and the Britten-composed/Auden-written classic Night Mail.

More details at the Faster Than Sound website


A novel event taking place during the festival is the opportunity to make your own music using only your brainwaves. It may smack of the current trend within the wider cultural arena of “anyone can do it” but it’s unlikely to take any work away from the professionals. Rolf Wallin, one of Norway’s most prominent composers, has devised a means whereby, attaching electrodes to your head (completely safely and painlessly, they assure me), your thought patterns are converted into musical impulses. To stimulate the old grey cells, you watch a short horror film and the resulting soundtrack, played on piano, is not only unique to you but can even be taken away on a CD.

What intrigues me about this project is 1) what the hell it sounds like (does it make a good soundtrack to the movie?) and 2) how different each individual piece of music will be. Surely, the brain activity is going to be similar for each person and the resulting sounds will follow a similar pattern? Only one way to find out! While experimenting with this playful project, Wallin will have a piece of his own music, An Age of Wire and String (sounding a good deal less technical), performed in Orford Church the following day.

An Ocean of Rain plays at Snape on 13 June. The Faster Than Sound series takes place over the weekend 27-28 June and Rolf Wallin’s Age of Wire and String is performed by the RAM Manson Ensemble on 24 June. His Feelings project will be unleashed on the public on 23 June.

MusicOMH will review a number of events in Aldeburgh during June, including Carolyn Sampson in recital, Kurtag’s Jtkok, the UK Premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Tree of Strings and Stockhausen’s Stimmung. Details of all events in the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival at www.aldeburgh.co.uk

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