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Bentwaters ConSPIracy Cantata

From: Stig Agermose <stig.agermose@privat.dk>
Date: Sat, 01 Jun 2002 07:50:20 +0200
Fwd Date: Sat, 01 Jun 2002 15:46:38 -0400
Subject: Bentwaters ConSPIracy Cantata

Source: The Guardian





Bentwaters Airbase has stored nuclear weapons, been the scene of
UFO sightings and was almost bought by yogic flyers. Now, as
part of the Aldeburgh festival, it is to be the venue for a
haunting piece of music inspired by espionage.


Andy Beckett reports


Friday May 31, 2002

The Guardian


Bentwaters is a nice ominous name for an abandoned airbase. One
minute you are driving through softest coastal Suffolk, past
asparagus stalls and pink cottages, the next, guard towers
thrust up behind the hedgerows. At the main gates, there is a
disused control tower and miles of fencing, then an enormous
vista of cracked concrete and asphalt. In the distance are
clusters of blackened and shrunken-looking buildings. If you
continue across the runway, they grow steadily into great
hangars and bunkers, their curves and diagonals halfway between
beautiful and monstrous. The military logos painted on them by
American airmen are still quite visible.

At the furthest edge of the complex, where the only sound is the
wind in the pines, there is a more enigmatic structure. The
Debrief Centre, or "the Star Wars building" as it is more
exotically known locally, is low and grey and windowless. A
thick pebbledash wall, entirely separate from the building
itself, wraps the whole block, screening it from scrutiny or
attack. A pair of baffling cone-shaped towers flank the
entrance. These days, nobody who lives near Bentwaters seems to
know precisely what the building was used for.

A week tomorrow, though, as part of the Aldeburgh festival, this
small blank corner of the airbase is to be reoccupied. There
will be temporary lighting and electricity, and the building's
interior has been touched up a little, but it is hoped that
enough of its Cold War atmosphere will linger for the first
British performance of a conSPIracy cantata, a recent work about
spying and secret government activities by the young Anglo-
Cypriot composer Yannis Kyriakides.

It is an intriguingly haunted piece of music. It uses echoing
pianos, electronic clanks and bleeps, clouds of distortion that
roll in like Suffolk sea mist; most notably, Kyriakides weaves
in actual recorded transmissions from government radio stations
to their agents in the field. The CIA, MI6, Mossad, and the
Czech intelligence service all feature, all communicating in
relentless, number-based codes and deadpan accents. The other
sounds ebb and flow, but the chatter of international espionage
is always there in the background. Spoken lines from the ancient
Greek oracle at Delphi, itself a centre for espionage as well as
prophecy, make the implication of the piece obvious: spying, and
covert government networks, are always with us.

In Cyprus, Kyriakides grew up among unexplained radio masts. "It
is a huge spy centre," he says. "Mossad is there. MI6 is there.
The British have huge transmitters in their bases. I remember a
friend who's a bird enthusiast went to record bird noises in the
mountains, and he kept getting these distortions. He was stopped
by the military."

In recent years, regardless, recordings of intelligence
transmissions have been surfacing on the internet and on CD
compilations. Kyriakides heard about them, listened to some, and
"started reading spy material in general". Part of his
motivation for writing music around this theme was political: "I
have a more or less leftwing persuasion, a suspicion of power
without public knowledge." His next large-scale project is a
"documentary-opera" about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in
1974, with singers taking the parts of, among others, Harold
Macmillan and Henry Kissinger.

Yet Kyriakides felt fascination as well as distaste at the
clandestine spy broadcasts. "The radio transmissions are so rich
in sound and atmosphere. There's something slow about them. The
performers of my piece have to spend a lot of time doing
nothing, just listening and decoding then reacting."

The otherworldly quality of crackly radio samples has been
exploited by the more adventurous sort of rock musician, such as
Brian Eno and Holger Czukay, for decades. But Kyriakides is
placing his captured transmissions in the more rarified context
of contemporary classical music. He is not worried about the
reception: "I don't want to communicate just to the connoisseur
new-music public. I want to use any sound that exists, not just
culturally-approved sound. I want a few people to start putting
fingers in their ears."

Kyriakides is used to challenging expectations a little. When
his family came to live in England after the Turkish invasion,
he won a music scholarship to Eton. One morning, at school
assembly, Kyriakides and some of his fellow scholars decided to
perform a piece of Stockhausen. "It was fantastic. People were
baffled." What did the audience think of the musicians? "I guess
they thought we were just nerds."

