I hear a strange hum emanating from a small doorway. I follow the hum down a pitch-black corridor and come to a dead end, with the hum leading up a stairwell I can’t access. I traipse back out of the corridor and set off for somewhere else. My day is full of experiences just like this. A sound catches my attention and I go searching for its point of origin, ambling through underground brick passageways or skipping down steps into darkness, culminating with the discovery of a live performance tucked away in a dim-lit magazine nook, or with the reluctant acceptance that I was never supposed to find the source in the first place. Fort Process knows its audience. The entire event – including the placement of its various installations, its host of spontaneous sonic happenings and, of course, its eclectic live programme – is choreographed to lure the curious astray, with electronic experiments leaking out of classroom windows and vocal noises echoing through labyrinthine passages, luring attendees away from their desired destination and making them late for everything they’d initially planned to see.
I’m sent wayward as soon as I arrive. I sit down on a bench to take a highlighter to the programme, and immediately become aware of a strange electronic beat emanating from a room across the parade ground. I pop my head in to see Graham Dunning and Leslie Deere stood over a table littered with rotating machines, synthesisers, pebbles, wires…a scattered arrangement of objects that cohere perfectly with the jumbled rhythm that splutters out of the speakers. This is Dunning’s Mechanical Laboratory Of Antimatter, which throbs with activity for almost the entire duration of my Fort Process experience. Deere casually departs and Henry Collins arrives in her place. Immediately he begins to sellotape a microphone to a table, amplifying the splutter of sticky, separating adhesive. Dunning takes the rhythm away to leave just a nauseating bass drone, as though giving Collins the head space to concentrate on taping the microphone down (like someone holding gift wrap in place for another to stick on straight). I can’t quite decipher whether the music – a hazardous, volatile dance track – is assembling or dismantling itself. I’ll figure it out when I pop back later.
I pull my highlighter out once more. Again, I’m promptly interrupted. Vocal improvisatory trio Skatgobs have taken over the fort tannoy system. Their voices babble across the parade ground as attendees swivel around in bewilderment, helplessly trying to identify the source of the noise. While part of the delight of Skatgobs is seeing their faces and bodies at the mercy of vocal nonsense, there’s a certain mischief to their decision to stay out of sight. We’re being pranked.
I finally get the opportunity to glance at my programme, and see that I’m late for Adrena Adrena in the Romney Hut. Drummer E-Da Kazuhisa is already pushing out a propulsive 6/8 groove by the time I arrive, locked in with an electronic bass loop as he gazes into Daisy Dickinson’s spherical projections of Jupiter, time-lapse plant growth and curved spillages of shimmering oil and aluminium. I’m transfixed by the slippages in percussive timing as Kazuhisa weaves in and out of the electronics, finding the beat and then losing it again, swaying between rhythmic intention and human failure. Over at the Grand Magazine, Seijiro Murayama pulls me further into the enchantment of percussion, enacting a series of simple gestures against the backdrop of absolute silence. He strokes a cymbal with a bow, teasing out a beautiful, rhombic chord that levitates above our heads, changing shape as the friction intensifies and recedes. He stops. He blows a raspberry between pursed lips. I hear people talking jovially as they approach the room from down the corridor, only to fall suddenly quiet as they find themselves at such brash odds with the tranquillity of Murayama’s performance. Within seconds, they’re transfixed as well.
In contrast, Laboratoro are the raucous disruptors to the peaceful attendees situated around the back of the parade ground. It takes me a moment to figure out what’s happening. Xelís de Toro is stood with a megaphone, a trumpet, a water pale, a chair tied to some rope and some books bound by string. He drags his wares up the path while Ed Briggs, crouched by some FX pedals about 25 feet away, holds out a microphone and records everything, processing the sound of a chair bouncing up the tarmac into a rumble of distortion, or unravelling a trumpet blast into a UFO drone. De Toro spins on the spot and collapses onto his back, yelping into the megaphone as people walk round him. Once again, I’ve forgotten where I’m supposed to be heading.
