May 242015
 

I was won over to Liverpool Sound City a couple of years ago, with it’s innovative mix of music festival, conference and the creative opening-up of regular and hidden music venues across the city. I could book into a hotel then dodge between bands, coffee shops, and shopping. Chilling out and exploring some amazing temporary venues, like Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, or a run-down car park that had been turned into a performance space.

This years Sound City Festival has a new format though, and it’s taken away the joy and the pleasure that made this a unique festival.

Firstly, getting to the new site down on Bramley-Moore Dock, is a major pain. There are no regular buses that service this part of Liverpool. There is a train service that runs nearby, or a special bus service, but otherwise it’s a good half-hour walk away from the Pier Head.

The site is now a self-contained festival with restrictions on what you can bring in, and bag searches to get through the gates. In the past the major venues operated a bag-check policy, so it’s not much different, but the big difference now is that the site is locked-down, and once you are in you can’t get out. So if you don’t like wraps, burgers, noodles or pizza then you are pretty limited in what you can eat.

It sounded worse than it looked!

It sounded worse than it looked!

There are few places for sitting and chilling out. A couple of wooden pallets have been set-up for people to sit on, but otherwise its hard to find a space among the rubble and the hard-standing dock-sides. This isn’t a space to relax. Quite literally it’s an industrial dock, with metal railings erected to keep people in or out.

Being on the banks of the Mersey seems a lovely idea, and when the sun is out it’s pleasant. But once the weather changes and the wind whips-up, then there’s no protection from the harshness of the Irish Sea.

These are small complaints though, compared to the quality of the sound of the festival. Whoever chose the locations for each of the stages and tents never gave a thought for the way that they would sound. The central area around the North Stage is surrounded by five other stages. The bleed of noise from each of them is overwhelming and exhausting.

The main stage sounds anodyne and insipid as most of the sound is whipped-off by the strong winds in a vast riverside open space. This is not a natural amphitheatre that would enhance the delicate nuance of the performances. Instead it’s a harsh, post-industrial concrete landscape that is unforgiving to anything but the most brutal sounds.

The Baltic Stage should be more interesting than it is, as it’s inside a warehouse. But by blasting the sound systems to their maximum it’s generally impossible to hear anything of the performances. I measured 100db on my phone sound meter. I’m sure people left with permanent damage to their hearing.

I thought I would be writing about the bands and the music, but the environment and the sound management of this festival is so poor that I can’t really tell if the bands that I’ve heard and seen have been any good. It’s become just another boring rock festival. I won’t be coming back next year.

Jun 192013
 

While I’ve been a long-term fan of the Pet Shop Boys, their transformation in recent years into a band that plays festivals has been most surprising. The theatricality of the present Electric tour is upfront from the start, yet the most engaging moments came when the audience was able to chant along with songs that are in danger of becoming stadium standards – It’s a Sin, Go West and West End Girls. And chant they did.

Electric is the latest international tour by the Pet Shop Boys, who have hit on a simple and adaptable format to their performances. Using front-projection, minimalist but distinctive staging, and a couple of dances who give the stage some kinetic energy. Electric is a neon blancmange sprinkled with multicoloured hundreds-and-thousands, and is closer to the early 1990s Performance tour than anything they have done for a while.

I don’t know many concerts that start off behind a screen projected with computer graphics of the band, overlaid with cut-up and scratched video montages of modern dance performances. The Pet Shop Boys have always eschewed pandering to the audience, and I don’t doubt that this full-on postmodern approach left many in the audience feeling displaced. Thinking they had come to a pop concert, instead they got a hyper-realist revisualisation of the stage as an early 1980s computer graphic display.

I’m not a fan of the O2 as a music venue, as it’s wide-open space and high roof dissipates the sound of the crowd and takes away the atmosphere of a more intimate performance. Likewise, the churning-out of the hits, and there are a lot of hits from a band that has been around for twenty-five years, means that key moments of intensity don’t have as much space to breath as they should. Lasers are clearly back in vogue though, and converted the cavernous space of the O2 from a de-industrial shed into a space of light and wonder.

