Wysing Polyphonic 2019:
An Audiovisual Playground
Flora Yin-Wong circles between both embracing her heritage and rejecting it. It’s got to the point where, as she puts it, “I’m appropriating my own culture”, sampling the East Asian religious and cultural scene she was never part of. We caught up with the Chinese-Malaysian London-based producer, writer and DJ, straight after her afternoon panel talk at Wysing Polyphonic X Somerset House Studios, a late Summer festival situated just outside Cambridge. Knelt down on the chilly grass outside the café venue, we asked her about superstition, and her sonic montages which have captured the attention of international artists, and notable music platforms alike. As we found out, the Wysing organisers never had ambitions of Glasto-level stage production or crowds – they reached out to a handful of select artists, keen to help them hone their craft and continue a dialogue. The question put to them was simple: “why don’t you come along?” Giving the space for producers or DJs to manifest their visions turned out to be something really special. Before we delve deeper into our conversation with Flora, we’re going to give an overview of the day itself.
This September, for their 10th year, Wysing Arts Centre once again brought together electronic and folk acts from the global circuit, contemporary composers, experimentalists, and club DJs, all trading places and stages over the day. In the past, they’ve welcomed Aïsha Devi, Holly Herndon and Helena Hauff – and even Damo Suzuki. This year’s roster of artists was invited to explore ‘connection beyond the physical: connection as a channel of communication; an incantation, returning, or heralding; the calling on an “other” or unknown to understand different worlds and possibilities’. A Joycean labyrinth of a sentence, but a theme that was handled deftly by the day’s performers through live and experimental music, interspersed with DJ sets, lectures and interviews from the artists, and a rolling programme of short films. The use of multimedia projects underlines the shared goal of Wysing Polyphonic and Somerset House (the guest curators) in bringing together creatives of all different stars and stripes to push the limits of their art.
The emphasis on playfulness and experimentation bled through into all of the day’s performances, feeling less like a festival and more like a get together for people in search of unique aesthetics and feelings. Even artists familiar to these circuits of international A/V commented on the intimacy, a community fostered with care rather than constant shuffling around from airport to club to hotel to airport. The smaller scale of the event, at around 200-odd visitors, elevated this sense of community and mutual support in the proceedings – there was even a friendly neighbourhood cat (a personal highlight) that made multiple appearances around the site, showing her appreciation for the various acts and stealing some of the spotlight.
It’s refreshing to see how the festival organisers made imaginative use of the limited space available. The festival is in no way inferior to more commercial spectacles – if anything, it outdoes them by replacing kitsch lights and megalomania with DIY rusticity. Lots of us were squeezed round the tables in the art centre’s café for the panel discussions, giving these conversations a snug feel. At the other extreme was the Amphis Stage, which we affectionately nicknamed the Cabin in the Woods – a ramshackle house, built from a patchwork of recycled materials, that stood solitary in a clearing on top of a small hill, other-worldly sounds floating out through its rickety doors and windows.
By the entrance was the Studio Stage, a cosy room filled with beanbags and an enormous screen for the short films on display. Though visually striking and engaging in terms of sound design, our experiences with the films at Wysing were perhaps the least memorable aspect of an otherwise impressive showcase. Presented without any context, it was easy to wander in, stay a while and leave again without having any idea who’s work you saw or what it was about. For all the festival’s capital-E-experimentation, it was disorienting and ultimately alienating to be left without any concrete understanding of what was being shown. The cat, likely seeking out more suckers to rain down attention or even a nibble of their lunch, wandered into the Studio Stage at one point, and like many she seemed to enjoy the comfort but didn’t stick around for long.
All of this said, the imagery from Saved, an 18-minute short from Project O, has really stuck in my head since – two figures shrouded in pale latex, faces mostly obscured, moving as fluidly and entrancingly as the water they stand in. It is certainly to the credit of Project O and the piece itself that I felt motivated to research their work after the event, as, without any of that information to hand on the day, I never would have gleaned that the film was, in fact, a retrospective on eight decades of naval history in Somerset House.
The musical contributions felt much more grounded in comparison, thanks in large part to the conversations with the artists that were going on in the café throughout the day. Up at the Cabin in the Woods, the tone began light with composer and sound artist Jennifer Walshe returning once again to Wysing for an absurdist take on spoken word. The idea of repurposing the fringes of club music made for some unforgettable collaborations too. Centred in the gallery stage, Berlin-producer Ziúr used a simple CDJ setup and harrowing effects to create a sonorous underlayer to the winding, visceral storytelling of Liverpudlian writer Roy Claire Potter. As the day went on and clouds drew in, the music at the Amphis Stage became both heavier and stranger with the free jazz stylings of Jacob Samuel, Lia Mazzari and Ben Vince, and later on a cacophony of industrial clanging and whirring from Quantum Natives’ Brood Ma.
A number of the performers took a similar approach to the theme of spiritual connection and understanding, choosing to communicate their existential uncertainties through a language far removed from the human vocal apparatus. Instead, they elected to articulate the questions that words could not in deep, shuddering bass and harsh screeching like that of metal on metal. Brood Ma, ZULI and Mun Sing all chose to herald an ‘other’, putting forth their profoundly human anxieties and distress in the form of this semi-mechanical, semi-mystical barrage of sounds, perhaps merely as a stylistic choice, but perhaps as a response to spirituality in the digital age.
