Many of my favourite gigs been warm, pleasantly informal affairs. I recall those events at which I find myself striking up conversations with all sorts of interesting people – performers, curious attendees, event hosts – as artists mingle with audience members and chat enthusiastically between performances. The boundary between listeners and creators is loose, with the stage area blurring into the rows of seating; XLR leads snake under chairs and up the walls, while elaborate synthesisers rest within touching distance. Often, it’s unclear who will step up to perform until they rise up out of the chair next to me.
Without a doubt, this evening falls into such a category. The proceedings commence with a 15-minute, work-in-progress film by Helen Petts, which pulls together footage from across the lifespan of Full Of Noises. It’s charming introduction to the festival’s marriage of boundless exploration and inclusivity; performances by established experimentalists (Oscilanz, Gail Brand, Howlround) cross-fade into collaborations with the general public, situated gigantic churches and modest gallery spaces. The chimes of handbell ensemble shimmer like snow falling in reverse and rush upward into the church rafters, while a guitar installation spurts and splutters across the greens of what appears to be a local golf course. Based on the film – I’ve not yet attended the festival itself – Full Of Noises seems to understand that there is a midpoint between spilling unwelcomely over public spaces and stowing the strange sounds away in the dark nooks of the Cumbrian live music circuit; a means by which normal life and peripheral creative interest can harmoniously co-exist, with both equally enriched for it.
Tonight’s first performance is by Sybella Perry and Iain Woods, who start by situating themselves by a table just behind me. I’m invited to either swivel my seat round to face the performers or stay with my head facing the speakers. As it transpires, my positioning is ultimately irrelevant. A low drone floods out of Perry’s equipment, and immediately I’m unable to place its point of origin. I know the speakers are just behind my head, but the tone pretends to spill out of the surrounding walls, pooling on the floor like gallons of murky water. Woods strides past me, hands resting behind his back, emitting a hornet-like rasp from his throat. His voice slides over the murk like a knife blade. Again, I can see him stood right behind me, although placing his voice in space quickly proves difficult – sometimes it collides with the drone in such a way that it splits into numerous tonal strands or stretches into a blanket of vibration, while the drone seems to ripple and recoil in response. Woods feels the surface of the drone like palms scaling a wall in the dark, searching for microtonal footholds as Perry slides the drone teasingly, tectonically, between different shapes and angles. It’s a balancing act between the two of them. Co-dependent gymnastics.
I go from the spatial obfuscation of Perry and Woods to the utter spatial immersion of Ingrid Plum, whose performance fills me with an urgent desire to go for a walk where the weather is invigorating and boisterous (the coastal ridge of Hengistbury Head, perhaps). Her accompanying visuals show waves clasping at a damp shoreline, a lighthouse cutting through dusk light and tides erupting against vertical cliffs, while her voice reacts to the urges of the wind and the sea, arcing over the waves and bleating in counter-currents against the wind, fluttering like a tethered ribbon in a storm or dancing in jovial mimicry of morning birdsong. She converses with her pre-recorded self. Voices shrink onto tinny cassette players or spill pristinely out of the PA, like memories of differing clarity riding toward me upon the kinetic currents of nature. Elsewhere, sudden noises (microphone feedback, the clangs of metal) come bursting through the door of remembering, enlivened by the tangents of a mind immersed in the outdoors and solitude.
In the immediate transition to a set by duo Howlround, Plum’s rich evocation of the natural world melts into hazy, sunken obscurity. Loops of magnetic tape are fed out of two tape machines the around the back of microphone stands, glinting like two ominous tightropes in the dark. The sounds they omit could be French horns, or aged violins, or a whole orchestra descending toward the ocean floor, or fog lurking in the grounds of an abandoned mansion house. Like the tape itself, the drones snake out of the machines like thin, curiously shapely wisps of fog, levitating as though held aloft by ghosts, muffled by analogue decay. The only crisp, immediate sounds are the click of the machines reaching the end of the tape, which triggers a frantic rush of activity as the duo rethread a new loop into the player and run it around the back of the microphone stand. Howlround are like stage hands at a magic show, hastily negotiating the practical procedures that ensure the illusion of eerie, autonomous life emanating from the front of the stage (or, in this case, the tape players in the dark). Through the marriage of mysterious source material and a beautifully transparent creation process, the duo tease my lack of aural understanding. I can make perfect sense of what I see, but what I hear leaves me hopelessly, insatiable curious – just how Woods’ placement in physical space discords with the perceived positioning of his voice, and how Plum’s field recordings dance and flutter like memories on the edge of recollection. There’s nothing more exhilarating than the sensation of almost understanding, and it’s something that this Full Of Noises night exploits with terrific finesse.