That said, this isn’t a show that panders only to the greatest hits, though there are many, including Domino Dancing, Always on My Mind and I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing. There was a significant proportion of favourite album tracks and more recent, but perhaps less widely known singles. I’m Not Scared is a seldom performed track that was well positioned as a reminder of the song writing strengths of Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant. The surprise of the set was Invisible, from last years album Elysium, which has a less beat-driven intimacy, but really opened up the arena in a more expansive gesture.

While it shouldn’t work, Vocal, which will be the Pet Shop Boys new single, really caught the mood of the whole performance, which is difficult to do when it is the final track of the encore. An homage to youthful discovery, Vocal charts the intersection of a naive hedonistic enjoyment of music and dancing, and the more mental rationalisation and intellectualisation that trys to explain what it’s about. Vocal was a clear favourite, despite the vast majority of the audience never having heard it before.

If you get the chance to see Electric at some point over the summer you will have to travel to Europe to do so. Lets hope that this show is brought back to the UK so we can get a second chance to work out what it was all about.

Jul 222012
 
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BBC Radio Four’s From Russia With Love

The latest adaptation for radio of Ian Flemming’s From Russia With Love, pits James Bond against some pretty imbecilic Russian hoods, as they attempt to undermine MI6 by brining down and trapping Bond in a sex and murder scandal. While Ian Flemming’s fantasy creation of James Bond isn’t a patch on the detailed realism and depth of John Le Carre, and his chief protagonist George Smiley, Bond is still, after all this time, full of brutish charm and a blasé attitude to violence, murder and misogyny.

This third adaptation of a Bond story for BBC Radio Four by Jarvis & Ayres, is superbly dramatised for audio and handsomely cast. While there is some sense of hamming-it-up, it’s clear that the cast relished the chance to perform these roles and tell this story. There is a clear need to achieve a balance between performance, extemporisation and action in the adaptation of a Bond story. In cinematic adaptations the over-blow spectacle rules. In an audio adaptation the director and cast have to achieve a heightened sense of narrative intimacy or danger in the dialogue. This adaptation has a great sense of interaction between some truly larger than life characters.

It’s a pity that Bond is such a shallow character and that his brains don’t kick-in earlier, enabling him to follow some well voiced suspicions that Tatiana might be a double agent. The chances of Bond being led into such a shallow and obvious honey-trap seem obvious. Perhaps this seems more obvious now when we are more familiar with the levels of corruption and destruction wrought by the security services, but which Flemming couldn’t imagine when he was writing in the mid 1950s?

It takes Kerim, Bond’s minder in Istanbul, to voice these fears. Flemming’s story only gives a hint of the risk and associated violence that would be wrought on the heads of a failed agent in the field. It is left to Kerim to reflect on Bond’s willingness to be led by his more physical, sexual urges. This is a world of British gentlemen spies who can’t imagine double bluffs and double agents, and in which the truth of a woman only comes out when she is being made love to in bed.

Directed by Martin Jarvis, who also narrates the story, and adapted by Archie Scottney, there is just enough control and restraint to hint at some pretty terrifying consequences for the players involved in this game. Indeed, Scottney in his well balanced script, draws direct references to chess and gaming, with a vivid analogy of the balanced powers being like a game of billiards – all balls in motion and pre-set rules of engagement. Flemming’s story, however, feels like a warm-up for a much more complex and larger scale game that will carry on once this local skirmish is over – as is pointed out, beyond the confines of the ‘billiard table’.

Bringing this to life is a brilliant cast of performers. Tim Pigott-Smith is larger than life as Kerim, while Eileen Atkins is nothing but viciousness personified. Toby Stephens brings his calm assurance and charm to Bond, who after all is actually a bit thick and is dependent on his quick reactions, the strength of his fist and a lack of scruples with a gun. Jarvis brings this world to life with an unobtrusive and fluid sense of sound design, and while obvious echoes of the Bond theme of the movies is never far away, the world and the story are immersive and very entertaining.