I spot a crowd of people up by the Eastern Gun Emplacement, and start to hear the blustery hums of Gagarin’s electronic equipment as I get closer. They merge beautifully with the wind that encircles the elevated structure, as keyboard notes dance in soft, almost juvenile melodies upon the gales of static. The noise floats out to sea just behind me, cast aloft like a question, and I find myself still thinking about them – daydreaming over how the drones disperse themselves across the rippling water – as I walk back into the Romney Hut. The first sound I hear on entry almost makes me duck, as a whoosh of bass frequency mimics the sound of a gigantic pendulum swinging towards my head. I soon realise that it’s the unstable electronics of John Chantler. He moves between trickles of high frequency and visceral foghorns of noise, swaying far beyond across the point of equilibrium that resides between the two, like a scientist failing to redress the quantity balance between two compounded chemicals, eternal swapping between excessive quantities of each. He observes as the concoction shifts between dangerously vibrant colours, uncertain as to which sounds will erupt and which will be placidly absorbed into the mixture. Most of them are cacophonously destructive.
I return to the Grand Magazine. Destruction awaits me again. Seijiro Murayama has long gone, and the air has since grown thick with the cement particles of Crush!!!. I’m quick to point the blame at Sonic Pleasure, who is smashing up bricks and denting metal scrap with a hammer, while her two collaborators find their own means of making a visual and aural mess: Mark Browne dragging his face through a pair of tights, Ian MacGowan’s trumpet rolling around in the rubble. Suddenly the construction site dust clears and the group transit into a more “conventional” form of free improvisation, retaining only a vague acknowledgement of eachother as trumpet, flute and saxophone spew noise and nonsense in every direction.
Just as I start to crave some musical coherence, I stumble upon one-man band ICHI in the Theatre. He’s performing a song for typewriter and harmonica when I walk in, which ends with him pretending to eat the typed up piece of paper and bleating like a sheep as he does so. Not entirely coherent then. Most of his songs are aggressively catchy: little radio hits stitched together from cartoon voices and home-grown instrumentation (trumpets grafted onto stringed instruments, harps fused to horns). The song about a mosquito is particular highlight. Speaking of self-made instrumentation – back at Graham Dunning’s lab, things are still looking rickety. A synth beeps intermittently over a wobbly stadium rock beat, as chirps and titters haphazardly blemish the groove.
I stick around for a few minutes to see if the whole thing collapses, and only drag myself away because Skatgobs are due to perform – in the flesh this time – back at the Grand Magazine. They’re an incredible spectacle. Faces and voices unravel from the stiff shapes of civil obedience: foreheads scrunch in disgust, saliva flies out from knotted lips, voices whimper into falsettos. Even while immersed in their own individual performances, it’s very evident that all three are listening to eachother intently, striking up arguments between wordless howls of panic, replying to constipated grunts with anxious bouts of whistling. The crowd break out in laughter at several points during the set (most notably when Luke Poot yelps during a swig of water, spitting liquid everywhere in the process). While Skatgobs are wonderful for how they liberate their bodies from day-to-day societal vocabulary, they’re certainly not oblivious to the silly, socially subversive humour that streaks their modus operandi.
As I step back outside, I immediately hear a violent throb emanating from the Romney Hut. I head to investigate and see the faces of Spatial and Sally Golding illuminated by flickering strobe light, emitting electronic noises that verge on the dangerous: palpitations of static, gigantic swooping sirens. I feel the air quivering in prophecy of imminent meltdown, and flee to the Theatre to see Audrey Chen deliver a masterful 20-minute vocal improvisation solo. She rides her own breathing beautifully, seizing the opportunity between inhale and exhale to transfigure her voice into new forms, emitting sounds that verge on the excruciating and the illusionary, subdividing her voice into duets of wheezes and clacks of throat constriction. Some of the louder, more serrated yelps lead several audience members to cover their ears. The noise of Toshimaru Nakamura proves to be just as volatile, with hideous feedback crushed into dead-end bass drones, and synthesisers scraped gruesomely against ceilings of high frequency. Just as with Spatial and Sally Golding, the whole space feels set to blow. Time to move again.
I’m far too late to score a seat for the second half of Sarah Angliss’ collaboration with Laura Cannell, and have to settle for hearing their beautiful recorder duet float out of the door into the corridor. To my delight, both performers stride out into the hallway and begin to parade back and forth directly in front of me. Melodies swoop and dive over eachother, seeking release from a solemn tonality that conjures images of drooping flowers and faded medieval paintings; a sad, inescapable ode to death and decay. The seated audience crane their necks around to get a glimpse, and suddenly I’m the one with a front row seat.