Filtering through the chaos were the cultural points of reference that differentiated each of these individual approaches, the unique experiences with the world that inform the ways in which we choose to connect with others and choose to communicate that connection. Growing up in a religious community, for instance, can define how you relate to an ‘other’, either in deference to it, defiance of it, or somewhere in between. AMRA, a collaboration between A/V artists Imran Perretta and Paul Purgas, were a powerful example of this, addressing their spiritual questions via intensely distorted Om incantations: an exploration of their own South-Asian identity and resulting diasporic quandaries. Their performance conveyed an intense feeling of mourning and of anger through the earth-shattering bass sounds that became tangible through their sheer force. The accompanying visuals were haunting, shifting from the abstract to the corporeal and back, twisting as if being contorted and bent out of shape by the incantations themselves. It was less of an auditory experience, more like a physical presence that had erupted into the room and shaken us all by the shoulders, commanding our attention until we truly felt its grief. The sensation quickly became overwhelming and we had to go sit down.
Flora’s outstanding set pulled us into another zone far from home, evoking nostalgia and half-rememberances, flitting between specific life events and more introspective moments. Weaving together traditional Chinese instrumentation and classical music into a subtle ambient patchwork, the live set explored the intersections of Flora’s practice, the spaces between digital and analogue, the mystical and the real. “I’m not like new age-y and like super into yoga and horoscopes”, Flora told us.
But spirituality is important for her in other ways – a doorway into her East Asian heritage, that pops up in the most unexpected places.
“I was born and raised in London, so I don’t feel that knowledgeable about East Asian religion and stuff”, but “certain things have just kind of trickled down to me through childhood memories and things that are probably all distorted and kind of wrong, but it’s just the way I’ve interpreted them.” The kaleidoscopic backdrop to her set, what appeared to be a china teacup, captured this duality – as both the epitome of English culture and a long-established tradition trickled in from the far East. When she went to live in Hong Kong for a year, spiritual ambience infused the air. “In Chinese culture, they believe that fire is a transmitter to the afterlife, so there’s an annual event where we burn paper items for ancestors, and it was super intense. Everyone was in the streets setting both large-scale and small fires, and it feels really powerful. It’s like, if you’re in a foreign place and maybe even you don’t believe in it, but everyone in this space does, it really has an effect.” Speaking to Flora added a really grounded perspective to the theme of communication running throughout the festival – that there’s not always an easy way of translating music’s nebulous message into words, or theoretical language. Sometimes simply being there is enough.
Flora’s field recordings sound almost instinctual. She could be recording at any time – in a car, close by a vent or in a temple. She describes treating samples as distinct voices in the midst of conversation, or a culture; “sometimes I’m in a cab in a foreign country and just like really weird stuff comes on.” In a piece for Somerset House Studios, she weaves in sounds from a chinese temple, kecan performance, monks in cantonese, shatin and a yangqin recording.
Other speakers at Wysing brought up the subject of cultural or ethnic identity only to set it aside. Growing up in the UK, and now living in Cairo, the electronic music producer Ahmed El Ghazoly, aka ZULI, spoke up about the exoticism of Eastern music and culture, which pigeonholes people into the roles they don’t wish to play. Whilst in conversation with Flora and Somerset House Studios alumna Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura, ZULI expressed a frustration with journalists and listeners who focus too much on his Egyptian background, which makes him more self-conscious when he reaches for Egyptian instruments. Speaking to The Quietus last year, he insisted: “Just because we’re from somewhere specific doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Even if I’m billed on a lineup as the Egyptian guy, I think you can listen to my music and have it not be ‘Egyptian.’”
ZULI’s music practice is perhaps surprisingly simple – “I don’t work with concepts”, he admits to the Wysing crowd, with an inward laugh. His debut Terminal (released via Lee Gamble’s UIQ), he says, plays with “juxtaposing the sentimental or cheesy with eerie vocals”. The piano melody of ZULI’s track ‘In Your Head’ is hauntingly spliced with saturated sounds of mumbling meditations. To us, ZULI’s insouciance in this regard sounded a bit out of place at the Wysing Polyphonic X Somerset House festival, an annual gathering which aims to catalyse the development of sound art practices and new music methodologies. But this is what made the festival’s talks programme so interesting – and so fundamental to the festival-goer’s experience. While some of the performances left a lot to the imagination (lots of standing around with arms crossed and brows furrowed), the panel chats allowed us to fill in all the blanks. Flora thinks that they should be encouraged in festivals. “I generally clearly don’t like public speaking, but I definitely think it’s a good opportunity for smaller artists like myself to give a bit more of a backstory to my work which people might not be familiar with.”
Give the audience some credit: it’s not easy to stand through a crackly set, back to back with droning ambient, and post-post-modern visuals. And yet, there were no constant smoke breaks, sniggering or talking over the experimental acts. What we really liked about it was how cynicism-resistant a lot of it turned out to be. Everyone arrived ready to engage with whatever was about to be thrown at them, no matter how grating or impenetrable. In the best way possible, none of the music we saw that day felt rehearsed. It was more like witnessing many strange laboratory experiments, with USBs instead of test tubes, each chemical reaction creating unique colours and going off with varying ferocity. Wysing Polyphonic X Somerset House Studios acts as an important testing ground for these artists to see what works in front of an audience and where they can take their acts in future, promoting experimentation to larger crowds and shaping how live electronic music is played. Unlike a lot of major electronic music festivals, where most people are leaving either helplessly hungover or in desperate search of any remaining wisps of serotonin, you can leave the Wysing Arts Centre feeling energised and burning with curiosity.