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Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival Review 2023

Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival Review 2023

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Set in the renowned Suffolk town, known as the childhood residence of ambient music innovator Brian Eno, the Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival stands out as one of the most intimate gatherings I’ve experienced.

Organized with pure love by local and ambient music enthusiasts, the festival showcased a range of musicians and producers dedicated to crafting immersive, minimalist melodies.

Multiple concerts were held in various venues in Woodbridge. I had the opportunity to attend three of them, starting with a concert organized by Tom Rogerson, a musician and collaborator of Eno.

The Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival took place just a mile down the river from Brian Eno's birthplace of Melton Taken at Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival 2023
The Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival took place just a mile down the river from Brian Eno’s birthplace of Melton

The event occurred in the Octagon Room of the local Methodist church, which had a vibe reminiscent of a 1960s or 70s university library. Despite its unconventional layout and lighting, the music within was absolutely astounding.

It started with a musician performing under the name Elegy for Good Dogs. Combining scavenged classical records with field recordings, the later parts of their set added a haunting soundscape of synths contrasted with the natural sounds of insects and birdsong.

He was followed by Jay Chakravorty, who began his performance with a warning that he typically performed with at least three strings players accompanying him, and his attempt to replace them with synthesisers might be, in his own words, “a bit shit”. Playing the piano, and initially developing a cinematic, almost Ghibliesque feel, Jay’s set was emotional, beautiful and surprising, with the calm giving way to heavy distortion which somehow still felt musical. Definitely not shit.

Tom Rogerson, the event’s host, didn’t disappoint either, performing pieces from both his current album, Retreat to Bliss, and a new upcoming release. Featuring tones that reminded me of an 8-bit sound, juxtaposed with an underlying piano melody of byzantine complexity, his evocative and heavily textured music may have skirted around the definition of ambient, but was enchanting nonetheless.

I attended the following event at the Woodbridge Long Shed. Although this venue is currently being utilized to construct a life-sized replica of the renowned Sutton Hoo Ship, the music was unfortunately confined to an upstairs area that resembled a conference room rather than a proper venue. Nevertheless, this setup did provide an opportunity to project video footage behind the performers, which enhanced the performances for many of them.

Kicking off the show was the VonTrapMix, a four-member group with a soft female vocal line, backed by a harp, bass, analogue synths, and a unique Finnish string instrument called a Kantele. This family band’s understated sound gracefully shifts between the harp and electronica, creating a musical voyage towards an elusive destination that is eventually reached. I thoroughly enjoyed their performance and eagerly await their recordings and future shows!

Heldar Rock performing in the long shed Taken at Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival 2023
Heldar Rock performing in the Long Shed

Heldar Rock was up next, with a raft of intriguing ideas. One of his tracks reminded me of a Victorian or Hollywood interpretation of heaven, all synthetic angelic choirs, birdsong, chimes and strings. Other parts of his set gave me the sense of the remote North American wilderness, using quiet flute samples evoking a misty endless forest, or experimenting with drones, chimes, and percussion that sounded like falling water.

Following him was Yggdrasil Music, named for the Norse tree of life. Now, arguably, this performance was not a nice experience. Glitchy, often non-rhythmical, scary, and tense Yggdrasil reminded me more of an abstract recurring nightmare than traditional music. Pairing the often watery sound with bleak footage from the local shingle beaches, while Yggdrasil aggressively challenges the definition of music, their performance was one of the most gripping sound art experiences of my life. I highly recommend it, even if it might leave you reeling.

After Yggdrasil, we were treated to a performance on the Mbira by Mbira Mike. Essentially a giant Zimbabwean Kalimba, Mike used his reverberant instrument and an assortment of technology to build up a wonderfully calming audio landscape. Accompanied by a video of a woodland scene shifting between winter and summer, Mbira Mike was a great palette cleanser after the somewhat overwhelming Yggdrasil.

Part of the Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival 2023 involved a flautist playing alongside a projected film
Part of the festival involved a flutist playing alongside a projected film

After being directed outside, we gathered around a long shed where an abstract video illuminated its side. Across the river, facing the renowned Sutton Hoo archaeological site, a lone flutist played a tranquil melody. The serene music evoked contemplations of the area’s ancient history.

