Laptop Libido On Rewind – MUTEK to SONAR 2003
When it came time to summarize the smoldering mess known as my “notebooks” – notebooks that would be found “missing” several times over during my Journey of Summer Festivals, later “found” in various record executive’s possessions, thumbed through and underlined – it was as if I was recovering some kind of hallucinated handbook, a cross between the lost books of Narnia, an entheogenic philosophy text and a Hipster travelogue. Out came phrases plucked from the hot Mediterranean air of Barcelona’s Sonar festival, a four-day excursion into the madness of 40 degree (Celsius) heat, absinthe, avant-garde architecture & floods of pasty bodies on drugged out trips. Oh yeah – & a good slice of experimental electronic music... I learned the following: Aqua means water; Vino wine; and hash – well, that’s self explanatory...
Rewind the memory-banks: “If writing these scrawled notes are an excuse to lower my budding Friendster addiction, then Sonar is the wrong-way stopover for drunk Brits lost on their way to Ibiza.”
– I like that one. And it’s true: Sonar is a dangerous nightmare... hordes of drunk, pink & flabby post-ravers... “Claustrophobia in the booth,” I wrote, “as the livestock ramshackle into the multi-level, fenced off massive art-complex known as the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, which is like plunking down SFMOMA into a walled medieval city... plenty of winding, narrow streets filled with screaming night hookers, just of La Rambla, the massive avenue of tourist despair, the pickpocket’s dreampalace, where only the dripping bodies fear to tread: no traffic in these quarters.”
Barcelona is one of the only cities on Earth that is beautiful at every corner: For the corners are recessed for bars and restaurants. Every street corner an octagon. There are no street corners in Barcelona. Terraces are in the middle of the avenues, lined with trees. Nobody eats dinner until 11 p.m. Nobody goes out until 2 a.m. You come home at 8 a.m or later. You wake at 11 a.m. And then nap between 1 p.m. and 3 .p.m. – siesta – when everything is closed. You don’t sleep much. Thinking is sweating. Living is vertigo. And this is the atmosphere – sun blazing hot, passing out, headaches, missed appointments, overheated laptops, motorcycle protests on Balmes – of Sonar.
Sonar.es is a festival for experimental electronic music lovers, and since its inception in 1993, has been drawing ever-growing crowds to the mid-June festivities. This was the 10th Anniversary, sporting a total crowd of 89, 109 – including 387 artists from 20 countries, and 848 journalists (half of those from Spain). One of those journalists was me – for Discorder, & hell-bent on covering Sonar from the inside and out. Sonar on the in is kind of like a big, mad bull in the ring with a prophecy complex – it dies after three days only to be reborn the following year a little more high. Sonar on the out shows a lot of resentment – one of the founders, Victor Nuebla, left Sonar after three years to found the LEM Festival due to Sonar’s increasing commerciality, and there are numerous “Off-Sonar” festivals that often showcase events more on the downlow, if not Anti-Sonar in nature then certainly more experimental and open to underground artists. This is also because of Sonar’s rip-off showcase policy. Basically, record labels pay to have a showcase at Sonar, for which they receive zilch from the ticket sales in return. Unless you’re a high-flying über-artist, the most fascinating acts have arrived at Sonar by having a label pay their way. Sonar makes a lot of money through this industry blackmail.
Nonetheless, this is global capitalism and Sonar remains the catalyst: Without it, there would be no opposition or antagonism to spurn further art or events. And still, few electronic music festivals manage to balance the beats and the weirdness with such high expectations, as well as net.art exhibits, software demonstrations, sound installations, film showings, three floors of international booths, a record and business fair, something like six different stages, including chill out rooms and deck-chaired listening tents, and two entirely different venues – if not faces – of the festival: Sonar By Day, and Sonar By Night.
Sonar By Day is probably where anyone over 24 ends up. As the heat rolled in one fine afternoon, I found myself stoned to anticon, rocking the front-stage at high volumes on the Astroturf... later it was Prefuse 73, or the stunningly erotic Safety Scissors, singing his songs of digital despair. Numerous label showcases are the highpoints, with members of Mego, Cheap, and MUTE gracing various stages. Yet anticipation this year focused on Montréal, for the last event of Sonar, Saturday afternoon in the hot, outdoor SonarDome, was the Mutek showcase – Akufen, Tim Hecker, Deadbeat, and DJ Vincent Lemieux. Imagine the scene, feel the heat... plugging away at laptops while the throng passed out on the shaded green... the Montréalers getting extremely drunk, due to a certain infamous net.artists’ absinthe supply (Tim drank the absinthe too. Then dreamt his Rimbaud dreams in sound to the hallucinating audience). Even though both of Akufen’s laptops crashed (& later, his MIDI controller stolen from the stage), and the soundsystem completely melted, and Lemieux’s DJ set was rather straightforward (whither the turntablists?), Tim Hecker managed to absorb the crowd in waves of cascading granulation, leading up to Deadbeat’s stunning exploration of his microdubscapes that had us all singing into the night air, and Philip Petite from BiP-HoP dancing & yelling in the graffiti-ed streets after we got kicked out (there’s supremely surreal Graf in Barcelona – the Graf kids grew up on Dali, DADA, Picasso and Gaudi...) – & yeah we seemed to be the last people to leave the trashed grounds of Sonar, knee high in plastic beer cups...
