What Sounds New – An Interview

My world is flurry of festivals this week. Festivals here, festivals there, festivals in the unlikeliest of places – crypts, cafes, woodland, concert halls. I went down to the kitchen during the night for a glass of gin, and there was a festival happening in my cat.*

The festivities to which I refer are not those giant, camping in a damp field, paying £9 for a beer, constantly fighting the need to urinate, crouched under a campervan at 2am and talking of ‘the sins’ type of affairs.

No, I speak of the local kind. Lots of music, unconventional venues, and the ability to go home at the end of the night instead of fighting your way into someone’s tent while saying “it’s alright, I’ll just curl up at your feet, you won’t even know I’m here!”

This bank holiday weekend’s roll call includes Rochester Sweeps Festival, Canterbury’s City Sounds, Smuggler’s Pop Up Festival in Deal, and the Sounds New Contemporary Music Festival.

All are worthy of your time and dancing but it is Sounds New that has earned my, and your, attention today.

Sounds New was born way back in 1997, and was revamped in 2011. The strap line is “an essential platform for the music of our time”, comprising eight days of contemporary music and poetry at various locations in Canterbury’s two universities, as well as in city centre cafes, galleries and churches.

Its reputation for presenting new music from across the world without elitist restrictions is well established, and it has received rave reviews from The Guardian and The Telegraph in the past.

Okay. Okay.

We’re all thinking it – ‘contemporary music’ sounds dangerously broad and potentially twee. I’ll admit. I was dubious when I heard about it. Because…..what exactly is it?

I asked a few friends what those two words made them think of. Answers included pan pipes, avant garde classical, wind chimes and a child hitting a bin with a stick. Helpful. Helpful.
I needed assistance. I would need to speak to someone in the know. And so to my former stomping ground, the University of Kent, where I met deputy director of music and member of the Sounds New artistic board, Dan Harding.
Dan is a jazz man trapped in a British suit. He looks like a pressed professor, but inside he’s a hive of excitement, bursting to talk about every kind of music under the sun and then compare notes about it on Twitter. 

Dan in his element- the Colyer-Fergusson concert hall

Having started on the piano aged three (that’s just showing off), Dan has been teaching music ever since leaving university (despite swearing he’d never teach). When he moved to Kent in 2008, word soon got out that he was, in his own words, ‘a contemporary music fiend and a bit obsessed” and he was quickly enlisted to serve on the Sounds New artistic board.
Tinkling the ivories

In true jazz style, we settle into the booth of some dark rum shack** and sink a few Dirty Martinis*** while the beer-swilling bar flies snap their fingers to a scratch cut of Coltrane’s finest****, and we talk shop.

“I love contemporary music because it is fearlessly inventive,” he explains, fizzing with excitement over his frothy latte. “My passion is jazz – jazz is a monster that plunders and recognizes no musical boundaries. You have people mixing hip hop with jazz, you had prog-jazz, classical. It doesn’t recognize pigeon holes.

“You’ve got to keep inventing,” he almost implores. “You have to keep it new.”

I cut right to the chase: just what IS contemporary music?

Dan pauses. I feel stupid. That was a stupid question, wasn’t it? Oh God, it’s such a stupid question. I may as well have asked “how do instruments know what sound they are supposed to make?”

“Contemporary music is the music of our time,” he says.
I’m about to pound the table and insist that it must be more complicated than that, when he continues…….I really must stop reacting in the middle of people’s sentences.

“It spans everything from that very inaccessible classical music – you know, squeaky strings, and odd musical languages and effects – to current pop, rock and jazz.

“Classical music no longer sits in an ivory tower above all other genres. It rubs shoulders with them, and they plunder from each other. It’s about inventiveness, not the same thing preserved for years.”