OfTheNightSky marked the climactic conclusion of the shed’s performance. It began by crafting a serene auditory landscape reminiscent of a tranquil spring, evoking a sense of tranquility and purity. Gradually, the set evolved with increasing melodies and rhythms, catching me off guard as I realized its full danceability. Serving as the grand finale, the shift from ambient sounds to a psydub-like atmosphere provided a refreshing change after hours of metaphorically floating in musical space.

The Woodbridge Community Hall During the Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival - I think the artist is called Electron Chorus
The Community Hall was beautifully decorated by Amy Wragg

On Sunday, the Ambient Festival moved to Woodbridge’s community center. A large brick space normally lacking in any form of ambiance, the hall had been transformed by creative, Amy Wragg, with her forest jellyfish tent-made bunting hanging from the ceiling, and psychedelic liquid lights dancing against the walls. With the performers seated at three tables in the center of the building, guests could watch the show in the round either standing, seated in a chair, or reclining on one of the many provided bean bags.

The first thing I saw was the Electron Chorus. Playing the guitar, and accompanied by a chorus of electronic synthesisers, this trance-adjacent performance would have been just as at home on a dancefloor as it was in the hall, though sadly most people weren’t feeling throwing shapes just yet.

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Merlyn Bruce, one of the organizers, followed with a mesmerizing display of precise percussion using various miniature instruments, accompanied by an otherworldly soundscape. The performance evoked the sensation of drifting through a vast and bewildering futuristic realm, glimpsing fragments of unfamiliar lives, and traversing distinct districts each imbued with a unique ambiance yet sharing a common essence. Delicate and ethereal, yet sonically immersive, this introspective and nuanced spectacle is captivated with its enchanting allure.

Tom Rogerson then played a second set, this time more focused on synths and natural samples than the virtuosic piano which dominated his previous performance. After Tom had finished his thought-provoking yet calming set, Chris Mann of the Network of Sound project began to set up to play his Themes from the Wilderness album. 

Themes from the Wilderness is a captivating and serene composition that guides us through an array of musical and psychological landscapes, not limited to wilderness themes. It moves at a deliberate pace, creating a sense of tension and depth. Although each moment demands attention, the attentive listener will find the rewards well worth the effort.

Sophia Space Agency Performing at Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival
Sophia Space Agency

The final act taking to the stage was Sophia Space Agency. Creating a spectral, ethereal soundscape of quiet clicks and brief vocalisations, against a background of breathy drones, SSA’s cinematic performance brought to mind the sci-fi classic Dune’s fictional deserts of Arrakis more than any real place on Earth.  Dancing fluidly, and singing hauntingly at the beginning of the performance, it was a visual spectacle unmatched by anything else at the festival— a collaborator played a Gibson Les Paul with a bow adding even further to the show and soundscape.

Sophia Space Agency Performing at Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival
Vocals were provided by bandleader Melpomeni Kermanidou

While the festival is already fantastic, I have some feedback for the organizers and Woodbridge in general. Firstly, I suggest considering outdoor venues to enhance the festival’s experience, allowing camping in the beautiful countryside surrounding the town. The nearby Sutton Hoo archaeological site, managed by the National Trust, could potentially collaborate with the festival, adding an exciting element.

Woodbridge offers two remarkable historic churches that have proven to be ideal event venues in the past. It is unfortunate that they were unavailable for this particular occasion, as they would have been a perfect fit.

This brings me to my second concern: the insufficient support provided by the town for the festival. The local attendance was disappointingly low, given the exceptional quality of the performances available. Although some individuals from the area contributed to making the event possible, it appeared that many were disregarding the remarkable talent right at their doorstep.

The Woodbridge residents are fortunate to have such a remarkable event featuring unforgettable sound experiences like Yggdrasil and exceptional artists like Tom Rogerson and his friends, who are rarely found performing live in most locations. With the event turning out to be a resounding success thanks to the attendance of enough people, the locals should not let this opportunity for an inspiring weekend go to waste. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed The Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival and highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates slow long-form music. Here’s hoping the festival continues for many years to come.

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