Dronica is a tri-yearly, two-day sound and art festival, held at the Old Church in Stoke Newington. Founded in 2016 by Nicola Serra, the festival mainly focuses on experimental, drone and free form-approach art performances.
Nicola, who studied at London Academy of Music Production, has a background as a drummer, percussionist, sound engineer and events organizer, placing him firmly in a position of authority when it comes to putting on alternative-music events.
And in The Old Church he has found a dream setting. All gothic arches, stained glass windows and crypts, it is lit for this event mainly in red and green, with a few large candles dotted around, giving it a bizarre Hammer Horror meets Christmas mass feel. A small bar, a semi circle of fold out chairs and, strangely, a tiny pop up Italian deli counter selling pastries complete the setting. There are big rugs strewn across the flagstone floor, upon which are scattered cross-legged nihilists dressed head-to-toe in black and one couple who appear to be on mushrooms. Everything is present and correct.
As we wait for the first performance, and subsequently in between the following acts, the sultry tones of Death Grips ‘Guillotine’ wafts from the speakers.
Without a sound or acknowledgement, the first artist to appear is Metalogue, his delicate features hidden behind his long hair. He buries his face in his laptop, as if we’re not actually here.
Metalogue is the solo moniker of incredibly diverse musician and programmer, Robin Fencott. Based in London, he is one half of the post rock/IDM outfit Microscopists, runs an experimental club night ‘Towards Collapse’ and has even worked as a freelancer producing animatronics and android code.
Tonight he combined ambient and industrial sounds, all rooted in sporadic, hard drums akin to breakcore. It was quite a brutal onslaught that kept building and driving, and brilliantly at odds with the motionless crowd on the floor. However, it was not without a bleak beauty, laced with cinematic sensibilities and ambient respite, and made for a rewarding and promising start to the evening.
“….Annnd it goes it goes it goes it goes it goes Guillotine, yuh!”
Against a backdrop of stone saints and crucifixes, the next artist - an unassuming gentleman by the name of Luca -began by playing field recordings of traffic and people chatting outside cafes. This familiar street buzz slowly folded in on itself and became the sound of an atom bomb going off in a thunderstorm.
Luca is a composer and artist based in London and Aberdeen trained in electroacoustic composition, classical music, visual and performing arts. He performs internationally and has appeared at such prestigious venues as Jerwood space and Royal Festival Hall. He also has a PHD in musical composition. It seems every performer this evening has a deep understanding of the mechanics and structures of sound, and they take it very seriously.
This is less a rounded visual and aural performance, however, as the first couple of performers are nose down into their laptops and almost pointedly shun interaction or eye contact with the audience, leaving the surroundings to create a visual compliment. I think it is a pity I don’t have much to look at round about the ten-minute mark of solid, apocalyptic noise. A few people have become fidgety – including myself. I looked to my friend whose eyes were closed and chuckle at her for falling asleep. She replies that she wasn’t actually asleep, but was instead removing any visual distractions and trying to focus on the sounds alone.
I tried this and it was a revelation – I could suddenly pick up nuances and fluctuations in the wall of sound – ever changing, it became in turn the sea, a blizzard, a great whirring turbine hall, and overwhelmingly organic – like being in a womb, it was a trance-like experience. It gained a physicality that the eyes couldn’t reproduce. As the wall of sound slowly ebbed away, I reflected that maybe I should keep my eyes closed for the rest of the evening.
“….Annnd it goes it goes it goes it goes…”
Next up we have what looks like the cuddly, slightly artsy world music incarnation of Peter Gabriel – complete with bald-head, goatee and black roll neck. His name is Eraldo Bernocchi. He started his career in the 1970’s as a guitarist in punk bands, and in the 1980’s, together with Paolo Bandera and Luca di Giorgio, Eraldo co-founded the conceptual audio project Sigillum-S, which to this day has a large international cult following.
He went on to record with New York producer/bass legend Bill Laswell, and organize and perform at events for the Dalai Lama. He has created many ‘open’ projects, eschewing the traditional band format and instead creating a framework for various artists to maneuver in more freely. From the 90’s onwards he has really expanded his oeuvre, embracing electronica – the form his performance took this evening.
And he actually brought performance to his set. Bouncing around behind three sprawling tables groaning under the weight of different hardware and software, he set about creating spooky, urgent and pounding rhythms, tangled with synth stabs and drones. Often sounding like Aphex Twin at his most idiosyncratic, or early jungle/hardcore, Eraldo expertly and enthusiastically twiddled knobs while popping and jerking like a marionette. This was heavy, frantic music to dance to, which was made all the stranger by the gaze of the seated unmoving masses. I felt quite subversive to be nodding my head along to the rhythms.
When he had finished, I wanted to jump on discogs and buy some of records – it was that accessible.
“….it goes it goes it goes it goes…”
The lights went out. Only candlelight (and the light from the pastry counter) remained.
A large man dressed in black with a painted face appears in the eaves, solemnly ringing cowbells. Sensing a presence next to me I turn suddenly and am startled by a woman with six arms who silently walks past me, sits down in front of everyone, then starts taping bricks to her feet. A beautiful female voice begins to sing a medieval hymnal from somewhere deep in the church. I get the sense of being in a meadow at night. It reminds of ‘In The Name Of The Rose’ soundtrack. A woman in a high-necked ruff with a red strip across her eyes starts to recite an echoed sermon. The various different sounds seamlessly blend together to create something quite magical – more voices from different corners of the church create the impression of a choir, while a woman dressed in nothing but a gown and pants sits on the lectern steps casually drawing on herself. It is a strange, stage less theatre, as the players pass amongst us, singing and talking. An accordion player appears, adding an eerie bliss to this already transcendental performance. To be fair, this is probably the most religious experience I’ve had in a church.
This is The Seer. A multimedia project, which is part installation and part live performance, brainchild of the multi-disciplinary artist Conny Prantera. Conny seems to have avoided any concrete facts about her background appearing on the internet, apart from a few ethereal videos and collections of her beautiful, intricate drawings.
As the singing continues, with more layers continuously added, distorted pulsing drone and stringed instruments begin to find their way into the heady mix. It is beginning to sound akin to The Kronos Quartet – specialists in medieval and chamber music. The whimsically clad women – all white gowns and bare feet - walk among us whispering indecipherable spoken word pieces. The lady with the bricks on her feet didn’t move around too much, understandably. The performance climaxed with the shock of firecrackers being hurled from the wooden balcony by the jet-black robed, longhaired doom-viking. Bravo.
I turned to another of my friends ready to share my delight and passion for what we had just seen and heard. He himself is a renowned sound and visual artist, and before I could say anything he declared, “ That was so bad! So many clichés! And what was the point of it all? And what about the bricks?!” I was a little stumped by this response – did it have to mean anything? Wasn’t the point that it was abstract? How about the beauty of the sounds alone? Was the imagery really clichéd or just tried and tested? We agreed to disagree, but I found it very interesting – maybe a chef finds it hard to simply enjoy food in a restaurant, feeling inclined to pass a critical eye over it.
To me the evening was a resounding success, with a fantastic cross section of today’s artists on the cutting and academic edge of experimental sound and performance. I don’t know how well it would hold up under philosophical scrutiny, but I also don’t think that’s important. If you just close your eyes you will see and hear all you need to.