Thinking from the Stage? Initial Reflections

I want to invite you to look at the following pictures. They are all photos of the main stage of the International Festival of the Celtic World of Ortigueira, a music event celebrated annually (since 1978) in the town of Ortigueira, northwestern Galicia, Spain.

1.

Picture by Álvaro Fernández Polo. Men from Ortigueira working as volunteers to build the festival stage (1980).

Picture by Álvaro Fernández Polo (from his personal collection). Men from Ortigueira working as volunteers to build the festival stage (1980).

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Picture given by instrument maker Antón Corral (in front). Here, we can see the Bagpipe School of Ortigueira playing on the locally built wooden stage. A small Galician flag waves from the proscenium.

2.

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Festival stage appearance during the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s.

2

The a bagpipe band playing on the festival main stage.

3.

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The “main stage” turned into the “Estrella de Galicia Stage” in 2001. Here, we can see two trucks bringing beer supplies to be sold at the festival (2012).

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The Estrella de Galicia stage is now fully assembled. Sound professionals are now getting ready to start the sound checks (2013).

What can these pictures tell us about the history of the festival? How do they relate to festival-goers’ memories of  this music event?

The International Festival of the Celtic World of Ortigueira (IFCW) is the focus of my doctoral dissertation.  I have been doing fieldwork in this summer event for its last three editions. During this time I have been able to gather a number of pictures, some taken by me, others generously given to me by local photographers like Álvaro Fernández Polo, or copied from a number of personal archives like those of Antón Corral and  Francisco Bermudez Garrote. Looking at these pictures and listening to people’s memories of the IFCW has made me realize that, in the realm of music festivals, material artifacts like music stages can tell us powerful stories about technological development, financial and commercial alliances, and musicians’ and audience’s relationship with the festival space.

One of the most extended critiques of the current state of the IFCW is that it has turned into a commodified space, where music is second to selling beer and fast food products. The commodification of the festival has undermined its credibility among both Galician folk-music fans and musicians. This process of commodification is evident in the pictures shown above. Although they do not show all the types of stages that have been used as the “main” festival stage throughout the years, they do represent the stages that are most often remembered by festival goers and citizens of Ortigueira: stage #1, collectively built by voluntary workers from Ortigueira with locally bought wood (1978-1983). Stage #2, a mobile structure mounted by a group of traveling professionals with lights and other sound/light technologies, decorated with a couple of side banners (with the IFCW logo on them from the late 90s). And the present stage (#3), re-named as the “Estrella de Galicia Stage” from 2001, a space sponsored by this Galician beer company as it is clear from the side banners and the commercials that are presented in between  concerts on the side screens. This type of stage is also assembled by traveling professionals and it uses top-notch sound/light technologies. Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these three stages.

Stage #1

Local, collective participation in the construction, production, and overall organization of the IFCW generated a sense of affective attachment to the festival (that lasts until today), as it has been expressed to me by different people who participated in this process. Coordinated by the then director of the Bagpipe School of Ortigueira (Xabier Garrote) and other school members, people from Ortigueira participated in the festival without any financial remuneration by building the festival stage as well as the fence that was used to limit the inside and outside of the concerts area; they also worked as security staff during the festival, and collaborated by cooking meals for musicians and by hosting visiting performers in their own homes, among many other things. Sound equipment was loaned from Galician folk music group Milladoiro (this group performed at the IFCW for free during its first five editions). This sense of working together towards one goal without the mediation of any political or economic figure of power, is one of the dearest remembrances of the first six editions of the festival. Images from this specific type of temporary built environment, of the material structure of the festival, can give us a good deal of information to back up the history and social conditions that surrounded the initial years of this music event.

