Monday, 28 March 2011

Chris Watson at Présences Électronique 2011

The lights dim, leaving two strings of fluorescent light to bisect the room across opposing diagonals. The only other luminance illuminates a quartet of bright red spherical speakers, hung from the ceiling on wires like flying saucers in an Eisenhower-era SF flick. In fact, we are surrounded by speakers of all shapes and sizes, and we, in turn, surround the artists, who perform 'in the round' - if perform is the appropriate word for standing hunched over a mixing board assiduously twitching knobs and faders.

Our first twitcher is Chris Watson, former Cabaret Voltaire man turned grand homme of UK acousmatics, and twitcher in a double sense for Watson is also a keen bird watcher. He immediately transports us to some hyper real train station 0f nightmares. Engines choke with reverb and locomotive squeals swell, while the judder of distant pistons loops into a thunderous beat. From out of the sussurant fog, the voice of a young woman announces the "Dernier appel pour le train fantôme."

Watson is a man more renowned for manipulating the sounds of - animal and insect - life. Tonight he is summoning the dead. This being an INA-GRM event, the spectre in question is Pierre Schaeffer who inaugurated the genre of musique concrète with his 'Étude aux chemins de fer' just a few years after announcing the liberation of Paris on French national radio, over half a century ago. This is the ninth edition of the Présences Électronique Festival, hosted annually by Radio France since the 55th aniversary of Schaeffer's Étude. Imagine if the BBC chose to commemorate the Radiophonic Workshop with a similar festival of experimental electronics every year, instead of desecrating its memory with the new sloppily saccharine orchestral arrangement of its most famous product, performed on kiddies' night at the Proms. . .