“These are our reparations. They beat us if we’re alone in this.”
That’s Antye Greie aka AGF – the co-curator of 2019’s Heroines of Sound Festival, a showcase of boundary-pushing female musicians and composers from around the world.
A panel discussion on gender in the music business has reached a fever pitch. The strangely formal, admittedly uncomfortable, opening statements are eating dust. We’re blazing through a landscape of feminist discourse, questions of artistic integrity and socio-economic structures. The conversation vaults between optimism and despair as several women – many of them due to take to the stage over the next three days – recount and reflect on their experiences in the music industry.
It’s unsettling, and it should be.
Now, AGF’s bold pronouncement seems to have imposed a moment of clarity – or at least momentary consensus. And it becomes clear to me that Heroines of Sound is as much a movement as it is a festival. And movements don’t mince words.
Heading into the first performance at Berlin’s Radial System V, the audience size has easily tripled since the panel talk. I wonder how my experience of the festival will differ from that of the late-comers. In the discussion, writer and composer Nina Dragicevic suggests that, “we don’t just listen to music, we attach meaning to it.”
Like chance in Brian Eno’s “oblique strategies”, will context play just as pivotal a role in my weekend as the music itself? Am I overthinking things? Let’s go hear some music.
The first day’s performance evolved from the school of European classical and avant-garde into a showcase of experimental electronic sound. Works by acclaimed composers Laura Mello and Carola Bauckholt are indicative of the evening’s curation – Mello’s arrangements recall Ornette Coleman’s collective improvisation, accompanied by a burbling synthesiser part. Bauckholt’s “Oh, I See” is highly visual with comical sound effects and projections which animate two balloons into monstrous eyes.
A highlight was Judit Varga’s Anamorphose 01 – a newly commissioned work. Accompanied by a series of animations by Volkan Mengi, the piece featured cello, saxophone and accordion, and opened with the sound of breathing before building in drama and complexity. The rhythmic interplay between the performers seemed at times like a tightly woven tapestry, creating drama without virtuosity. At other times the structure slackened, expanding and contracting in time and space – a living, breathing thing.
But the truest beauty was maybe the performer’s interactions with one another. Nods, glances and swaying bodies evoked the sense that this was less a pre-composed arrangement and more a passionate conversation unfolding spontaneously before our eyes and ears.
The evening later diverted into more experimental electronic terrain with live performances from Maja Osojnik and Irena Tomažin. The performances featured, among other things, live sampled voice and electronics which created otherworldly textures and soundscapes.
Having excused myself from the second day’s all-German panel discussion (I’m working on it!), I dove straight into the day’s artistic exploits.
The Cameroonian sound artist, Elsa M’Bala’s performance blended vocal samples, percussion and synthesizers which connected her past and present homes, while ALE HOP’s was a searing and anguished instrumental commentary on the violence of her native Peru.
Tatiana Heuman aka Qeei took to the stage amongst ASMR-inducing glitchiness before unleashing a muscular, enthralling set of deconstructed pop music on the audience. Heuman’s set spliced melodic flourishes with live drumming, thumping bass and ambient noise, with vocal treatments often recalling Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Most telling was the audience response – otherwise respectful and refreshingly tech-free, the crowd was suddenly awash with smartphones pointed toward the stage.
Obviously, this was a spectacle.
Ksen.’s performance Virain was a masterclass in subtle sound design and minimalist composition. Forgoing any visual stimulus, her virtuosity lay in the deft keystrokes she used to conjure complex soundscapes from her MacBook. The message was clear: just listen.
Ksen. would later explain to me that the piece was a response to the 1994 Macedonian film Before the Rain, which captures the cultural weight of war on innocent individuals. However, she makes it clear that this piece is a study in transformation – turning negativity into positivity, pursuing personal growth through the creative process. The piece ended with birdsong and a smile before the lights went down.
The third day began with a discussion on the topic of music and gender with a panel of the festival’s South American performers. It was notable for the soul-baring accounts of musicians who have had to relocate themselves to receive the same level of respect afforded their male counterparts back home.
In the theatre, Moroccan producer Sukitoa o Namau stood out with an awe-inspiring performance which established a pallet of industrial field recordings before arranging these into a thumping, grinding electronic composition. Using only two SP 404 samplers and her own, unamplified voice, the piece blurred the lines between sound art and production – it was totally gripping from start to finish.
Closing out the festival was a free-form performance by Antye Greie aka AGF, which moved from solo art piece into a group set featuring collaborators Kaffe Matthews and Ryoko Akama. It featured an improvised art canvas which was both filmed and projected overhead, and amplified so that interactions with it could be heard as sound design.
Audience members were invited to interact in turn with the canvas – a novel idea which started out with the best intentions, but sadly (inevitably?) became co-opted by a few over-eager attendees. However, given the sense of community which had developed during the course of the festival, it provided appropriate closure to weekend’s curation.
As I made my way through the various talks and disparate performances on show at Heroines of Sound 2019, I had to ask – who is this festival for? Musically, the artists have little in common. Culturally, they are incredibly diverse.
Returning to Nina Dragicevic’s earlier statement, perhaps it’s through the attachment of meaning that we can begin to make sense of Heroines of Sound from a purely experiential standpoint. We experience the festival as a cohesive whole thanks to the strength of its social goal.
Over-intellectualisation aside, if you’re suitably open-minded, you’ll relish the stylistic expansiveness of the roster. To see (and hear) so much creativity applied to broadly, in so many formats, under one roof, is truly a joy. Go along, listen, think, discuss – get amongst it.
And of course, attend in droves to support the movement. The festival’s continuing success is a commendable achievement, and proves a viable reaction to social issues too dense to go into here. As composer Carola Bauckholt said, counseling an audience member; “the only thing we can do, is to do what we can.”
It’s perhaps an understatement, but if nothing else Heroines of Sound is a laudable example of one community doing what it can.