Sound and vision: Wysing Polyphonic returns to Cambridge with band of exquisite experimentalists

By Ben Miller | 25 May 2016

Backed by The Quietus, the seventh annual music event at Cambridge's Wysing Arts Centre is the first fully acoustic edition. Director and Curator Donna Lynas tells us about one of the festival season's most innovative line-ups

A photo of the brightly-coloured music room at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge
Cambridge's Wysing Arts Centre will host Wysing Polyphonic this July - including several improvised, unique commissions© Courtesy Wysing Arts Centre
“The first year was quite specific: the artist Andy Holden was in residence at Wysing. His band, the Grubby Mitts, had played here the year before.

We got talking more about the role of music in visual art practice and how many artists have got this interest in music. When you walk around, there’s music behind every door – people are listening while they’re making. It grew into ‘why don’t we try to stage a festival of artists’ music?’, to bring this hidden expertise out.

Andy built this giant, amazing sculptural stage. And afterwards, we realised how much more material was there that we hadn’t been able to bring out in the first year. We went on this amazing journey of discovery.

We’re trying to keep it very focused and probably quite niche, in a way. It’s located like a visual art practice, for a specific audience.

We always limit the tickets because we don’t want people to feel like they can’t get in to see stages. We want people to access the whole thing in a quite chilled out but enjoyable atmosphere of experimentation.

At one point we could have had bigger stages and sound systems and really gone for it, but we decided not to because we wanted to make it more intimate rather than expansive. This year we’ve decided not to have any sound systems.

At the beginning, when I said acoustic, people still thought they could plug in electric guitars. But there’s no amplification – not in an attempt to be retrograde, but trying to focus on the purity of the experience of just listening to someone playing an instrument right in front of you, or a choir or fiddles which don’t really need amplification.

There are outdoor stages. In the past we’ve always had a traditional stage and a big sound system in the gallery, but every year I’ve been trying to think about how we can get away from this stage-versus-audience scenario.

I moved the stage to one side, made it lower and reduced the size of the sound system. This year the performances will happen right in the round of the space, on a floor or on a cushion – I’m trying to find 300 of them.

A photo of the bright outside modern building at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge
Microphones, speakers, backing tracks, laptops and electronics will be absent from this year's festival© Mike Cameron
Wysing is on what used to be a farm up a b-road in the middle of the Cambridgeshire countryside, on the edge of a village. There are ten different buildings across the site – mostly artist’s studios and galleries, and we’ve got a 17th century farmhouse.

There’s a beautiful wooden building which was built one summer by artists with reclaimed materials. People love playing there. It’s a really special, magical kind of space. We’ve had incredible performances in there over the years.

In the early days I would be running around the stages trying to do everything. Now I’ve realised that I can’t really do that. I just need to be there to support the artists and be seen listening to their music and appreciating the time that they’ve taken to work on the performances.

The rest of the staff here are brilliant on the delivery of it. I think they’d rather I just did what I do, which is programme it.

A photo of David Toop carrying various instruments at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge
David Toop at White Cube© Courtesy Wysing Arts Centre
This year, David Toop will work with a number of singers and sopranos: they’ll go in and out of spoken and sung texts in a very improvised narrative. It’s a proper exploration of the use of the voice, which is very exciting.

I’m also really excited about seeing Barnaby Brown. He’s a classically-trained musician based in Cambridge. He’s part of a massive European project to recreate ancient lost musical objects. They’re basically using things like stone carvings from the Celtic period through to mosaic sounds in ancient Rome or Pompeii and recreating instruments from these fragments of history left behind through archaeology.

I’ve seen him play recreations of instruments which are 2,000 years old as part of this project. He’s going to be playing these Celtic triple pipes – they sound incredible. They predate the bagpipe, recreated from Celtic drawings by the Picts.

A photo of a performer blowing an instrument at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge
Barnaby Brown will be performing the triplepipes© John Slavin
To see something so ancient being played taps into something really deeply rooted in our musical heritage. He can play these’s unbelievable. One’s a drone sound. It’s got to be seen to be believed.

Paul Purgas is also a very important person to Wysing. His band, Emptyset, played here in 2012. They’re known as a proper industrial, electronica band. It’s pretty intense: I remember watching them play and thinking that every hair on my body was standing on end because the bass was so loud and intense that it kind of vibrated your whole body.

Paul was in residence here last year. He’s used to turning up and playing very bass-heavy, industrial techno pieces. But he’s very interested in the use of instruments and he’s been learning some traditional Indian drums.

He’s going to be playing a two-sided dohl drum with sticks over the top of a shruti box, which is like this accordion-type instrument, to create this drone sound.

A black and white photo of a young woman in profile at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge
Megan Nolan© Cait Fahey
People like Megan Nolan, Linda Stupart, Crispin Best and Rachel Benson are published poets using the internet to distribute. They’re part of a network in a visual arts practice but moving towards performative poetry that’s very diaristic and all about what it’s like to be alive today.

Our artists know that they can try things with a very supportive audience who are willing to go with them. People expect the artists not to do ordinary things.

You can see some of these really interesting younger artists using performance in a way that just feels really, really exciting.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three more live events to see this summer

, The Lowry Pier 8, Salford
Athletic contact work, spectacular acrobatics and a gripping narrative combine with a revolutionary set design, an amazing musical soundtrack and digital imagery that melds with the performers as they move. July 16 2016.

, Pump House Gallery, London
For her new live performance and multimedia installation, Sagar draws upon references to the scales of language associated to the space of care and emotional labour. May 28-29 2016.

, Southend
Big Screen Southend presents a screening of the iconic 1916 film The Battle of the Somme, by Geoffrey Malins and JB McDowell. As part of the Somme 100 film project, this pioneering war-time film will be accompanied by a live performance of Laura Rossi’s acclaimed score commissioned by the Imperial War Museums. July 1 2016.
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