Germany has Berlin Atonal, Italy has Terraforma, and Portugal has Semibreve. With attractive cities such as Lisbon and Porto, the country’s bubbling arts scene is increasingly becoming a destination for those revolving around music and the arts. Although Semibreve might be lesser known than its European peers, this annual meet-up offers a lot in spite of its size, and acts as a critical nexus for the steadily growing experimental music and contemporary arts scene in Portugal and Spain. With a diverse but manageable lineup and a 4 am curfew, Semibreve 2017 was full of wonderful encounters.
It’s a truism that experimental remains a niche genre of music, but it was only after having discussions with Porto natives that I understood just how vital Semibreve is to the Portuguese electronic music scene, and how more established examples abroad in places such as the UK and France can be taken for granted. Nowhere else in the country can you see this music in such a capacity, and Semibreve has been bringing over artists from all over the world—from Iceland (Valgeir Sigurðsson), New Zealand (Fis) and beyond—to the local region for seven years now.
Despite it being the last weekend of October we were blessed with 30-degree sun and blue skies (surely a minor miracle for Londoners like myself), and under the calm ambiance of this amiable little town, I could meditate on the performances in the spaces in-between. The pacing of Semibreve was calm, orderly, a welcome rhythm compared with the sheer chaos of some other music weekenders.
The festival reminded me a lot of LEV in northern Spain, and in many ways is kind of a smaller, younger incarnation of its bigger sister. With a combination of sit-down performances, installations, talks, and a club space for the early hours, there was a nice flow to the programming.
The festival stretches across different venues around the town of Braga, the furthest of which was the Immaculate Chapel of the Seminary of Our Lady Conception—a stunning modern church tucked away in a courtyard behind some nondescript street facade. It was none other than Ex-Emeralds artist Steve Hauschildt who graced the podium. Where last year the stage was located at the far end of the hall, this year it was in the center of the room, where hundreds of expectant listeners flanked all sides.
Pale blades of light filtered through the overhanging concrete structure as soft synth textures washed out into the hall. It felt like Hauschildt took a while to settle in, but within a few tracks heads were nodding and people had their eyes closed. Beatless passages were sometimes alternated with glitchy rhythmic electronica that subsided into pointillist soundscapes. There were some poignant moments, one of them accompanied by the distant sound of children playing at the back. The synthesizers sounded big and full in the space and the switches between ambient and more rhythmic pieces kept the audience engaged.
All of the sit-down performances happened in the Theatro Circo, a palatial music and theatre venue in the center of town. The first three shows of the evening took place here, allowing people to sit down and absorb the performances in a more considered context.
Two acts from this space particularly stood out for me. The first was a live A/V from GAS, the seminal ambient moniker of Wolfgang Voigt. With this year’s release of Narkopop, the first GAS album in 17 years, this was one of the most anticipated performances of the weekend. The hour-long performance journeyed through visually breath-taking footage of Autumnal woodland panoramas. Passages of ominous drones, sometimes backed by fraught bass pulsations, oscillated to their more optimistic resolutions, although this format later exposed a lack of overall progression. Voigt’s music was perfectly executed, yet (perhaps in the pursuit of subtlety) felt rather static as a monothematic piece. The performance still left an impression, however. Alongside the visuals, GAS was a trip into the ethereal wonders of the natural world, successfully pulling me into the forest’s ineffable mysteries.
The other highlight from the theatre was Fis, who played on the Saturday. Impressive for its dynamic range and stylistic maturity, his set was on many occasions simply quite terrifying. Sub-bass frequencies rattled through my seat with arresting force; interludes of haunting child laughter and renaissance-style choral voices added depth and balance to the otherwise overbearing (in a good way) sonic dystopia. Breaking some tropes of experimental and noise, Fis managed to skilfully distill an emotional depth and a natural flowing structure from these abstract visions. Long-time friend and collaborator Jovan Vucinic provided water-themed visuals, with silky black currents lapping across the huge screen behind; the combination was potently eerie.
It was Argentinian electroacoustic artist Beatriz Ferreyra in the smaller auditorium below that really stood out for me—and not because it was the most elaborate or had the most impressive visuals, quite the opposite actually. The intimate performance took place in a pitch-black room, with nothing but the light of a laptop screen illuminating her face. There was some distraction during the first moments as outside noise spilled into the room, but once the tension subsided, the space settled.
She played three pieces: "Dans un point infini" (2015), "Echos" (1978), and "L’autre rive" (2007). There was a different kind of listening taking place here—a kind of deep, inward listening that musique concrete typically allows for. The "Dans un point infini" piece explored timbres and textures using samples from Grazyna Bacewicz’ second sonata for solo violin, the motifs dancing around a six-point surround sound system, subtly twisted using basic manipulation techniques. The spatial aspect here was particularly effective and it was enrapturing to see her mix all of the parts live using six channels on a mixer. From the refinement of the compositions to the stripped back nature of her set-up, this was a short masterclass from the old school.
It was interesting to think about the performance retrospectively while listening to an interview with her the following afternoon; by the end, the audience had collectively gotten an insight into one of electronic music’s first ever female composers. Sitting crossed-legged in the tranquil back garden of Café Raolo—Braga’s radical bookshop—I grew to admire her humility as a person and an artist. Assisted by her wonderfully dry humour, she spoke about topics of listening practice, the body and the physically of music, plus a few candid anecdotes involving the likes of Pierre Schaeffer and Ligetti.
For the more active, danceable part of the evening Raster artist Kyoka lit the room with hard-hitting industrial flair. The music was at times quick and impactful but had radical tempo changes and rhythmic switches that kept the room guessing. She played with an energy and franticness that reminds me of early Jeff Mills, but with the swing and capaciousness of bass music. It was at times captivating to witness her wrestling with the gear as the room melted into a high-octane techno workout.
I took a few moments out from the main room to check out the installations. Most were housed in the town’s culture and arts institution GNRation, a sprawling complex filled with studio spaces and the night-time music venue. There was a range of works on display, from a “frozen earth” enviro-sound installation (Gil Delindro & Adam Basanta) to Korikawa’s high-tech noise study based on the data from nano-level/microscopically detected materials. For a relatively small festival, it was good to see so much on display, including a couple of interesting VR pieces too.
Sadly due to an early flight, I had to miss sets from Valgeir and Lawrence English on the Sunday. But I’d seen and heard enough to get a full picture of the festival. Attended warmly by a great, open-minded crowd, I couldn’t help but feel that very slowly a special community was forming here, one that is laying the foundations for the future of Portugal’s experimental landscape.
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Photos: Adriano Ferreira Borges