Sheer trippiness: Bernard Parmegiani’s pioneering compositions break out of the concert hall





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Originally published on FACT.

Words: Joe Muggs

Photos: Fabio Lugaro; Tyler Kuirhara

In some ways it’s quite surprising that we haven’t had anything like the London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF) before.

Avant-garde classical performance put together with drone, noise, SND and Raime, pieces by Morricone and Eno, all with the audience wandering around, in a multi-storey carpark open to the elements with trains rumbling past? For free? In Peckham? Of course! It’s exactly the sort of thing London should excel at, yet somehow up until last year had never quite managed. But then Aisha Orazbayeva, Sam Mackay, Igor Toronyi-Lalic and Lucy Railton put together the LCMF, and it was, basically, brilliant.

This year they’ve shifted and expanded into a slightly swankier but still rough-and-ready space, Second Home in Shoreditch, and they’re doing a special programme of music based around the work of Bernard Parmegiani, who died in November last year. Parmegiani was a pioneer of electro-acoustic music and tape manipulation, an early member of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) – the collective founded in 1958 by Pierre Henry and Philippe Arthuys, and including the likes of Luc Ferrari, François-Bernard Mâche, Iannis Xenakis and Mireille Chamass-Kyrou – and a direct inspiration for everyone from Sonic Youth to Autechre and Aphex Twin. As well as performances from GRM members and colleagues of Parmegiani, the festival will feature sets from Rashad Becker, Vessel and Florian Hecker.

I met two of the LCMF directors in Shoreditch, in a brief moment grabbed between rehearsals for their other musical projects and preparations for this year’s festival, which starts on March 20.

Can we start with a potted history for people who don’t know what LCMF is?

Lucy Railton: So, Aisha Orazbayeva and I worked closely together as performers; Aisha knows Igor through his Outsider projects [at Cafe OTO]; Sam and I knew each other from things like Nonclassical connections. I think it was Aisha who had the brainwave to put us all together and do some kind of arts commissioning thing with the idea for it to be multiplatform, have an online presence, have a live venue, do videos and so on. But in the end the festival took over completely and we put that together in six months, the eight-day festival in the car park in Peckham last year. That’s kind of it, really, there’s not a lot to our story – we had a crazy meeting about doing doing new exciting things, wanting to programme a lot of music that was maybe overlooked at times in the main body of contemporary concerts in London especially, and to bring a new audience together in some interesting spaces.

Sam Mackay: Yeah, there was plenty of this stuff going on in London in terms of individual events, but there wasn’t yet a festival that was yoking it all together – that’s where we thought there was a gap we could fill.

LR: We didn’t feel there were many examples of organisations that brought together a broad base of music from electronic to classical to what you might call more on the art side of things – which is much more common in the States and in Europe, Australia even. So we felt what London needed was a place where the cross-pollination could happen between all those forms.

Were there any particular inspirations outside London, then? People you thought were doing it right?

LR: Well I wouldn’t like to compare ourselves to anyone established as we’re still brand new, and we didn’t really have anything in mind as a direct inspiration in putting LCMF together. But having said that, things like Unsound in Krakow, Tectonics in Glasgow and the CTM festival in Berlin are all great examples of what it’s possible to achieve, and I guess you could say we share interests with them, and the way they present their work has always been really interesting.

SM: Also one different thing about the way we’re working is going from space to space. We’re quite itinerant at the moment, so the first edition was in the car park, this year we’re doing it in a space just down the road from here, and we’re just taking things as they come and trying to respond quite quickly to spaces that become available. That means that the format becomes a symbiotic thing, the format responds to the space, how we present things and how we lay them out are not based on a concrete way of doing things, but are completely reactive to the situation.

Sounds like old-school rave promoters – waiting for that right warehouse!

LR: Yeah exactly! That was a real stimulus in setting it up, wanting to have the challenge of invading new spaces that haven’t been used before. I know tons of organisations do that, like Secret Cinema, and that’s become quite an on-trend way of working – but we really like that challenge, and I feel it’s quite an important experience. In classical or contemporary music, we’re used to going to the same places every time – wonderful places, mind you, and we’re not in any way down on the Royal Festival Hall or the normal places to see live music…

SM: …but there’s a standardisation to them. They’re great but there’s a very particular experience you’ll have at them, they’re formulaic, and what we like is things that come up as unexpected situations based on acoustics and surfaces and what that does to the sound and the way we represent it…

…and the trains! [the Peckham carpark venue was right next to the rail track out of Peckham Rye station and open to the outside, so the trains would punctuate the music]

SM: Yeah, and the trains. We had a real love-hate relationship with them!

So what were the challenges in pulling all that together in just six months?

SM: Money, obviously. But because we’re all active in those circles, we were able to quite quickly generate line-ups that were really exciting for relatively little, because an awful lot of the musicians that we respect the most are musicians we’re in contact with anyway – so that gave us enough momentum to see it through. The challenge, essentially, was wanting to be as ambitious as we possibly could while keeping it within the realms of practicality.

LR: We’d all put together events before but never acted as production managers on this scale, so we were completely walking in the dark. We had that slightly epic bust-up with Glenn Branca [he cut his set short after sound issues prevented him creating the noise climax he hoped for], which was entirely my fault, 100% my fault – and there was this general terror of just not knowing the expectations people had of us, which could make things quite stressful.

But overall we were really confident in general that the programme was really strong and that people were going to be excited. And it was free, which meant we didn’t have to worry about it selling out or even about people coming. It was a crazy idea and it didn’t help us out financially, but people took notice and came, and it made everything alright.

SM: I think people were willing to accept a certain eccentricity to the way we presented it because it was free. We could do things in quite wild and wacky ways, and sometimes it worked really well, while other times it felt a bit experimental – but that was part of it, and because it was a free event, and because it was the first time, people accepted that.

