Author Archives: Michael Begg


About Michael Begg

Michael Begg is a musician and sound artist based in East Lothian, Scotland, from where he runs his label, Omnempathy, and studio, Captains Quarters. He collaborates regularly on theatre sound design, most notably in an ongoing relationship with with Moscow’s blackSKYwhite, and writes regularly on sound and theatre. This written work has appeared in The Scotsman, The Quietus, Paraphilia, Sound On Sound, Adverse Effect, and in translation for the Polish Soundscape Institute.

Nederlands Dans Theater: Shoot the Moon / The missing door / Stop-Motion

There is a heading used in the programme accompanying NDT’s current run at the Edinburgh International Festival: From rebellion to eminence. The words draw reference to the 1959 origins for the company when 21 members of the Nederlands Ballet became positively charged by the potential and promise of experimentalism over classicism and so tore themselves from Sonia Gaskell’s Amsterdam base to set up camp in The Hague.

There, stoked by the work and teachings of, among others, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and José Limón, the new company set about a campaign of exploration and growth which saw them evolve into the position they now continue to sustain – one of the most successful contemporary dance companies in the world.

All the more reason to find it so curious then that of the three discrete parts that form the 2017 Edinburgh programme, two of them should be so conservative. Which is not to take anything away from the quality of the dancing. The elegance, fluidity and clarity of the performances throughout was never less than heart meltingly beautiful. But there is something concerning the underlying narratives that led the opening and closing segments to feel, in a sense, unrealised.

In the opening, Shoot The Moon, premiered in 2006, a revolving set of three empty rooms unspools three snapshot stories of boy-girl relationships. First passions, working stresses and interminably repetitive routines impacting on love, the endless peering through doors and windows into other lives in the hope of being invited into something fresh, dangerous, and probably doomed. Sol León and Paul Lightfoot brought pin-bright clarity and efficiency to both the choreography (set to the second movement of Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto) and the set, but the tropes felt familiar and so it was the technical virtuosity alone that carried the piece.

The closing piece, Stop-Motion, again choreographed and with a devised set by León and Lightfoot, was altogether more ephemeral. A series of brief vignettes set to a pick ’n’ mix selection of Max Richter’s trademark melancholic short works, each with its own heaped spoonful of sentimental sugar, saw seven dancers enact various aspects of departure and separation. The ephemerality of the proposition took on an almost literal shape as the dancers swept through chalk dust and, presumably, became as dust themselves.

In between these two works was The missing door, an altogether more challenging proposition. And one that was ultimately more rewarding. Here, NDT handed the reigns to the Argentinian born co-founder of Brussels’ Peeping Tom collective, Gabriela Carrizo, who led not only on choreography but in set and costume design. (Peeping Tom associate artist Raphaëlle Latini is also part of the creative team.)

The risk taking became apparent right from the start. Characters on stage, yet off set, adjusted arc lamps, furniture and props. A man with a bloodied shirt lay motionless, presumed dead, at the heart of a two-wall set. Not quite innocuous sounds, peppered with static crackles, amplified in the sense that one imagines the borderlands of mental breakdown to be magnified and distorted.

A man begins wiping the floor clean of blood, before the cloth escapes his grasp and skitters across the floor. Over the twenty-five minute duration of the piece we are plunged into parallel moments of time: revisited, twisted, mutated and tossed to and fro between the twin logic of memory and dream.

A figure lives through, and around, the last moments of life, and the dizzying spectacle is of Carrizo examining the moment as though through a prism offering multiple perspectives on the scene. The borders between dance and physical theatre are savaged and thrown aside. The fourth wall is rent by buzzing stage lights and shaking sets, a storm burst through a door and sends the cast scattering across the floor, and in one beautifully grotesque moment a dancer seems to decapitate herself through her execution of a double back bend. Resolution, as such, only arrives when the spectacle loops completely on itself and we are back at the beginning, wiping the blood from the floor in a near empty room where death seems to be the only real tangible presence.

Special attention has to be given to composer Raphaëlle Latini (who when not working with Peeping Tom is a Paris-based DJ) who handled the material with style and audacity in equal measure, turning time into a malleable, liquid medium that could be stretched, glitched, eroded, sampled and reconfigured, and in so doing providing not so much a musical ground upon which the action could be cast and contained – but an equally active, dynamic and challenging presence that fought for and against each twist in the physical narrative with compelling urgency.

