Originally published by A CLOSER LISTEN
It’s been over a month now since the last late night at the SAT, the last long walk up St. Laurent in the early morning, and I’ve let it all sink in and decompress a bit. Any festival can be overwhelming, particularly when the emphasis is on dancing late into the night. I had a great time, no doubt, but from the opening press cocktail something just hasn’t been sitting right with me about this latest Mutek. The first review I saw came from Mutek themselves immediately after the festival, and it was too much of a pat on their own back for my taste, especially considering the obvious logistical shortcomings experienced this year, something any past attendees would have noticed.
I’ll say again: There was a lot of good. Mutek ran from Wednesday May 29 through Sunday June 2, and featured some stunning performances from Robert Hood, EmptySet, Ryoichi Kurakawa, Laurel Halo, Nils Frahm, Pantha du Prince & The Bell Laboratory, Lee Gamble, and several others. I had fun and witnessed some awe-inspiring spectacles, and a number of truly great artists. And yet the deficiencies were not minor but rather foundational, and need to be addressed or I fear the future of festival will be rather bland.
I may not have a decade of Muteks to contrast this with, but I’ve got the last few years under my belt, as well as word of mouth from friends who’ve been in town a lot longer than I have. And years of festivals around North America. Though the festival ‘functioned smoothly’ this was the most poorly managed I’ve seen.
The festival is certainly helped by the fact that all the core locations are within a block from one another. The Society of Arts and Technology is what I think of when I think of Mutek. The two have a shared history, and during the year the SAT continues to showcase great work and engage the community in various ways. Last year they opened the SATosphere, a 360 degree projection dome with killer sound that is still pushing for new works to take full advantage of its capacities. The events there often fail to live up to the hype, and the vibe of the adjacent Food Lab (complete with overpriced drinks and bourgie clientele) made it just uncomfortable enough to hang out in that I actually preferred to sit in the park with the homeless and drug addicts.
Right across the street is the Monument National, which held most of the A/Visions showcases, sit-down affairs in the early evening that generally featured interactions with visual arts. Monument also hosted the daily panels and workshops that keep Mutek grounded in intelligent discourse, as well as the Salle Hudro-Quebec, which showcased local performers as part of the free Play series. The final A/V was held a few blocks way in the remarkable new Maison Symphonique concert hall. Around the corner is the Metropolis, which hosted the more dance centric late night shows, though tickets also allowed entry into the SAT for the parallel shows. In the past these may have been in the small chill out room at the Metropolis, which allowed concert goers the opportunity to quickly duck in and check out something fresh before heading back to the dance floor. For those not lucky enough to have a pass, tickets to these events were $40, which may seem fair if you consider it grants access to both venues but is enough to discourage attendance since so many of us are flat broke. Even though the SAT isn’t that far away, it still takes enough time and disrupts your groove, especially if it’s raining outside, which being spring in Montreal it usually was.
The opening cocktail party on Tuesday already had me skeptical of the direction the event was taking. For the first time there was a “Mutek Headquarters” called the Windows Lounge on the fourth floor of a new building on the corner between the SAT and the Metropolis, two of the core venues. Forget about the irony of the Windows Lounge, where malfunctioning devices were being used to check us in artists and the media while the ubiquitous glowing Apple greeted us from every stage. I’m not out to defend Apple, it’s just seems silly to have a poorly designed Windows Lounge while all the artists are using Macs and/or hardware. The partnership with Windows is nothing new however, but something about the presentation this year, including remarks from government officials and corporate partners, seemed excessive, particularly the lukewarm response a female organizer had compared with the old white men who followed her on the podium
The Windows Lounge is a pretty clear example of how a festival has to forge corporate partnerships to get by. I’m pretty ambivalent about that aspect, and perhaps the insiders calling the shots are too. The opening remarks were rather predictable. “Forward thinking… avant-garde… creativity… Montreal as a center of this and that… so important to us, blah blah blah.” On the one hand I appreciate such figures (from the government, for instance) bothering to make an appearance at all, even if its just to provide lip service supporting creative practices they clearly don’t understand. This may actually be better than if they actually had a real stake in these sorts of activities, because they don’t micromanage, right? But that said, if these figures and their grand statements don’t actually find value in the aesthetics on display at Mutek, and probably not with the ethical (or chemical) values either, what is it they are actually supporting?
