If now Braga takes the crown of being Portugal’s third biggest city, certainly not all of it will be due to Adega Malhoa’s outstanding cod dish. Braga is the perfect scale and size for a comfortable living, with just the right amount of cultural offer to keep it interesting and a beautiful church-cramped city centre. When it comes to the city’s increasingly large cultural impact, surely a ‘thank you’ letter to Semibreve is in order, for the festival has quickly tagged the city as a European pole for contemporary digital arts and music. After all, what makes Semibreve feel truly special is much more than the way its handpicked lineup fits together. By combining the century old beauty of Theatro Circo with the modern aesthetics of a venue like gnration, the festival demands the consumption of music in a way that never discredits its surroundings, and that’s why its spatial contextualization is so important, as there are only a handful of places where we would see it happen.
Operating as a weekend festival, Friday night saw the likes of Kara-Lis Coverdale and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith take the Circo’s stage, with the kind of delicate and carefully crafted music that made us plunder into a world of awe inducing reverie. Performing behind this slightly translucid curtain and in collaboration with an ever so popular MFO – seriously, does this guy even sleep? – it felt as if Coverdale’s music was gently greeting us from the inside of this backlit cocoon. Her music is serious, hardly the easiest or the more compelling, but serious to the point where it could only come from raw talent. Cascades of lush organ arpeggios bounced at the theatre’s walls, while angelic choirs rose and vanished through the mix. Her work feels like as if the sacred was made synthetic, as if born on a pulpit-worthy test tube. A way more accessible Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith followed, while way less striking at a visual level, her music didn’t come through as less compelling by any means. Presenting her latest work “EARS” – one of 2016’s greatest gems – her set was the perfect example of just how organic and fundamental electronically generated music can sound. Both highly dynamic and emotionally engaging, Smith’s music made the audience shiver and resonate at a deeply intimate level. Closing her set with three tracks that she later told us to still be unreleased, Smith is a rising star and certainly a force to be reckoned with in the near future.
After the main performances took place at Circo’s main and small auditorium, the festival moved site to the clubbier contours of gnration – roughly a five minute walk from Theatro Circo. Part of an elite of contemporary producers and amongst the bigger names of the weekend, Andy Stott was to lead the way that night. Highly clinical, cold and lacking the emotional appeal that makes most of his studio work, Stott’s set felt much more like an exercise into coitus interruptus than a performance; jarringly disappointing techno and dnb that lead to nowhere but frustration. From the opposite side of the spectrum came Nidia Minaj. Part of the Principe Disco’s crew that is taking Lisbon’s night scene by storm, Nidia’s set was as primal as it gets, built on fierce and joyful rhythms that made you move at the most visceral way imaginable.
Saturday afternoon came and with it a unique performance by sound and visual artist Christina Vantzou. The setting was this modern chapel known as Capela Imaculada do Seminário Menor, the perfect blend of Braga’s deeply rooted religious tradition with the kind of thought provoking art forms Semibreve embraces. Vantzou is an artist we’ve cherished since her work with Adam Wiltzie on The Dead Texan, with her solo works through Kranky being no less rewarding. Accompanied by a quartet from Ensemble Harawi – a group of local classically trained musicians – Vantzou felt much more like a conductor than an active intervenient in her own pieces. Minimalistic drones and harp harmonies played softly through beams of light, while beyond beautiful string overtones reverberated through the high ceilings. Achieving such emotional engagement with such simple music is an achievement on its own, but to do it as brilliantly as Vantzou is something truly special.
We headed back to Theatro Circo later that Saturday for what would be a leap into the unknown. Familiar with Rashad Becker’s work in mastering and sound engineering and only recognizing Moritz von Oswald as the founder of Basic Channel, there was little to none to expect. A monotonous note emerged and dived from Oswald’s prepared piano, as Becker’s live processing multiplied and transformed it into an electronic cacophony. It didn’t take long for it to become utterly unbearable, and by far the most challenging and poignant effort of the whole festival. A pointless exercise in pretentiousness that helped us get through last night’s hangover at most. As that early night threatened to plunge us into a coma, it was up to Tyondai Braxton (ex-Battles) to brighten things up. Far from being connoisseurs of his solo work and not the world biggest fans of Battle’s discography, expectations were once again set to quite low. Starting in an Animal Collective-esque craze, Braxton rapidly took to a rhythm heavy tone that was successfully intertwined by swarm-like synthscapes. Although delightfully refreshing, the set was sadly cut short due to a technical malfunction.
In-between sips of vodka and returning once again to gnration’s slick outlines, Braga’s streets feels as charming as they ever did, for every time we head back to Semibreve they greet us with ease, year after year. That night was firstly set to the techno frames of Laurel Halo, with Ron Morelli also taking the decks a while later. What Halo pulled of was nothing short of a masterclass in rhythm and pace, building and releasing tension in a way that no other act did that weekend. For one hour gnration’s Black Box was submerged into Detroit’s mechanical buzz, with an earthquake inducing 4/4 being met by her trademark pads. Without interruption, the baton was later passed to Morelli, leaving his maddening subtones to echo through the pitch black room until late at night.
The festival came to an end on Sunday afternoon, with a set by British cellist Oliver Coates and the A/V collaboration of Paul Jebanasam and Tarik Barri. Coates – Mica Levi and Radiohead’s esteemed collaborator – dove deep into the world of technological utopianism, finding the perfect fit in the virtual reality-like visuals of Lawrence Lek. Simple drum rhythms were masterfully infused in choirs of processed cello, as the perfect soundtrack for the limitless boundaries of the world portrayed behind him. The weekend was to come to terms with a bang, set to the crushingly emotional tones of Jebanasam’s magnum opus. Imbued with duality, Jebanasam’s work could either paint the mushroom cloud as a work of great beauty or turn the engines of Saturn V to a gentle simmer. Flashes of blue and white collapsed at the screen, like louder than world glimpses into what Tarkovsky envisioned as Solaris’ oceanic surface. Lavish bursts of static came as a salvo, like probes poking away at our bodies, vanishing like waves before engulfing the whole theatre for time and time again. “Continuum” pushed us to a final frontier of sorts, to the kind of place that abides by laws unknown to man, the perfect embodiment of the statement Semibreve dares to make.