Sunday, 8 April 2012

#curioussounds at #fierce2012

Sigh. I'm starting to speak in hashtags. Perhaps we all are; evolution of the wired.

To clarify; more by accident than design, I went to part of the Birmingham Fierce Festival for 2012 yesterday. This particular set of events took place in and around Birmingham Symphony Hall, with an appropriately loose theme of sound.

Preparation for balloon release

My first trip to an event at the Symphony Hall happened in 2009. It wasn't good. I went to a classical music concert with my ex. We hated each other, then and now. Plus, classical music I've always found intimidating live, due to a childhood where it was forcefully made clear to me, over and over, that I shouldn't get involved in such forms of art as I was working class (most of the kids at first two primary schools I went to were middle class - I was not). I was allowed, once, to play the triangle in the school orchestra, but as the cow of a headmistress (she used nettle stings stroked down the arms as a unique punishment) informed the audience at the time, this was only because the kid who was supposed to play it was ill.

I hope that if there is a hell, she's screaming and roasting in it. And the only sound she can hear is me playing the triangle, for all eternity.

So classical music, and everything that goes with it, and many forms of culture still bring out the simmering hatred and resentment in me. Illogical, but it's just the way it is. You are who you are.

Thankfully, Fierce Festival wasn't about posh people being snobby and exclusive and pretentious, and pretending they somehow "owned" culture because (a) it was sophisticated and (b) they were wealthy. It was pretty much a random selection of events, most of which I went to.

Feral choir

Behind the organ

This was the thing I spotted online late morning that alerted me to the event, and the specific reason I went. In the end, it turned out to be the one disappointing thing; there's nothing to see really behind the organ, though it is impressive and very tall, from the base to the top of it.

Symphony hall organ

(Look, I've edited this section over and over, and there's no way I can make it innuendo-free. Sorry.)

Feral choir

Oh, these were good. I sat on the extreme front side to get a close view, and it was interesting watching how the conductor physically coaxed the sounds out of the volunteers he had been working with. From bird songs, to sounds similar to those in 2001 (see the clip), to laughter, talking, babbling, muttering, the rule was - no singing. This worked, and it was enjoyable both listening to, and watching, the performers. Here they are:

Balloon release

Balloons, filled with helium, are released and float to the ceiling of the Symphony Hall. Each balloon is tagged with a harmonica, and so makes a one-note sound as it rises. After a few minutes, the balloon deflates and floats back down.

This was enjoyable to watch and listen to. And also to listen to with your eyes closed, as the balloon rose in front of you.

Speak and Spell

Ah, this was fun. More of this kind of art/music at events, please.

Brian Duffy set up five Speak and Spell machines, and made them "perform" as individual units, and as a kind of digital choir. Seriously. There's more on what he does and how he does it here.

Speak and Spell

This required some concentration, as to the casual listener it may have sounded like a lot of random digital beeps and squeaks. Towards the end, there was a convergence in sound, as each instrument played the same, but slightly off in timing from each other, to create some new layer of sound (there's probably a word for this). Great stuff.

See the side notes at the bottom of this post for a nudge on how to correctly promote this kind of event.

8 bit games and DJs

Wandering upstairs, I found the cool kids and their kit. This was the 8 bit crew, who combine DJing 8 bit video game (and other) music, with other kinds of digital sounds. In addition, a few of them bring along a nice array of video game consoles stretching back the last few decades, for members of the public to try.

And one of those consoles was the Sega Dreamcast, which has been, and still is, the most influential piece of technology in my life to date. There's a very long blog entry on why for another day, but I can honestly say that the Dreamcast, and the games on it, changed my life more than anything else. Including the Internet.

So I played the Dreamcast for two hours. Rez, Ecco the Dolphin, Chu Chu Rocket, Quake 3 Arena, Shenmue; heck, there was a good selection of games there. Here's me, absolutely thrashing some four year old kids at Chu Chu Rocket (picture by Pete Ashton). Like life, you don't learn anything by easily winning every game, so it was a good experience for them:

8bit Lounge at Symphony Hall 1

Various members of the public came over and either watched, often puzzled (Dreamcast games were refreshingly unconventional), or had a go, or in a couple of cases attempted to rudely push in when other people were playing. And to the parent who appeared and immediately tried an Alpha-male "My son will play this game now" when others were in mid-game, I make no apology for humiliating you in front of your children. Don't cross my path again. And never interrupt a serious games player mid-game, especially when they're 230 pounds and 6 foot 3 tall... ;-)

It's odd playing games in a very public arena and with an audience. Even stranger with DJs doing various ... things a few feet away. Possibly the most surreal experience of the year was playing the mellow and calming Ecco the Dolphin while a sweaty, jumpy DJ was repeatedly screaming the same word into an amped microphone, close to my right ear.

When I needed a break from Dreamcast play, made a small video of the consoles there. Like the other videos on this post, it was made with my "Not made for video" cheap 2004 camera, hence the quality. Or lack of.

A few side notes on the day, for organisers of this and similar events.

1. "Family events" and "Events children may like" are not quite the same. Brian's event with the Speak and Spell machines was packed with families with their children. By the time it had finished, most of them were long gone, many under the - wrong - impression that they were going to hear soothing baby melodies, lullabies, or the like (I overheard one muttering that they expected the Tellytubby theme music). It might be a good idea to make it clearer what kind of sounds may be heard at a particular event in future, so parents and children aren't dismayed when they, instead, encounter something closer to Kraftwerk on Acid (which was pretty good).

Side seat

2. Some volunteers in society perform admirable roles. Trained lifeguards; or people who can do CPR before a medic arrives. However, information-possessive pensioner women are often not good with the public but, like alcoholics, have been the bane of my life for decades. Be they secretaries of community councils ("There's no need for anyone to see the correspondance") or volunteers in the sham that are "community libraries" ("Oh, we don't want to have that kind of book on the shelf"), these people are an obstructive pain and crop up over and over. And so, a few of the volunteers at Fierce were, as several of us encountered. One in particular, who was supposed to answer questions and give directions, was ferociously keen to give as little information as possible, actively preventing me from reading the information sheets she had. I don't like to be this close (insert mental image of very small gap here) to throttling a seventy year old lady, because it never looks good, no matter how justified. Just, please, don't let these people eagerly gain "control" over information, any information, no matter how crucial or minor, as it quickly goes to their head.

But apart from those two carps; it was an enjoyable, open, creative afternoon of various events.

And long live the Dreamcast. If my DNA is ever analysed, the two strands of the spiral will probably be Sega and Nintendo. Nowt wrong with that.

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