They come to support an idea of a city that is hip, creative, technical, design friendly, cutting edge, nurturing. These things are only really important as far as it makes the city marketable and commercially viable, as long as it gives them a brand to play up. This economic myopia is ultimately misguided, because in the long term it is undercutting the SOCIAL aspects that actually do the above. So the festival started off, for me at least, bittersweet.
Mutek is avant-garde the way a punk festival is “revolutionary.” This needn’t be the case. My review of the live audio-visual performance Dromos that ran in the SAT suggests why. The SAT, like Mutek, does SPECTACLE very well, and politicians like spectacle as much as audiences do. But spectacle does not an avant-garde festival make.
It seems to me that so much of the festival has become depoliticized, something that is indicative of what’s wrong with our society’s broader orientation towards technology. Mutek touts itself as an international festival of digital creativity and electronic music, and though this kind of thing is bound to have a futurist bent, it needn’t be so slavishly consumerist. The emphasis on technology isn’t so much on how it enables new aesthetic forms or new practices, or the effects it has on us, but on what new gadgets there are to buy. An imagined future can be useful in driving us forward, but the truth is we don’t live in an imagined future, we live in hybrid realities that we have negotiated and dwell in. This is obviously reflected in many of the artists, but it’s never explicit in the festival itself. Avant-garde is about discovering new aesthetic forms open to us, not about slightly new “revolutionary” gadgets to sell to the “democratized” producers.
Mutek does a fine job of showcasing both contemplative music in the concert halls as well as dance music, but there’s so much else out there in the electronic realm that is not being covered. Where were the installations and interactive art of previous years? And what about sound and installation art in general? Sound art? New Media Art? All these categories are boring. Part of the appeal of digital and electronics arts is that they are new. The terms themselves are ambiguous. What is new media? What is digital art? Does electronic music even mean anything in a world in which all pop music is basically electronic music? Is it just a synonym for electronic music? These may be interesting questions, but they don’t really have much bearing on festivals like Mutek which have already carved out their niche, regardless of the terminology applied. Even asking these kinds of questions may be destabilizing.
Some arts are assessed in real-time, what we might call the Performing Arts. Theatre, a guitar recital, free improv, a symphony, a dance piece, what these diverse forms have in common is that they are essentially performative. Others produce a work that will be exhibited or otherwise experienced as a finished work, the creation of which occurs over time, what we might call the Studio Arts. This can include music recordings, sound installations, cinema, paintings, novels, etc. Thought Mutek features a variety of styles and approaches, and showcases live production far more than DJing, to neglect studio works is to neglect a large portion of the digital creativity and electronic music ostensibly being celebrated.
Though many of the visual accompaniments were being manipulated in real-time, many were also carefully prepared in advance and are basically studio works as I describe them above. But in this setting, accompanying a musical performance, they become relegated to spectacle, and can often detract from the music by coercing one’s interpretation of the sonic material. In part this may be because the field is waiting for a new breakthrough. Advances in visual projection always feel lacking to me. Most rely on outdated tropes of the digital age (lines, grids, geometric shapes, digital textures) or a rapid succession of photographic images, all of which tends to be rather dull as far as I’m concerned. Is this all motion artists can do? Certainly not, but these festivals are so focused on the performance arts (basically music) that the advances occurring in the art world rarely is ever trickle down, as here they play second fiddle to the artists who can make a room party and buy a lot of drinks. Giving an image to the sound brings with it all sorts of associations, but if the music needs that, what does it say about the music? In some cases the two augment each other, form a syncretic whole or at least can stand on their own.