David Toop and Evan Parker are also dipping into sonic history in the form of a talk and record-spinning session over in the School Room, which essentially amounts to an instalment in their ongoing series of Sharpen Your Needles events. Coinciding with Toop’s next book on free improvisation (Into The Maelstrom), the pair pluck out recordings that date prior to free improvisation even being an acknowledged term: a solemn, chicaning harmonium recording from the 1940s, a cascade of tape-manipulated piano improvisations from the 1950s, and a bizarre piece by Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott, in which instrumental gestures for piano, cello, sax and drums are separated out by vast gaps of silence, like individual artworks perched upon dedicated plinths. In between each piece, Parker and Toop trade thoughts and anecdotes from their own experiences with improvisation (including an excellent tale from Park about Phil Seamen’s dog causing calamity in the orchestra pit of West Side Story). As I step outside, I see that Laboratoro have managed to clamber atop the roof of one of the gun emplacements, with De Toro’s megaphone belting loudly but incoherently across the parade ground. It’s wonderful to see a group so insistent on being heard, liberated from the superfluous requirement of having something to actually say.
I feel entirely unprepared for what hits me inside the Romney Hut. Somewhere within the vibrant colour contrasts, the manic spirals of cartoons that splash over the walls, the synths bursting over the boundaries of dance beats and the heave of exhilarated audience bodies, I spot the two figures of Sculpture: one dressed in rave attire and carefully handling an array of tape loops (Dan Hayhurst), the other overlaying circular comic strips on a video zoetrope, occasionally augmenting the image with bursts of flash light and the tips of fingers (Reuben Sutherland). The excitement comes from the fact that Sculpture seem only just capable of keeping up with themselves – the visuals are forever blurring and warping into something else, while the rhythms occasionally stutter and choke of out of time, unable to digest the sheer quantity of tape loops that Hayhurst tries to cram down.
After thoroughly scorching my senses, I seek refuge in the quiet mechanics of the various installations tucked away in the Eastern Magazine. I’m immediately drawn to the intermittent blue glow of Darsha Hewitt’s Electrostatic Bell Choir, which uses the accumulated static charge of old televisions to power the movements of tiny bells. Each transition from ON to OFF – which is usually crisp and instant – becomes marked by an eerie glacial jangle, which hangs anxiously in the air where light or darkness used to be, quivering in sonorous surprise at the sudden jump from life to death and back again. On a similar note, the bells of Tim Shaw are hooked up to rotating wind sensors that fall under the breeze of a fan, chiming as soon as the sensor has spun a certain number of times. Visual grace collides with tense, abrupt sonic event, as the idle rotation of the three sensors is interrupted by bursts of tiny alarm. And then there’s the work of Joshua Legallienne, who challenged himself to create an artwork from a single material and decided to simply hang a plastic sheet above the stairwell, allowing it to scoop up the air and rustle – in crisp, lively tones – upon the breeze that circulates the entire fort. As I turn to head out of the Magazine, I’m beckoned behind a black curtain to watch the closing stages of Mariska De Groot’s Nibiru: a sculptural installation piece that traces the orbit our solar system’s seldom-seen ninth planet. A gigantic swirl of white lines decorates the ceiling and arcs down the walls, while De Groot’s pendulumic wooden sculptures sway delicately and orchestrate the curvature of the image between them. Two small speakers emit the splutters of dying electricity, as if the mechanics of her sculpture are threatening to fall apart. Sure enough, the image flickers into darkness as the projector bulb cuts out. Thirty minutes of obsessive scientific pursuit suddenly vanishes into nothing.
