Portuguese musical showcase...

If you’ve been poring over the European debt charts recently you might think that starting up a decidedly avant-garde audio-visual festival in cash-strapped Portugal sounds about as sensible as opening a sauna in the Sahara. How about also holding a seminar before opening night in which the artists rip apart the whole ethos of the event, then scheduling the opening concert to clash with the national football team’s most important match for years? Yikes.

That Semibreve turns out to be a packed-out success is a testament to the enthusiasm of the chaps behind it, who’ve somehow managed to acquire the grand opera house, Theatro Circo, for the whole weekend. “It’s really an amazing venue, probably the most stunning venue in Portugal,” says Luis Fernandes, one of the chaps in question, and he’s not wrong. First, though, we visitors are taken out of the majestic old city centre and up to an absolutely enormous old monastery, where several artists have gathered for a pre-festival lecture about the whys and wherefores of audio-visual performance in general.

The pre-lecture tour of the impressively refurbished monastery is a tough act to follow in truth, particularly the magnificently gilt-laden chapel: even Hans Joachim Roedelius, the veteran krautrock legend, looks suitably awed, and he’s been around a bit. After a fine dinner served by nuns we’re into that lecture, which on a full stomach - and one particularly lengthy question in Portuguese - seems to go on for several days. The overall theme is whether you should put visuals together with experimental music at all, and the general consensus from the artists on the panel is that, no, it’s an unnecessary distraction.

Well, we’ll be the judge of that. Roedelius’ long-running project, Qluster, is the first act to grace the great hall, but there’s some concern that the big Bosnia vs Portugal Euro 2012 play-off will keep punters in the pubs, and that seems to be the case as attendance is a bit sparse, despite the show kicking off a good half-hour late.

“Most of the people in Braga, and Portugal as well, are not familiar with this kind of music,” ponders Fernandes, who creates his own electronica under the moniker Astroboy. “There are some really interesting artists in Portugal doing experimental electronic music and visual arts. However, there are very few venues supporting these kind of artists. With Semibreve we wanted to showcase this kind of music/art to a wider public, so hopefully the Portuguese artists have a lot to earn from this.”

Qluster are performing in front of visuals created by Austrian duo Luma Launisch, and the combined effect is a feast to match the one thrust upon us by nuns the previous evening. Intriguing film snippets complement accessible ambient movements which admittedly are also accompanied by the sound of the auditorium gradually filling up as the football finishes. Hans doesn’t seem to mind, and takes time out to commend the Semibreve organisers from the stage.

US abstract audio auteur Taylor Deupree and German composer Stephan Mathieu are rather less easy on the ear, to put it mildly. No visuals and lit just by a single bulb from above, they resemble a couple of mad inventors from one of David Lynch’s earlier works, fiddling with bits of kit to make subtle, sometimes imperceptible tweaks to what sounded to one observer near me “like a fly trapped in a fridge.” As opposed to Qluster’s ever-increasing audience, this one starts rammed but gradually bleeds bemused spectators. Me? I rather liked it, in a faintly masochistic way.

Those early-leavers were possibly securing a seat for the much-more crowd-pleasing Jon Hopkins, who may be familiar to non-electronica buffs for his work with Coldplay and King Creosote in the recent past.

The Londoner rounds off the evening in riotous fashion. The odder bits of his set are a sort of aural foreplay for the fist-in-the-air beatsmithery later on, plus – like Roedelius earlier – he breaks things up nicely with a few snatches of piano. After bringing the opera house to the brink of dancing in the aisles, Hopkins pops back on for an encore, does another quick piano turn then heads straight back off again. Leave them wanting more.

A fine first evening, then, and watching this varied array of abstract music in such a plush setting, packed with people, you could be forgiven for thinking that Portugal is pretty flush financially and happily throwing cash at such worthy projects. Não?

“Actually the arts are currently in a really bad position,” explains Fernandes. “The ministry of arts was closed by the government and every artist, theatre and promoter is suffering a lot. Funding for a festival like Semibreve takes a lot of effort and work.”

Braga isn’t the best-known city in Portugal but it’s the oldest, and has a useful stream of religious tourists each year, which is understandable given the spectacular churches, cathedral and monastery. New blood is the way forward though, and the city will be the European Youth Capital in 2012, which should add fresh impetus, with much with live art and music planned.

Another Semibreve would also fit nicely into that, and day two is busy and buzzy from the off, not that Christian Fennesz seems to notice. He makes an almost Deupree/Mathieu-like drone but does at least have some visuals and a few guitar licks to keep any sceptics in their seats.

Local outfit Blac Koyote have a full range of instruments at their fingertips in room two, including some elaborate percussion, and make a thoroughly agreeable noise, often with a far-eastern feel. Upstairs, meanwhile, an array of interactive oddities are ongoing: there’s a motion-capture device that allows audience members to wave their arms and make their own AV creations on a big screen, while a curious chap wearing various pads and sensors wanders about a posh room in a sinister fashion, glaring at the audience and making jerky sounds.

Late on Saturday night alva noto – aka the Berlin-based Carsten Nicolai – rounds things off with a full-blown sound-and-screen sensory overload, which frequently batters you back like that famous old Maxell ad with the bloke in the shades in the armchair. There’s an extreme techno edge to his laptop-based sonic onslaught and some similarly powerful visuals which probably should have come with a health warning.

Sadly we have to miss the final performances, which take place on the afternoon of day three and feature cerebral Portugeezer Vitor Joaquim and Brazilian big-cheese Murcof, but the latter in particular is by all accounts an audio/visual spectacular. So was Semibreve a success for the founders?

“It went above our best expectations,” says a clearly relieved Fernandes. And his highlight? Not a musical or visual happening, ironically. “Having Hans-Joachim Roedelius congratulate the organisation in front of the entire room was a moment that will stay with us forever,” he says. Quite right too.

Words by Si Hawkins

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