What is sound made of? Historically regarded (by visual artists at least) as the most abstract, transcendental and immaterial of the arts, music has its own complex materiality. At Wysing Arts Centre’s absorbing Polyphonic festival, which this year focused on acoustic performance, this materiality came to the fore. Time and again, artists made clear the nature of music and sound as material process. Breath pushed through a hollow vulture bone. A horse hair bow run across metal strings. Hands slapped against wet clay. Scissors cutting through tissue paper. The production of sound took on an insistently corporeal, almost sculptural form.
One obvious strand of the acoustic theme stressed the immediacy of performance, relying on the necessary physical proximity of audience and performer. This intimacy performs particularly well for establishing narrative, and at Wysing there were several acts whose stirring performances made a strong case for the value of storytelling in contemporary life. Richard Dawson’s sparse and powerful ballads, drawing on the politically charged history of English folk music, reminded the audience that tradition can incorporate the radical as much as the conservative (a welcome lesson one week after the EU referendum). The strength of vocal performance as a tool of communication was also brought forth by Jenny Moore (and her troupe of eleven singer-percussionists) and Adam Christensen, both of whom presented intelligent and charismatic musings on twenty-first century life. Meanwhile, an interesting if baffling performance by Adam Bohman and Richard Thomas (two-thirds of experimental group Secluded Bronte) with Andy Holden presented a contrasting breakdown of communication into cliche and nonsense. This contrast between different acts, aided by the broad nature of the acoustic theme, was one of the festival’s greatest strengths.
The immediacy of the relationship between performers and audience and the bucolic quality of the Cambridgeshire setting gave an air of ritual to much of the proceedings. This was emphasised by some artists, including choreographer Florence Peake, whose visceral, bodily performance took on the heightened atmosphere of a séance. The genre of Peake’s work was ambiguous - at various points it involved vocal performance, dance, and the sculptural production of clay figurines. This ambiguity or hybridity, too, seemed ritualistic, and it was a theme that was continued throughout the day. Objects (whether instruments or everyday things) and bodies (whether dancers, musicians or visual artists) were set in productive relationships with one another, producing consistently undefinable sounds, moods and visual arrangements. Interaction was the order of the day - the emphasis so often fell on the way an object was activated by a human touch, one material rubbed against another, or two people came into harmony or conflict with one another. Emblematic of this was David Toop’s work, in which four performers sat at a table arrayed with personally significant objects, playing with them while reciting anecdotes and memories. The shifting relationship of objects, performers, sound and narrative at times produced a haunting and elusive interplay of meaning and confusion. A dynamic performance by Jennifer Walshe and Tomomi Adachi, too, played out as a fantastically energetic conflict between two bodies and voices (with each adopting countless personalities).
This polyphonic quality was not only musical or abstract - it seemed in many ways also social, and perhaps political. The value of an event like this one is in the way it can (at least temporarily) posit new models of listening, of viewing, of collaboration and of conversation. The day, with audience members drifting across a field from one stage to another, had a sometimes dreamlike quality, and both dreams and festivals share the fact of being spaces where assumed conventions can be suspended. In this postmodern age, this kind of interaction of art forms often falls under the umbrella of branding, with artists enlisted to provide a signature flourish to a pair of Converse and so on. It is to the great credit to the organisers at Wysing Arts Centre that Polyphonic had something of the idealism, critical edge and productive energy of the late 1960s. This kind of event is a truly valuable addition the contemporary cultural landscape.