Jul 212012
 

One of the great things about running media courses in a Faculty of Technology, is that you get to look at the delivery of learning opportunities from an engineering perspective. I’m not an engineer myself, my background is humanities and media studies. But I enjoy working with engineers, technologist and designers because they have a very specific way of looking at the world. Rather than seeing the world as an opposing set of political forces, or as a set of signs leading to deeper rooted meanings waiting to be unravelled, engineers tend to see the world for what it is – a space to be occupied, with problems to be solved. There is nothing that an engineer would like to do, in my experience, than to make the occupation of the social and physical space we occupy more tolerable, sustainable and efficient.

Engineering doesn’t just stop at maintaining a degree of comfort. Engineers seem to have a drive to want to occupy more space in more interesting ways. Engineers are transfixed on getting from a-to-b and places that are further away in some degree of comfort. They want to build things that are bigger, stronger and faster than before, and do this in a way that is less resource intensive, more efficient and using a minimum of forces to achieve what they desire. In the twelve years I’ve worked in a Faculty of Technology at De Montfort University I’ve come to know that engineers are chiefly pragmatic and practical people.

Engineers don’t see their mission in grand, metaphysical or historical terms. Instead they look at the myriad of problems that shift and change as we interact with the physical world and attempt to come-up with solutions that can help us master them. The world is full of big and small problems that need constant attention and which require innovative design and technology solutions. The challenge of engineering, so I’ve seen, isn’t to explain things about our lives, but to do things with our lives. Engineering is about using and deploying resources effectively for clearly recognised gains at the end of a pragmatically managed process. A good engineer looks for simple and elegant solutions that keep the chosen process as well integrated as possible. A pragmatic engineer, however, will be prepared to change and adapt these solutions as circumstances require.

Complexity isn’t a problem per-se, but an experienced engineer will work on the assumption that there is always a trade-off between efficiency, technical capability and the minimum requirement that it takes to get a cost-effective solution into general usage. This approach was brilliantly exemplified in the latest edition of Material World on BBC Radio Four. Reporting from the Farnborough Air Show, the focus was on how airports are looked at as a design and engineering problem. The complexity of moving physical objects, information, power and people through a building in a rapid yet seamless flow was brought to life in vivid terms.

Ove Arup, the British engineering firm that builds airports around the world, talked through their approach to modern airport design. From heating and lighting, to check-in and immigration; from shopping and retail, to noise management and acoustics. What was interesting was the focus that was given to the experience of the passenger. This is ‘experience engineering’ on a grand scale. Not content with merely bolting-on the solutions to an otherwise already established systems approach, the engineers at Ove Arup want to start from the ground-up, making all the technological interventions that they manage fundamentally integrated into the infrastructure of the airport experience itself.

This means that Ove Arup engineers have to analyse data about the movement of people, airplanes, luggage, provisions, power, fuel and many more products and services that are the blood in a massive circulation and respiratory system. At the same time the engineers have to model and plan for different eventualities. How will the designs that they advocate cope in different circumstances? What happens if there is a terrorist incident? What happens in poor weather? How do you make ordinary passengers feel as comfortable as visiting dignitaries? How can the retail operations capture passengers for longer so that they spend more money?

From a purely systems point of view many of these problems can be solved quite easily, but the challenge is to make the airport feel human, intimate and exciting. This architectural approach to design has to give a sense of progress and advancement. The acoustic design has to maintain the balance between isolation and comfort in the passenger areas, and a sense of being within the centre of a major international transport hub. Likewise, security has to be efficient yet unobtrusive. All of which mean that the engineers, designers and architects are facing significant design challenges in their own right, at each stage of the process, and in the context of the expectations of the clients.

The Material World gave a well balanced sense of wonder at the smart solutions that contemporary engineers are dealing with and the need to be sceptical that these solutions are there to serve not only the business operation but not the people who use these airports. The fact that people can so confidently ‘engineer experience’ in this way is a testament to the future, and is something that I will consider worth developing in whatever field I find myself working. Courses in Creative Media Technology can definitely benefit from the approach I’m sure.