This, I have to imagine, is the spirit in which NDT was formed. And whilst acknowledging that it may only be a personal prejudice affecting my ability to entirely surrender to the full programme of smoothly executed, impeccably stylish performances, I did sense a mischievous acknowledgement of how far this towering presence of a company has come from the brash and righteous bravado of its inception. Towards the close of the third work, when all the chalk dust had settled, the outsize projection screens rolled away, the heavy curtain blacks were tied and lifted to expose the extensive backstage guts of the Playhouse, and the lighting rig began to descend silently from behind the proscenium. The dance, meanwhile, played out to the end in the now naked theatre space. It felt very much like a stripping away of artifice, of rich clothing, reputation and ample resource. NDT returned, in perhaps the most subtle piece of poetry in the programme, to the essential core of their business; the supple beauty of the human body and the remote possibilities of what can be achieved with it when alchemically charged with music. A primal spirit here captured fantastically by Carrizo and Latini.


Featured image: Nederlands Dans Theater / Gabriela Carrizo: The missing door.  Photo by Beth Chalmers. 

Robbie Thomson: XFRMR

From behind the battered old church door there comes a sound like a furious bionic wasp. A sign taped to the door infers that there will be loud noises, flashing lights and a potential risk of magnetic interference to pacemakers. To me, it’s unclear whether this is a health warning, a sales pitch, or a promise.

Robbie Thomson, a Cryptic associate artist and member of the 85a collective, is showcasing his homage to the Tesla coil; the device invented by Nikola Tesla in the closing years of the 19th century which, amongst more useful applications in advancing the understanding of radio, enabled the transformation of voltage into arcs of lightning.

Thomson’s centre-stage structure – a coil housed within a metallic Faraday cage – is eerily reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois’s series of Cell sculptures, whilst fans of the current Twin Peaks reboot may get the sense that they are facing a portal into the Black Lodge. So, the sense is one of unease, coiled chaos and the latent threat of barely contained danger. Such is the curious nature of our relationship with electricity; the most common utility, and, arguably, hub of our advancement as a civilisation. There is a satisfying tension being alluded to there. A respect for the forces that we scarcely take the time to acknowledge in the midst of their daily utility.

Thomson, in the role of mad Promethean scientist seeking to harness the raw energy released by his own invention, deploys synths and sonic treatments in howling waves, crackling shotgun blasts and clattering rhythmic bursts. Along with twin projectors casting restless geometries on and around the cage which dissolve and reform the space, he forms a ground against which the Tesla coil’s sawtooth shriek and twin lighting horns fiercely asserts its presence.

When the elements of sound, light, projection, and raw electricity fuse together the impact is deeply immersive and transformative and, within a club environment I can only imagine that this would be nothing less than spectacular. As a late afternoon sit down showcase the feeling is more akin to witnessing a steampunk reinterpretation of the Victorian freak show in which various settings are contrived through which the master of the charivari will poke and prod the attraction to perform.

There are few, if any, artists working in the way that Thomson does. His fusion of science and spectacle, imagination and invention continue to make him a name to seek out. I hope that he one day publishes his working diagrams and notes, if for no other reason than to allow people centuries from now the same sense of wonder and excitement that we get when looking at the 15th century helicopters of Leonardo da Vinci.


Robbie Thomson’s XFRMR is a Cryptic commission for Sonica, presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of the Made In Scotland curated showcase. 



Mark Lyken / Emma Dove: The Terrestrial Sea

There is an interesting cultural dynamic that has arisen in recent years, in tandem with the emergence of affordable technologies and the ever-spreading rash of creative hybridisation of form, media, medium and delivery. This dynamic concerns sound systems, and is something that I became aware of a couple of years ago when a theatre director told me that his work was continually undermined by the poor quality of sound systems in theatres. It was, he said, approaching the time when he would rather face the logistical challenges of staging productions in nightclubs rather than face the inadequate technology available to him in traditional theatre spaces. Similarly, one thinks of Russell Haswell seeking out Dolby registered multiplexes to perform work using their proprietary sound systems.

We are quite familiar with creative proposals that seek to take work out of the commonplace or traditional venue – but this is usually spun as a process of addressing outreach and audience development, or seeking to use a specific location for a specific purpose at a specific time. Less often verbalised, perhaps, is the problematic observation that the traditionally allocated venue format ain’t good enough.