When done right, as with Rioichi Kurakawa’s truly awesome performance, the relationship between the audio and the video is seamless, as their production is inextricable from one another.
One last reflection before briefly running through the festival highlights. If I learned anything from the dozens of shows at this year’s Mutek is we seem to be on the cusp of a Jungle revival. That’s not quite right though, it’s not really a resurgence or revival, but a generation discovering that music and incorporating certain aspects of it (breakbeats, chopping, arrhythmia, etc) into the sonic field they are already operating in. Personally I think any movement tied too closely to a rhythm is doomed to become a gimmick, especially considering how quickly sub-genres of dance music tend to max themselves out. But this isn’t really about a particular beat, but about an approach to composing sounds and a freedom to incorporate beats that aren’t so rigid.
I’m not the only one who has noticed this. It’s unavoidable and enough time has passed that a the time is ripe. Lee Gamble’s Diversions, which is composed of the ambient or beat-less sections from mid-‘90s jungle mixtapes, is a good example of how this sort of reconsideration may produce innovative new ideas. But there is also something else percolating below the surface, which I haven’t heard anyone mention: a renewed interest in the aesthetics of Industrial music. This isn’t tied too much to an interest in particular producers or artists or even hardware, but rather a dissatisfaction with the social order and an aesthetic response of techniques (what might otherwise be termed rustic, bricolage, poor art, etc) that are subverting the decadence and alienation of the era of global financial capitalism. Moving away from sequencers, using dirty samples or filtered white noise and sub-bass, letting the accidents create phases and polyrhythms, or even just playing a gloomy slow building set because your city is currently rioting. I can’t help but see a reflection of the times reflected in the aesthetic of the performers.
Toronto’s Memento Mori opened this set, using a variety of devices (laptops, MIDI controllers, samplers and mixers) to create an electroacoustic collage reflecting on the particularity of one individual’s life. Occasional distorted vocal samples This human aspect was vague, but perceptible. The visual components were rapidly shifting, suggesting the passage of time but also obscuring any content. Occasionally a face might be legible, but the timelapse and opaque overlays functioned as an abstract animation.
Matthew Herbert’s One Pig was certainly much anticipated. Herbert made a series of recordings, following a pig from birth to slaughter. He used these recordings to create a rich tapestry of sounds to draw on for these performances, even creating an instrument that create sound using the pig’s blood, and hand drums using the pig’s skin. The meat itself is cooked at the concluding segment of each performance, bringing the audience into the process, and hopefully resulting in some deep reflection on these big open questions of industrial agriculture, animal cruelty, and artistic practice.
The set began with a man breathing heavily and throwing hay around the stage, capturing and looping these sounds. Gradually there are four men on stage in white lab coats, though whether this is meant to be scientific or sanitary is up to personal interpretation. Each corner contains a different set up: a keyboard, some hand drums and other percussion instruments, and two tables to electronic instruments. In the middle a wire pen is constructed, into which a fifth man enters. It quickly becomes apparent that the wires will serve as a controller to trigger and manipulate samples, and the “band” structure of the five performers becomes obvious as they begin to play together. The performer in the pen manipulating the samples periodically changes his coat, each of which has an inscription on the back. SEP, OCT, NOV, etc, indicating the a month in the life of our one pig. The music is often very rhythmic, and at times very musical in a conventional way, though there are equally rather harsh moments, as you might expect, and the correlation is somewhat obvious in reflecting the life (and death) of the pig. And yet in another way the message itself may be too abstract. One Pig could have benefited from, maybe, a program or a libretto, or maybe even just projections of the reality/documentation to ground the proceedings. My mind kept drifting to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Porcile (Pigsty), a surrealist film about bourgeois indulgence. The pig is often a reflection of this. Populations of pigs are not so different from a mob of humans. Two thirds of the Abrahamic religions have banned the consumption of pigs. And their teeth look an awful lot like ours, don’t they? They’re also more intelligent than dogs, and their flesh is said to taste not unlike that of human flesh. Ironic that the audience sitting in a nice theatre is being confronted with the life of this one pig? Or did the spectacle of the performance overshadow the reality of the life of this animal?
