The Wire

In Writing

Derek Walmsley heads to Sheffield for Mark Fell's Lush Spectra festival

July 2017

Held in a cemetery in Sheffield, this first edition featured Nandini Muthuswamy, Oren Ambarchi, Clare Salaman and others. The Wire editor checks out the event's all-night performance schedule

There is nowhere to sit, and no place to put your bottle of beer except on the stone floor. I'm outside a chapel waiting patiently to get in, standing among sprawling brambles and old trees in a graveyard that is halfway back to a state of nature. Halfway down the slope, a lone generator is whirring quietly away to keep the electricity flowing. The scene is like the disheveled aftermath of a rave – appropriate, as this small weekend event has been thrown together by Sheffield electronic veteran Mark Fell. But rather than beats, there’s contemplative music inside a small building in this Sheffield church yard.

The music might be acoustic, but Lush Spectra is strictly for the hardcore. The weekend event is centred around an all-night flight of performances running from 11pm to 5am, by which time the skies in this part of England in high summer will be as bright as day. The Samuel Worth Nonconformist Chapel in Sheffield General Cemetery, which in 2016 was sympathetically refurbished to create a small blank space for arts and private events, accommodates only around 80 people, and you have to sit on cushions on the bare floor. In the early part of the evening, a one in one out policy operates, so those who want to hear the music grab a drink, a cushion, and stay put for the duration of each set.

Despite, or perhaps because of the lack of furnishings and distractions, it’s a unique context for listening. During the first set by Nandini Muthuswamy, I struggle to sit cross legged for all of the 45 minutes, calling upon yoga muscles from long ago to remain comfortable. The payoff is that I'm within touching distance of the musician, close enough to feel every vibration of the ragas she plays on her violin. While most violin players hold the instrument jutting out like a perpendicular extension of their body, she has it gently lodged between her neck and an upturned foot on the floor while sitting in a lotus position, as if it forms a missing link between parts of her body.

Oren Ambarchi follows with a hypnotic set of guitar and effects, but the room is so packed it's hard to get in, so I go for a walk around the graveyard, drinking a beer and listening to night birds and a babbling stream running through the middle. By the time of Sandro Mussida’s droning cello set, there's enough space inside the chapel to lean against the walls in your own space and zone out. The night sky visible through the high windows has a slight tinge of blue, and the cold hard floor keeps you awake and aware.

Festival goers in the early hours

The beer stall and coffee wagon outside head for home around 2am, and just like a rave back in the day you’re left to fend for yourself as dawn approaches. Theo Burt's electronic set bounces bright tones around the four corners of the square space via speakers in each corner, before Ryoko Akama performs a version of a new iteration of the Éliane Radigue piece OCCAM using tape players, tone generator and synthesizer. By this time of the night, your eyes have become attuned to the tiniest change of hues of the sky outside, and tiredness is pressing at the edges of your consciousness. Sleep and concentration become indistinguishable. Akama's slow-moving drone makes time stand still as it bathes the cool space in calm vibrations. By now the chapel’s spiritual dimension seems to be shaping people's movements – bodies pass each other by quietly and respectfully without word or eye contact as if there’s a spell that we shouldn't break.

Ryoko Akama

The evening closes with an incredible set by Clare Salaman of The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments performing on hurdy-gurdy, nyckelharpa and baroque violin in succession. There are a handful of people left, the morning sun fills the chapel, but there is not much warmth, only shades of purple that can’t be picked up on a camera. I feel still and blank, as if I can apprehend the silence between each instrumental turn calmly and in its full totality. The night at Lush Spectra makes you conscious of just how precise the human senses can be, beyond the limits of any electronic video or audio recorders, which only makes it more mortifying when, trying to take a sneaky snapshot on my phone at 4:30am, I realise that in my tired state I’d failed to switch it to silent mode, and its irritating synthetic shutter-sound startles the whole room.

The smallness of Lush Spectra was the beauty of it – the lack of frills determines the listening’s sense of purpose and direction, the intimate crowd treat each other with respect, and best of all, a common space is revitalised that might otherwise have stayed dormant. The rave spirit is alive and well, listening out for new sounds.

Lush Spectra took place between 11–12 June 2017.

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