This is somewhat by the by as The Terrestrial Sea, shown in the Filmhouse as part of this year’s Made In Scotland strand of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is essentially a film being shown in a cinema. But the film-maker, Emma Dove, takes a back seat here to her sound artist collaborator Mark Lyken who has given this 2012 work a new dynamic as a result of a recent residency in Mexico’s Centre for Music and Sonic Arts at Morelia where he developed the multi-channel audio soundtrack for the film premiered here. And so a movie becomes a live audiovisual exploration, and attention is divided between Dove’s poetically assured and sensitive visuals – curiously suggestive of a celluloid Barbara Hepworth – and Lyken’s crouched and shadowed figure hunched over a laptop at the corner of the screen.

Like Mirror Lands (also by Dove and Lyken), which might be considered to be its partner work, Terrestrial Sea forms a meditative exploration of Scotland’s Cromarty Firth. But where Mirror Lands kept a slow and steady gaze on recognisable landscapes, this present feature is a more abstracted affair. Dove’s images distil the elements of a hard-bitten coast and a working marine station into subtle shifts of light and form: the shadows indicating the rough hew of a lighthouse wall, the curve of a stairwell; and the spill of light on old wood, reflected sunshine, murmurations of silt. Lyken, similarly, seeks out the forensic detail from the sound field, utilising fragments of field recording and hydrophone recordings from Cromarty’s Lighthouse Field Station augmented with synthesis and filtering.

Whereas Mirror Lands encouraged a subtly political reflection on the indelible print left by man and nature on a location, The Terrestrial Sea invokes a dissolving of the moment at hand. The sensation, at times, is akin to the sleepy dislocation caused by staring at sparkling water for too long. The sense of time, place and self all dissipate as each uncoupled detail of image and sound takes momentary focus – before, once again, dissolving.

The ambient drift, barbed only by occasional glitching loops triggered by Lyken, is all effective enough in itself, but the true promise of the hybrid medium is really touched upon in those moments where Lyken and Dove acknowledge that both film and music are temporal forms and allow a narrative progression to emerge from the texture. One particularly successful sequence sees the camera close in from distant water to much closer ripples, under which pebbles catch the sun before yielding to deeper water; and clouds of debris caught in the current, wiping against the harsh, bright colours of scientific equipment pushed around in the tidal flow. The whole sequence surfaces, and resolves with the gargantuan spectacle of an oil exploration platform easing its way through the Firth towards the open sea. Each shift in scale and detail in the sequence is tightly and sensitively captured by Lyken’s audio treatments, and the whole thing becomes momentarily deeply moving.

It’s not without issues. A cinema multi-channel system is necessarily tailored towards the wide-open bass frequencies that are smeared across contemporary films, and this is done at the expense of the top end of the frequency spectrum which, at moments, cluttered and cramped the sound. More open to discussion, however, is my feeling that the visual style of The Terrestrial Sea drew too much attention to itself – through, for instance, split and mirror screen effects – with the sense, for me, that it undermined the intention of the multi-channel audio output. Immersion, if you like, was challenged by a continual awareness of the media and the medium.

Lyken is one of the most interesting voices to have arisen from Cryptic’s highly valuable and valued Associate scheme, and he seems to be finding his pace well in the milieu of outpost residencies. His partnership with Dove, already compelling, and pushing gently into the boundaries of an emerging sensory  documentary style, is one that should be followed closely.


Featured image by Tommy-Ga-Ken-Wan

NVA - Hinterland - Photo by Alaisdair Smith

NVA: Hinterland

NVA - Hinterland - Photo by Alaisdair SmithIf one could take a dream, a fevered reverie of tensions and motions contriving towards some purpose or resolution, and somehow arrest the whole before the morning arrived with light, reason and coherence…

If one might then take the resulting chaos of ideas and impulses, synaptic fireworks, macro visualisations, unresolved lines, gravitational and geometrical impossibilities, and freeze the whole prospect in an instant before casting it entirely in concrete…

One may find oneself in an approximation of Hinterland.

