Supernormal is an experimental music and arts festival held at Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. It’s straightforward enough. There’s a field. A wooden shed as a ‘main stage’. There’s a tent with a bar and a second stage. There’s another venue housed in a weird wooden church-like thing. And there’s a barn too. There are food stalls. And there are people having a jolly good time… It’s a deceptively simple backdrop which belies an unfathomably enriching experience.
On reflection, this year’s edition feels as if it’s themed around notions of deconstruction and reconstruction. And from that kernel, the program on offer exploded with the most far-reaching and diverse musical and artistic shows you can really imagine from a festival.
The first artist to mention is Graham Dunning who, while the sun beats down on Friday afternoon, builds an analogue techno set around a single modified turntable on which he stacks layers of weirded-up records. Later on in the evening, Girl Sweat – a tall man from Leeds – fires off drum loops on a tape deck and riffs on a distorted lap steel guitar. Its rock ‘n’ roll, but you can probably fit the whole band’s equipment in a tote bag.
Opening the shed stage on Saturday are Guttersnipe. A joyously abrasive guitar-led duo that remind me of the tonal explorations from Glenn Branca (and his wife’s excellent duo The Paranoid Critical Revolution) but with more primal screaming. In the afternoon, I venture down to the barn and watch Charles Hayward – legendary drummer of This Heat – perform an emotive set of danceable beats and hums with just a drum set, vocals and some swelling backing ambience. Following this, in the Red Kite tent (so named due to the abundant Red Kite birds which can be spotted flying above Braziers) Apostille brings his distorted one-man synth pop to the function with great energy and DJ Shitmat closes out the night with his plunderphonic pop culture party which amuses and sets the limbs flailing most aptly.
Image by Hilary Mullaney
Supernormal certainly wins on musical performances delivered across its stages, but that’s only really half the story. At Eastville Project Space’s pop up pink shed, folks gather to build their own miniature synths. The nearby ‘talkeoke’ stand sees drop-in roundtable discussions galore. But the real audience-involvement win of the weekend seemed to be Serena Korda’s jug choir where a number of attendees signed up to have rehearsals and ultimately perform within the stately walls of Braziers house on the Saturday and Sunday evening. The jugs were ornate. The choir were psyched. And the tones ringing from the drawing room and out over the lawns were fantastic.
Braziers house itself was home to another special performance on Sunday, that of Cath & Phil Tyler singing their traditional ‘sacred harp’ folk. It was another highpoint for me, offering something of a journey back to the founding roots of popular song. Another duo, Rattle also owned the Sunday sessions – using just two drumsets and their voices to deliver a refreshingly tempered approach to minimal post-punk. Down in the barn, Ben Wallers’ solo project The Rebel delivered his rewired caustic country songs with guitar, drum machine and circuit-bent Gameboy to an adoring crowd.
Supernormal is small and intimate. It also has a uniquely unboastful line-up, but one that is no less exhilarating than a festival of bigger names and higher ticket prices. It’s also fair to admit that there will be plenty of attendees that may have had a very different festival to me. While I was lured to a lot of the solo and duo performers – Knifeworld, Ashtray Navigations and Melting Hand were offering suitably widescreen and psychedelic experiences. But I left the site on Monday reinvigorated by what good music can be created by small means. And what can be achieved with great people, a DIY attitude and the willingness to strip things back both for art’s sake and for everywhere else in our lives.