Various venues, Braga

Semibreve Festival, by its own definition, is a hub for exploratory sounds. Each year, it spreads itself out across the city of Braga, in Portugal, making use of the area’s lavish, 20th century neo-baroque Theatro Circo as well as contemporary art spaces.

Last year, as most festivals cancelled or postponed their 2020 editions, Semibreve found a way to adjust to a rapidly shifting climate. Though Portugal has been hard-hit by the pandemic, the festival prevailed during a difficult year by changing its physical programme to an online live stream, and making it accessible for all.

This year, the festival still had to wrestle with some pandemic-induced difficulties, resulting in the absence of its club programme. Still, a series of physical performances and talks were welcomed back to the city with a calm appreciation from the audience. In spite of the drizzle and rainfall, local revellers and music fans from neighbouring Portuguese cities travelled to the main venue to experience a thoughtfully curated programme of exclusive commissions. Every performance at the revivalist theatre was a new piece of work designed for the event, with the programme focusing on collaboration in particular.

On the first night, harpist Zeena Parkins and Portuguese artist André Gonçalves kickstarted proceedings at Theatro Circo. Located in the centre, the theatre has existed for over 100 years and has a touch of old glamour. A chandelier hangs over a floor of red velvet seats, which are encircled by boxes of spectators. The pair’s debut performance of their collaboration saw Parkins scrape and pluck the harp strings while Gonçalves responded with textural layers: from glitches to discordant sounds and twinkling electronics. Together, they formed a jarring and sombre soundscape that challenged viewers on the potential of the harp as an instrument for experimental music. Next came a stunning and unpredictable collaboration between Swedish composer Klara Lewis, Factory Floor’s Nik Void and visual artist Pedro Maia. Industrial scrapes and distortion transitioned into softer electronics, balancing the piece between sounding apocalyptic and meditative. Psychedelic washes of colour backdropped the piece, and flickered into pastoral images that were ripped up and collaged across the screen. The finale, in particular, was built from a vocal sample that was bent out of shape, and manipulated into something beautiful.

The evening shows finished before midnight, and without a club programme that resulted in an early night for a festival. Braga is a compact city and the festival’s venues were all located not more than a 20-minute walk apart – if that.

Alongside the evening performances, there were site-specific works during the day too. First up was writer and PAN affiliate Flora Yin-Wong, who debuted the live improvisational piece Sea of Fertility inside the religious and contemporary architecture of Capela Imaculada do Seminário Menor. The venue had a stylish, modernist feel, with clean lines, a wooden sculpture arch by the door and rows of lightbulbs hanging down from the ceiling. The decor created a soft, warm atmosphere which felt fitting with Yin-Wong’s durational performance. Exploring themes of rebirth and reincarnation, long stretches of ambient sounds wrapped around the interiors, immersing the listeners in a deeply restorative experience that sounded somewhat akin to a sound bath. Over at the contemporary art space gnration, Portuguese label Mera walked viewers through its catalogue of club sounds. With masks on, listeners were seated inside a smoke-filled room for a club experience – without the dancing.

Architecture and environment became a recurring theme throughout Semibreve, as commissioned works were designed to respond to its location. One such performance was helmed by Judith Hamann who played the cello live in the University of Minho’s Medieval Room. Illuminated only by an eerie green light, the performance felt transportive, as though we had stepped back into a different time period entirely. Though several works challenged listeners to sit with discomfort, Laurel Halo and Oliver Coates’ collaboration went against this grain. With Coates on the cello and Halo on keyboard and piano, the pair wove together a sweeping, cinematic piece that washed its theatre location in rich melodies.

The finale, however, helmed by Supersilent was perhaps the most demonstrative of Semibreve’s ethos. The Norwegian avant-garde group could barely be seen as the performers – and the audience – were plunged into darkness. The improvised show was a maelstrom of frenetic sounds that knitted together brass instrumentals with mechanical abstractions. Moving at breakneck speed, the improvisations sounded like a Mad Max-esque ride speeding through a pitch-black dystopia. It was met with rapturous applause. Semibreve certainly knows its audience: listeners that are open to new sounds, and its potential. Whilst clubbing was off the programme for this year, the festival wasn’t without its spontaneities. This was, in the Semibreve way, explored through unpredictable collaborations and esoteric sounds instead.