The analogy is apt. St Peter’s Seminary, one of the few surviving masterpieces of British post-war modernist brutalist architecture, was commissioned by the Catholic church and designed by the architectural pairing of a Scottish presbytarian (Andy MacMillan) and an atheist, German/Polish Jew (Isi Metzstein). Upon the building’s eventual completion in 1966, the Catholic church – who had intended it for the instruction of priests – had determined that the priests might be better instructed within the contexts of the communities they were training to serve. The building, a Corbusian epic of post war optimism, was obsolete before the doors opened.

The church eventually abandoned the space in the 1980s. The cruel, wet Scottish winters asserted their grip, and a fire in the accompanying Kilmahew House accelerated the ruin.  Already there was little left beyond the imposing concrete shell when, in 2005, the Category A listed building was declared, by Prospect magazine, as Scotland’s Greatest Post-WWII building.

Then in 2015, the building was placed into the hands of art activist Angus Farquhar who has embarked upon a gargantuan quest to invoke the spirit of the Greek agora. The seminary will become, in time, a forum for debate, exploration, and creativity. An ‘engine for constructive human activity’ concerning the universe and the divine.

Hinterland is a principal waypoint in Farquhar’s journey, though NVA, the environmental arts organisation he founded as an environmental offshoot to his influential industrial music group Test Dept in 1992, has been doggedly pursuing ideas, funds, concepts, and solutions for the site since 2009.

It is entirely appropriate, then, that this waypoint is dedicated to the space itself and what it has become: a dream caught in limbo and out of time, a ruin, a calcified monument to the failed vision of a fair and just post-war society, decaying under the superficial and meaningless heritage certifications and listings of worth and merit and value.

And how does it manifest, this moment? Well, as a dream, of course.

The evening light dies in the western sky and we are driven from the pier in Helensburgh towards Cardross. Across the dark cut of the Clyde glimmer the lights of Greenock. We turn sharply and ascend a dirt track into woodland, illuminated by the occasional arc light.

We are each handed light sticks to help guide our path, and then, entering deeper into the woods, travelling through tunnels of branches woven into pagan shrines, and mindful of the fragments of choral melody rising out of the darkness ahead, we cross the threshold into Hinterland.

Like Kafka’s castle, the seminary looms out of the dark, giving nothing away of its true scale, or how it actually works. Where is it planted in the ground? How does one get in?

Kindly volunteers point their light sticks and show us how to enter the space. But once inside the mysteries only deepen. These are rooms with no sense or reason. Walls do not meet, ceilings seem to hang, impossibly, in the air. Just on the cusp of feeling oneself to be in a closed space, a look upwards, beyond the concrete scoops and parallel beams, one sees the stars. Steps descend into curious nooks and wells, lit by candles on numerous plinths and altars, illuminating decades of graffiti, as well as the damp streaks and mossy tendrils of neglect.

Farquhar’s great challenge, and that of his team of collaborative artists and technicians – including visual director James Johnson and lighting designer Phil Supple (whose craft easily lives up to his name) – was to remain, in a sense, passive. It was their role here to benignly afford the building its chance to speak in its own language. To speak of its purpose. To speak of its design and construction.

Using the pixel mapping talents of Adam Finlay, Novak, Keith Daniels and Elliot Thomson, animated blueprints are projected onto the building’s interior shell, whilst welders’ arc-lights – an installation episode from Dav Bernard and Zephyr Liddell – cast flickering strobes of shadow across the vaulted central hall.

Deeper into the hall itself, Robbie Thomson’s thurible swings over a black, deeply empty space. One cannot immediately tell whether the space descends deep into the building until a light suggests a surface. Realising that there is water in the pool, however, does not fix the scene. How deep is the water? What is, or was, the function of this room? Is it, in fact, a room? After all, there seems to be so much night sky appearing between these staircases ascending to… where?

The welders hang up their visors and step out onto the water. There is a sudden moment of sad realisation that the pool is a stagnating puddle of rainfall. Bede Williams’s trumpet blasts out isolated notes that reverberate around the space, and flow into the disembodied voices provided by St Salvator’s Chapel choir. For a moment, Rory Boyle’s composition work and subsequent manipulation by Alistair MacDonald, which was on occasion prone to be a little too benign within the setting, seems like an anguished cry.

