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String Theory 2016

String Theory 2016
Ian Patterson By

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String Theory
13 North Great Georges Street
Dublin, Ireland
May 20-21, 2016

String Theory, a two-day celebration of avant-garde guitar craft was no ordinary festival. The fact that the music was experimental, largely improvised and inherently risk-laden isn't what set this inaugural Dublin festival apart, after all it's what we've come to expect from co-promoters Improvised Music Company, Note Productions and festival curators Bottlenote Music—a collective of renowned local and international musicians.

The special player in the mise-en-scène was the venue. 13 North Great Georges Street may sound like a residential address, and it is, or rather was, for this once splendid four-storey Georgian edifice had clearly seen better days. While almost identical buildings in the same street fetch seven-figure sums, you'd likely need to spend that kind of money to restore the interior to its former glory.

An impressive wooden staircase led to large rooms all but devoid of furniture, except for a sofa of indeterminate vintage and a weathered piano in one room. Naked brick showed where wall plaster had crumbled. Ceilings had given way in random patches, exposing the skeleton of wooden beams. Wallpaper was faded and curling. The solid wooden floorboards were shorn of polish and stripped of carpet.

There are probably better appointed squats in some parts of Dublin.

That said, there was something wonderfully romantic about the old house, which boasted a hell of a lot more character than your average concert hall. There may have been ghosts present in the cellar, drifting in the dark hallways or haunting the high-ceilinged-rooms and attic, but if so they were benign enough, for there was an undeniable warmth about this house, unusual for one with nary a stick of furniture.

For several years now the owners have allowed 13 North Great Georges Street to function as an ad hoc cultural centre and it seems to be putting down roots. In a downstairs room an exhibition—inevitably on 1916 and all that—was running and photo shoots and pop videos have been shot in the skeletal yet atmospheric surroundings. In September 2015, Bottlenote Festival took over the rooms for three days of improvised music, with special invitee Ernst Reijseger joining local musicians including Sean Mac Erlaine and Justin Carroll.

For the two days of String Theory—this article covers the second day—the second and third floor rooms resonated to the imaginations—conducted through strings and transmitted through powerful amps—of some of the most adventurous guitarists/sound sculptors in contemporary music. Three performances from 7.30pm and another three from the same musicians 9.30pm meant that more punters were able to experience Dublin's latest cutting edge music feast.

The names of the performers were pre-advertised, of course, but little else about String Theory conformed to what is generally expected from a concert setting. No introductions to the musicians were made at any time and rather than wait for the festival goers to gather before commencing, the music instead lured the attendees, siren-like, from one floor to the next and from one room to another in a seamless flow of music and movement.

The first strains of amplified string vibration came from a dark room on the first floor, with a forest of glowing light bulbs suspended from a yawning hole in the ceiling. From left to right, sculptor/musician Karl Burk, leader of OKO and Bottlenote founder Shane Latimer and drummer/percussionist Sean Carpio greeted the arrivees with a dense wall of sound, drone-like and undulating, the three electric guitars spewing electronically altered, pedal- skewed sounds of both industrial harshness and gently coursing beauty.

The juxtaposition of minimalist yet powerful sonic contours suggested the soundtrack to a dark sci-fi epic, simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. After twenty minutes the lights faded, leaving the musicians statuesque in the dark. At the same time, from the adjoining room, the sound of heavy metal guitar from a radio lured the crowd of thirty or so people into an entirely different sound-world. At the controls, hunched over a small desk, was veteran UK electro-acoustic experimenter Keith Rowe. Armed with a practise guitar neck, a couple of electronic boxes—one of stored music and the other a wireless of sorts—and a beach-combers heaven of found objects, from pebbles and flint to pegs, springs and chain, Rowe's highly individualistic music offered a provocative commentary on the nature of improvised versus recorded performance, of memory, the known and the unknown and the art of listening.

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