The Substrata Festival is the brainchild of American composer Rafael Anton Irisarri, and over the last three years has featured performances by some of the finest musicians working in the realm of experimental, ambient and modern classical music. Names that have appeared on the bill since its founding in 2011 have included the likes of Tim Hecker, Nils Frahm, Grouper, Scanner and Biosphere – the festival sharing its name with the landmark 1997 album by the latter.
It usually takes place in Seattle, and one of its defining characteristics is its proud sense of egalitarianism. On top of live performances the Seattle events also include music workshops and field recording trips by performer and listener. Although the festival’s first London date was smaller in scale, a similar ethos was present at Cafe OTO, with an informal atmosphere prevailing as the audience were encouraged to get close to the performers.
The evening began with a screening of Homing, a short film by Basque production company Filmotive, accompanied tonight by a live score from a five piece ensemble led by Iñigo Ugarteburu. It recounts an unusual (at times semi-pagan, semi-gothic) story via the medium of avant-garde contemporary dance style. The score however is less radical and initially drawing parallels between the playing of the quintet (comprising violin, cello, double bass, bass clarinet and clarinet) and the on-screen action presented difficulties. Yet as the film progressed, the soundtrack grew into its role, becoming more effective and quietly complimentary.
Next up were Moon Ate The Dark, a collaboration between Welsh pianist Anna Rose Carter and American producer Christopher Bailey. Their set combined the beauty of classical minimalism (courtesy of Carter’s accomplished playing – think Nils Frahm meets Max Richter) with darker, more inscrutable sounds (courtesy of Bailey’s analogue synth manipulations). Tonight it registers like a leftfield duet of piano and electronics and treads a far less familiar path than many other instances of this particular musical pairing. Towards the end Bailey seems to suggest that things haven’t gone quite according to plan, in places but the warm response from the crowd belies such concerns.
To close, Irisarri performs his set from the centre of Cafe OTO, experiencing the surround sound speaker arrangement from the listener’s perspective. He has already built up an admirable catalogue of releases across several respected labels and tonight he uses bowed guitar, laptop and synthesisers to coax unknown narratives out of the beatless swathes and enveloping layers that encircle the venue. The buried clicks and crackles serve as a reminder that this music is alive and, like the best ambient music, it offers a representation of the physical landscape in sound, but one that is imparted with a sense of humanity. The crowd disperse, reflecting on a successful debut event which has the potential to become a regular draw in the London experimental music scene.