Sensoria 2014 Review
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The best, because Sensoria is back, with arguably the best program of events they’ve ever put on. The worst, because I’m going away for the weekend and missing the end of it. No matter. Let’s have a look at what, as my younger friends would say, went down.
The opening night had a double bill of what Sensoria does best; live bands playing soundtracks to films. The first was Esben and the Witch, in the Upper Chapel, playing along with La Antena, a surreal, black and white, sci-fi tale about a city cloaked in silence when everyone’s voices are stolen. Classic German expressionist silent cinema perhaps? No, it was made in Argentina in 2007. The mark of a good soundtrack is its seamless integration into the film and this did exactly that. After 10 minutes I’d forgotten there was a band there. And I would venture that there has never been a more powerful and exciting rhythmic explosion of sound played in the Upper Chapel in its Unitarian, 400 year history. I’ve spoken to those who’ve seen the original version of this modern silent film, and they all agree that tonight’s new soundtrack conveys much more emotion than the gentler, piano-based original. It was a stunning opening and a triumph of inventiveness both on screen and from the musicians.
Next, we all hot-footed it to the Spiegel Tent in front of John Lewis to hear The Rumble-Os play along with The Endless Summer; the 1966 film that effectively introduced the Californian sport of surfing to the world. This was just as successful, but less entertaining. Although the music was perfect for the film, it began to drag a little towards the end of its 95 minute run. Stripped of the narrative, endless shots of dudes surfing their way around some of the world’s loveliest beaches became a little tedious.
Sunday was a real first. A Radio docu-drama, called Kafka Chic, commissioned by Sensoria, received its world premier at 3:30pm on our very own FM community radio station, Sheffield Live. To facilitate some accompanied listening, Sensoria had organised a reception in the Steam Yard Cafe. The courtyard was packed out with the great and the good from the Sheffield music scene, and that was no surprise, as the documentary was narrated by Graham (John Shuttleworth) Fellows, and written by Mike Somerset Ward and Dean Honer, both luminaries of the Sheffield scene since the Eighties. They’d persuaded Phil Oakey, Glenn Gregory, Steve Singleton and Martyn Ware to contribute their memories of how the Sheffield music scene once was and how it evolved. They’d then woven these comments around a narrative and produced specially written music, featuring some of Sheffield’s best new vocalist. Kafka Chic was fascinating, and will hopefully be repeated, as it deserves as wide an audience as it can get, both within and outside of Sheffield.
As the sun set on Sunday evening, I found myself a seat in Furnace Park (a new location for me) in Shalesmoor, settled down with a blanket and a coffee, ready to watch the seminal rock-movie, Stop Making Sense. Talking Heads played three nights in LA in 1984, and Jonathan Demme captured their performance in a way no-one has ever managed since. Often winning the accolade of ‘best in-concert movie’ ever made, it has lost none of its power and with a high resolution projection and crystal clear sound it was no wonder the audience applauded each song and people danced in the aisles. As I often bore people by telling them, I did see Talking Heads just up the hill at the University in 1977, and tonight was something of a bookend to that show, to (almost) see them play live again.
On Tuesday night the film Metalhead was shown in the Heeley Institute, in line with Sensoria’s ambition to put on events in unusual venues. It was an Icelandic film about a girl called Hera, a heavy-metal obsessed teenager, growing up in a remote part of the island, and her struggle to cope with the desperation following a horrific accident which killed her brother. It was bleak and grim at times, and I did feel the upbeat ending let the film down somewhat, as it didn’t chime in with the rest of the film. Discovering that heavy metal music was a panacea for all the family’s ills that had beset them throughout the film didn’t quite do it for me.
Wednesday was something really special, and for me the best night of the recent Sensoria festival. Quick history lesson; Connie Converse deliberately disappeared in 1974. She was an unknown and unappreciated singer/songwriter, years ahead of her time, who was never seen again. A recently discovered kitchen recording of her has shown her to be a talented writer of beautiful songs, the like of which no-one else was performing at that time. Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell made it in the Sixties, but in the Fifties, the world wasn’t ready for this type of personal, confessional music. She became disillusioned with trying to make a living from music in New York, went back home and got a job in publishing, where she worked for what could well have been the rest of her life. When Nat Johnson first heard her music, she felt a real resonance across the years between herself and Connie, and while researching on the internet, happened upon post-graduate film maker Andrea Kannes, who had made The Connie Converse Documentary. With timely intervention from Sensoria, this Connie Converse celebration evening, entitled Roving Women, was the result. For openers tonight, Andrea’s film was shown, with Andrea herself there to talk about how the film was made. After that, Nat played her favourite Connie’s song and the audience at the Cutler’s Hall were captivated and enthralled in equal measure. Connie Converse was a troubled soul, and her brother, sister and nephew who spoke in the film are in little doubt that she somehow took her own life in 1974. One fascinating aspect of her legacy was that she left behind was a meticulously archived and indexed filing cabinet. It contained songs and essays, painting and recordings, as though she knew one day someone would discover and appreciate her work. She even left note for future archivists, telling them she hoped they’d be able to make some money from what they found. Andrea is trying to secure funding to make this material available as a digital resource, and I fervently hope she does. This brief glimpse into the world of this talented but troubled woman was a fascinating one.
My Sensoria ended prematurely in Weston Park, with a film projected onto the museum itself. As the sun set, the front facade became a screen for the Mitchell and Kenyon fairground archive footage of people promenading in Weston Park itself, at the turn of the century. Other archive film, shot at factory gates and on trams, captured the everyday life of people who they hoped would later be willing to pay a few pennies to sit in a tent-cinema in the hope of seeing themselves on screen when the fair came to town a few weeks later. Football crowds, shoppers on Fargate and factory workers all came briefly to life in the beautiful setting of Sheffield’s first municipal park. Music and commentary came via radio headphones, which added to the intimacy of it all.
There were also more static, but no less dynamic events. Artist Matt Stokes had been commissioned to contribute to this year’s event, and from time spent in Sheffield he decided to formulate his own take on Barry Hines’ film Threads. This powerful BBC drama, which was set in Sheffield, hasn’t been seen on screen for years, but it inspired Matt to create In Absence of the Smoky God, in the Site Gallery. It comprises a video installation of how the events of Threads transformed society, and how it impacted on life in a post-nuclear attack Sheffield. Filmed partly in a real Victorian underground chamber, singers and actors convey his vision of how society inevitably changed. Viewed simultaneously, the films feature two very different groups of survivors, but as the piece evolves, harmony and resolution between the two disparate groups become apparent. A very powerful work, and not to be missed. It’s there until November 8th so try to get there.
Mention of Threads leads me to the end of my Sensoria round up with a nod towards the South Street Park Amphitheatre, where it was screened on the Friday night, headphones included. A powerful documentary which I’m assured was given even greater portent by being seen against the Sheffield skyline.
Sensoria: I miss you.
Come back soon.