Since June, monthly sonic art and exploratory music events have been happening in Swansea under the title NAWR. Organised by Rhodri Davies, Rose and Dan Linn-Pearl and Jen Kirby they have provided an umbrella for Welsh based artists and an opportunity to bring in guest performers from further afield.
The original venue was upstairs in Noah’s Yard, a comfy armchair, crowded, club type atmosphere ideal for incubating and listening to new sounds.
Sunday 20th November saw the first NAWR festival – an ambitious all afternoon and evening venture which was surprisingly successful .Five days later I was still on a buzzy high, so glad I was there.
A terrific line-up for the sonically curious, plus a continuous screening of art films, the venue was the much larger Volcano space, with its dedicated small cinema, large performance area and various ante-rooms for imbibing and hanging out.
In aid of ‘Swansea City of Sanctuary’ a charity which helps refugees – every artist generously agreed to waive their fee.
Rydal Mount was the first piece that I saw. Conceived as a provocation to performance, Angharad Davies took a series of photographs in her grandmother’s house. Most of us have experienced visiting the empty home of a dead relative – every artefact however banal has a wrapping of memory.
Two actors, Medi Evans and John Rowley, faced the audience speaking alternatively into microphones, a memorized script, delivered it in a no fuss, kind of conversational way, which made it utterly compelling. Common place scenes were somehow stretched into extreme situations which made them almost horrifying, yet riveting.
Behind the actors were a percussionist Mathew Lovett and a saxophonist Helen Papaioannouo. Between them at the back of the stage was a screen onto which the photographs were projected. The director was Mike Pearson, a major figure in alternative theatre for more than four decades. The musicians improvised in response to the images; at least that was my impression. Over that the actors spoke quietly but clearly, their voices interwoven with the music. The script was often wryly funny. I was so drawn into it, that towards the end, I wanted to muffle the drummer who was drowning out the words. Afterwards I thought, maybe that was the intention.
Next Heike Rom spoke of the cyclamen cyclists, peddling Swansea’s place in avant-garde history, concentrating on the five years up to 1973. The tentacles of memory reached out to touch us even NAWR.
Rose and Dan-Linn-Pearl have played together in various formats for fifteen years. Here they improvised on acoustic violin and electric guitar. At first, I was not sure about the sound balance, but the second piece was mesmeric.
Rhodri Davies attacked his home made harp percussively over a recorded loop , setting up sharp metallic twanging patterns of sound, first like a hammer, then perhaps a woollen mill, morphing into a building site with jangly interferences. As he builds a wall of noise, strings break. He does not lose momentum, plucking the harp aggressively, till suddenly he unplugs and reverts to a softer, gentler acoustic ending. Quite a performance – from a musician who appeared in the nineties as part of the ‘New London Silence’.
Swansea Laptop Orchestra beguiled me with sounds emanating from what looked like magic retractable washing lines. Jenn Kirby, Simon Kilshaw and Paul Hazel each held two of these magic threads connected to a box at their feet. The expressive gestures that they made appeared to influence the sound – whether sweepingly circular, or a mysterious passing, or wringing of hands.
From Ian Watson’s electronic box of tricks came harsh winds ebbing and flowing. An apocalyptic soundscape made somehow more poignant by the stage being otherwise empty, except for the banner of Swansea City of Sanctuary stating “we welcome asylum seekers and refugees”. I thought I had hitched a lift in a lorry and had to shelter under a tarpaulin in the back, while we rumbled over a desert.
Gingko came with his own visuals: abstract geometric patterns of sound based on black and white lines; blocks of colour, blocks of sound; tiny multiple components making a moving colour field. Quite droney.
After all this technical wizardry, Clive Bell and Douglas Benford came as a warm intimate contrast. They do not usually play as a duo, but it worked brilliantly. Clive’s mastery of the Shakuhachi is legendary. In the 70’s after already being adept at the western flute, he spent two years in Japan, studying under a shakuhachi Master. Twenty years later he hung out in Thailand watching folk musicians. At Nawr he also played a Thai metal flute with a reed in it called a Pi saw, which he put in his mouth like a mouth organ. Without trying to reproduce or copy the traditional tunes – even in improvisation – it is the breathy sound of Buddhism with traces of Shamanism that haunts our ears. We are transfixed.
Douglas Benford really listens, allowing space to inhabit the music to underline its meaning. He had a round table with an array of bells and children’s xylophones. Corralled on to them with elastic bands are tiny plastic animals which when conducted, do a clog dance on the tinny keys. The zany humour of this combination was delectably refreshing.
Festival always offer more than you can completely take in. After 8 hours I had to go. Sadly that meant missing Euros Childs’ first solo gig for a very long time. I also missed Ani Glass and throughout the day a whole range of interesting art films, ( not being able to resist the lure of the performances.) I had briefly popped into the cinema to see Lol Coxhill, in Helen Petts film, literally lolling on a chair as it collapsed. Somehow seeing the droll Lol again was like a voice from the past, more than I could bear, so I left. Perhaps in the future, we can develop clones to enable us to be in two places at the same time.