In the surroundings of the progressive Unitarian church in the centre of Cambridge, a mini-festival took placed over “a night and a day”. All the simple wooden chairs were organised in a semi-circle, reverentially looking up at the altar of sound from which the sermon of music was to be delivered over the coming hours. The backs of the chairs were filled with hymn books with inspirational titles, one of which, “Hymns For Living”, seemed most apt as the weekend advanced.
John Chantler’s performance on the Saturday afternoon was a divine experience. The rain abated for a period, and the church was illuminated with sunshine as Chantler took control of the church organ. He proceeded to charge the building with a slowly escalating drone, as if a great beast was stirring back into life. This immense sound was augmented by pulses of synth noises, entwining themselves into the more organic churning tones coming from the organ. As the piece unfurled, it became all encompassing, a harmonic resonance that was impossible to escape as it wrapped you in its enormous grasp and shook every fibre in your body. The only form of escape was to give yourself up to it and be carried away, the entire crowd closing their eyes in something akin to a form of holy submission.
Another of the musical preachers at the event was also antipodean, though Pimmon’s headline set from the previous evening was different from Chantler’s in terms of its intensity. Standing at one of the lecterns he was bathed in the anaemic LCD glow of his laptop. From here he conducted a warm and delicate flow of sound that sometimes grew into a throbbing and galactic array of noise, but always returned to its more delicate and humble beginnings. This complex ambiance sometimes lost its focus, the fine continuum of sound losing its definition, but it was always recovered. There were times when he got completely lost in his domain, chanting words that we couldn’t hear over his perfectly produced rapture.
In a bid to wake us from the more beautiful and divine soundscapes that had come before, BJ Nilsen utilised a hell, fire and brimstone approach. Shattered screams of thunder tore the silence apart as rolling and jarring strings clashed with other sounds in an unnerving music. With the main lights of the church now off, the neon glow of the street lights filtered through the rain splattered windows, bathing the congregation in an alien glow. Like being swallowed by a whale of noise and left swirling around in the belly of the beast, Nilsen held you in a seemingly impossible grasp with his heavy tones and tight harmonic shrills.
The event had an impressive supporting cast who were working on their own doctrines. Grief Athlete’s continued development is something to enjoy. His Friday evening set featured a rich blend of warm guitar tones and waves of noise that were continually trying to escape his grasp, there was a sense that he was wrestling with the underlying drones, muffled next-door beats and occasional piercing noise. Pausal explored a more atmospheric environment. The only duo of the weekend, their ability to have a player concentrate solely on guitar allowed bigger sketches of sound to be drawn, its radiated glow amplifying the pulsing angelic tones that grew around it. I was also wooed by the reclaimed broken electronics of Jo Brook performing as Local Radio. Her entire set was underpinned by either the sound of an old dial-up modem or the dial-tones from a telephone. Over these Jo assembled snatches of torn magnetic tape and the jumping music from a set of old Fisher Price “record” decks, whose plastic discs were purposefully scratched and provided a distorted and skipping accompaniment when introduced. Between sets all weekend her FM radio project also filtered in fragments of static from the airwaves ensuring that we always felt connected with the outside world, even in the isolating environment of the church.
This might have been short for a festival in terms of time but it picked up ancient rituals, mirroring the outlook of a hymn book in the way it celebrated life through music. The artists here might have been performing without words, but they weren’t needed: this was proof, if any was needed, that music and the exploration of its forms, from its purest elements to its most distorted noise, can be an immersive and pious-like experience.