Why I Started...

Why I Started… A Festival (Or Two)

Ben Frost Glenn Max, who has previously produced Meltdown and created the Southbank Centre‘s Ether festival, has now set up Convergence, a completely new and completely unmissable series of talks and live music events based around technology and art.

“Convergence will celebrate the restless spirit that propels the ongoing dialogue between art and technology,” he says of his latest curation, which centres on London’s Village Underground this month and takes in other venues, notably the Barbican. “It is an opportunity for like-minded people interested in the convergence of art and technology to come together and recognise a shared sense of optimism and acknowledge the collaborative spirit that carries music into the future.”

And Convergence features quite a line-up. Fuck Buttons, Mount Kimbie and Fennesz are at the Barbican; Ben Frost (pictured) shows off his upcoming fifth album Aurora; 65daysofstatic play their reimagined soundtrack to Silent Running; and Booka Shade‘s Noise of Art gig marks 100 years since Luigi Russolo unveiled his prototype synthesisers, at the first electronic music gig in April 1914. Plus there are shows from scene stalwart Ulrich Schnauss, excellent up-and-coming talent Hannah Peel, the returning Digitalism and many more.

What causes someone to not only start a festival, but attract big names and find the budget to make it all work, year after year? How do the creative juices keep pumping?


Beginning at the beginning, why – and how – did you start Ether, your first festival?

I began Ether because at the time, the Southbank Centre was really not in touch with a vast segment of the music loving audience of the UK and beyond, that being the music loving audience that is experiencing music in clubs, on their laptop studios and not setting foot in an art centre because art centres weren’t a place where humans could behave in a way that was the natural habitat for the club, and so we needed to come up with a programme that would be like a fly strip for people that who cared about the future of electronic music and wanted to see electronic music in an important cultural context, and is that something that art centres do very well. And so we wanted to do that, yet at the same time I knew the only way we could do that, and this was the other aim of Ether Festival, was transforming the Southbank Centre from a cold institution, a tomb of ideas into something that is very current, something that is warm and hospitable and something that encouraged flexibility. So I sort of had a two pronged approach to this festival. There’s a couple of other prongs as well like the whole connection between classical music and electronic music which we addressed, and tried to address in this year’s Convergence Festival, and that was the main mission to bring that audience and those artists who were engaged in that area of music into the cultural context of an arts centre.

What’s your background, specifically, that led you to be a festival curator?

I’m a male nurse and I believe in taking care of people, I look good in white and I recently came from LA were I tanned sufficiently to get up in my white uniform and make people feel good, no matter what their illness is. When I’m not being a male nurse I supplement my income by being an artistic director, which I sort of fell in to by accident, just one drunken night by being asked by a random stranger to program their arts venue – that was the Knitting Factory in New York City. I did that for almost four years and it seemed to go pretty well. I brought a higher level of artists in and a more diverse audience by opening up the programming. The Knitting Factory had been around and had been a very successful avant-garde nightclub. Now there’s something that doesn’t exist any more that probably should be bought back, which presented experimental music and arts over three different floors seven days a week 365 days a year, and it was a fantastic kinetic hard working experience. Based on my success there and bringing a great array of artists including Philip Glass, David Byrne and DJ Shadow and a whole bunch of other people, I was able to somehow infiltrate the Southbank Centre. So then I got asked to do the Southbank Centre, where for nine years I produced Meltdown Festival, Ether Festival and various other events and concerts including Jeff Beck, Brian Wilson, David Gilmour, Meryl Streep and a really strange array of artists, some well known, some less well known.

What specific skills does a curator need to make an event successful?

Let’s see, one needs a vast record collection that’s the first thing, one needs a vast passion for all art forms I think because they feed into each other in ways that make your programming interesting, so one should know something about French Symbolism, one should have a pretty good idea of what’s happening in contemporary dance and one should know their beat poets up and down and maybe have a good sense of 15th century architecture and then also know some thing about cross-cultural cannibalism. Then if you sort of put them all together in such a way and you’re willing to work within the confines of an institution whether that be a small institution like Village Underground or large sprawling institution like the Southbank Centre, then you’ve got most of the goods you need. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of tenacity and the ability to know when to hold ‘em now went to fold ‘em to quote Willy Nelson. It requires a love of Hank Williams and Willy Nelson obviously and I guess it’s also being somebody who’s good at communication and negotiation and developing relationships, because its very much a relationship based gig, you’re only as good as your relationships when you’re an arts programmer.

Glenn Max

Convergence and Ether curator Glenn Max

What advice would you give to someone looking to launch a London-
based festival of events?

Besides saying, don’t do, I’d say do what you love, do it because you’re passionate, be prepared to compromise where you have to, but do it for the love of it, do it for the love of the art because when all the other stuff gets you down, if you’re doing it for the right reasons you’ll have reasons to endure the dark and stormy world ye shall enter.

Did Ether’s development give you more ideas for festivals which would work outside of the Southbank Centre’s venues?

In a word yes, never a shortage of ideas that would work outside the confines of the Southbank Centre but also never a shortage of ideas that would work inside the confines of the Southbank Centre.

Where did the name Convergence arise from?

