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Sonic synergy: Portugal’s Semibreve Festival celebrates the magic of contrast

ByVinod

Nov 17, 2022

The late, great Peter Rehberg, musician and founder of the experimental electronic music label Editions Mego once said: “If you want to make something noisy, you have to make something that is harmonic as well. Dissonance and resonance have to co-exist for the other to work.”

Walking through the cobbled streets of Braga, a small historic city in northwest Portugal, on the weekend of Semibreve Festival’s 12th edition, these words echo with a particular poignancy. Over four days of carefully curated music and digital art, the annual event lives up to its reputation for making every sound count, but pushes this idea to new extremes with performances that encompass everything from bone-rattling drones and elasticated club experiments to microscopic musique concréte and mesmerising minimalism. The result is a masterclass in sonic synergy, where painterly details interact with immense volume, where blinding distortion collides with animated vibrancy, and melody meets brutality to genuinely thrilling effect.  

There’s a storm brewing on Friday night. Distant flashes of lightning precede low rumbles of thunder as we make our way into the stunning, gilded hall of the city’s Theatro Circo for the first performance of the evening, courtesy of KMRU. The Berlin-based, Kenyan sound artist, whose breakthrough came in 2020 after the release of his album ‘Peel’ on Editions Mego, makes music that is concerned with the act of listening as an artform in itself. His releases are tapestries of finely-tuned field recordings and deep, meditative ambience, though a recent collaborative album with Parisian artist Aho Ssan demonstrated his ability to turn these precise sound designs into tectonically intense compositions. His set tonight moves further into this territory; standing under a flickering orange spotlight, in front of slowly morphing black and white projections, he plunges the ornate space into a deep, distorted reverie. Relentless bass drones roar at a teeth-shaking volume; it’s hard not to feel a little concerned for the wellbeing of the chandelier above us as seats shake and walls hum under the vibrational pressure. 

It’s colossal music, standing in stark contrast to Thursday’s opening concert, which saw Felicia Atkinson and Violeta Azevedo play a potently subtle set at the Santuário Do Bom Jesus Do Monte, a hilltop Catholic shrine that looms over the city. While their performance harnessed the hypnotic potential of delicate sound, KMRU’s is an eruption of audio as a physical entity. A thread exists between them however, in the minute details that emerge from beneath the noise: zaps of birdsong creep into the mix as lights begin to strobe, reminding us that his music is a living, breathing thing that rewards attentive listening, even at its most visceral. 

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