The Wire
June 2016

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen

Various venues, Glasgow
7-10 April 2016

Before the fifth Counterflows festival happened in Glasgow, its co-curators Alasdair Campbell and Fielding Hope presented a preview podcast on Resonance FM, where Hope joked that they were going “a bit trad” this time. There was never any danger of that, not in a beige and safe sense of the word anyway. Counterflows is an annual celebration of “the adventurous and the underground”, where dystopian techno sets and solo harp reveries sit quite comfortably alongside surrealist noise skits and free jazz face-offs. But the string music theme running through this year’s programme made for a weekend as obsessed with subverting the traditional as it was with pursuing the new.

The first night saw Áine O’Dwyer boom her Music for Church Cleaners eerily out of a giant church organ into the shadows of the cavernous Glasgow University Chapel. Two days later, in a discussion with Frances Morgan, she spoke about the pipe organ’s role as ‘manipulative machine’, designed to make people feel in awe of god. O’Dwyer’s daunting exploration of the organ’s low sounds, shrill shrieks and silences was a foreboding, formidable opener, followed by Laura Cannell and Angharad Davies’ Counterflows commission, Mythos of Violins, a haunting meditation for three violins, performed with Aiden O’Rourke.

Graham Lambkin, the solo artist who used to make curious, minimal, commentary-rock in the superbly odd duo The Shadow Ring paired up with Penultimate Press label boss, Mark Harwood, aka Astor, to bring a wonky, menacing set on Friday, using an Audubon bird whistle, bells, beer bottles and tape hiss to act out a dysfunctional male bonding session, with Garnethill Multicultural Centre acting as the garden shed for their performance art pathos. Later, Inga Copeland played with the tensions between soft and hard sounds that she first experimented with as half of Hype Williams, this time morphing melodic, pretty loops into dark, insistent beats from her Live in Paris album, as wobbly Handycam footage of Glasgow blurred with strobes and spoken London street names.

Counterflows’ featured artist, the American harpist and improviser Zeena Parkins delivered several equally mind-bending performances across the weekend, including a skronky, cartoony and violent attack on a harp, accompanied by Glasgow’s One Ensemble, and a furious, virtuosic duet with Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, showing off the intoxicating spectrum of noises that her homemade electric harp can make. Small busloads were also driven to a secret location, a sleek Kelvinside home, for intimate and mesmerising performances by Parkins. She confounded her tiny crowd when she passed round champagne and canapés, disarming them, before inviting listeners to stick their heads in the grand piano she’d set up with a few dozen E-Bows.

Alongside Brazilian anarchic, middle-aged disco-metal-noise trio, Chelpa Ferra, and Black Top, a British free jazz duo splicing xylo-synth odysseys with iPad meanderings, Jamaican dub and live drums, there was room in the programme for workshops in ‘Motherese’ from local music therapist Aby Vulliamy for pre-verbal babies and parents, and a last minute gig in a charity shop in Shawlands Arcade, where likeable New York bampot rapper Sensational and Newcastle father/ daughter screamo-pop duo Yeah You (they released their Air Headz tape on Psykick Dancehall Recordings last year) gave Sunday afternoon shoppers something to gawp at.

South India’s Carnatic Music Ensemble sent things off the charts for the Sunday night finale. If all the hedonism and experimentalism of the weekend still hadn’t quite sold the festival as the rare gem that it is, then the trance-inducing drones of their raga and tala-based classical, devotional music in a church hall was the last shove needed to achieve full transcendence. Sublime.

Counterflows review in the June issue of The Wire magazine

June issue of The Wire