Access All Archives

LAURIE KENT is intrigued but overwhelmed by the choices on offer at Access All Archives.

access all archives anthony friend festival of ideas filthy lucre Fitzwilliam Museum james brady joe bates joe snape lawrence dunn oscar dub sarah mckee scott polar museum sedgewick museum toby young whipple museum zoology museum

The Whipple Museum, The Scott Polar Museum, The Sedgewick Museum, The Zoology Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, 24th October, £5


Access All Archives was part of the Festival of Ideas, and sure enough ideas were rampant.

Five musical events in five museums seemed to promise too much for one evening. The coordination of the events and interaction of the music with the audience posed difficult questions which dominated the proceedings. Access all Archives worked as a taster session; a cheese board presented by a waiter as in the dark as his customers.

I began at The Whipple Museum of the History of Science which contained “a sound piece in two rooms.” Downstairs, Oscar Dub had built a piece around Richard of Wallingford’s 14th century astronomical clock – the object that takes pride of place in the exhibition. Based on complex algorithms following a model of planetary cycles, the composer admitted: “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The music provided an extension of museum sounds and created an interesting ambience, but it was sometimes lost in the hum of people. Having a penchant for doom, the line in the programme “at precisely one hour, all six planetary cycles coincide,” particularly intrigued me. To my disappointment, existence was still going strong after the countdown finished.

The music upstairs was the opposite of the mechanised processes below. Creating a more natural impression, it was captivating to sit and listen to Lawrence Dunn’s organic music evolving. Yet the surrounding exhibition sometimes distracted and many missed the beauty Lawrence created with the close-miked sound of needle on record – Webern’s Passacaglia weaving into consciousness with a thin scratchy violin melody.

I proceeded to The Polar Museum, where Joe Snape and Sarah Mckee’s had reimagined Scott’s Antarctic expeditions. Joe created a haunting musical backdrop with roars of polar air freezing our ears, melting into the squeaking creaking sounds of ice all around. Sarah’s voice cut to the bone with sibilants and consonant clusters. Like the previous event, the audience didn’t always know how to act. With the music and voice, the text printed on Bible paper, a film projected onto a wall, the museum’s exhibition and the people around me socialising, I was faced with sensory overload.

Sedgewick Museum felt superfluous to the evening. Javanese Gamelan, every university’s standard “ethnic” fix, didn’t provide anything new and in the acoustic of the museum became an annoyance.

I then walked into a den of free jazz. With some effective lighting, The Zoology Museum was invaded by a surreal tinge. I was surrounded by bones hanging from the ceiling, turned towards a stage: a secondary, skinless audience. Lonely Mingus-esque saxophone lines twisted with sinister glee and transformed the dead animals into morbid parodies. However, the band didn’t get accustomed to the small stage and museum environment. They didn’t seem to know where they were. Not really free enough to kick off; you could see they were itching to do so.

The last space was the Fitzwilliam Museum and instead of working with the museum’s exhibitions, Joe Bates and Anthony Friend created their own world under the name Filthy Lucre. A cube was created with cloth and mattresses and cushions were scattered in front of projected visuals cycling through sci-fi images. Metropolis and Blade Runner montaged with some creative lighting created a very cool place to be.

The crux of the event was new music using percussion and tape. Anthony Friend’s piece, with its ambient swells interrupted by Schoenbergian piano figures, faded in and out of consciousness before the hum of percussion built up and consumed the audience. A Middle Eastern wail soaked in reverb heralded Toby Young’s piece, which he described as “Arab acid house.” Although exciting, it was often unclear where it was going. A nearby music student opined: “the ethnomusicologist in me is screaming.” Joe Bates’s piece began with a luminous electric piano loop reminiscent of Four Tet but informed by the harmonic twists of Bartok, it proceeded with shimmering beauty.

Yet the music pandered to people who wanted to socialise and not pay attention. Perhaps missing the point, but I missed the silence needed to enjoy the new music. My seemingly archaic inclination to clap and revere the composers’ work was stunted by the DJ sets mixed in straight after. That said, DJ Lumi’s sets were extremely good, if sometimes spoiled by practicing percussionists.

An ambitious event, Access all Archives was full of ideas in embryonic form. Some things worked and some didn’t. As an audience we were given freedom to choose. We found some things we liked and others we had never thought of before.