It strikes me that I’ve been a bit fixated on finding a precise way of explaining what contemporary music is. This is, I realize, because I assume that my readers won’t be comfortable without an exact definition of what they’d be listening to.
But that’s stupid. This is not the age we live in anymore, where we have to buy before we try and end up wasting a tenner on that Babylon Zoo CD because that Levi’s advert LIED TO US. We now live in a digital age where discovering new music has never been easier through the likes of Spotify and YouTube. But still, people are often afraid to wander from their comfort zone.
Dan concurs. “As people, we tend to play it safe with our music choices. We put our money down on the same thing because it is a safe bet. We forget what we did when we got into music in the first place; we tried different things, and sampled our friends’ tastes.
“As a result, music can become a victim of its own success – once you have been successful, you are commissioned to do more of the same so that consumers know what they are getting, and that hampers creativity. 
“But music that is always progressing is the most interesting. I like the idea of hearing new things in music, and not just another performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. At Sounds New, we could put on crowd pleasers at the festival and give people another chance to hear Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. But we want give people the chance to experience something they haven’t heard before.”

With so much on offer so regularly across the country, there is an obvious appeal in a festival that promises something new every year. At the same time, doesn’t the board worry about competing with other festivals and events?

“From our point of view, there really isn’t another festival like ours in this area,” he explains, and he’s not boasting. “That was very important for our identity from the start. 

“You don’t want to be treading on the toes of other festivals, or putting on something where people say ‘I don’t need to go to Sounds New because I can exactly the same thing ten minutes down the road’. 
“We are lucky that Kent is a culturally rich county to live in – there is rarely a weekend without something happening in Kent, so you can’t have all the time to yourself. You may not get 100 per cent of the audience, but it is also a strength as you are part of bigger music scene. We put on several things that appeal to a variety of audiences, and we hope they will sample a few different acts over the course of our festival.  
Copyright Neil Sloman/Sam Bailey

“Collaboration is key. Along with the music happening in Deal, and at Revelation St Mary’s in Ashford, we are all working to let people know that there is a solid and diverse music scene in this part of Kent.”

Browsing the Sounds New catalogue left me more excited about this festival than any of the others I will sample in the coming days and weeks. Such a gutsy celebration of the new has to be worth a punt, and after all, the best festivals the ones in which you wander from tent to tent, stage to stage, busker to busker, picking up new sounds.

If you love music, or if you are bored of it, go and enjoy something from Sounds New. It might rekindle a long lost desire, or inspire you towards something completely different

That is how we all started with music, isn’t it? By trying something new.


Here are some Sounds New highlights
(Full programme here)
  • The Ice Breaker ensemble with BJ Cole perform a piece by the master of ambient, Brian Eno, against background footage of the moon landing. (Far out)
  • The London Sinfonietta culminate a four-day residence at Christ Church College University with a performance of Protest Songs, in which both the music and the ensemble respond to social and political themes. (Fight the power!)
  • A 70th birthday performance from world-leading saxophonist and free-jazz legend Evan Parker. (I can play the saxophone. Not well. Or at all. But I can)
  • The Brodsky Quartet who have collaborated with the likes of Bjork, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. (Their version of Hyperballad? TAS-ty)
  • The 12-strong vocal group Exaudi combine renaissance music with the new. (Haunting)
  • Sarod maestro and composer Wajahat Khan, who descends from a 400-year old family of celebrated musicians in India, and has performed to great acclaim in over 40 countries worldwide. (I had to look up what a sarod was but now that I have, I want one)
  • Piano in the Woods – in 2012 a piano was placed in private woodland and improvised performances have taken place on it every month since, responding to the instrument’s changing state. Saturday marks its final performance from regular pianist Sam Bailey while lithophone virtuoso Toma Gouband playing stones and other found objects alongside it. An photo exhibition of the various performances and collaborations will also be on display at the Sidney Cooper Gallery during the festival  (I won’t be able to see this one, as I am away, so you all have to and then describe it to me an exquisite detail)
  • A new favourite of mine, folk instrumentalists Arlet make camp in Mrs Jones Kitchen alongside The Leon String Quartet, with dual compositions promising to scale folk, jazz and classical influences. (They almost sound French, but really REALLY good French. You’ll want to drink wine and then skip)
  • There are also many, many excellent poets at different events throughout the festival. Please support them and enjoy their work as well as the music.

*Django IS a jazz kitty. He has an odd gait, so he walks in three paw time. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHA he calms my dark places.

** The Gulbenkian Theatre café in broad daylight
*** Coffee and a diet coke
**** A group of student drinking water who would NOT stop playing with their phones’ ringtones.

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