Your Guide to
Ferus Festival 2018
Words: Steve Smith
Launched in 2014 by VisionIntoArt, the FERUS Festival predates National Sawdust itself. Now in its fifth iteration, the festival is known for providing adventurous artists with the technical means they need to create whatever project they might envision – which makes the technology-forward National Sawdust facility the festival’s ideal home.
This year’s FERUS Festival offers four evenings of distinctive music. First up is the Bengalese-British singer and sitarist Bishi, who performs on Jan. 11. She’ll be followed by violist Nadia Sirota and gamba player Liam Byrne on Jan. 12, multi-instrumentalist Sxip Shirey on Jan. 15, and chamber ensemble Russian Renaissance on Jan. 16.
Before the festival begins, we’ve asked each to tell National Sawdust Log, in just a sentence or two, what an audience member might expect to see and hear in their FERUS presentations.
WHO: Bishi, a singer, multi-instrumentalist and DJ, was born in Earls Court to a Bengali musical family; her mother is an EMI-signed artist to this day. She studied sitar at the Ravi Shankar School for Music, and has a passion for English and East European folk, progressive pop and electronica. Her album Nights at the Circus has been critically acclaimed, and she was nominated in the 2008 South Bank Show Awards. Her work fuses British pop with folk influences and rumination on urban life.
WHAT’S GOING ON: Kicking off this year’s FERUS Festival, Bishi presents the premiere of “The Good Immigrant,” a song cycle for voice looper, sitar, and electronics, co-produced with composer and sound designer Jeff Cook. Inspired by a collection of U.K. essays about race and identity with the same title, edited by Nikesh Shukla, “The Good Immigrant” is a powerful exploration of issues that have defined Bishi’s life – identity, questioning cultural belonging, and exploring the dichotomy of being caught between worlds – as an alienating yet energizing space.
WHAT YOU SHOULD EXPECT: According to Bishi, anticipate “a one-woman electro-choral, rock sitar spectacle ruminating on race and intersectionality.”
WHO: Violist Nadia Sirota has led an exciting and varied career that spans solo performances, chamber music, and broadcasting. In all branches of her artistic life she aims to open classical music up to a broader audience. Her singular sound and expressive execution have inspired such composers as Nico Muhly, David Lang, Bryce Dessner, Missy Mazzoli, and Marcos Balter. Nadia won a 2015 Peabody Award, broadcasting’s highest honor, for her podcast Meet the Composer, which deftly profiles some of the most interesting musical thinkers living today.
Liam Byrne spends most of his time playing either very old or very new music on the viol. An obsession with the instrument’s most obscure 16th- and 17th-century repertoire is a recurring theme in his work, whether in devising experimental Baroque performance installations, collaborating with the Appalachian fiddler Cleek Schrey, or creating new electronic works with Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson. Liam’s solo performances frequently combine old viol music with new works written for him by composers such as David Lang, Nico Muhly, and Edmund Finnis.
WHAT’S GOING ON: For their FERUS Festival appearance, Sirota and Byrne join forces to present a live account of Tessellatum, a powerful 40-minute work for multi-tracked viola and viola da gamba by the acclaimed Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. A luminous extended study in timbre, microtonality, and density, the piece is partnered with a film by director and animator Steven Mertens that wavers between rigid geometrical precision and the ocean’s wilder natural ripples and currents.
WHAT YOU SHOULD EXPECT: Nadia Sirota tells us, “Tessellatum was written for an ensemble of violas and viola da gambas, and all 15 parts will be performed by myself and Liam, some threads played live and some pre-recorded. Donnacha’s musical style slips back and forth between equal temperament and just intonation, presenting harmonies that blossom into timbre over and over again. Steven’s gorgeous 38-minute animation builds on the architecture of the music, abstracting the deep ocean into a mesmerizing palette of color and pattern.”
WHO: An extraordinarily versatile composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and storyteller, Sxip Shirey has been admired widely as a mercurial musical time traveler since his arrival in New York during the late ’80s. A founding member of the celebrated Gypsy-punk outfit Luminescent Orchestrii, Sxip (pronounced “Skip”) has released a series of well-received solo albums – the latest, A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees, was issued by National Sawdust house label VIA Records in 2017 – and produces a popular cabaret series, Sxip’s Hour of Charm.
WHAT’S GOING ON: For the FERUS Festival, Sxip Shirey will be joined by dancer/choreographer Coco Karol, glass harmonica player Jonny Rogers, puppeteers Basil Twist, Chris Green, and Erin Orr, singer/Morse code keyer Lacy Rose, singer/violinist Rima Fand, singer Natti Vogel, and vocal ensemble Choral Chameleon for “three pieces built around death, disappearance, and returning home” – two inspired by David Bowie and Amelia Earhart, and a third that presents listeners with a literal gauntlet of sound to traverse.
WHAT YOU SHOULD EXPECT: Sxip Shirey invites you “to walk through a tunnel of singers as a choir faces a choir in ‘The Gauntlet’; to watch as a song is broken up and then passed, syllable by syllable, around the room in the David Bowie elegy ‘Latency’; and to hear your own messages of lost things and disappearance played in Morse code throughout a nocturne for Amelia Earhart in ‘Amelia Found.'”
WHO: The quartet Russian Renaissance – Ivan Kuznetsov on balalaika, Alexander Tarasov on accordion, Ivan Vinogradov on contra-balalaika, and Anastasia Zakharova on domra – debuted in October 2015, live-scoring in collaboration with the acclaimed Serbian film director, actor, and musician Emir Kusturica. The audacious young group went on to travel the world and, eventually, to claim the $100,000 top award at the University of Michigan’s M-Prize competition in 2017.
WHAT’S GOING ON: Wrapping up this year’s FERUS Festival, the players of Russian Renaissance will match their rustic sounds and forward-looking skills to some of the most iconic images in Italian cinema, as they live-score scenes from celluloid classics like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief.
WHAT YOU SHOULD EXPECT: Ivan Kuznetsov says that the quartet intends to “spice up Italian movie music with a Russian twist.”