TUSK festival returned to Newcastle’s Star and Shadow Cinema for its fourth iteration in as many years. Its familiarly eclectic programme continued the trajectory of previous years in its exploration of the outer limits of music, sound, performance and film.
The running order for the three nights of music seemed to be based around counterpoint and contrast. Whether regional, stylistic or temporal, the differences, or distances, between the acts provided an oscillating survey of performers who emerge from both avant-garde and heritage traditions. It could easily slip into an uneasy exercise in ethno-appropriation with ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ being pitted against each other. Fortunately this was not the case. The capacity for the aural to communicate through time and space is what is being celebrated and its success is testament to the guiding hand of TUSK founder Lee Etherington and coordinator Steven Bishop (who also runs the immensely successful Opal Tapes label).
Despite the largely engrossing and celebratory nature of the weekend there were some points where the cohesion sometimes briefly withered away. This was most pronounced on the opening evening when watching Aine O’Dwyer’s harp and vocal lamentations. With one eye I watched her fingers dance across the instrument, plucking and strumming with precision and grace, and with my other eye I read the slogan sewn into a jacket worn by the gentleman in front of me. ‘On One - Yorkshire Born and Bred’ it read. This bold sartorial decision was more than a little disarming. However, the variety of performers and attendees meant that a little absurdity is to be expected and the festival is probably all the better for it.
A few local favourites opened the proceedings on each night with Jerome Smith’s ‘Charles Dexter Ward’ moniker and Lucy Johnson performing solo as ‘Smut’ being particularly resonant. Smith’s guitar and synth-led layering channels Kosmische histories whilst maintaining a balance between spacey exploration and crafted form. Johnson also provided a transportive experience by using an electric violin to generate inescapable drones, where the physical presence of sound played as significant a role as the notation or structure.
Thought Broadcast, Jahiliyya Fields and Norbert Moslang demonstrated in their respective acts some of the more intriguing parameters of electronic composition and performance and each seemed to lie on a spectrum beginning with danceable and ending with terrifying. Though Thought Broadcast’s set was limited due to temperamental analogue equipment, he showed signs of the sun drenched euphoria and abandon of his California homeland. Matt Morandi of Jahiliyya Fields brought a set that would nearly be at home at a club playing fringe house or techno. The acidy squelch seemed to nod to early F.U.S.E. records but speaking to him led to conversations about Bruce McLure, BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the modular synthesisers he employs. The use of such equipment is not about fetishising these complex and unwieldy instruments, but exploring its capabilities, or limitations and working within those parameters. Moslang’s thick and dense industrial flavoured textures were a powerful reminder that despite looking to the U.K., U.S. and Japan for a lineage of noise, power electronics and industrial, individuals outside of these localities significantly influenced the development of the ideals associated with the scene.
Two powerhouses of that lineage did feature, with Hijokaidan and Borbetomagus closing the Saturday and Sunday nights with a deafening roar. No doubt it was one of the highlights for the noise purists in the crowd but some of the strongest collective responses came from Irshad Ali Quawwali Party and E.E.K. featuring Islam Chipsy. The former delivered a rapturous example of the infectiously spiritual nature of Sufi musical form. The latter was also referencing the musical traditions familiar to the Egyptian performers, but it came filtered through global understanding of dance culture. Delivered with flamboyance and bravado it proved difficult to not dance or at least smile. Most opted for both.
Surrounding the main weekend programme were small intimate performances, a film programme and an installation by Mark Fell. The film programme followed much the same course as the music with a documentary about Appalachian Mountain singers and the folk culture shared across the Atlantic, sitting next to the infamous Songs for Swinging Larvae - a psilocybin folktale of child kidnapping that seemed completely at odds with the old timers in the Appalachians.
TUSK draws on trend, tradition and absurdity in order to create a situation where the audience is never passive. The programme notes hinted at a level of self-indulgence in selecting acts for the weekend. However, if that self-indulgence leads to TUSK number five, then the disparate bodies who make up the audience and performers will be eagerly looking to the North-East next October.