There are a plethora of beautiful words from languages the world over that are without a direct equivalent in English.
The Portuguese and Galician term saudade is a prime example. Described by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy” in the 17th century, the definition of saudade differs a little depending on where you look, but can largely be summed up as a kind of bittersweet nostalgia or deep, inescapable longing for something, someone or someplace that is gone – or may never have existed in the first place.
This concept sat tall in the mind across a late October’s weekend at Semibreve, a beguiling gem on the alternative (read: non-summer) European festival season circuit. Of course, the location itself – Braga, a northern Portuguese city that celebrates both its ancient past (it’s the oldest city in the country, and one steeped in religious and historic significance) and its technological future in equal measure – lends itself to this kind of thinking, but it isn’t the sole cause.
That would be the musical programme itself: an evocative smorgasbord of sounds from a select, but globe-spanning troupe of artists, each purveying distinct strains of hard-to-pin-down ambient, experimental, drone, minimal and electroacoustic material, with the occasional flash of something more outwardly propulsive – likely from one of those taking to the low stage at the festival’s late-night club venue. It was here that the dual focus of Semibreve revealed itself by day, too, as revellers took turns to engage with a stacked line-up of digital art offerings and virtual reality experiences in between shows at any one of the intimate daytime venues.
This is a close-knit festival both in terms of location and its general nature. For the most part, venues are within 15 minutes or so of one another – bar the majestic hilltop church at Santuário do Bom Jesus do Monte, where cellist and composer Clarice Jensen opened the show before an audience of soon-to-be-familiar faces. As we said, Semibreve is a cosy event, and at any given gathering you’ll quickly come to recognise faces you’ve seen elsewhere across the weekend, from general festival-goers to fellow artists and organisers.
With the dust now settled on the festival’s 13th edition, here are five key shows plucked from a stack of highlights that made Semibreve 2023 one for the books.
Maya Shenfeld and Pedro Maia
Braga has been a UNESCO Creative City of Media Arts for some years now, with enticing cultural offerings, including Semibreve, likely a draw for its healthy student population. The importance of such events was among the talking points at a daytime discussion with Maya Shenfeld and Pedro Maia – the Berlin-based sound artist and composer, and the Portuguese filmmaker – hosted in a chandelier-lit room at the Nogueira da Silva museum. The pair connected for a chat about their creative processes and ongoing collaborative work, namely Shenfeld’s newly-announced album Under the Sun and its accompanying audiovisual show, which was to presented that evening. It was then, as we sat in the grand, gilded hall of Theatro Circo watching Shenfeld stir and haunt in equal measure, before a set of trippy visuals captured specifically by the pair at one of world’s deepest marble quarries – at the hottest point of the year, no less – that we found ourselves returning to something they’d discussed only a few hours prior. Where the album offers a sort of “perfect” interpretation of their ideas, the show provided them with the space to shapeshift and leap into new directions. Embracing mistakes, Maia had said, keeps things interesting – and there’s something so special in that. Something we often need reminding of.
gnration, a large former military police headquarters turned cutting-edge arts and culture centre in the heart of Braga, played host to the festival’s late-night proceedings on the Friday and Saturday evenings – alongside the event-long digital art programme. Boots squelched and damp shoulders bumped together as hoards of attendees patiently waited (to varying extents) their turn to ascend the stairs to the club space, aptly-titled Black Box. It was here we saw out the night with Mumdance, who took to the stage after fellow Londoner Beatrice Dillion – a one-two that just made sense. For some two-plus hours, the artist otherwise known as Jack Adams sauntered through a set of 90s-tinged tunes from the likes of Sneaker Pimps, The Outhere Brothers, Soulchaser and The Streets and Luna-C – plus a Novelist link-up, Take Time, for good measure – to a decidedly up-for-it crowd, who made their excitement known as Madonna’s Like a Prayer cut through towards the latter end of the set before a hardcore frenzy ensued. This was not a gig designed to take you to the limits from the off, but rather a carefully-paced refresher on the wide-roaming approach and technical prowess of Mumdance. A neat primer on where he’s at today.
Tujiko Noriko and Joji Koyama
First evening aside, each night at Semibreve commenced with a pair of shows at Theatro Circo, with a short break in between to allow for smoke breaks, deep chats or solo contemplation. On the Saturday, it was the turn of Tujiko Noriko and filmmaker Joji Koyama, and later reunited US trio Emeralds, to an audience split between floor seats and tucked away booths. Noriko and Koyama were up first. They were joined on stage by Noriko’s young son Vito, guitar in hand and not a nerve to be visibly seen. Noriko’s gorgeous 2023 album Crépuscule I & II formed the centrepiece of the specially commissioned audiovisual show and to experience it in such a way was a treat: swirling collages of ambient, amorphous vocals and film music influences wrapped around you like the enveloping arms of a loved one. The pair had previously discussed a shared dislike for concert visuals, and imagery that could potentially pull your attention away from the music itself. This mutual understanding undoubtably shaped the final product, which also took its cues from cinema. Another successful link-up from the longtime collaborators.
The heavens were fixed open by the time we left Theatro Circo, and would remain that way for the entire weekend. As such, we hop-skipped over to gnration with haste, silently commending the close proximity nature of the festival as we careened through dimly-lit cobbled streets masquerading as shallow paddling pools on our way to catch Loraine James for her Semibreve debut. Her Portugal show landed in the midst of a busy run of performances across the UK and Europe in support of her third album for Hyperdub, last month’s sublime and sensitive Gentle Confrontation, and felt markedly refined as a result. This is Loraine James, however, an artist used to her work being talked about through descriptors such as “unpredictable” and “rugged”, so there was still an air of surprise as songs unfurled into one another as James’ low-key half-whispers tickled the backs of your ears. It may read a little obvious, to wax on about a meditative dancefloor state in the context of an electronic music festival review, but that’s exactly what James created here. Looking around afterwards, it was obvious the rest of the audience felt the same.
Never before have we been to a festival show that’s started with a brief introduction from the artist on what we’re about to drink in. So it was a first for us, on Semibreve’s final day, when Thomas Ankersmit took his place behind his set-up in the middle of Salão Medieval da Reitoria and spoke openly to the audience, who surrounded him from all angles. This would be a show of improvisation he shared, with minimal fuss outside of his Serge Modular synthesiser and laptop. Not forgetting the built-in reverbs of the medieval salon (this garnered a small chuckle from many). There was no sound from the crowd when things got underway however. Instead, eyes clamped shut as Ankersmit brought his machine to life. A shorter performance than some of the others we’d taken in by this point – Ankersmit had let us know how long he’d be playing for – but nonetheless enthralling. The show grew steadily, each new sound given room to breathe before the next came in and unique mutations – predicted, and otherwise – occurred. A masterclass in cause and effect. Which, upon reflection, feels like a common theme at Semibreve, where thoughtful curation and collaborations were rewarded with close, careful listening.