Festival of Voice

Festival of Voice | WMC

Caragh Medlicott and Gareth Smith review the return of Cardiff’s international arts event, Festival of Voice.

It’s hard to imagine live performance feeling more precious or precarious than it has over the last year and a half. With the pandemic still lingering, and the threat of another hard winter on the horizon, it’s a great relief that the Festival of Voice was able to return before any potential winter restrictions could delay it further (previously biennial, FoV had planned to transition into an annual event only for COVID to get in the way).

The necessary faff of both festival admin and safety protocols – NHS passes, hand stamps, wristbands and masks – mark the gateway to the stellar line-up beckoning within. Perhaps it’s an inevitability considering the circumstances, but between wet weather and COVID concerns, the crowds on opening night – and thereafter, too – feel relatively small. The consequence is a vaguely flat feeling, especially between sets, but it does at least mean bar queues are mercifully short (every cloud).

The collection of artists thrown together for FoV only really have common ground through their shared presence in the line-up (and, unusually, a predilection for spoken-word interludes) but they span genres, styles and nationalities in a manner befitting the international nature of the festival. Thursday evening kicks off with a keynote address from the legendary Brian Eno. With just a table and a few quotes to hand, Eno captivates an eager audience by talking at length on the importance of art to society. It’s a timely pondering, but Eno speaks not only to the recent struggles of the arts scene, but also the continual failings of the UK government to think beyond economic parameters when it comes to valuing arts and culture. Such topics can easily turn bleak, even nihilistic – but this is a trap Eno is eager to avoid. Like the numerous innovations coming out of the fight against the climate emergency, he points out, the arts is made up of many brilliant and pioneering organisations working for the greater good. Other countries, too, offer alternative models for better integration of the arts into society (in particular, Eno draws on the time he spent at a school in Sweden). Granted, it’s a captive audience at his disposal – but as the festival rolls on, Eno’s words, if anything, become only more substantial. The subsequent performances demonstrate the vitalising energy of art – something capable of stoking both imagination and hope.

Following the cancellation of Kelsey Lu, Thursday continues with two largely instrumental performances in the Donald Gordon Theatre. The first is Drumming with the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals. An hour-long performance of Steve Reich’s phasing epic, Currie turns percussion into something hypnotic through transitions in timing and pitch – the shifts executed with practiced deftness. It’s a long performance but rarely feels it with the enviable grace with which the musicians move across a variety of vibraphones, xylophones and marimbas, drawing the audience into a spellbound state. Synergy Vocals occasionally provide a soft foil to the thunderous depths and angelic highs of this piece, though, sadly, for the most part go undetected.

Headlining the Thursday night is German-born composer Max Richter and Sinfonia Cymru performing Voices. Some technical hiccups delay things by ten minutes or so, but the audience is good-natured and the electro-orchestral piece well worth the wait. Centred around the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Richter uses a recording of Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice to introduce the piece before further passages from the Declaration are read live by the captivating Imtiaz Dharker. Swells of recorded voices offer their own whispered passages, speaking in an array of global languages that radiate from every corner of the theatre. It may not be a subtle gesture, but it does its job of highlighting the themes of humanity and harmony which beat at the heart of Voices. Sinfonia Cymru’s enchanting string section is conducted by Robert Ziegler, deep rumbles of bass and cello offer an earthy counterpoint to the exquisite work of soprano soloist Grace Davidson. On the whole, Voices seems to be more about deepening a single feeling more than introducing multiple ones – sometimes adding a sense of stasis rather than depth – but its overall tone is, happily, optimistic and certainly enjoyable. 

With the classical stuff out the way, the party nights of Friday and Saturday are stepped up a gear with the promise of big names and great music. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere, an impressive, truly festival-esque stage crops up in the traditional Donald Gordon theatre (well, it is the second-largest stage in Europe). A black curtain obscures the auditorium to maintain an authentic gig-like feel. With a bar at the side and gathering crowds, the space becomes a darkened pocket of electricity away from the quiet lobby area which, though only a flight of stairs away, tends to feel far from the action. It’s a shame that odd scheduling choices mean that the few performances taking place in the Weston Studio often clash with the bigger acts, while coinciding performances in the lobby are often only glimpsed – if not missed altogether – with free time between gigs feeling slightly underwhelming (and also, hungry, for anyone who missed the memo about cancelled street food stands).

