Photography: Keith Ainsworth /


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Jodrell Bank 22/7/16

Science and art. Art vs science. Earthlings, meet BLUEDOT, where matter matters (or doesn’t – we’ll come to that), physics – invented recently by Brian Cox, or was it? – asserts its fairly pivotal place in the scheme of things and big data, tiny particles and the deadly serious topics in between invite you for weekend good times near Macclesfield.

Jez and Andy Williams from DOVES certainly approve. Their dawns spent hanging out here, post-Hacienda or while sequencing album tracks, are revealed in a talk about their project with Jodrell Bank’s Professor Tim O’Brien. They turned guitar riffs into radio waves, using the Lovell telescope to send them to the Moon, where they bounced back, arriving seconds later: the grandest delay pedal ever.

More conventionally, there’s a typically comet-like hour of MOON DUO, some igneous formations from a grungy BIG MOON, Ian Brown’s My Star during AZIZ IBRAHIM’s stellar semi-acoustic looping, and CARIBOU’s all-white uniforms, suggesting NASA spacesuits. And, less conventionally, BE ONE, aka Wolfgang Buttress, whose 2015 sculpture The Hive featured sound from a beehive. That had revealed bees were humming in C, spawning his classical/rock ensemble, who improvise with a live feed of the bees, behind a projection of these yellow-black construction operatives assembling their hexagonal units in wax.

Now, hold that hum while we weave, modulate and arpeggiate, because this festival floats contrasting ways in which we structure how we view ourselves. Can science and art be reconciled? Let’s howl that at the ether; it may bounce back later in the review. For starters, it’s worth noting (building the next hexagon here) that the minerals in the microscopes tent remind us that the most out-there work of art is an original by Ma Nature.

It’s hard to be the biggest star on the bill when you’re dwarfed by the Lovell, the world’s (formerly) largest telescope, but JEAN-MICHEL JARRE embellishes Oxygène and… all the others with enough charm and gravitas to give it a go. JMJ can do enormity: he’s filled the Champs-Elysees, rocked the pyramids, and this joins that list. The Lovell, though, bows to no pioneering Frenchman, and spends each evening wearing BRIAN ENO’s projected light installation, conceived as visual music. It’s spellbinding, and keeps science top of the agenda.

In the Arboretum, digital arts headline and actors roleplaying scientists connect constellations and Greek gods. That’s the intersection: humanity animating science’s need to tidy up, to guarantee outcomes, to reach the end. Andrew Smith’s talk, Meeting Every Man Who Has Walked On The Moon, discusses explorers with nowhere left to go. He fears, too, that soon there may be no one alive who has walked there (how I feel about the official singles charts).

So we’re floating in space; can we master it? Let’s build more hexagons: in the wilful malfunctions of the human Tardis, PADDY STEER, and the way THE VRYLL SOCIETY’s cosmic lava suggests undefined space, it appears we shouldn’t. As for cyberspace, comic JAMES VEITCH’s talk Dot Con – autoreplying to autoreplies and spamming spammers – suggests we can’t. GWENNO, meanwhile, inverts it, advising between electro-pop ditties that singing in Welsh prevents aliens deciphering us. Even in not understanding, we’re building pathways. EVERYTHING EVERYTHING shower us with sonic allsorts, and where fact and myth overlap most affectingly here is where they coexist without cooperating. Dr Catherine Loveday, in her session Why Our Brains Love Music, says melodic events woo us by “violating expectation”.

You’d envisage 65DAYSOFSTATIC’s belief system matching their rock-reshaping set, which is a varispeed Big Bang. And if John Robb cornered you, insisting the world was flat, you’d like to think, through force of personality, the motion could carry. “We’re here to explore dark matter,” claims Robb, leading THE MEMBRANES’ regression from answers to questions via post-punk – albeit pausing to take space questions from the floor. This direction of travel spirits us out of Gerry Gilmore’s absorbing if savage lecture about the universe when he notes: “Not only is mankind not the most important thing, but what we know is insignificant. Our matter doesn’t matter.” Which, to be truthful, is a bit of a buzzkill. Hence skipping the “Life on Mars?”-themed seminars: maybe it’s best that humanity, from Bowie down, dies wondering. Knowledge is a moving target – and so is magic.

So we lurch, depressed, into BRITISH SEA POWER, and dissolve into bliss. They are why the brain likes music. Not knowing what planet they’re from helps; if you’re in astrophysics class right now, you’re failing a test you didn’t even know you were taking.

It’s here that the laughable construct attempted earlier in the review bounces back: if you emit a signal and are ready to receive one, expectation can be violated. It hits home in Saturn by PLASTIC MERMAIDS, whose gear resembles the Lovell’s control room. It’s a song you didn’t think possible, melding an operatic intro by a guesting RHAIN to a raging yet rustic groove, leaving a dumbstruck throng and a review-concluding residue of mechanics and sorcery. This is dark matter. WAS dark matter. And you know it matters.

So, to build back around to the first hexagon and science vs the music in us: our pained, exquisite hum must be something like the wondering, the journeying, the inconsequential matter and the compulsive everything-everything (forever incomplete). Therefore: festivals. Let’s never lose that.

Tom Bell / @WriterTomBell

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