Neil Cooper

WHEN electronic auteur Beatrice Dillon headlines the first of three concerts presented by the people behind the Counterflows festival of left-field music at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh tonight, it will mark one of the highest profile events in the city’s various underground experimental scenes.

For Alasdair Campbell, former programmer of the similarly styled Le Weekend festival at the Tolbooth in Stirling before founding Counterflows with Fielding Hope of Café Oto in London, coming as it does at the end of the Queen’s Hall’s 40th anniversary as a venue, the series is itself an experiment.

“When we said we were doing something at the Queen’s Hall, some people raised their eyebrows,” says Campbell of a connection initiated by the venue’s current head, Evan Henderson. “But there seems to be a real sense of the Queen’s Hall trying to build new audiences alongside all the other great work that they’re putting on from the folk and trad community to the classical work and some of the pop stuff. For Counterflows, that’s really refreshing, because we’re honestly not sure what sort of audience there is in Edinburgh for what we do, or if anyone will even come.”

While Campbell may be under-estimating Edinburgh audiences’ sense of adventure, tonight’s inaugural event sees both Counterflows and the Queen’s Hall score something of a coup, with Dillon’s first appearance in Scotland bridging the gap between club sounds and more insular beat-based explorations on a night focused on rhythm. Supporting her will be pianist Pat Thomas, as well as a collaboration between Rian Treanor, whose electronic rhythms here combine with artist and musician Paul Abbott. There will also be a DJ set from [Fraser, Ormston], the duo of Tim Fraser and Ailie Ormston, who previously performed at Counterflows in Glasgow.

The second concert in the series is a pre-Christmas special featuring Edinburgh double act, Usurper, whose duo of Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson have over the last decade perfected a form of goof-ball absurdism, and here present a new piece, The 3-Year-Old Hamster. Aine O’Dwyer will support with Aporcraphyl Hymnals, a festive collaboration with the Glad Scratch Choir, a community ensemble emerging from Glasgow venue the Glad Café. Opening the night will be Bill Wells, who will present a new performance, Winter Dreams, alongside Audrey Bizouerne and Danielle Price.

The final Counterflows event at the Queen’s Hall comes in the new year, and brings legendary saxophonist Joe McPhee to Edinburgh with his group, DECOY, featuring drummer Steve Noble, bassist John Edwards and keyboardist Alexander Hawkins. Also on the bill is American experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener, who recently performed at the Jupiter Rising event at Jupiter Artland. Spreading the Counterflows Queen’s Hall series over three months rather than as a stand-alone festival is a deliberate move on Campbell and Hope’s part.

“Fielding and I talk about this a lot,” says Campbell. “I’m not that happy about the idea of all these festivals that go round the planet. We’re a little bit sceptical of that, because we don’t see what we do in that way. We see Counterflows much more as our community around Scotland, and these concerts are an extension of that.”

While Glasgow and elsewhere have traditionally hosted high-profile experimental music and sound festivals such as Instal, Tectonics and Sonica, there has been a healthy network in Edinburgh at a more grassroots level which has created the sort of community Campbell is talking about. Over the last 20 years or so this has seen the old House of Dubois organisation promote an early gig by Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Stills Gallery, with Usurper’s Giant Tank promotional arm bringing a plethora of noise artists to Edinburgh over the last decade. More recently, Braw Gigs has promoted shows everywhere from Summerhall to the Waverley Bar, while Sonic Depicting brought the likes of David Toop to the Whitespace gallery.

In essence, the Counterflows series resembles some of the more adventurous Friday night jazz concerts promoted at the Queens Hall throughout the 1980s, when what look like kindred spirits of Counterflows such as trumpeter Don Cherry and pianists Cecil Taylor and Keith Tippett appeared. Occasional contemporary classical nights were presented around the same time by Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust. The venue’s current sense of rejuvenation in terms of contemporary experimentalism is heightened by composer Michael Begg’s monthly Liminal Nights series of intimate concerts.

“My history with the Queen’s Hall goes right back to when I used to run a record shop,’ says Campbell, “and we used to come through to Edinburgh in a van and sell records by all these free jazz guys at the Friday night gigs, where it seemed like you got to see a major international artist every week. Things have obviously changed since then, but what we’re trying to do with these concerts is to programme a selection of people whose work we know and like, and present it as a showcase of what Counterflows is doing. People say, why the Queen’s Hall? Well, why not?”

The Counterflows Queen’s Hall series begins with Beatrice Dillon, Pat Thomas, Rian Treanor and Paul Abbot and [Fraser, Ormston] tonight at 7pm. Counterflows: Festival Soiree with Usurper, Aine O’Dwyer and Bill Wells takes place on December 20 at 7pm. The third Counterflows event features Joe McPhee with DECOY and Elaine Mitchener on January 1, 2020 at 7pm. All events take place at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh.