11 April 2016
Thu 7 – Sun 9 Apr, various venues, Glasgow
There’s a busker outside Tesco on Sauchiehall Street doing his plaintive guitar cover of The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’, while one block up at the CCA, queues are snaking around the building, waiting to see Zeena Parkins, a Detroit-born harpist. She’s the featured artist in this year’s Counterflows, a festival dedicated to ‘adventurous underground music’. For dedicated, read obsessed. That is, with all that is new, experimental, improvised, weird and marginal – and the balance they hit, year on year, between mind-bendingly good and straight-up fun sounds makes it one of Glasgow’s annual music highlights.
For the festival’s fifth year, curators Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope joke that they’ve “gone a bit trad”; bookending their four-day programme with string music. The opening concert is an incredible, haunting night of low light and stained glass in the grandiose Glasgow University Chapel, where Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies present their Counterflows commission, Mythos of Violins, a meditative, melodic improvisation that sits beautifully beside Áine O’Dwyer’s Music for Church Cleaners, booming eerily out of the giant church organ.
London based O’Dwyer also featured in the closing concert, duetting with Zanzibar-based multi-instrumentalist Mohamed Issa Haji Matona, before a finale by South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble, discovered by Campbell on a British Council trip to discover new artists and build international links, something the festival has always enjoyed doing. Elsewhere there is Chelpa Ferro, an anarchic, middle-aged disco-metal-noise trio from Brazil, channelling Larry David going postal with electric guitar and shrill bleeps; Black Top, a British free jazz duo splicing together xylo-synth odysseys with iPad meanderings, Jamaican dub and live drums; and Inga Copeland, also known as Lolina, who presented a darkly magical club set under strobe lights, with spoken word, muscular beats and morphing techno. There’s room in the festival’s wide scope for them to comfortably fit in morning workshops with local music therapist Aby Vulliamy for pre-verbal babies and parents too.
The festival takes delight in picking its locations thoughtfully. Saturday saw audiences scooped up one small busload at a time and driven to a secret location, a well heeled home in the West End for an intimate concert by the immensely talented Zeena Parkins, who has worked in the past with Björk, Yoko Ono and Merce Cunningham, and teamed up this weekend with Glasgow’s One Ensemble. After serving her guests champagne and canapés, she invited them to stick their heads inside a grand piano she was creating mesmerising drones and buzzes from, then led them to the kitchen for a solo harp concert, played in a uniquely subversive, sometimes violent and gorgeous style. The Glasgow School of Art’s Vic Bar took over the night shift with pummelling, sweaty, playful sets from Hungarian DJs Evol and the mysterious snare drum and laptop duo, N.M.O. The day after, Twitter directed anyone who was interested to a free busking session between New York rapper Sensational and Newcastle father/ daughter screamo-pop duo on Sunday afternoon in the middle of the busy shopping centre, Shawlands Arcade.
A satisfying counterpoint to bland, white, twenty something, male-dominated or nostalgic music, Counterflows is more interested in drilling deeper to find non-generic, new sub-genres and shine torches on the obscure and sublime. Colourful, intelligent and hedonistic all at once, their devotion pays off every time.