Eavesdropping 24

eavesdropping 2024 Provides an Intimate Space for Artists to Experiment

While there are many great things about my recent move to Dalston, East London, one thing that tops the list is living a 10-minute walk to Cafe OTO, one of London’s prime destinations for experimental music. A recent addition to Cafe OTO’s programming is eavesdropping, a new music festival curated by soprano Juliet Fraser. Founded in 2017 as a platform for “sharing new music and new ways of thinking about music,” the 2024 edition took place Mar. 21-24 and challenged us to question the ways in which we define experimental music – and who gets to set those parameters.

eavesdropping is “tentacular,” in Fraser’s words, encompassing artist development opportunities and a podcast in addition to the annual festival. Fraser is also mindful of creating spaces for experimental music to be heard informally and presented as a work-in-progress, both of which were clearly felt at this year’s edition.

The festival’s name is cleverly coined from the “dripping eaves” of Oxford House community and arts center, where Fraser has been practicing for the past few years because she can’t practice in her home. eavesdropping was born from an urge to bring people in to experience the wonders of this space, particularly its incredible acoustics. Originally formed as a four-month concert series, eavesdropping presented intimate performances of experimental music at Oxford House, and has since expanded to a four-day festival of music and a discussion forum, with this year’s forum theme being “experiments in failure.”

Dafne Vincente-Sandoval performs at eavesdropping 2024 -- Photo by Dimitri Djuric

Dafne Vincente-Sandoval performs at eavesdropping 2024 — Photo by Dimitri Djuric

Though all eight featured performers were announced before the festival, the details of their sets were a complete surprise. Pianist Eliza McCarthy opened on Mar. 21 with a program that existed in the gaps between genres – think contemporary classical meets minimalism meets sound bath. Among the highlights was Gabriella Smith’s Imaginary Pancake, a rhythmic party that saw McCarthy exploring the range of the piano while dramatically stretching for the extreme ends of the instrument. Equally impressive was Tonia Ko’s hauntingly beautiful Surge Out, which was commissioned by the festival. Inspired by the composer’s malfunctioning electric keyboard, the work alternates prepared piano interjections with sparse, yet stunning repeated chords.

Drummer, singer, and composer Mariá Portugal is a well-known and loved collaborator who has recently started exploring her presence as a solo player. Her breathtaking set transported us to a place of raw vulnerability and passion, with music that left us simultaneously entranced while also wanting to dance. In her arrangements of folk pieces, she skated across her drum kit, layering the drum heads with plastic objects, and moving with speed and frenzy while singing to us.

Mariá Portugal -- Photo by Dimitri Djuric

Mariá Portugal — Photo by Dimitri Djuric

Sound artist and DJ Sandra Kazlauskaitė works at the intersection of performance, installation, and auditory culture. She is an intimate performer, devising eerie and surreal soundscapes using just her laptop with an Ableton cue pad. Her set on Mar. 22, titled “What if I told you that everything I touch, turns into gold,” reflected on her displaced memories of the Lithuanian language with nods to Enya, composer and queer activist Terre Thaemlitz, and drives with her father. The thin and bare sound world flitted between a trance and a dream, though more painful and harrowing, at times.

Ellie Wilson’s set for violin, hardanger fiddle, and electronics joyously followed, featuring works from her recent album, Memory Islands, plus field recordings from her recent residency in Epping Forest. Memory Islands traces ideas of the past; one track incorporated a recording of Ellie’s grandfather, while another offered a musical reflection on the idea of brains rebooting after comas. The music was sweet, with Wilson’s passion and enthusiasm showing through her folksy-style playing.

The forum portion of the festival took place during the mornings and afternoons over the weekend and consisted of discussions led by featured guest speakers, plus a series of “provocations,” including talks, films, and musical presentations. United by themes of experimentation and failure, the provocations elicited questions of what experimental music is, who it encompasses, and how we delineate between “experimental,” “contemporary classical,” and “new” music.

Ellie Wilson performs at eavesdropping 2024 -- Photo by Dimitri Djuric

Ellie Wilson performs at eavesdropping 2024 — Photo by Dimitri Djuric

A standout moment of the weekend was Soosan Lovalar’s presentation, “Notes on Failure,” which reflected on her experience of being treated for cancer while navigating her practice as a composer in a capitalistic society. Drawing inspiration from Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” she reminded us that everyone holds “dual citizenship” to being well and unwell. She transparently spoke about her practice and how she has reused and repurposed musical material, sharing some of her works originally devised for the Indian santoor that she has redeveloped for violinist Sarah Saviet to perform on detuned violin.

I was also taken by “loomeweight” – a two-part performance by Patricia Auchterlonie and Hester Dart. The duo sang and improvised while weaving on a loom they constructed from materials they foraged in the forest. Singing while weaving is not new, with many prominent songs coming from Scotland and the Outer Hebrides. The vulnerable, hocketing improvisation came in short, sporadic phrases that bounced off the walls of the room, leaving us waiting to see what would be woven and sung in the next phrase. The performance was the pinnacle of intimacy, and bearing witness to the beauty of their experimentation was insight into the beginning of a long and beautiful collaboration. The duo hopes to expand the work to installation-based spaces, and for each performance to be a continuation of the last, both in the music and on the loom, which is something we don’t often see within Western classical or even experimental music.

On Mar. 23, soprano Anna Dennis largely accompanied herself on piano for  a theatrical set of works ranging from Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi to today. Her performances were masterful, using a projection of a human body with pulsing highlights in different areas during several of the works in the set by various composers  which were equally comedic and poignant. Similarly engaging was Farida Amadou, a self-taught bass player who began by playing with her instrument across her lap. Her set started softly and expanded into thrilling noise, especially as she alternated between effects pedals with a set of bells wrapped around her ankle.

Farida Amadou performs at eavesdropping 2024 -- Photo by Dimitri Djuric

Farida Amadou performs at eavesdropping 2024 — Photo by Dimitri Djuric

Dafne Vicente-Sandoval took the idea of what music for bassoon can sound like to a new level on the closing evening. Though she began in a normal fashion – seated with a few reeds on deck – what happened was unlike anything I’ve ever heard. She began to draw the most quiet and captivating sounds out of her bassoon, and the entire audience leaned closer and closer to hear it in its glory. Each time she inhaled to start a new phrase, the tension in the room built, anticipating the next cluster of note fragments in the ether. Her set moved from these fragile, ominous sounds to more defined multiphonics before changing reeds to produce some of the highest frequencies I think I’ve ever heard on a wind instrument. She then surprised us by taking apart her bassoon, laying each piece on a table, and using tiny microphones and feedback to create more gorgeous, sparse textures.

Rounding out the final evening was drummer Crystabel Riley, whose improvised set on a monumental collection of percussion instruments had her dancing. Her movements were fluid as she engulfed herself in her own trance of noise and vibration, and her control over the instruments was mesmerizing – it was evident that she knows each drum deeply, and how to get the exact sounds she wants out of each of them.

eavesdropping is a testament to the importance of experimentation: to have space to try new ideas, approach artistry with curiosity, and transcend the labels we often put on new music. In terms of curation, the festival lets the artist be in control, and the forum in particular was a unique counterbalance to the stark differences in performance practice throughout the four days. Uniting it all was a sense of openness from the performers and presenters – both in sharing their personal lives and their artistic processes – which left me with a sense of hope for a future in which experimentation is nurtured more broadly in the field of new music.


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