The early 1950s was an auspicious period for developments in time travel. In 1953, the Ray Butts EchoSonic amp enabled the easy electric modulation of sound: repeating; delaying and distorting music, and it was in 1950 that Braziers Park in rural Oxfordshire was established as a commune – one of “Integrative Social Research.” The community is the longest running of its kind in Britain, a place where post-War ideals of non hierarchical social structures, as well as of slowness through societal withdrawal, still continue. Braziers Park has been the site of Supernormal Festival – a weekend-long celebration of the porous boundaries between art and music – since its inception seven years ago. It is a beautiful enclave, where wakes of red kites pivot on the thermals above its capacious fields and its Strawberry Hill Gothic-style mansion house.
The delay pedal – the offspring of the EchoSonic – is ubiquitous at Supernormal, where it seemed over the weekend to be both talisman and totem to the shared concerns of the performers and artists. Graham Dunning, as the first act to perform, shook off wearied post-tent-construction looks with spinning towers of adulterated vinyl and styluses of articulated junk percussion (‘Mechanical Techno’) that looped into an ouroboros of malfunctioning techno beat. Serena Korda’s ‘Jug Choir: Ectoplasmic Variations’ – performed earlier in the year at Camden Arts Centre, and here in the otherwise serene drawing room of the house – similarly reached an ecstatic pitch through reverberation. Her choir, whispering and singing into engorged jugs, eventually blew its devotional, psalm-like composure to rupture into something like a field recording of dense rainforest at daybreak.
Elsewhere, across the four outdoor stages, the artist and filmmaker Sam Belinfante acted as is if like a preening schoolteacher as he diligently looped the percussive improvisations of Mark Sanders – errant snippets of his own films altering his direction – and Leeds band, Guttersnipe, warbled death shanties to the tune of serrated and recursive noize. Asiq Nargile however, a Tbilisi-born saz player (a long-necked lute) and raconteur of folk tales from the Caucasus, became as anomalous in this context as she did nakedly profound with a wrenching acoustic recital of a songbook centering on community traditions that are becoming ever more endangered. The sense of loss – of traditions, customs, even innocence – epitomised by Asiq Nargile’s performance is mirrored in the festival’s obvious sympathies with the recent resurgence of interest in groups such as the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. Formed soon after the First World War, they were a secular group that practiced pacifism and mysticism in equal measures through camping and handicraft. With a book published by Donjon Books and an exhibition staged at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (both 2016) highlighting the group, contemporary art and performance is seemingly focusing on historical models of collectivity, collaboration and pastoral retreat more than ever.
This imperative towards working together and cauterising odd junctions of media into a whole was best realised in a staging of Serafina Steer and Natalie Sharp’s mind-bending sonic-opera, ‘Medea’ which should be sought out at its next performance for its audacity alone. The desired ‘hive-mind’ – postulated at with participatory improv sessions across the weekend – is literalised in Rebecca Lennon’s newly commissioned film, shown on a low-hung screen that skims the tips of the brassicas in the estate’s greenhouse. Shot during Supernormal’s first residency programme this year, Lennon shows Fede, the beekeeper, maintaining the communal hives, as collaged video frames cut across his daily routine.
Much of what is experienced at a festival is serendipitous, but Supernormal has an especial tendency towards cryptic timings and locations. While one may be rushed at by a parade of cardboard crocodiles, or wander through a circle of people elegantly flicking Vs at each other outside the feminist activity tent (GirlFrenzy To CroneFrenzy), one may miss, for example, the sound artist and performer Nathaniel Mann who was to be found “in a glade, at the gloaming.” The history of an avant-garde improvised music spans much the same period as the experimental commune that the festival draws so much life from. If culture could be characterised as a message in a bottle – one cast into the water a generation ago or more, hoping to be understood, decrypted, some time in the future – perhaps it travels once a year in the willow-shaded upper reaches of the Thames some way past the campsite, waiting to be interpreted and distorted all over again.