Still, it does nothing to take away from the quality of the acts. Friday’s opener is Cardiff rapper Juice Menace. She proves a delightful bundle of energy who – despite beginning with just a small gathering of heads – soon draws a crowd. South Londoner Rachel Chinouriri comes armed with lo-fi, R&B heartbreak anthems (and not just of the romantic variety) to set the same audience swaying with her hauntingly beautiful voice. Tricky, the legendary producer, is a particular highlight – the soundscape conjured is thrashing, electronic with the occasional slip of electro-jazz – the set converting the theatre into something more akin to a shadowy, surrealist alt-pop cave than a traditional red-velvet auditorium. Biig Piig (Irish singer Jessica Smyth) gives off pixieish vibes, swaying about the stage to textured new wave ballads, singing in both Spanish and English, while Anna Meredith is on top genre-defying form. 

As for the headliners, Friday night goes out with a bang thanks to a late show from Hot Chip, their set a seamless tour-de-force in electronic pastel hues (something which is arguably only heightened by their very own brand of bad dancing and nerdy-cool aesthetic). On Saturday, Charlotte Church’s pop dungeon proves a natural crowd-pleaser with covers of a variety of hits that – even with a soaking raincoat over your arm – just have to be bopped to. Making a convincing case for best performance of the festival is Gruff Rhys, with the welcome addition of multi-instrumentalist N’famady Kouyaté. The band mostly work through Rhys’ latest album, Seeking New Gods, with a few old favourites, to boot. Dressed in all white, Rhys circles the stage holding up placards – “Applause!” “Louder!” – while the set proceeds with the swish and polish of an artist on tour (which he is). 

FoV’s final day succeeds in maintaining energy and purpose, primarily through an eclectic schedule. Ani Glass’ colourful and ethereal electropop invigorates a somewhat languid early-evening crowd, her synth-heavy melodies create a retro-futuristic sound enhanced by a lyrical fixation on automation and alienation. The set is an excellent showcase for the album Mirorers (2020) but also features a remix by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark of her song ‘Ynys Araul’. The haunting bilingual vocals and the urgent, thumping beat provide the highlight of Glass’s unfortunately brief set. Stella Chiweshe provides a distinct change of tone with an interval of calm and introspection in the midst of more bombastic performers. Chiweshe’s set features mbira music, traditional to the Shona people of Zimbabwe, which produces a hypnotic combination of percussion and strings. There is another, pleasurably jarring, shift in tone with the arrival of Sprints, an Irish four-piece who raise the volume and energy levels of the room. Their deliberately rough-around-the-edges style conveys the urgent and unfiltered nature of their political post-punk music. 

Ghostpoet has long eschewed musical labels, but his set highlights that this genre fluidity is precisely the source of his appeal. Drawing one of the most populous and enthusiastic crowds of the festival, the Mercury Prize-nominated performer feeds off the energy to cultivate an animated and captivating stage presence despite the deep pessimism which pervades most of his songs. The sense of a cultural claustrophobia is reinforced by electronica-inspired beats beneath deceptively poetic lyrics. The final act of the evening is Arab Strap, the Scottish indie-rock duo who recently reunited after fifteen years away. They provide some high-energy moments of impressive stagecraft which contrast with characteristically sardonic and cynical music. Building on the more pessimistic tone accruing throughout the evening,they retain a sense of humour in their self-deprecating narratives of thwarted ambitions and misplaced certainty. They are a suitable ending to both the day and festival – conveying a shared gloom that is nonetheless tempered by a wry smirk.

While music dominates, it’s by no means the only element of the festival. The premiere of the short film, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, celebrates and explores the ideas of cultural theorist Raymond Williams in the context of modern-day Wales. A post-screening Q+A with a panel of Welsh creatives highlights the uncomfortable questions that can arise when festivals claim a socially conscious ethos. It is noted that ticket prices (a minimum of £45 per night) exclude many from the local community that the festival sought to attract. While these discussions don’t necessarily detract from the positive experience of the festival, it does demonstrate that invoking ‘community’ as a selling-point will eventually involve the ‘community’ answering back. If the Festival of Voice returns next year, it would be worth examining how these issues have been handled.

 

More information on the Festival of Voice is available here.