Live Reviews: DEAF

Various venues, Dublin25-29 October 2007Confucius said: ‘Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.’ After last year’s focus on Ireland, this year’s Dublin Electronic Arts Festival turned its gaze eastwards, its theme being...

Various venues, Dublin
25-29 October 2007

Confucius said: ‘Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.’ After last year’s focus on Ireland, this year’s Dublin Electronic Arts Festival turned its gaze eastwards, its theme being Asian electronic arts. The organisers did a marvelous job, attracting interesting artists and putting the events on in terrific locations. But considering that the stated aim was to allow us to ‘contemplate anew … the descriptive term “electronic art”’,the high points (among the events that I could attend) were, while perhaps amplified, distinctly analogue.

St Audoen’s Norman nave reverberated with the plucked sound of an instrument perhaps a millennium and a half older than its stone walls, a guzheng, a 21-string half-tube zither with movable bridges. Wu Fei, Beijing-born and based in America, sang and played with beauty and power. Her performance included her own compositions, such as Hunan, a physical, aggressive piece that evoked that mountainous region perfectly and Summer Palace, a memory of childhood. She also played some traditional arrangements, such as the virtuoso loosener for guzheng players, Little Open Hands.

Chinese music is closely connected to poetry, and consequently the Chinese language. As the language is highly tonal, with the same pronunciation of words but with different tones creating vastly different meanings, the music is even more subtle. Its main aim is to ‘express human feelings, soothe suffering and bring spiritual elevation.’ Wu Fei’s performance was transcendent.

Ancient technology wowed. However, this listener simply could not believe in the performance of Miya Masaoka that same night in St Audoen’s. Memorably she set up an array of laser beams, creating a sort of horizontal harp and gestured through it, triggering loops. The result was not engaging, as far as I could hear.

The following day it seemed as if the entire DEAF community of artists, audience and hangers-on were squeezed into the basement karaoke booths of the Ukiyo bar on Exchequer Street. The performers entertained tiny groups of people, improbably squeezed into these box-like spaces, in a strict rotation. Having heard the excellent Irish group Lakker through a crack in a door, I grabbed a seat to enjoy Pamelia Kurstin unpacking and playing the instrument that gave the world electronic music, the theremin. It’s an acquired taste perhaps, but the vanguard instrument of Socialist progressive music still has a captivating power, especially in Kurstin’s controlled and accurate hands. Gently altering frequency and volume by apparently only grasping at air is beguiling, and the futuristic sounds are, well, still futuristic.

After Kurstin, Wu Fei encountered a few of her previous night’s audience again, but this time she could see the whites of our eyes. After struggling to get her huge, borrowed guzheng into the karaoke box, she gave her privileged and enthralled audience a masterclass. I was lucky to be there.

Sunday evening saw a performance in Dance Ireland’s fabulous Dance House. Built in 2006, it hosted Featherhead, a live collaboration between two Japanese artists, Butoh dancer Gyohei Zaitsu and musican Itaru Oki, and the Irish Trevor Knight on keyboards and electronics. Butoh proved fascinating. It is reasonably modern, originating in Japan in 1959, but seems more ancient as this viewer was struck by its flawed genetic inheritance from classical Noh, cross-bred with German expressionism and mime. The Noh mask has been tossed away and replaced with the mime’s whitened face, but Gyohei Zaitsu contorts his so horribly that at times it becomes unconfortable to watch him. His body movements are slow, tortured and stylised, yet sometimes he burst into motion and I will never forget his prolonged attempt to force himself into the back wall of the stage, seeking to smear himself into oblivion. Itaru Oki, a pioneer of the Japanese free jazz scene, improvised around this, memorably swinging a rubber hose as a trumpet.

The Irish Film Institute showed Tekkonkinkreet, an anime from the same studio as The Animatrix, a cult classic of the genre. The animation is beautiful, relying on hand-drawing to create the complex visual layerings of a modern gothic city. CGI is used to great effect during the breath-taking action scenes. The story is slight, Manichean, with lead characters named Black and White. But the visuals are complimented by a terrific score by the English duo Plaid (Andy Turner and Ed Handley). The music simply fits. It is as essential to the film’s emotional impact as Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner. At times lyrical, at times forceful, it is worth hunting down in its own right.

The DEAF festival 2007 was a gallimaufry; any festival is. But I’m looking forward to next year already. There is beauty here; more people should see it.

Published on 1 January 2008

Seán Ó Máille is a freelance critic, photographer and full-time secondary teacher in Dublin.

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