I remain in a galactic headspace as I watch Carla Bozulich, whose bass guitar crashes through the speakers like a set of asteroid hits, spaced out to form contrasts between catastrophic event and wastelands of anxious inactivity. Her voice wanders through the mess like the lament of the last one alive, drowning in the noise that erupts every time she so much as slides her finger over the fretboard. It’s getting dark outside by now, and Scrying Ylem capitalise on the sense of mystique that can often accompany the dimming of visible light. “Hand out the black mirrors,” Z*qhygoem requests, as his collaborator Wynyy Wyvyrn presents me with a small square of matte black plastic. We’re asked to gaze into the square and let forth the imagery of our subconscious, as the duo bend the resonances of gongs, tumble through metallic objects and instruments, and noise looped and threaded back into itself. Soon, it starts to feel directionless – not aimless, but spreading at all angles simultaneously, sending metallic sustain washing up against the walls of the Magazine. I fixate on the murky silhouette of my own head, trying to work out if the edges of my jaw are really quivering or not. In the room next door, I witness an intricate interplay between violin, cello and piano composed by Daniel W J Mackenzie, which reminds me of leaves falling from a tree at one moment (swaying at the behest of gravity and wind, cascading in twos or threes or not at all) and perilous tightrope walks at others (stumbles of panic between passages of equilibrium and grace). Yet it feels like a very deliberate music too, and even the moments of seemingly sudden reflex – outbreaks of clapping, assaults on the piano string – feel like they were borne out of an absolute consensus of composer bodily fibre. Each action occurs because it was destined to do so.
Another person with resilient faith in his method is Pierre Bastien, whose self-built machine (like a giant cassette tape, with bits of debris clinging to the spools) whirls gleefully and noisily, clacking and ticking as its outline consumes the entirety of the projector screen. Near the end of the set, there’s a stretch of emotional conflict: he dwells upon an orchestral tape loop that seems to get sadder with each repetition, cultivating a deep intimacy with the chords that feel increasingly, fatefully trapped in their own circle of melancholy. Yet at the same time, he’s playing a trumpet whose bell is connected to a water vessel, so that each improvised note emits carries a jovial, bubbling vibrato, which could well be used as the singing voice of a cartoon fish. He stoops the vessel in front of the projector camera so that it descends into the frame like a ridiculous puppet character. The crowd laugh. I laugh. All the while, that melancholic chord sequence is tugging at me with increasing fervor, and I lose all sense of exactly how I feel. It’s beautiful. Eva Bowan offers me a route out of this conflict, carrying me away in mists of voice and soft pulsations of synthesiser, like a cityscape witnessed through a fogged up windscreen. It’s lush, rose-tinted music – the sort that might seep into the mind during a particularly immersive, time-abandoning daydream. Beats wander through the mix in muffled, hypnagogic uncertainty, and I glide out of the school room in the type of daze that signifies a long stretch of continuous and intense listening. I’m dizzy, but not unpleasantly so.
Limpe Fuchs ensures that the conclusion to my Fort Process experience is both grounding and life affirming. It isn’t so much a performance as a masterclass in listening and sonic curiosity. Her instruments are set up in the Grand Magazine like home furniture: two gigantic drums with curved metal pendulums dangling beneath them, an array of percussion, a viola, some large stones, sheets of thin bronze foil, and a gigantic xylophone comprised of slates of different sizes and pieces of metal scrap. As she strikes each instrument, she listens; ingesting the intricacies of each sound and resultant acoustic reflection like a wine taster reflecting on a mouthful, adjusting her approach in response to what she hears and what she’d like to hear. The two metallic pendulums generate the most beautiful, gong-like hum when they are struck, letting forth a rich resonance that washes across the entire room, filling up the space like a pool of water. Yet her interactions with simpler materials are just as fascinating: the wooden shakers dragged across the floor, the pieces of wobbly bronze foil slapped against the earth. At one point, she starts kicking a stone around the room with her foot while playing the viola. The stone rolls near my feet. Fuchs stops playing viola and jabs the bow in my direction. Obediently, I roll the stone back. She continues to wander round the room. “You can applaud if you like,” she requests with a smile, and we clap enthusiastically. Because Fuchs eschews the stiff formality of the performance format – ambling between instruments with a beautiful disregard for beginnings and ends, driven instead by ceaseless curiosity – the audience forget to engage in the standard performance etiquette. The warmth I feel towards Fuchs and her interactions with sound far surpass what I can express by clapping my hands, and as I walk away from Newhaven Fort – stopping very briefly to watch Lazer Beans laying waste to the last residual joules of energy that the festival has to give – I feel renewed in my love for sound all over again: from the clangs of Fuch’s gigantic slate xylophone, to the flutter of Joshua Legallienne’s plastic sheet.