The Gift of Sound and Vision

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AV Festival
For over 10 years AV Festival has been cementing the North East's reputation as a hub of creative energy, attracting talented locals and world-class artists to share their work. Living North found out what this year's festival has in store
'The festival is unique. It brings together a remarkable programme of both local and international artists in one of the most diverse, culturally rich and stimulating festivals.'
AV Festival

Each year, AV Festival is thematically curated to inspire diverse and engaging work across the programme. The theme for 2014 is a trade that's deeply rooted in the North East: extraction. Once the various artists have researched and developed their ideas, they are displayed and interacted with in venues across the region, such as the Mining Institute, Sage Gateshead, mima, Castle Keep and the Laing Art Gallery. This year the festival will bring together 15 exhibitions, 40 film screenings, 10 concerts, 15 new commissions and 25 UK premieres.

Festival Director Rebecca Shatwell hopes to build on the success of previous years and produce an event that's bigger and better than ever. 'The festival has achieved significant growth since 2010, doubling audience figures, commissioning more ambitious work, and working across more venues. It's hugely beneficial to the area – we make a valuable contribution to the region's economy by attracting national and international visitors. In 2012 over 94,000 people came to the festival and we hope to see even more visits this year. The theme explores the raw materials that create our experience of the world, from their origins deep in the ground to their extraction, transformation and global exploitation.' 

The beauty of such a broad theme is that each artist will invariably bring different ideas to the table. Chris Watson, a renowned sound recordist most famous for his work on David Attenborough's wildlife programmes, has spent the last few months in Embleton Bay researching and preparing. 'I'm working on a piece called Dunstanburgh Diamonds, which is a series of recordings that trace the sound of the area from Low Newton down to Dunstanburgh Castle. The stones at the base of the castle are huge rounded rocks of dolerite that have been around since the last ice age. They have a very characteristic noise when the sea washes over them – they groan and roar and grumble. I'm fascinated by how sound changes with the cycle of the tide and the patterns it falls into, so I'm producing a piece with multi-channel surround sound technology to really capture this. I'm also doing two sound walks during the festival, taking people up to where I've been recording and letting them experience the live sounds for themselves.'

Despite his high-profile work in often exotic locations, AV Festival is a highlight of Chris's calendar. 'The festival is unique,' he says, 'And one of the best events there is for showcasing all sorts of creative talent. It brings together a remarkable programme of both local and international artists in one of the most diverse, culturally rich and stimulating festivals that I get the opportunity of working on. For me, it's nice to work with some of the sounds in my own region. I often get to travel around the world but this is one of the few opportunities I get to explore sounds right on my doorstep, so it's a real pleasure for me to be a part of it. It's a really powerful programme.'

The beautiful Northumbrian coast has been a source of inspiration for more than one artist. Susan Stenger, former member of American 19080s rock group Band of Susans, stumbled upon a unique drawing during her research and immediately employed it as the focal point of her installation. 'I went to the Natural History Society's library at the Hancock Museum and spoke to the archivist, June Holmes. Once I'd explained the theme to her, she went into the back room and reappeared with this geological cross section drawing of the entire Northumbrian coast. It's an incredibly beautiful drawing on around 40 feet of parchment, made in 1838 by mining engineer Nicholas Wood. It's hand-coloured with a key to explain the different types of rocks stretching from the River Tyne to north of the Tweed. It's as if you're standing out to sea looking in on the coast and seeing all the different layers of rock.'

The difficulty of uncovering an incredible piece of local history is knowing how to interpret it in such a way that does it justice. 'I'm trying to transform the geologic into the sonic,' Susan explains, 'By representing the various layers and textures of rock through different elements of Northumbrian music. For instance, I'm using the sounds of brass bands, fiddles, Northumbrian pipes, Border pipes and Highland pipes, so there's a movement from the Tyne up to the Tweed and beyond. The final piece is around an hour long and follows the journey from the Tyne to the Tweed. It features some very dramatic coastline and the sounds will reflect that. It's a very distinctive area, with the accents and the folk music, and I've tried to distill those things together with the festival's themes in my installation. There's a lot of character here and this is my way of saying Northumberland, I love you.'

As well as these more contemporary and abstract installations, the festival programme features live music performances, which also tie into the theme of extraction. Improvisational harpist Rhodri Davies is well-known for his experimental performing style, which lends itself well to this kind of programme, and will be playing two concerts during AV Festival: one alongside saxophonist John Butcher and the other with his ensemble Common Objects. 

'Both concerts draw on the neolithic rock art found in many parts of Northumberland,' explains Rhodri. 'For the first concert, we went to Roughting Linn in north Northumberland to record our response to the landscape and rock art. Chris Watson provided the recordings and they'll be used as the accompaniment to our improvisations at the Sage, Gateshead. The second concert, Cup and Ring, will be performed with my ensemble Common Objects at the Mining Institute. It's a live performance of a newly commissioned work using the cup and ring markings of ancient rock art as the graphic score. The rock carvings were made by neolithic and early bronze age people in Northumberland between 3,500 and 6,000 years ago; found on sandstone, they consist of concave holes, concentric circles, radiating lines and linked grooves.'

Following a dynamic programme, AV Festival has no intentions of fizzling out come the end of March – Rebecca explains that the grand finale is one of the highlights of the entire programme. 'This year's closing weekend stands out due to its scale and ambition. It's a new commission with seminal UK industrial music group Test Dept, whose work will bring the drama and noise of the monumental Dunston Staithes (which were built to ship coal to the world) back to life in a sonic, cinematic and lighting intervention, which will then be viewed by audiences from boats on the River Tyne.' One thing's for sure: the climax of such an extraordinary event is sure to rock your world.

Published in: February 2014

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