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Belfast Festival: Caroline Pugh, Paul Stapleton, Barry Cullen

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ATL | 16:03 UK time, Monday, 29 October 2012


Belfast Festival: Caroline Pugh, Paul Stapleton, Barry Cullen
Black Box
Thursday, 25 October 2012

Every once in a while you happen upon a gig or event that’s so fundamentally unlike anything you’ve experienced before that you can’t help but reconsider your own thoughts on what defines music, performance and entertainment – and the laws we prescribe to them. A decidedly clandestine gem of this year’s Belfast Festival, Belfast-based experimental musician Caroline Pugh invites us to do just that in a show that promises to be as challenging as it is ultimately rewarding.

Walking into the Black Box, several round-tables are laid out with candles burning in the middle of each. A screen to the right of the stage projects a blurred, night vision image of the audience, a clothes-line at the back exhibits pin-hole camera photos of tonight’s audience and Caroline has just begun one of her “structured improvisations”: taking border ballad ‘Lord Randall’, skilfully warping it beyond recognition by way of looping via a tape recorder and deconstructing its form. Her voice is beatific and her approach brilliantly peculiar.

Explaining the process before her modus operandi, Pugh imparts her grasp of the singularity and transience of the performed “moment” and how folk music has an uncanny of acting as a storytelling / sonic expression of ‘Chinese whispers’. Tonight she takes assorted tales, centuries old, and re-imagines them on the spot; standalone performances coursing with improvisational tangents, soaring vocals and the occasional burst of glossolalia. It’s a deeply impressionable act. 

Later joined by local analogue noise maestro Barry Cullen and Californian instrument inventor Paul Stapleton, the trio begin a ‘jam’ of layered noise, deconstructed folk song and modified electronics evoking pioneers of early ‘Illbient’ and Musique Concrète: Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage and Henri Pousseur, et al. A high-frequency sonic collage of clattering, atonal noise and drone, ‘She Loves You’ era Beatles it ain’t. Focusing on time and pace and emphasing the transitory nature of performance and immutability of recorded sound, passed down, intentionally or otherwise, there’s something quite beautiful and transfixing about the trio’s singular excavation of sound. 

Despite proving somewhat taxing on the ears at points, the ingenuity and sonic vision underlying Pugh, Stapleton and Cullen’s set is, equally, extremely interesting to behold. With the latter’s vast array of homemade pedals and modified electronics surging amidst Stapleton’s Bonsai Sound Sculpture – an incredible set-up full of percussive and electronic possibilities – Pugh fluctuates between languages and emotions, stopping half-way to outline the deconstructive process – hence heightening the already heavily postmodernist approach – and revealing, once more, her uncanny knack at reproducing/re-imagining melodies and tales otherwise swallowed by the passing of time. 

Placing this alongside the delayed, ghostly visage of tonight’s performers on the screen to their right throughout with several standalone performances by Pugh to audience members in the time it (literally) takes to produce a pinhole photograph, tonight proves to be an unquestionably unique, vaguely unsettling yet ultimately enlightening avant garde exhibition that wonderfully underlines the timelessness of song, the practically unlimited capacity to alter such improvisationally, and the enduring life of folk music in all its forms.

Brian Coney


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