If you wander down to Cardiff Bay over this long October weekend, you will be welcomed by a whole universe of events showcasing a broad range of themes and suggestions from music and beyond. The latest incarnation of what used to be the Festival of Voice, Llais – meaning ‘voice’ in Welsh – takes on the approach of broadening the scope of all that is sound. More traditional music events are certainly not lacking, with a line-up featuring some extremely prestigious names, but even beyond that there is much more to explore, from talks to exhibitions to immersive experiences. To explore the whole range of what Llais had to offer, we took an afternoon to explore the surroundings of the Wales Millennium Centre before ending the day with a stand-out evening events.
The day started on an unusual note, with Flight, an immersive experience courtesy of Darkfield: an appropriate name, since the whole experience takes place in absolute darkness. To access it, make your way to the shipping container located right outside the Millennium Centre, inside which you will find an extremely good reproduction of a fully kitted-out airplane interior (anyone who has ever embarked on a flight with a low-cost company will certainly be reminded of something familiar). To offer any detail on the exact nature of the experience would be to spoil it, since the tension that comes with not knowing what to expect is one of the core elements in here, but suffice to say that the main attractive of the very intense twenty minutes Flight has to offer is its alternative approach to narration: at a time where so much of the media we consume is so visually-oriented, the complete visual deprivation might be daunting, but it is truly an opportunity to tell a story by other means. ‘Travellers’ on Flight are fully immersed in a detailed, cleverly constructed soundscape which is both unnerving and subtly humorous. Tread lightly here if you are a nervous flyer, but if you can make your peace with the tension, the reward is a carefully engineered, thought-provoking experience on the nature of possibilities, uncertainty, and paths taken in life.
On a similar and yet completely different note, In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats is a dive into the past, going back to the very roots of rave culture and acid house in the early 90s, when this was one of the most intriguing new fields for artistic development and music experience and – as is often the case when innovation in the arts is concerned – was still located somewhere at the intersection of the illicit and the fascinating. Accompanied by an exhibition of posters and leaflet from historical raves in Wales and beyond, a piece of recent history of music which speaks to the continuously evolving, lively landscape of subcultures, In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats is a VR experience which is part documentary, part interactive display, part immersive art. A well-constructed virtual world leads each visitor into a reconstruction of a rave experience that is also a broader look at the whole universe surrounding the birth of the subculture, from the police monitoring and trying to stop the raves to the meeting points where prospective ravers congregated before heading out for the night, to an intense reproduction of a crowded warehouse during an all-night party. Interviews with the people who experienced the early raves firsthand – and, indeed, made them happen: promoters, MCs, sound techs, and more – provide the backbone of a narrative, but there is plenty of room for visitors to simply experience and immerse themselves in the beat, with some intense psychedelic visuals and a continuously vibrating (literally: the VR kit includes a backpack attachment allowing you to physically feel the base) soundtrack. Acid house lovers will love this trip to the past, and intrigued newcomers will come out of it yearning to know more.
Image by Polly Thomas
Finally, the evening ended on a more traditional note and with something really special, with the first of a series of evening events which may well showcase the most impressive line-up of artists from Wales and beyond seen at Llais so far. It was an absolute privilege to be able to witness, on the backdrop of the BBC Hoddinott Hall, a solo show by Abdullah Ibrahim, (above) master of Cape Jazz, anti-apartheid activist, and one of the great living pianists. The intimacy of the space was a perfect setting for this performance: there is a particular kind of magic to piano solo shows, an almost direct connection between the performer and the audience, something that feels almost like a secret shared, and this was very much the case here as the room listened in rapt silence to a performance rippling with precise little flourishes and intense crescendos. Ibrahim’s music is a delight for jazz lovers, who will not miss the many influences and references to the greats of the genre as well as the innovations which are peculiar to Ibrahim’s own take, and which have made him so deservedly renowned among jazz aficionados; but even those who have merely dabbled with the genre, or who are new to it, could have asked for no better introduction than this charming, passionate performance. Jazz can at times have a reputation as hard to approach compared to other music genres, but a truly outstanding pianist – and there is no doubt that Ibrahim is one – can prove the very opposite, making the music instantly accessible as an universal language that channels equally universal feelings. This sense of connection, almost a magic summoned by the music and running like a thread to the room, was possibly the most intense aspect of a performance that was in equal parts powerful and intimate.
Llais Festival continues through the weekend, with some immersive experiences and exhibitions, including Flight and In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, continuing until November 6th.