GATESHEAD, England — Early on Saturday evening, the final strains of Gavin Bryars’s looping “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” faded into silence at a vast concert hall here. After some polite applause, several hundred audience members prized themselves out of chunky beanbag chairs and headed off to find their next listening experience.
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Ambling across the arts complex attached to the hall would have brought them to Kinbrae’s nature-themed synth landscapes. On an expansive concourse, they could have chilled out to Echo Juliet’s gently probing D.J. set, or held on for a sonic barrage from the electro duo Darkstar.
All were on offer at the inaugural After Dark Festival, organized by the BBC’s classical music station, Radio 3, in Sage Gateshead, a shiny, undulating arts venue on the banks of the River Tyne in northeast England. The festival’s diverse lineup of music evades an easy collective term: Neo-classical? Experimental? Crossover? Alternative classical?
Describing it is a simpler task: United by its commitment to cross-pollination, the program combined approaches from improvisation, pop, jazz, spoken word and electronic music with a variety of traditional classical music signifiers. As well as slower rates of changes, it preferred curves over edges, minimal over maximal. Electronic elements frequently cropped up, as did multimedia collaboration, evident in the evening’s selection of tableaus, projections and animations.
This loose genre has offered stress relief and calm to increasing numbers of British music fans during the coronavirus pandemic. Coinciding with the spring equinox, After Dark was also an all-night affair, a continuous thread of sound flowing from Chelsea Carmichael’s fluttering sax lines at dusk to the sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun’s set at daybreak. The overall effect was of one unbroken sound installation, with washes of sound always surreptitiously present.
Elizabeth Alker, whose Radio 3 show “Unclassified” gives a platform to new composers and performers, said that the appeal of such music can be the portal it offers to less turbulent worlds. It has “a lot of space you can naturally escape into, particularly at a time when we don’t have much space in our daily lives — both head space and, during lockdown, physical space,” she said in a telephone interview.
Alan Davey, who runs Radio 3, echoed this. “This music has really come into its own during the pandemic,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s possibly an escape inward, but it’s definitely an escape.”
Over the course of the pandemic, a number of long-form performances have offered such escapism. In 2020, Max Richter’s eight-hour “Sleep” was simultaneously broadcast on radio stations across Europe, the United States and Canada during the Easter weekend. Later that year, the pianist Igor Levit streamed a 20-hour rendition of Erik Satie’s beguiling composition “Vexations.” Then this past January, the London Contemporary Orchestra presented a 24-hour program at the Barbican Center, featuring some of the longest pieces ever written.
Staging the Gateshead festival’s 12-hour program overnight made sense, Davey said, since this kind of music has a “late-night vibe — it’s music in the dark, for when everything around is quiet.” But as the evening wore on, exiting one performance for another created a series of exciting jolts between worlds: leaving the BBC newsreader Viji Alles’s unnervingly chilled renditions of stormy Shipping Forecasts and meeting Darkstar’s set head-on; popping out of Christian Löffler’s atmospheric techno remixes and into the Bristol duo Run Logan Run’s thrashing improvisations; finding Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” being piped into a deserted cafe area at 4 a.m.
A plurality of experience also existed among the festivalgoers. At 7 a.m., a group of bleary-eyed friends who’d used the second half of the night as an extended after-party to their own event explained the music’s appeal.
“It’s the kind of stuff I listen to when I’m overwhelmed,” Kate Bradley, 25 and a visual artist, said of Degun’s sunrise sitar set. Clara Hancock, 25, instead uses ambient and lo-fi music as background sound for work, and prefers to decompress to “super-fast happy music.”
Tilly Pitt, 20, a student at nearby Durham University, said she discovered the genre as an escape from studying. “During lockdown, I spent so much time staring at the screen, so it was nice to focus on something else for a while,” Pitt said.
And while some listeners plied themselves with coffee, intent on an evening’s hard concentration, others settled in for the night, nestling in sleeping bags and seeking opportunities for a tactical snooze.
However listeners approach it, the music’s extended duration actively encourages the mind to wander. During the pandemic, people listened to Radio 3 “for longer, and they were appreciating that chance to reflect,” Davey said. “For me, music is an abstract art form, but it does help you use the space to think and reconsider, and I think ambient classical music is that writ large,” he added.
Some of the music at After Dark fits the ambient description, but experimentation also abounds, as it does on Corey Mwamba’s improvisation-focused Radio 3 show “Freeness,” which also hosted artists at the festival. It’s noticeable that, although there’s a growing audience in Britain for this music, its creators often come from places without a dominant classical tradition, like Scotland, Canada and Scandinavian countries. Alker’s Radio 3 show was born after she witnessed groups of talented classical musicians branch out into other disciplines.
“There’s a generation of musicians who had this classical training, and they wanted to hold on to making music in a classical idiom, but socially and culturally, they have the same experiences as everybody else, going to clubs and karaoke bars,” Alker said. She cites Nils Frahm and the recent work of Jonny Greenwood, formerly of Radiohead, as examples of music which is, in its essence, classical, and yet stands slightly removed from the usual traditions.
Despite the relaxation their music may have brought through lockdowns, it’s been a different story for artists. “During the pandemic, I was just trying to keep things together,” said Degun, the sitarist, in a telephone interview a few days before his performance at the festival. “Music for me during the pandemic was quite stressful,” as he had to adapt quickly to new ways of performing, recording and working.
Independent music-making can be precarious work, and the music on the program at After Dark was made by composers and performers without consistent institutional backing. One of the twins who make up Kinbrae made this point as they began their final track. “There were times when we felt we were never going to be able to do this again,” he told the crowd.
Like Kinbrae, Degun relished the return to appreciative audiences, but decided on a more traditional set than the cross-genre compositions for which he’s known. “When Radio 3 contacted me and said they wanted me to play at sunrise, I really wanted to just play Indian classical music,” he said. He rarely gets the opportunity to perform raags — a particular melodic mode linked to times of the day — associated with the morning, he said, since “usually all our concerts are in the evening.”
For Davey, the festival’s aim is both to celebrate alternative classical’s existing, late-night audience and to introduce a wider group of listeners to the genre’s soothing affects. As the sun rose slowly over the Newcastle skyline, and the sound of Degun’s expansive raag closed the festival, there was certainly ample space to think.