Words like ‘pioneer’ get thrown around a fair bit, but as the person who owned the first commercially available synthesiser in the UK and director of the Scottish Electro-Acoustic Music Association, Janet Beat has a better claim to the title than most. Her experiments with electronic music and tape loops in the 70s and the beautiful hand drawn scores that she created finally saw a commercial release in 2021, with the album Pioneering Knob Twiddler.
This year’s Tectonics Festival at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket will celebrate her legacy with a line-up that reflects a spirit of fearless experimentation. I caught up with festival curator Ilan Volkov to discuss Beat’s work and what we can expect from the return of Tectonics.
I guess the first thing I’d really want to know is: what brought you to Janet Beat’s work?
We’re always trying to discover new voices from all around the world, and local talent, and also look at stuff that maybe has been overlooked. The hub of this work is happening in Glasgow with the BBC. I think the first time I read about her was in some catalogue of electronic music in Scotland, and then there was an article in Sound and Music about her life, which was revealing.
So this interest kind of already started way before the Trunk Records LP; we were already in the process of trying to figure it out then, what pieces we could do. There were several composers in Scotland that were doing electronic music. She was not the only one, but she has done a large amount of it; some works are with tape delay or with different synthesisers during the 70s and 80s. Electronic materials change as technology changes.
And is that reflected in the line up this year?
We’ve asked two acts to respond to Janet’s work, a very open call for them to respond in any way they feel. So I’m quite curious about what they come up with.The first focus on the Saturdays is Sharon Gal and Andie Brown, two local musicians. What we did was send a lot of scores and recordings to both of these acts and they were free to take it from there.
Not knowing the result is a really crucial aspect of deciding to do a piece, especially the new collaborations, or asking people that have never worked with orchestras to work with them for the first time. Of course it can fail, but it can also lead to this totally new way of combining electronic and acoustic music. And if we didn’t ask them, the chance that they would do a piece with an orchestra is quite low.
That’s a very exciting thing to do and that’s the sort of risk which I enjoy, because if you don’t take this step, you have no idea what we could achieve. This also includes old works, which somehow are not perceived as important.
There were an incredible amount of amazing musicians; some of them isolated by living in a place which meant that they couldn’t be known, or there were women inside the establishment, like Janet. I met her a few months ago, and she told the story of how difficult it was to be accepted by her colleagues and how many problems she had at the beginning. So somebody who is famous usually is fantastic, but also very lucky.
Do you see that as part of the role of the curator? Passing these artists on, keeping their legacy alive?
With Janet it was quite easy because most of the music was available, although one piece we couldn’t find. We had a recording of the piece that Juliet Fraser will do – it’s a piece with some percussion and electronics and voice, but they couldn’t find the score. But then we did – in Janet’s house. These things are great because this piece hasn’t been performed for 30 years. Resurrecting these pieces is crucial. They might not become repertoire, but they will be recorded.
You spoke about creating an environment of experimentation. How do you go about fostering that?
I think we tried to challenge ourselves, to find musicians that we had never heard of to keep developing. Janet Beat, who is not known enough in Scotland, or Douglas Ewart, who we’re bringing from the USA, is a kind of musician that even if you talk to jazz musicians not all of them would know of because he’s not somebody who did millions of records. He was always based in the community; he was never pursuing a career. Then you discover an artist that has a huge amount of experience and different perspectives and that is super interesting.
I’m so happy we can bring him to do a duet with Joëlle Léandre and also a piece with GIO. So then we get two facets of his work as a composer and as a player. I feel like curiosity is what drives the project forward. When the project ends I’m like, oh, this was really good. What do we do next year? But somehow, new ideas come in and suddenly we need five festivals again.
It’s an endless thing, but to work with Alistair and the orchestra and the whole team there, it’s an ideal way of doing this kind of very unusual project, which is still – even though it’s now in its 9th year – pushing us.
Tectonics 2022 runs 30th April till 1st May