Matthew Herbert is known for his sophisticated conceptual work, and his two performances at Mutek were easily the most explicitly political of the festival and yet…. What are we left with? Pig-step? Carnivalesque music, a bourgeois spectacle in a nice theatre, no condemnation, the food at end offered up to the audience. The music is mostly rhythmic, upbeat, and wacky, like the soundtrack to some cartoon factory. As the piece reaches it’s climax, we beging to be distracted by the sweet aroma of sizzling flesh, the sound perhaps just a figment of my imagination.
The 20th anniversary of Germany’s Kompakt label certainly is worth celebrating, and the Kompakt Showcase at the SAT got off to a solid start with some clap-centric tech-house from John Tejada. His approach felt somewhat standard, but he has such a good feel for a crowed that the back to basics approach was well done. He got the people hopping, but unfortunately the next set from The Field completely let all that energy dissipate. It began with a muddy low end, building very slowly. The set had a sense of melancholy and foreboding from the get go, not what I’d have imagined from this Swedish artist. At times there even seemed to be a threat of violence, until during the 3rd piece the beat finally drops. Did the riots in Stockholm fuck with Axel?
Usually artists at Mutek don’t get to indulge their spacier side, they just bring the party. Look at Pole, who told me during the 2011 edition that he was asked to play more a more dance driven set than the more stark material found on many of his records. But The Field kept it chill, which is cool expect 1) it sounded muddy as fuck and 2) Tejada already had everyone wound up so the contrast struck me as poor curation. Perhaps it was just logistics but it was a disappointment for this listener at least.
I was feeling sick at this point, so I went home rather than to the afterparty I was planning on, at La Brique, which was hosting an unaffiliated but related party, Forbidden Planet 11. The venue was announced earlier that day, a loft space along the train tracks a couple miles north of downtown that often plays host to noise and free improv shows. Forbidden Planet has promised sets from PAN Records founder Bill Kouligas, as well as local resident DJs. In addition to Montreal’s Noir (who would go on to play a set during Play 3), unannounced artists included Lee Gamble, master-er extraordinaire Rashid Becker, as well as Paul Purgas of Emptyset. By the end of the 5 nights, I realized I regret missing this more than anything.
I think the ‘global bass’ phenomenon is where the best dance music is coming from these days, seeing production techniques and aesthetics interact with different cultural and musical forms to produce new things. But this is still club driven, and is still about the celebratory communal experience of the dance floor.
For the non club driven at this year’s Mutek, there was Nils Frahm.
Nils Frahm is best known for his piano recordings with close attention to supposedly non-musical elements such as the creaking of the wood or the clattering of the piano keys (Felt, Screws), as well as his collaborations with like-minded musicians such as Anne Muller, Peter Broderick, and Ólafur Arnalds. Through his Durton Studios in Berlin he’s also worked his artists such as Deaf Center. Some of his work is more explicitly electronic, but on the surface he seems like an odd choice for an electronic music festival. Luckily Frahm is happy to ignore all categories piled on top of him and just come and do his thing, which he does very well.