Farquhar’s greatest achievement is to make it this far with a site and structure over which the rest of society has effectively given up the ghost. That NVA has managed to articulate the process to this point where one can imagine their pulling together these exploded elements of frozen, failed and unrealised dreams into a cohesive, culturally nourishing enterprise is laudable. What is truly extraordinary, however, is the combination of determination and restraint that pervaded every second of the Hinterland experience: defined more by shadow and mystery than by light, informed by inspirational sparks seeking continuity and cohesion in the midst of darkness, visited by huddled souls seeking hope and inspiration…

Amidst these ruins, a determinedly secular humanist approach seems set to tackle contemporary societal issues in a manner that borders the divine.

Akhe Theatre - Gobo. Digital Glossary

Akhe Theatre: Gobo. Digital Glossary

Akhe Theatre - Gobo. Digital GlossaryA number of complex creations of metal, wood, wire, and paper litter the dimly lit stage; an electric guitar is strummed by a plectrum wired to a glass bowl swinging on the end of a long string; various tables, a fish tank, screens, pulleys, trolleys, and ropes lie inert, like the abandoned, half-realised experiments of a mad Heath Robinson fixated scientist. Could that be the body of the scientist lying on the floor at the back of the stage?

At the signal of smoke and green lasers refracted through glass bowls and bounced from the back of spoons, an hour of manic visual and sonic invention ensues. Books catch fire, and are whipped into submission, toys are led to suicidal leaps from table tops, politicians blurt their rhetoric into full fish tanks of water, and the faded tokens of unrequited love are hung out on the line to dry.

Previous Total Theatre Award and Fringe First winners, St Petersburg’s Akhe make their second appearance at the Manipulate Festival with their self styled brand of ‘Optical, or Russian Engineering theatre’. It is challenging to articulate exactly what this genre comprises, but the earlier allusion to scientific experiment seems entirely relevant. In these seventeen vignettes the eponymous – though emphatically non-existent – Gobo has his soul picked apart by scientific and philosophical proposition, sculptural kinetic assemblages, and an empirically rigorous attention to craft and detail.

What prevents this from descending into a Pythonesque assemblage of surrealist skits, burping with colour and noise, is both the underlying sense that there is, in fact, a singular dramatic intent grumbling, groaning, and creaking underneath it all, and the echoes of Beckett’s appreciation of the thin, barely discernible divide between the tragic, the comic, and the absurd (I am assured, however, that Gobo and Godot are unrelated)

Akhe’s founders and two most long-standing members Maxim Isaev and Pavel Semchenko approach the various scenarios and their attendant constructions with a deft, light touch – never so manic as to slacken the narrative line into chaotic flapping, but not so precious as to exclude fun from the complex machinations they are working with. A thrillingly effective sound design from Andrey Sizintsev and Denis Kritsov – part sampled Russian folk, part dark, industrial ambient – helps to effectively snap the atmospheric changes from one scene to the next. (And one should also congratulate the Traverse for their in-house sound system which has impressed forcefully throughout this year’s Manipulate Festival.)

The third performer is technology itself. The multiple screens, mobile devices, and GoPro cameras play an active part in proceedings, presenting audiences with the relatively new challenge of deciding where exactly to place its focus: on the performers, on the screen, on the characters momentarily performed by wind-up toys?

This is the new technology theatre – reimagining space, reconfiguring time, and pulling focus through refracted lenses, glass, and mirrors. The emotional impact is often stirred by a balanced interplay between live performance, projected image, animated props, hi tech media capture tools, and audiovisual mash ups of all of the above. A knife approaches the pocket-sized black and white photograph of a failed love. We can see the photograph on the floor. We can see the hand holding the knife. Looking up, however, we can see on screens the creases on the tiny image, the glint of light on the very edge of the blade. A burning book hovers over the collapsed figure holding the knife. The blade draws perilously close to the painful memory. There is a thin, tight cord between the edge of the blade and the belly of the figure portrayed in the image. At the instant of committing to the blow the image recoils as the camera – cut free from its mooring –launches high into the air, and begins a slow metronomic rocking to and fro across the full breadth of the stage. It is a devastatingly effective emotional punch, absolutely theatrical, and impossible to conceive of with out this new palette of small, affordable high tech tools.

Akhe are piloting a singular course in visual theatre: one with broken borders and lost divisions between craft disciplines and expressive genres. It is a compelling journey, and we should be clamouring to demand their return to the UK as soon as possible.