While they aren’t always lessons I wish to learn – I am determinedly not sold on Marxist foundations for aesthetic endeavour – Arika’s triple festival took an exciting stroll into theory and format. The first two episodes emphasised discussion and concepts, while the third dives straight into the ways that contemporary art can respond to political situations. I might quibble with some of the speakers – again, it’s about my low tolerance for Marxism as anything more than just another competing ideology, alongside a few questions about how the impressive sounding language transforms into meaningful mundane action – but Arika’s format, which places the actual artistic happenings between intelligent lectures and debates, points a way out of the usual festival grind.
Over in The City Halls, Minimal Extreme goes old school, offering more minimalism than before and ranging away from the predictable runs of Glass and Reich. Like the lamented National Review of Live Art, and this year’s noob, Buzzcut, Minimal Extreme throws a huge variety at the audience. The audience is left to find their own way through the programme. Yet the balance between the familiar (Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet by Gavin Bryars even got covered by Tom Waits) and the awkward (the new works from Bang On A Can, the selections from Louis Andriessen).
Barry Esson, Arika’s public face, did express his intention to reconsider what it means to hold an “experimental festival”. This reconsideration was an astounding success. Instead of a relentless succession of bands (compare Arika’s Instal, which was wonderful in its own right), there is time to shoot the breeze, listen in to the latest theories on “positive nihilism” and realise that a Japanese artist knobbing about amongst some cupboard boxes can be a moving attempt to embody the hopelessness of human existence. For Minimal Extreme, director Sven Brown is following the value for money route: for the price of a fancy symphonic orchestra, he can put on an entire weekend.
Ironically, since Minimal Extreme and Episode 3 occupied the same weekend and undoubtedly share an audience with a taste for the extraordinary, the two festivals have a great deal to teach each other. While Minimal Extreme could do with a little more of the chat that made Episodes 1 and 2 powerful exercises, Arika’s musical programming would benefit from a touch of contemporary classical. Esson pointed out that so-called experimental music has increasingly followed an aesthetic designed in the 1960s, and has lost its true edge of adventure: while this is true for rock based music, the energy of minimalist composers often comes from a freedom of investigation into alternative traditions.
Hoketus, by Andriessen, is a fine example of how a composer can chafe at the restrictions of minimalist phrasing – he calls it a technique or strategy, not a genre – and then compose a knock down battle that questions the style. Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion – performed by Theatre of Voices on the Saturday to less effect than Cryptic’s recent staging – juggles with the religious heritage of song and its contemporary secular context. Perhaps it is because of the training given classical musicians, but they are far more comfortable messing up traditional assumptions without rejecting them outright. Many of the bands that Arika booked for Instal flung the rule book out the window. The minimalists tended to make annotations or correct it.
Both Arika’s triptych and Minimal Extreme are baby festivals, and their current incarnations are not completed works, yet they both emphasise the curatorial creativity of their directors. A good evolution would be for them not to clash next year: an even better one would be for them to take notes from each other.