Walking from building to building was kind of like being at EXPO ’86 at age 9 – all asses and legs, unable to make an actual decision, caught in the crowd and the flow. But what a flow! What asses! Either the red-burnt skins and husks of plastic-cupped Eurotrash drunks, or those other asses one finds down at Spain’s nude beaches. Which is what I wrote, sitting beside a hung-over XLR8R journalist, along with: “Everyone in their ’20s in Barcelona drives a motorcycle or scooter. Fucking move here now.” I think I might, in summer 2005: For Barcelona is hosting the World Social Forum, and underlying this city’s beauty is its resistance. Anarchist neighborhoods still exist here, strong after holding out during Franco’s fascism for fifty-odd years. The LEM festival is deeply attached to these roots as a political manifestation. But what are Sonar’s politics? To answer this question took some thinking – then drinking – for the politics of electronic music are often played out at night....
Eating paia on a beachfront restaurant with SND, Pan/Tone, and a few others associated with the immanently political Mille Plateaux label, the politics seem to revolve around a hedonism... of eating up the good life while we can still afford it. Maybe this really is a time-trip back to the Thatcher/Reagan years: a sense of Fuck It All, the World Is Fucked... nobody at Sonar is a superstar... unless, that is, you’re one of the artists invited to Sonar By Night. Richie Hawtin is such an artist, and wandering around the Mutek showcase, he had his Plastikman t-shirt on inside-out – to avoid detection. According to Deadbeat, Jeff Mills had bodyguards in the Press Centre, who quickly stepped out to stop M. Montieth from greeting the Detroit Idol.
While Sonar By Day takes place in downtown Barcelona, adjacent to the old quarter – the whole city is old, so this means really old, Roman era – Sonar By Night is an hour out of town in a massive arena-sized convention centre built for the Olympics. I knew things were going to be BIG when we went to the invite-only press-party on the Thursday before things kicked off – and it had an “intimate” party room that was a skating-ring. This was small. Luckily I saw Mills, Detroit techno turntablist, undo the decks in a 40-minute set that saw the Wizard handling the history of Detroit: from funk to Afrika Bambaata to early jack-house and on into his newer & housier Purposemaker records, living up to all flash expectations – finally. Compare this to Sonar By Night – where 30,000 sweaty, shaved chests and silicon parts separate you from the front stage, and the sound comes in echoed waves across the sea of bodies while Mills and Hawtin just bang out the unfortunately stagnant hard techno. Mutek offered a much more intimate experience – we’ll get to that soon. But here’s a tangent in sonic politics: propelling 130bpm beats of hard, minimalist and abstracted percussive abuse meant something. But ever since Hawtin started to look like Sven Väth – he’s got the blond hair & the blue contacts now – and Mills... well, about five years ago it all started to shift with the ego-expansion: and hard techno was forever lost. Like Beat poets, hard techno was tied to an actual nomadic, roving existence. Once that becomes a global circuit – the music’s angry punk-like frustration is made dance pablum. At least at Sonar, and in contrast to other Euro festivals, you don’t see nary a Sasha or Paul van Dyk in sight – the reigning trance queens – although one feels the Brit crowd wouldn’t notice the difference anyway. It is this indifference which sets the tone for Sonar as radically apart from the smaller, intensive confines of MUTEK. Mutek is like Sonar in Year 3 – and it looks like Mutek might just hang onto its proportionality without begging to the alternate-Ibiza schlock that is slung at Sonar as “alternative” or “experimental.” Comparing Hawtin’s two sets between Sonar and Mutek is a litmus test. While at Mutek, Hawtin played a deeply introspective, minimalist funk, previewing much of the new Plastikman album, stripping down the bass to stark levels and submerged acid – in the critical technohead sphere he played an act of redemption. Unfortunately, his Sonar set was a never-ending bang-bang-bang, requiring no emotion nor intelligence on behalf of the dancing body. No connection at all. The rest of the world doesn’t understand what Hawtin was – & Hawtin, for reasons we can only speculate, seems to lack the courage to bring the elements of his art, his extreme Midwest style, to the rest of the world.
