Braga, Portugal

Semibreve isn’t your average festival. Held in Braga, a city known for its religious heritage, the event comprises more a series of expertly curated concerts and clubnights held in intentionally selected venues – including a medieval university building, neoclassical churches and the city’s contemporary arts space gnration. All of which makes for a unique experience that holds space for each performance and set across the weekend.

Thursday’s opening concert, which marked the start of Semibreve 2022, set the bar for the rest of the festival: seeing a concert in a gilded, Baroque, Pope-consecrated church, the Santuário do Bom Jesus to be exact, is quite something in itself let alone the enchanting and graceful grandeur ushered in by Fèlicia Atkinson and Violeta Azevedo’s performance. Rather than filling the lofty church, the pair’s compositions take a granular approach, the focus commanded by their presence making you forget the lashing rain outside and anything else for that matter, as if no other time or space exists other than their transcendent, trance-like sonics – a combination of Azevedo’s inimitable flute playing and droning manipulations of the instrument combined with Atkinson’s spectral and resonant piano melodies, field recordings and sparse vocal fragments.

It’s significant that Semibreve 2022 begins at a site of pilgrimage, Semibreve itself curating a journey across the weekend in which each performance feels like a cultural landmark and the unhurried programming allowing for a deep, immersive listening experience of each artist’s live work. On the Friday, in a conversation hosted by Shelter Press’ Bartolomé Sanson with Stephen O’Malley and François J. Bonnet, the Sun O))) guitarist alights on the notion of making music as a sacred act, something which feels very much a unified theme across the festival.

Friday’s performances get underway with a visceral show from KMRU. Illuminated by an amber spotlight, what starts out with ominous and ethereal intonations unfurling across the Theatro Circo quickly builds into a heady, body-shaking bass undertone that pervades the entire theatre. Within his recorded work, the Berlin-based sound artist traverses a vast range of sonic terrains, something which is drawn out in his Semibreve performance. Although here, he delves into heavier, drone-fuelled soundscapes, what is particularly striking is the way that KMRU uses these sculptured electronics and field recording samples – with birdsong and the busy hum of urban existence woven in – to form an immersive set that holds multiple energies simultaneously. Defying linear notions of narrative time and space to evoke an experience that is at once viscerally tangible and sensate.

This vein of otherworldly hypnotism is continued by Stephen O’Malley and François J. Bonnet’s collaborative performance. Creating a droning ritualism, the beginning of their set sees O’Malley lighting incense on stage. Not only does this bring a heighted sensory element to the performance but it also acts as an interesting marker of duration – the undulating layers of dark, droning ambient tap into a mesmerising resonance that makes it feel as if the performance is over in the blink of an eye whilst also occupying a cavernous space for some 40 minutes.

The evening’s performances then make way for Friday’s club programme, which kicks off with Gábor Lázár. Performing his album Boundary Object, the live A/V show draws out the abrasive kineticism of the work. Piercing red strobes accompany the productions, with the buoyant computer beats interplaying with brutal hardware manipulations that at points veer into an almost gabber-like freneticism. Playfully abrasive, Lázár’s set hones in on the visceral rhythms that come to define the night’s proceedings.

This momentum is continued, albeit in a very different capacity, by Jana Rush. The Chicago DJ’s footwork mastery ripples through the venue space at gnration – a multipurpose artspace where the festival’s club events are held along with some of the art installations. Rush’s set traverses jittery beats and high-energy chopped vocal samples and is fuelled by a soulful, groove-driven approach and the Chicago DJ’s clear joy in her craft. This pure joy in the dancefloor that Rush evokes is an energy continued by Bleid. From the off, the Lisbon-based artist delivers a lesson in hard dance euphoria, her set propelled by high-octane, melodic selections and mutoid beats.

The following night’s club event – a celebration of Príncipe Discos 10th anniversary – takes this dancefloor euphoria in a very different direction. First up, Xexa plays a tender, intimate live show – her striking, velveteen vocal incantations commanding the room, accompanied by intricately textured electronic soundscapes. This then makes way for DJ Kolt whose high-energy set turbocharges the party atmosphere, a grin on his face throughout the set as he mixes batida and kuduro selections. An especially fun moment coming as Kolt brings in Mastiksoul’s Turn Up (Ultra Mombah Mix), the line “here comes the fucking drop, give me your energy” highlighting the playfulness of DJ Kolt’s set, which at one point even sees a handful of people forming a conga-line. Fellow kudurista DJ Marfox steps up next, his set leaning into the heavier side of kuduro whilst still maintaining a playful joy, and after his set comes to an end Marfox even comes back on to play an encore track.

Prior to gnration’s Saturday night Príncipe Discos takeover, in the Theatro Circo Maxwell Sterling and Stephen McLaughlin’s audiovisual collaboration marks a stand-out highlight of the whole festival – which is quite something, given the extremely high calibre of every single act on the programme. The pair’s show is a testament to how the visual can augment the narrative of the aural, rather than act as an accompaniment. McLaughlin’s work riffles through horror scenes, esoteric imagery, Baroque calligraphy and nightmarish AI-generated images, to highlight a few themes throughout, offering a compelling, dystopian visual journey that mirrors the depth of Sterling’s music. Starting out with ambient drone and sparse bowed cello, Sterling’s arrangements build into an expansive and eclectic sonic tapestry as he performs tracks from Turn of Phrase. At times staccato electronic beats and swirling melodies carry the buoyancy of hyperpop whilst other moments convey an unsettling dissonance with eerie warped voices and jagged avant-garde arrangements. The baroque maximalism on display is befitting of the theatre’s decadent architecture. As the duo’s performance ends we’re left with a lingering wistfulness, the audiovisual experience conveyed at once imbued with a haunting humanity and uneasy sense of the unknown.

The final day of Semibreve begins with a performance from Jan Jelinek in the Salão Medieval da Reitoria da Universidade de Minho. The musician’s sculptured sonics and glitchy electronics build architectural soundscapes that fill the medieval building. After this, Caterina Barbieri’s modular incantations hone in on a common thread across many of the performances at Semibreve: the transcendence of linear notions and boundaries in time and space. This is a theme that Barbieri explores within her work and live this makes for a truly sublime experience. Appearing like a futuristic oracle, clad in an metallic arm-piece, Barbieri sends crystalline synth melodies and sonorous basslines rippling across the Theatro Circo. The tracks from her most recent album Spirit Exit take flight across the venue and bring us with them, a sensation particularly enhanced by the combination of white strobe lights and billowing smoke machine creating the sensation that we were no longer in the auditorium but amidst stratus clouds. There’s also a spirituality to Barbieri’s work, tangible in her performance, which adds to this notion of cultural pilgrimage across Semibreve.

The festival’s programming, with only two overlapping performances, means that almost everyone in attendance for the duration of the weekend shares in each artist’s work together. This communal aspect is augmented not just for attendees but also the musicians themselves – with those involved in Semibreve, the performers and press as well all having dinner together each evening of the event. It’s details like these in combination with each performance that posit Semibreve as a space of creative communion and a celebration of music and art as a sacred entity.