This performance was simply spell binding. In a t-shirt, jeans, red socks, and sneakers he hardly looked like the piano virtuosos of old, particularly hunched over the keys in deep concentration. He moved between upright and grand pianos, carefully miked and separated by a synth and a Rhodes organ. Occasionally shifting from one instrument to the other, sometimes literally perched upon a chair inbetween them, he produced a riveting set of fluttering, lovely music. After a few pieces on the upright and grand piano, he moved over to his synth, slowly building a warm base of analogue hum before pounding out a bass chord of shocking volume, startling many in attendance. The pieces on the Rhodes organ were more charming and discreet, particularly when using it at the same time as the piano. After a standing ovation, Frahm was forced to play an encore, in which he went on the karate chop the string of the grand, building sustained notes upon sustained notes. His use of small sounds, “non-musical sounds” familiar to his fans kept the performance feeling very embodied, very human. Though his music is at times rather romantic and sentimental, clearly informed by a classical tradition (and perhaps not unlike some of the work of a composer like Ludovico Einaudi), Frahm’s work is truly hybrid, the best kind of hybird that refused to even awknowledge perceived borders. 100 years before this the syncopated rhythms, cyclic keys and changing tempos of The Rights of Spring caused an uproar, a literal riot. Today audiences can tolerate just about anything, but a performance like this reminds me that opposition isn’t always the most productive path forward. Several years ago, Frahm broke his thumb and was instructed to stay away from playing piano for a while. Instead he couldn’t help but test his limits, and so he began to composed using the 9 fingers he could make use of. “The day I got rid of my cast I had recorded 9 little songs. They have helped me feel less annoyed about my accident and reminded me that I can only achieve something good, when I make the most of what I’ve got.” At its core this attitude is the essence of all electronic music, the ability to produce what we can with what we have.
The highlight of this showcase for me was Lee Gamble. Despite some faltering, the set was highly original and dynamic, incorporating harsh breaks, generally keeping it slow/mid tempo and with a serious low end. Elements of jungle snuck in and out, against pulsing bass and melodic loops. His two albums for Pan last year were both rightly praised, and though this studio work may be stronger his live show is something to watch. The lights in the background of the SAT featured Morae patterns in the lights, simple movements of simple designs whose interactions create very complex patterns. This struck me as a great analogue to the aesthetic practices of many of the better performers. The projections behind Gamble (random images, a horse, a model, abstract colors and shapes) were nothing to write home about but seemed an appropriate contrast to the shifting soundscapes of his set.
Andy Stott’s set was predictably brutal, building slowly to a loud, harsh wash. By the time he played “Numb,” the first single from his female vocal driven album from fall 2012, the moment of lightness felt that much more pure. Deadbeat delivered a solid set as well, despite a computer crash, though the all vinyl 45s reggae set he did for the Boiler Room was my Deadbeat highlight for the year.
Ryoichi Kurakawa’s style might be a bit too precise for my tastes, too mathematical, but it was one of the most literally awesome and moving of the year. The piece, called SYN_, made excellent use of the two screen, a kind of dyptic of intertwined narratives. The production of the images and sounds are created trough the same process, allowing for a level of integration between the audio and video that I’ve rarely if ever seen. His music makes incredible use of frequency, running the entire spectrum from sub-bass to the highest highs. Imagine if the sound design of cinema were actually created by artists rather than technicians and you might have some inclination. The movements alternated between largely beatless ambient, abstract movements and more dynamic breakbeat driven passages. The jump cuts and transitions could be violent at times, though the crowd managed to dance a bit. The aural intensity was met by a visual intensity, shifting and contrasting colors and tones.
Kurakawa himself seemed very serious, more like a technician ensuring his work went off without a hitch than a performer. The point was to have the technical capacity to exhibit the work, and the audience would be talking about SYN_ throughout the festival.
Up next was Emptyset draw on some of the palette of Noise music, but arranged in a way that it becomes rhythmic and thereby becomes legible to club kids. The use of feedback, machinic polyrhythms, deep sub-bass and harsh noise with occasional melodic fragments maintained the intensity of Kurakawa’s performance, but the organization and EQing were clearly drawn from a dance floor narrative. The duo made used of mixers,drum machines, bass-synth, and other analogue devices but noticeable eschew the use of computers. A third performer sat off to the side of the stage, controlling simple geometric shapes on the screen reacting to the music, however we were greeted with a “no signal” message on a blue screen after a computer crash. Not a big deal, but perhaps Emptyset would be better suited to an analogue form of projection to match the aesthetic of their music.