After Eton, he studied music at York University, then moved to
Amsterdam, where kindred spirits and government grants were more
available. Gradually, he abandoned composing for orchestras in
favour of electronics, amplifiers and performances in theatrical
settings. When the Aldeburgh festival suggested that a
conSPIracy cantata be presented in a grand-but-decaying military
location in one of the eeriest parts of Suffolk, he did not take
much persuading.

The area around Bentwaters is probably the closest Britain comes
to the mysterious military-dominated territories of the American
south-west, made infamous in recent decades by UFO hunters and
conspiracy theorists of all kinds. Next door to the airbase is
another vast former airfield, Woodbridge; a few miles to the
east is Orford Ness, a stony peninsula where British weapons
were secretly tested for 70 years in unexplained pagoda-shaped
bunkers. Originally, the plan was for a conSPIracy cantata to be
performed in one of these, but the logistics of transporting the
audience across the coastal creeks and shingle proved too
difficult. Then Jonathan Reekie, who runs the festival, came
across the "Star Wars building" at Bentwaters.

Inside, it is clammy and cold, even on a mild afternoon. Reekie
is considering installing temporary heaters, but otherwise he
wants the claustrophobic low ceilings and crude breezeblock
walls left as they are. The building was completely stripped
when the Americans moved out in the early 1990s; your
imagination is free to roam the corridors, with their silvery
metal doors straight out of Dr Strangelove.

The history of Bentwaters holds enough riddles to keep
conspiracy- hunters occupied. It was built in 1942 and taken
over by the Americans nine years later. Among its official
functions over the years, it provided the "Soviet" aircraft for
Cold War defence exercises, and housed bombers with nuclear
weapons. Its runway was one of the longest in Europe. In
December 1980, an incident occurred in the woods at the runway's
western end that has provoked speculation ever since. Early one
morning, according to documents released by the Ministry of
Defence 20 years later, "unusual lights" were seen in the sky by
American guards at Bentwaters. "A strange glowing
object...metallic in appearance and triangular in shape" was
then spotted above the trees. When it disappeared from view, the
guards searched the woods and found - depending on which of
their accounts you believe - either odd indentations in the
ground and traces of radiation, or a landed spacecraft complete
with "life forms about four feet tall...with big humanoid heads
and dark, catlike eyes."

Five of the MOD documents about all this remain confidential on
the official grounds that they contain secret briefings to
ministers, relate to national security, might alter Britain's
relations with America, or all three. "There are a lot of
military stories and myths about this area," says Reekie.

He hopes to stage musical events in other sections of Bentwaters
during future festivals. There is a metal-lined chamber called
"the hush house" where jet engines were tested, which looks a
little like Warhol's Factory. There are the hangars, currently
full of over-sized old cars left behind by the Americans. There
are the old bomb stores, and sheds with enticing taped-up
doorways - as Reekie drives me round the base, he cannot resist
stopping and pointing. Nowadays, cultural events frequently take
place in ex-industrial sites in cities, he says. In relatively
prosperous country areas like Suffolk, the only similar spaces
likely to be available are derelict military properties. Why not
there too?

He may be optimistic. Since the Americans left, there have been
unrealised plans to turn Bentwaters into a commercial airport, a
leisure park, a prison, emergency accomodation for the homeless
of Ipswich, and a "university of natural law" administered by
the Maharishi Foundation, of Yogic Flying fame. Besides
Kyriakides, the airfield's users currently include makers of car
advertisements and a business rearing free-range ducks. Fashion
photographers, you sense, may not be that far behind.

After an hour at the base on a bright afternoon, it can begin to
feel quite benign: a glowering Cold War compound harmlessly
reduced to a few cottage industries and some arty locations.
Kyriakides's piece will be played in broad daylight - the
evenings in Suffolk in midsummer are too long to wait for dusk -
  which may reduce the intended menace of his conSPIracy cantata.
Except that, in recent months, the idea of international
intrigue, of a Cold War, or worse, has begun to feel familiar
again. It is not impossible to imagine the Americans reoccupying
places like Bentwaters. As long as the aliens don't get there

ConSPIracy Cantata is performed at Bentwaters Airbase,
Rendlesham, as part of Aldeburgh fesival, on June 8. Box office:
01728 687110.. Further performances at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
(01223 352124), on June 10, and at Ocean, London E8 (020-7314
2800), on June 12.


Guardian Unlimited =A9 Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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