Counterflows Festive Soiree: Aine O’Dwyer, Bill Wells and Usurper, The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland, 20 December 2019.

Counterflows’ mini-series here in Edinburgh continued last Friday with a festive-themed musical triptych. Pre-event, someone in The Queen’s Hall bar was overheard saying regarding the evening’s experimental music programme, “Even if it’s bad, it’ll still be good”. OK, so it was me that said that, however I’d wager that three hours later most of the grinning audience would agree that this had turned out to be an evening of uniformly first-rate experimental music.

First up was ‘unsung hero,’ multi-instrumentalist and experimentalist Bill Wells, presenting his ‘Winter Dreams’ amongst other short but sweet pieces. Opening with Danielle Price’s slow promenade past the seated audience, playing solo tuba, later Wells’ gentle harmonising on piano with soft, minimalist singing by three vocalists, felt reflective and sad. So too did his greatly slowed down, minor key version of ‘Jingle Bells’, turning this tune into one of the loveliest versions this reviewer has ever heard. A contrast was his dry wit (“I hate Jingle Bells!”) and the final, delightfully dense mash-up of multiple popular Christmas songs which felt overwhelming, much as the festive season can feel nowadays.

An evening of contrasts, second on was Irishwoman Aine O’Dwyer’s intriguing ‘Action tracker mimes’. Presented by the The Glad Scratch Choir, a community choir from Glasgow’s version of Café OTO, The Glad Café, this was a long but enjoyable piece, which as is typical for O’Dwyer, made the most of the considerable performance space. The strong opening found most of the ten-person choir standing with their backs to the audience, scrutinizing us in small hand-held mirrors. Over a slowly undulating vocal drone, the audience and hall became a part of the piece, as singers took turns to comment on who or what they could see in their mirrors. Another highlight was ‘Sleigh bells descending’ when the choir, singing above us in the gallery, dropped tinkly bells onto the floor beside us.

An engrossing evening was rounded off by Edinburgh’s own Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson, also known as Usurper. Entitled ‘The 3 Year Old Hamster’ their absurdist piece had no discernible hamster references. Instead an industrious zentai-suited assistant repeatedly brought parcels to the lads, the household objects and junk inside of each then used to create occasionally harmonious and always interesting music, some might pedantically say, “music”. But to differentiate thus is to quibble, as Usurper’s cunning plan seems to be to make music-making less the sole purview of experts. Finally, their bottle caps and cafetière plungers were scattered on each table, with which the initially mildly perplexed audience quickly took to creating some rather cool sounds. The merrymaking ended only when most noticed that Usurper had in fact left the hall.

This was an evening of cheering creativity, with gently provoking and diverse, mostly locally-generated pieces. The opposite of a stereotypical Christmas show, most striking of all was that it all felt enormous fun.

Underlining the wide coverage of this festival a third Counterflows event coming to Edinburgh on Friday 31 January 2020 presents Joe McPhee with Decoy, with support from Elaine Mitchener. Should be a blast.

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