Jon Hopkins was comfortable running a computer, and his brand of house and techno was much lighter and smoother than the seriousness and intensity that preceded him. This was the right time in the night for this, and his skill at crafting a very smooth dance floor narrative was a perfect segue into the the minimal Detroit stylings of Robert Hood.
Robert Hood is rightly praised as an absolute classic of Detroit minimal techno. Think what you want of it, but his strong Christian faith is channeled into his approach to music, resulting in a focused, joyous beautiful dance music. He manipulated a Kaos pad, sequencer, mixer, Korg synth, an MPC sampler. Again, all hardware and no computer, he was able to keep the crowd moving from start to finish, never dull, knowing just how far to push his arrangements. A true pioneer, you can’t teach such subtly and nuance! Great stuff.
My friends and I ducked out to check out the show pver at the SAT, and caught Onra dropping some pretty sick beats. With two MPCs and Kaos loopers, he threw his whole body into this performance, a stark reminder of how beat performance on a sampler’s not only “live” but also embodied. Onra takes an instrumental hip hop aesthetic, using samples from Asian pop music. What could be a gimmick or just plain lame becomes something rich in his hands.
Hobo Cubes set was very well-received, so keep an eye on him. But I’d like to sine some light on the activities of Fünf, whose five members all have strong artist practices of their own, and have worked in variation configurations with one another over the years. Erin Sexton, Émilie Mouchous, Anne-Françoise Jacques, Andrea-Jane Cornell and Magali Babin all have carved out their own idiosyncratic practices based on their DIY approach to sound and equipment, from custom built controllers, oscillators, synths, contact mics and amplifiers.
The analogue hardware driven ambient of Cloudface was a fine prelude to Laurel Halo, possibly the most anticipated performance of the year. Expectations were high after a series of critically lauded albums, especially last year’s Quarentine.
Laurel Halo seems to approach her music from a very free form perspective, ensuring her sets are never dull or predictable. Her instrumental set drew on industrial and jungle musics to create a messy hardware driven set that had even me wondering if I didn’t smoke too much pot. Halo may be creating her music live with hardware, but she brings a DJ sense of mixing and structure into her more open approach to form. Though the set was powerful, it fell just short of being the zenith we may have been expecting. Laureal Halo is on the verge of something really great,so keep a close eye on her future output and don’t pass up a chance to see her live, as she’ll surely end up being one of the most important producers of this decade.
John Talabot has been getting a lot of mainstream attention, and I can see why. Resident Advisor compared their set to U2 in grandiosity, whether that’s your thing or not it says it all. Performing as a duo these slick pop structures stood out from the fluid DJ influenced flow of all the other performers. Essentially . we have a pop electronic act, playing songs and expecting applause after each. It struck me as very out of place, though superficially clubby and dancy. The songs draw on pop, funk, disco, hip hop, italo-disco, house… but all pop song structures and vocal driven. The vocals could be a bit cheeseball, and they even through in some gimmicky live percussion. There was a damn cow bell, for Christ’s sake.
I didn’t manage to catch any of the SAT shows that night, which wouldn’t have been the case if the second room was in the Metropolis, but word on the street is if you’re into sample-based beat music you should be paying attention to Tokimonster, the only woman on FlyLo’s Brainfeeder label.
Matthew Herbert followed his One Pig performance with the much touted The End of Silence based on the album of the same name, which is created entirely from a ten second sample from a field-recording of a bomb falling in Libya.
I wasn’t able to see this show. Even though I had a media pass, and even though my friends were already inside, and even though the room was FAR from full, I was denied entry. I patiently waited until they’d let me in, but when it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen, I retired to the bar to chat with the bartender and drink overpriced Sapporo. My friends inside generally found the show lackluster, claiming that even compared to One Pig, which was good but not great, this show was lackluster. The incorporation of live sound from outside may have had some ontological meaning but failed to deliver anything substantive (and if you couldn’t channel the tempest that was raging during the show what could it have hoped for?) Mostly the piece was showing off the same wire-controlled on display in One Pig, and showing off a controller is not conceptually enough of a starting point for me. This is frustrating because using a short field-recording of a bomb dropping in Libya should have made for a compelling political statement, particularly as Montreal is home to communities from around the Middle East and North Africa, and yet again the execution fell flat. This might say more about Mutek than anything else.
