Spike Island
South West England

Empty Set/Cevdet Erek @ Spike Island

Bristol New Music Festival, 21st February 2014

Empty Set’s performance marks the beginning of the inaugural weekend-long Bristol New Music festival of new and experimental music taking place across five major cultural venues across the city. Upon entering the seemingly unlikely venue of renowned contemporary art space Spike Island, you can’t fail to immediately observe and indeed feel the all-encompassing throb of the former industrial, now white-cube gallery space. The entire space appears to vibrate through the wall of sound emanating from within where Empty Set, poised over a table clustered with electronic equipment and a tumble of cables are tinkering and twiddling away. The sound is a raw and minimal electronic throb that permeates the space – technoesque repetitive beats reminiscent of early electronic music and its steady progression into early dance music.

This at first seems befitting to a more underground and perhaps hedonistic context, but the decided lack of movement in the crowd who stand mesmerised, decry this with barely more than a bit of enthusiastic head nodding at best. Dance music it is not – with earplugs available at the door and only a couple of faint ‘woops’ heard from the crowd during an ever so slightly more melodic track toward the end of the set, Empty Set are certainly at the more experimental edge of electronic music – intelligent dance music for a more discerning crowd.

The duo seem intent upon stripping their electronic sound back to a raw and basic form – as if peeling back the layers to discover an articulation that’s as daunting and uncomfortable as it is captivating and charged in its intensity. There’s a nihilism in their industrial sound that’s thrilling and intense whilst ostensibly walking head on into a dystopian future. The accompanying distorted visuals transmit a pulsating, blue-tinged monochrome fuzz that sit aptly as a visual backdrop furnishing a static pulse to the monotonicity of their basal, unrepentant and all-consuming sound.

The performance takes place amid Spike Island’s current exhibition Alt Ust by Cevdet Erek – a Turkish artist and musician working within the realms of sound, architecture, rhythm, measured time, dance music and site-specifity. The installation (although turned off, partly removed and closed off during the event) is at once multi-faceted yet primarily concerns sound and the experience of it within space and time. Erek’s work seemingly challenges the acoustics of the vast space yet ultimately engages with it. Speakers are positioned at key points throughout the space that echo out a variation of pulses and notations taking you on your journey around the installation as if in time with your own heartbeat. Erek describes this sound as an ‘Arrhythmia’. In one corner, a silent film of fingers hastily tapping out what we take to be beats and rhythms (that Erek is a drummer is no surprise) provide a visual element to the enveloping sounds within the space. The high ceilinged main gallery space has been cut in half with a scaffold mezzanine floor and at the entrance of the bottom floor there is a certain sense of trepidation and excitement about what lies within the dark space akin to the anticipation felt upon entering a nightclub. A heavier, darker sound permeates the contained space with blue lights flashing in time to the beats – again as if in time with the pulse of the entire space. Climbing the ramp to the top floor this anticipation remains and upon entering the super-bright white space, your eyes can’t help but squint as they adjust to the purity of the entirely empty space. This lack of content encourages a consideration of the architecture and layout of Erek’s installation with the subtle bass and beats felt through the floor hinting of what lurks beneath. The light to the darkness, the heaven to the hell. Or even the chill-out room to the rave.

The juxtaposition of Cevdet Erek’s exhibition and Empty Set’s performance existing in the same space is certainly no coincidence. Their at first seemingly divergent sounds begin to make sense together with Empty Set’s unwavering, repetitive trill to Erek’s minimal pulse. It is particularly interesting to note that Empty Set describe their approach to music making as “getting to the essence of the relationship between time, structure and sound”. Both employ a certain stripped-back monophonic sound whose steady tempo doesn’t build so much as intensify -engulfing the space with a mighty sonic charge that certainly doesn’t fail to deliver an arresting experience.

This measure of time, space and sound resonates between them whilst their approaches articulate an experience the wider festival programme of new and experimental music appears to seek – one that is adventurous and challenges traditional contexts of experiencing sound and music. With art now being increasingly discovered and experienced outside traditional art venues and establishments, so too is music and sound progressively entering these spaces. The consumption of art is shifting evermoreso to be experienced as experiential, relational, active events and activities that can challenge notions of how art and music is considered, commonly experienced and consumed. Although this is certainly nothing new – with the avant-garde and experimental sound practices of Dada and Fluxus movements of yesteryears and notable contemporary sonic practitioners exploring the potential of sound making, the boundaries can become blurred and intriguing things can emerge. The incongruous presentation of music, sound and sonic arts within a visual art context such as a gallery space encourages an insight into the aesthetics of sound that inspires a consideration of the art and act of listening. And as I close my eyes amid Empty Set’s performance, I become engulfed in a sensory overload considering these possibilities as I give in to hearing, feeling and embracing the moment and experience – which is ultimately what art is all about.

It is worthy of note that Empty Set are one of the only Bristol acts (well, one of the duo is from Bristol) to perform as part of the festival. While it’s to be lauded that Bristol is recognising and representing the current rise of new and experimental music in the cultural and art landscape, it must not forget to descry it’s own home-grown experimental music scene, which is actively and compellingly simmering away albeit in less discernable and more underground locations across the city. And while I wait in keen anticipation to witness Bristol New Music festival continuing into the future, I fervently hope the Bristol component of the events namesake is both reflected and aggrandised in subsequent programming.