Malmö, Sweden

“Fuck the new normal.”

So reads the mission statement in the Intonal programme. After being called off in 2020 and significantly scaled back last year, the Malmö festival returned in (almost) full fettle for 2022, with the aim of offering sanctuary to experimental minds. The paradox contained within that phrase is perhaps pointed: for four days, the intimate festival provides a space in which to test out your pandemic-dulled appetite for art that provokes, challenges, sometimes confounds, but mostly elates.

As in previous years, the beautiful St Johannes Church in Triangeln was the setting for the festival’s opening concert, with Grouper doing the honours this time around. The Oregon artist’s not-quite-songs, already adrift in reverb, met with the acoustics of the expansive nave to sometimes create an effect akin to being submerged leagues below the ocean surface, or else ascending, heaven-bound, as if caught on a warm current. Somehow, though, the projections onto the apse of trees and dappled water felt far less sublime than the altogether more natural effect of sunset through the stained glass windows.

Friday saw the festival kick into gear in earnest at Inkonst – an ex-factory-turned-hybrid-venue near Möllan Square – Malmö’s beating, multicultural heart. The main hub for the festival, Inkonst feels distinctly of the city – a merging of clean lines and gritty details. Importantly, the space is split into three key areas that, while a few steps from each other, each have their own discrete identity. On Friday, it was Hiro Kone who impressed in the avant-garde-leaning Black Box – a large, high-ceilinged room rigged with incredible sound and lighting, and optional scatter cushions. The acoustics were put to good use by the New York musician born Nicky Mao, who presented a new piece inspired, in part, by the words of French philosopher Bernard Stiegler: “The age of disruption is the epoch of the absence of epoch.” Shifting from visceral industrial tonalities to insular stillness, from scorched ambience to brain-melting noise, Mao invited the audience to examine our own relationship to presence and, aptly, given the last two years, absence. Even without the liner notes, the meaning was readable: as an artist, Mao has always had a way of knowing when to control chaos, and when to let rip.

Curious drinkers milling about the foyer upstairs found themselves drawn towards the Big Room. Here, Serbian trio Gordan, fronted by acclaimed singer Svetlana Spajić, paired abstract electronics with traditional modes of Balkan music. But when all electronic ornamentation was dropped for the encore – an “old wedding song”, as Spajić informed us – the result was mesmerising. They’re a fitting band for a festival which delights in bringing into conversation the international art-speak of the avant-garde and the genres born so clearly out of time and place. One of the highlights of the festival came via Fulu Miziki, an Afropunk collective from Kinshasa who suffuse their art with urgent ecological and political messaging. The band’s impressive stage costumes and instruments are all ingeniously crafted out of salvaged rubbish. This, combined with their careening, white-knuckle take on the region’s guitar-based rumba genre, creates an awe-inspiring vision of Afrofuturism rooted in the all-too anthropocene. A screening of System K, a documentary exploring the performance art scene in Kinshasa and photographs by Kris Pannecoucke of the artists displayed in the foyer, gave further insight into a thrilling movement.

Space Afrika are another band who take inspiration, if that’s not too reductive a term, from their home. In their case, Manchester. Looking aloof and raincoat-clad behind their laptops, Joshua Inyang and Joshua Tarelle traced a narrative that threaded together wistful melodies, elemental sounds and rumbling sub-bass. The melancholic, rain-soaked atmospheres – now and then, the synths even skewed Badalamenti – took on a darker hue when the accompanying projections of the Arndale Centre were juxtaposed with CCTV and police body cam footage. Holy Tongue, the psychedelic dub duo comprising Al Wootton and Valentina Magaletti, were equally transportive. Playing on the Small Stage – essentially a backroom club space with a sound system that punches well above its weight – they ushered in the small hours with a mind-expanding blend of dub electronics. Ben Vince, who had played earlier that evening, was ushered onstage to help weave a hallucinatory spell with his saxophone improvisations. The effect was more physical texture than sound.

As Saturday progressed, the programming shifted elegantly in favour of the dancefloor, with the Black Box becoming the resident club. Attracting a more rave-attuned crowd, the energy also switched, ratcheting up to meet the pulsating acid of Elena Colombi and, later, the lean, strident Detroit techno of DJ Bone, who saw out the night. Meanwhile, upstairs, Jana Rush offered little by way of respite – a judiciously timed drop of an edit of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) lighting up parts of my brain that have been in the dark for far too long.

Sunday, then, was a welcome contrast; a collective winding down of overstimulated minds and perhaps the closest to that touted sanctuary. Foregoing the acousmatic programme, something I hope to rectify next time, we headed straight to the Black Box for the world premiere of Clouds for Three Tubas, a collaboration between Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro and Microtub, a microtonal tuba trio. As chords unfolded, sometimes exquisitely slowly, you could feel the audience pulled into this close-cropped world – an effect heightened by the in-the-round seating. This prompting of engagement was surprising, given the outward stillness of the work. Thus, eased into a state of relaxed focus, we were primed for the final performance of Intonal 2022: Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning, performed by Bill Ruyle, Peter Zummo and Members of Mso. This 1983 work was something of a one-off for the late artist: an experiment in composition that takes its cues from the work of downtown minimalists like La Monte Young and Terry Riley.

Hearing the work live as opposed to on record – Audika re-released the album a decade ago – I was struck by how fresh it sounded. Conducted by Ruyle, who worked closely with Russell alongside Zummo, the orchestra brought out new depths to works that can sometimes feel lightly sketched. Indeed, made up of short pieces, the work has an almost restive quality, which can be a challenge for an audience in a formal setting. But the shifts from dissonance to melody, stillness to repetition, all underpinned by something approaching pop, felt inviting rather than off-putting. The final and longest section of the work reconciled the abundance of stray ideas into a meditative and rewarding whole. Like Intonal itself, I found myself wishing it had gone on for just a little longer.