As for not getting in, I suppose I can’t really complain, but it was still something that I couldn’t imagine happening at other festivals. Sure, if the show was packed, but there were many empty seats throughout the performance. Yes, the back of our passes informed us to pick up tickets in advance, so ok, the onus is on us. I don’t deny that, but none of the other shows reached capacity, and whenever I did try to procure tickets in advance I was told to go somewhere else, not to worry, or was unable to do so because they wouldn’t issue them until after 5pm and I was in a show or event at that time until the start of the event in question. Other media types from more well-known outlets were much more vocal about their discontent.
Mutek has many sponsors, corporate and otherwise. Sapporo was one of them, and all the venues, except for the SAT’s bourgie Food LAB, were serving only their beer. The draft handles at the Monument National were in the shape of the hilt of a katana, something that I feel should be noted. I’m glad I missed The End of Silence so I could make note of this fact….
The Boiler Room
Boiler Room dot TV is the self-described best underground internet TV show, featuring livestreaming and recordings of live sets from special sets. During Mutek they set up all Sunday afternoon in the SAT’s dome. For those of us too lazy to schlep out Piknic Electronik it was a perfect afternoon, and featured some of the week’s most memorable events.
The first I caught was Montreal’s Gislain Poirier, who has moved through quite a few phases throughout his career, but always fairly rhythmic and club oriented. His earlier work was more ambient than the world-hopping hip hop of his last few records, and his latest project is something yet again. Featuring a live drummer (kind of gimmicky but adds an energy to a performance setting), his Boundary project should be one to watch.
Deadbeat no longer lives in Montreal, having moved onto Berlin as so many have done in recent years. His evening set was supposedly set back by a computer crash during the set, something foregrounded by his vinyl only set that afternoon which presents its own challenges but also no risk of crashing and a extended dynamic range. Spinning early roots reggae from 45s, it was a perfect Sunday afternoon set.
Onra took over with a cry of “Aw yeah, it’s about time, this isn’t a DJ set, this is live music.” Interesting statement considering many outsiders wouldn’t consider a dude with a sampler to producing ‘live’ music. What is ‘live’ music anyway? A DJ set and a sample based set are both performative in different ways, but there is no doubt that Onra’s beats are more responsive to his environment. Still, ironic then that he ended up producing a near copy of the set he delivered at the SAT the night before. So much for “live” music. Even so, Onra is a dope beatmaker, making clever use of South Asian pop music and turning orientalist exploitation on its head.
Robert Hood’s set finished that shit off like no one else could, high energy from start to finish, everyone was dancing, no one stopped until the music did. True legend.
The finale of the A/Vision series was held in the new Maison Symphonique, although I should note that like the best of the A/Visions this showcase featured no visuals. Nils Frahm played another set since the advertised performers couldn’t make it for some reason. (The explanation was vague. Could it be visa issues? I wouldn’t be surprised considering the stories I’ve heard recently. Bill Kouligas being harassed by customs, friends from abroad being denied entry altogether, the Canadian customs cracking down on folks with felony offenses on their record, regardless of the time served or how long ago it was.) Frahm’s performance earlier in the week was very well-received, so it makes sense to include him, more than any other, in this venue, especially considering the nature of his music. “It’d be weird to play the same set twice at the same festival, no?” he asked the crowd after his first few pieces in the pristine concert hall. (I guess not if you’re Onra.) But Frahm did end up sticking to a lot of the same material that he’d prepared for the earlier show, though he worked in some other pieces which suited his improvisational approach. Though he headline that earlier show, and played a LONG set with an encore, he didn’t have a ton of additional prepared material to draw on. He seemed to flesh out the set a bit with some other pieces and improvisations, but the over all structure was recognizable. It appeared to me that he spent more time on the synth and especially the Rhodes. A one point he used mallets on the grand piano, something unique to that show which produced amazing timbral qualities. There was a clear sense of how to transition from one of the next, and again Frahm was much applauded by the crowd.