The IFCW was mostly financed by ticket sales. Organized, as I mentioned above, by the Bagpipe School of Ortigueira, the festival was conceived as a public cultural space. In spite of the overall lack of collaboration of the Government of Ortigueira (financial and the like), the festival was thought of by its founders, Xabier Garrote, Álvaro Fernández Polo, Marías, Francisco Bermúdez and Jesús Lozada Otero, as a music event where members of the Bagpipe School and other citizens of Ortigueira could learn from “neighboring” bagpipe musical practices coming from the so called “Celtic World” (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, and Cornouaille). As the festival, a massive music event from the beginning,  was a grassroots initiative that successfully transformed the local landscape and soundscape into a temporary festive space for the youth, as well as for the celebration of Galician identity, and the experimentation of an alternative lifestyle that included living, listening (a number of audience members remember how listening to music being performed on a stage placed on the ocean heightened their sense of being on a mystical “Celtic” sonic-space), and camping in nature, local authorities became wary of it.  A mix of security issues countered by the heavy presence of  the local “police” forces (guardia civil) and the lack of financial support from public institutions, ended up forcing the festival organizers to stop making this event. So, from 1984 the IFCW started to be organized by the  Government of Ortigueira, although due to security issues, the festival was closed from 1987 to 1995.

Stage #2

The stage used by the Government of Ortigueira from 1995 can be described as a mobile structure that is rented and assembled in Ortigueira by a group of traveling professionals. Sound and lighting equipment is also rented, and it is mounted by, and manipulated by hired professionals. The structure itself tells us that there is a relatively large budget backing up the festival (and this is also taking into account that since 1984 the festival became a free festival), that local resources are being used to pay materials coming from somewhere else, and that, given the size of the stage, the audience of the festival has increased, or is expected to increase, if compare to earlier editions.  Furthermore, this stage (pictures  # 2) is similar to other festival stages, and so we could infer that a globalized idea of how a music festival stage should look like and function is at stake. Fran Rivera, Artistic Director of the IFCW  from 1999-2008 has told me that when he was hired by the Government  of Ortigueira as a state worker in the cultural sector, and he was assigned the role of Director of the IFCW,  he thought that the music stage that was being used to preset the festival concerts was small and not professional enough. He thought that the IFCW should have a stage and an overall music production “like those of Madonna or Bruce Springsteen” (interview, 2013). The festival was turned into a registered brand, with a logo of its own and a shorter name: The Festival of Ortigueira, a change highly criticized by the citizens of Ortigueira, as Fran has told me, and one that did not take place at a local level (the IFCW is referred to locally as “the Celtic World”).  The symbolic capital of the IFCW as a grassroots, collective initiative where youth was able to meet and live a temporary alternative lifestyle in nature while listening to Galician and other so called “Celtic” folk musics,  played an important role in the effective reopening of the IFCW in 1995. However, the increasing changes towards an intended “professionalization” of the festival ended up undermining its credibility as a place to listen to folk music for Galician musicians, folk music fans, and some citizens of Ortigueira.

Stage #3 

A folk music fan from Ferrol recently told me that (interview, 2013):

The moment of change for me, when all this [the IFCW] was like dying because the music was not very good anymore (…), was when, I do not remember if there were side screens [on the stage] already, but I do remember that Estrella de Galicia was everywhere. The ambience of the festival was massive, overcrowded. The years before the festival was also crowded but only on Saturdays (…). I do not remember what year was this, but I think that it was 2002.

Listening to festival goers’ memories of the IFCW, something that emerges with clarity is the match between the transformation of the built environment of the IFCW and people’s experience of and relation with the festival space. Just like the first years of the festival are frequently brought up as the most meaningful moment of this music event, the transformation of the “main stage” of the festival into the Estrella de Galicia stage was a break through moment that distanced folk music fans, leading them to go to other more “authentic” Galician folk music festivals. It is then quite interesting that the privatization of this mobile public space, apparently harmless since the stage maintains its function (as a stage), is really perceived as problematic by a number of festival goers and citizens of Ortigueira. According to Fran Rivera the “main stage” was turned into the Estrella de Galicia Stage to avoid creating hierarchies between the former stage and other music stages (like the “Runas” stage) of the IFCW. Off course the change coincides with the transformation of the IFCW into a complex enterprise. In fact the festival is nowadays the only local enterprise as well as the major touristic attraction of the town of Ortigueira. In future posts I will keep reflecting on how material objects mediate musical experience, and about their power as tools to back up oral histories related to music and music making.  In the meantime I invite you to leave your comments and to think with me, in this post, from the stage.

AM

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One thought on “Thinking from the Stage? Initial Reflections

  1. A really great post! I think it’s really important to remember how things like stages and venues contribute to our understanding of a musical performance.

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