And of course the other thing we had, which was a huge, huge thing, was a lot of in-kind support from the people we worked with. Because we knew a lot of the musicians personally, there was an uncountable number of people who gave up their time and expertise worth thousands and thousands of pounds for free. I mean, we made sure the performers were paid – but without the extra help people gave it wouldn’t have been possible, I’m sure.

LR: Yep, having the support of people who were genuinely excited about what we were doing was what fuelled the whole thing. The amount of time and energy and hours and free labour people put in to help pull things off meant that even in emergency circumstances there was always someone there to help out or advise. And it was all donated in kind, rather than in financial terms.


What is going to be the difference this time around in how you approach it?

SM: Well, it won’t be free. Doing it free was fantastic but it was really hard to pull off; one of the best things about it, though, was that it gave us a lot of momentum, and we feel there’s enough momentum now to charge a little bit. It’ll still be really, really cheap in the scheme of things, but that’s definitely a difference, and it means we’ll have to up our game in terms of slickness and organisations. One of the other differences is the space – it’s completely different, more ground space, bigger ceilings, so that will change what we present and how we present it without any doubt.

What experience are you trying to give people this time?

LR: I think we still want to give people an experience of a programme that’s eclectic in such a way that they’ll go for one thing then hear repertoire or artists performing that they would never have thought of watching.

SM: Another thing is we’re trying to give people a kind of density of experience; for me that’s one of the really exciting things about doing a festival in the first place, you get people who come, then they decide to come to the next day and the next day, and you end up with people going on this two-week journey of getting really into it…

You brainwash them?

SM: Heh, yes, there is that side to it. But it’s great people committing to it for a couple of weekends and just getting immersed in these combinations of music that they might not have expected.

LR: Density is a good word, definitely. And epicness – I hope we can live up to the epicness of our programme last year where it was kind of mindblowing the amount of stuff that would happen in one night next to each other. That’s very important to us, we don’t want to just do some light-hearted event; impact is high on our list of important features.

SM: It’s a shame that “taking the audience on a journey” is such a cliché, because when it works, and if you’re bold with what you programme then that is something you can do. And you can bring people to whole new types of music, or reveal whole new angles in things that they thought they did know.

Do you think things that have happened outside the classical world in the last few years have made people more amenable to this kind of thing?

SM: Definitely, definitely. I think people’s tastes in general, especially among alternative music fans, have massively exploded and diversified in the past 15 or 20 years – and that’s something we’re responding to because we know there’s a potential audience for very unusual things even when they’re combined in seemingly unlikely ways.

LR: Yep, and I think what we’re hopefully going to be able to give people this year, and definitely did last year, is the intimacy of experience which people don’t necessarily get in the classical world – that’s what made everyone at the day and evening events feel involved and in it together. They weren’t getting an experience from afar sitting in a chair in the middle of Row X in the Festival Hall, it’s very much in your face, everyone’s involved and experiencing it viscerally, and that heightens everything and I think is something that people from all kinds of musical backgrounds appreciate.

That’s definitely something we intend to continue, not necessarily intimacy in the sense of small-scale things, but the sense that the environment gives the audience contact with the material around them, be that the concrete walls or the fact of being immersed in sound from the soundsystem. Our aesthetic is to keep people involved, plugged in, always engaged and always questioning what’s going on in a good or bad situation. That’s part of what was exciting about last year, even the difficult parts!

SM: And I think what we’re actually presenting is going to be interesting to a diverse audience; we’re excited to be presenting all this work by Parmegiani, because most of it’s hardly ever done live outside universities – yet he has a large and growing profile outside academic circles, and related to that there’s been a mini-avalanche of reissues over the last decade. But that wider discovery of his music hasn’t really translated in terms of live performance. I think that’s partly because to really bring it to life in the live context, you need a shit-hot sound setup and someone who’s very skilled at diffusion.

So we’re lucky to have people like Denis Smalley and Daniel Teruggi involved, who knew and worked with Parmegiani and are leading experts in that area. We’re also very lucky to have the use of a 32-channel sound system from Kent University. Like a lot of electro-acoustic music, Parmegiani’s work does really come alive when presented in the way it was intended, so hopefully this series will reveal that to people and encourage more performances.

You had SND and Raime as part of the programme this year – how did you pick the electronic artists you’ve got for 2014?

SM: Well, it was important for us to recognise some of Parmegiani’s broad influence on today’s artists too, so we invited three quite different electronic artists along. Rashad Becker’s debut album for PAN last year was a really bold statement, and I think there’s a hallucinogenic quality to the way he develops and mutates his material that recalls Parmegiani’s 1970s work. Rashad knows Parmegiani’s music intimately having mastered the recent reissue of ‘De Natura Sonorum’.

Seb – Vessel – is a major fan of Parmegiani, and that generation of electroacoustic composers generally, so it’s great to have him involved. His music is obviously more suggestive of club genres than the others, but within that there’s a really imaginative and detailed approach that partly reflects the GRM [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] influence. He’s preparing a special set that’ll illuminate his more avant garde side, so that should be a real treat.

Florian [Hecker] is of course a very well-established figure, working in lots of different areas, and Parmegiani’s someone he respects enormously. This is his first solo set in London for a long time so it’s a big occasion. These kinds of contemporary artists have been attracted to Parmegiani for all kinds of reasons, but I think a major thing is that he symbolises a certain strand within academic tape music, one that wasn’t afraid to be poetic and grand, and that was really open to outside influences. The sheer trippiness of some of his work, particularly in the 1970s, provides a clear way in for fans of drone and minimalism. It’s exuberant and witty and really tells stories, totally unlike the image some people have of electroacoustic music.