There’s a special nuance to a gifted composer playing his own work, and I feel honored to have witness Nils Frahm twice during this festival.
Pantha du Prince & The Bell Laboratory were even more evocative, lending a range of sonorites of electronic and acoustic origin fully filling the cutting-edge space. Six bell players in aprons ringing out the room establish the mood before each retreating to find their station. By the time a house beat drops, the limits of dancy for the concert hall with seating became apparent. I suppose thing makes sense, and it did 1) sound great 2) was a great experience and 3) emphasized who we build these halls for (not us). But I wonder, there are so many great composers and producers working with electronics that would have been better suited to be showcased in the venue. Electro-acoustic performers like Giuseppe Ielasi, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Taylor Dupree, neo-classical artists like Richard Skelton, classically trained composers like Greg Haines, electroacoustic artists like Francisco Lopez or Gregg Kowalsky, in situ performers like CM von Hauswolf.. Or Montreal’s Tim Hecker even, Svarte Greiner or Deaf Center, I could go on.
So instead we got claps on the 2s and 4s and dancing in the aisles, which is fine with me. The more ambient passages worked best for me, really searching out the capacity of the room. After an encore the performers walked off through the aisles playing their bells, a beautiful way to finish their engagement with the space.
By this point in the festival Im usually pretty wiped out, but couldn’t miss this final Nocturne. Germany’s Dictaphone played a cool, moody set merging live electronics, clarinet, and violin. The three elements were well balanced, but perhaps a bit too polite. I wish someone would take the lead, or else I wish the compositions were stronger, though the hazy tone of the songs certainly fit the exhaustion and haze of the audience. Still, it felt as though everyone was holding back. Their palette of sounds was relatively restrained, Restrained palette, not unlike dub, which worked very well to set up the night’s main act.
Moritz von Oswald and Juan Atkins
People were of course looking forward to this, which might make the lackluster results all the more of a disappointment. Along with these two heavy hitters was a third performer, some nerdy younger white guy. It’s not really clear what he was doing, perhaps controlling the visuals, but because both MvO and JA were seated, you could only really see him from and center. There seemed to be too many producers. They need someone to actually fulfill that function, as an editor, but the result was too many cooks.
In effect, what you have is two voices that don’t work together. They just talk past one another. Rather than innovative, the set fall kind of flat. The record might be AMAZING, I don’t know and will reserve judgment on that, but live it just couldn’t compete. Von Oswald was never really known as a live artist, but as a producer. His place is behind a mixing desk. After his stroke, for one reason or another he began playing live, such as with his MvO Trio (featuring personal favorites Vladislav Delay and Max Lauderbaur.) But the Trio is about live interaction, and is not club centric. So why make a dance floor record now? If I wanted to be cynical I’d say it’s for the money. And I’m kind of cynical at this point.
Minimal ≠ Minimal at Phi Centre, Ernstalbrecht Stiebler
This showcase was a real treat, even though it wasn’t included in my media pass and meant a long walk through a hot day to get to the Old Port location. Ernstalbrecht Stiebler is not well known now, nor was he throughout his career. Berlin record label m=minimal cites him as a pioneer of minimalism, reacting to the dominant currents of post-war Serialism. He studied with Stockhausen, though he’s more interested in the acoustic properties of his instumrnets and of human perception than with electronics. His music is minimal not like Reich or Glass (phases or process music applied to tonal music) but Minimal like sculptors like Donald Judd and Robert Morris. The work relies on very little happeneing to create a rich space of subtle complexity, utilizing wolf tones to create a shifting sense of time and space.
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