Well, most of the names are taken already so that’s one place it came from, just grabbing at something that wasn’t taken! But you know there’s a lot collaboration behind the ideas, there’s not as much collaboration as I would have liked to see on Convergence this year but it’s written into the DNA of the programme. There’s also a convergence of purpose between some partner promoters. Village Underground is very much interdependent with the promoters it works with, with agents it works with, with production companies it works with. So you know we are a little epicentre of convergence, it is what we do well. So Convergence is built into what we do we wanted this festival to suit the purposes of various partners we work with through the year.

Convergence seems to bring together several events that were already happening with some new slants; the Bleep gig at the Barbican, with Fuck Buttons, Mount Kimbie and Fennesz, for instance. How much of Convergence was down to your curation?

That one at the Barbican was down to my curation, that was not already in place. I would say that was the anchor gig of the festival and that was one that we had to scramble about for and I’d say thanks to the Barbican and thanks to Bleep and artist management, we were able to pull that together. So what was in place really? To tell you the truth, the things that were in place didn’t come on to the festival. I would say there were things we were looking at. The Denovali event on the 18th, Ulrich Schnauss and Anna Von Hausswolff, that one was already sort of in place and we were wondering if we’d include that on the festival and I’m glad we did and in terms of the line up, absolutely, we wanted it. The Booka Shade event… we wanted to have this at Village Underground coming through Noise of Art under the title of 100 Years Of Electronic Music, and the kind of event they were trying to build was a great opportunity for us, both to work with Booka Shade, who are kings of the dancefloor, and place them in a context that was a bit more engaging perhaps than they might normally be seen at another venue so it sort of made sense to reel it in. Ben Frost is one that we went for out of the blue that turned out to almost coincide with the record release, but it was a question of timing and he was available. You know there were a lot of artists we approached just missed for one reason or another, the timing wasn’t quite right for them and I have to say most of the shows ended up being created or pursued for Convergence. I was surprised – the original intent was that we’d be able to lean on things, for instance we’ve got Sohn in the venue tonight and my original plan was that we could include that in Convergence, but for various issues with management, that was not able to happen.

What other aspects of this festival make it unique? The talks side of it calls to mind LEAF, from last year – which was also electronica-focused.

Unique is a big word and very little is unique in terms of arts presentation and festival presentation, so I’d be careful about using that word as we’ve all been to cool festivals of art and technology and we know about them and have had thoughts about them. I think this event at the Barbican is quite interesting involving a great level of collaboration between visual and sound artists. Each one of those artists is coming with an AV show. Our show at St John at Hackney is also a big collaboration of AV and sound artists presented by Black Atlantic. On stage we’ll see some unique things, obviously Ben Frost is a restless innovator and is much anticipated outing of his new band and new album. There is a lot of anticipation there, so there is a lot of great points of interest. I think what makes it, again I don’t want to use the word unique but what makes it compelling, we’ve got some interesting is that we’ve got promoters coming together to create an east London based electronic music festival and it’s edgy, we’ve got Fuck Buttons, Ben Frost, The Haxan Cloak, this is pretty forward thinking stuff. We may be a little ahead of the curve in some cases, we might be a little less crowd pleasing than other electronic festivals we’ve seen. We’ve got a few crowd pleasing events but then we’ve also got a band like 65daysofstatic who don’t fit very neatly into an electronic music kind of context but they don’t really fit into a rock context either. I would describe them as a post rock instrumental band and they’re doing a film project for us based on a great film called Silent Running which is a sci-fi film from the ’70s. It ended up being a really interesting programme, individually I think all the different gigs are really strong. I think making sure that umbrella that pulls the gigs together to is cohesive, that’s the tricky part of it, but you know, it’s the first year.

A festival that lasts nine days is an interesting sell… Who do you think will go to all nine days of it?

I don’t expect any one to go all nine days of it but someone does I want to meet them and shake their hand and provide value in other ways for upcoming Village Underground gigs. If you’re out there and you’ve seen all nine gigs and you can prove it, we’re going to award you some special medal of honour which will come with some perks. And whoever that person is, is probably quite disturbed and has a very broad palate for events.

Which artist are you most excited about seeing at Convergence this year and why?

I’m probably more intrigued by Ben Frost, really very curious about what that’s going to be like live. It is a band, not a DJ set so I’m quite interested in that. I’m a big fan of the Convergence opening party. I’m a big fan of Three Trapped Tigers who are going to headline that show. I’ve seen Hannah Peel do a very compelling set in the recent past and I’m interested to see what she’ll do for this, and Sculpture, who are also on that bill are fascinating and unlike anything anyone’s seen before. They are using zoetrope technology to create beautiful images and some of the more stranger sounds people have heard. Obviously the Barbican show should be a spectacle. Mount Kimbie are planning something that will either be extremely successful or fall on its face. That set is a bit of a mystery for everyone involved. Of course there is 65daysofstatic soundtrack to Silent Running which is a film I really love and having seen the band just perform at KOKO after not seeing them for years and years, I’m convinced they have greatness. I really want to see The Haxan Cloak because I’ve not seen him yet and he’s mysterious to me and scary.

Do you have other festival ideas that you’d still like to try out in another format?


Convergence runs from 18-27 April 2014. A Glenn Max curated Spotify playlist of the series can be found here. More at convergence-london.com

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Why I Started… A Festival (Or Two)
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