And there is schlock – although a lot of it is not even from Sonar, but a global trend known as “the schlock market.” We do not have a musical avant-garde in techno music, for they are afraid of upsetting the careful balance of festival politics. If Sonar’s politics are marked by indifference – this, despite its net.art exhibit, which featured some fascinating work by NN, among others – then so are the former politics of many an ex-warehouse-technohead. The much anticipated Kompakt records showcase – the German powerhouse of all things minimal techno – revealed that what the supermen are up to today is nothing less than a compacted minimal trance. Boring as hell – for both mind and body, like the never-ending repetitions of the Roland 909 that grace ubiquitous drum trax. Perhaps this is because of a wider shift – to laptop production, which creates sound still too odd to be incorporated into the conservative main room of Sonar By Night – but also, the death of the entire paradigm of the subculture, a change that has resulted in the complete disorientation of a number of “traditional” genres in electronic music. The very nature of the politics of the subculture has changed. While trance, house and hard techno die, and their icons come to a foggy realization that their crowds of bouncing-audiences are dwindling to an average age of 14, the exploration of dub, cacophony, no-holds-barred experimentalism, noise, random sound generation, performance art in electronic music, and all the things that make up today’s microhouse/techno, microsound, lowercase, electro, phonography, noise, breakcore, and bit-hop sounds have come to the fore as the sound of the aughts: 00 to 09 of the second millennium.
Rewind that soundbyte: the subcultural political is dead. Thus it comes as no surprise that events like Sonar and one-time resistance music like hard techno are nothing more than hollow husks signifying no actual social movement – like they once were. The social movement today is not tied to the sound of the music, but rather to the gathering itself: What is happening at Sonar, the very nodal gathering that Sonar is. And Sonar can be nothing less, at points, than a strange brew of business, sex, drugs and politics... where one ends the other doesn’t stop: it’s a vicious hedonism that keeps the music distributors, labels, and artists on the circuit. One look into the deeply sunk, intelligent and incredibly sleep deprived eyes of Ricardo Villalobos will tell you that in a second. And it’s wiring these global circuits – Sonar, Mutek – into the mainboards of other networks –
Next Five Minutes, Ars Electronica, ISEA – that is soldering a new political, not of the “underground” or the “subculture,” but of the global nomad.
Is Sonar worth attending? Sure, why the fuck not – if for anything a chance to see Barcelona and drink absinthe. Alcohol is cheaper than water, and absinthe in Spain is stock full of the wormwood, for 5 Euros a bottle.
MUTEK – FOUR YEARS IN MONTRÉAL
The narrative on Mutek has forced me to say: I’ve seen it all. Hell, I moved to Montréal in part because of this gathering, or more significantly, the people this gathering has brought together, across Canada, into one metropolis – a city cheap, stylized, hip, with more than one language and culture... and not only French, but a myriad billion things going on at once. A couple hours north of NYC, Montréal has everything Williamsburg, Brooklyn wants but wouldn’t even know where to begin implementing – a weekly park gathering called Tam Tams, cheap & decriminalized pot (from BC), better coffee, more terraces, and something called “style” which has the effect of making one’s Fuckable Rating escalate a notch or two.
Mutek too has grown over the three years, and so have I, in three years of coverage. I feel a bit like Genesis P-Orridge: When you know everything that is going to happen, when you know how the entire thing is run, all the internal scuffles and politics, you feel like bailing out while you still can, before the cynicism kicks in. Keep moving. But it took a trip to Sonar to look back at Mutek and realize what a wonderful thing it is. My Editor at e|i magazine asked me to write a very critical review of this year’s Mutek – and good thing it was cancelled, for I was simply unable. Sure, the usual Québecois disorganization graced all aspects, silly decisions were made, and the general Mutek hierarchy remains as generally mysterious and unapproachable as ever, but the festival itself was an intimate experience – something I can barely say for Sonar. At Mutek, one can sit down, lie down, often, and listen. I.e., the festival is still about the sound, about listening, about giving an artist the time and space to absorb soundwaves, and often engaging visuals. The debate over laptops in this context is over: It doesn’t matter, what matters is the sound. We are a generation of ears, perhaps because – and as Adbusters demonstrates time and time again – our visual environment is a polluted mess. At least, if we cannot afford artist’s billboards, we can create music and sound.
The mistake many people make at Mutek is believing it is a music festival. It masquerades as one: Primarily, Mutek is about sound, which means that various expectations of music will, at some point, be entirely crunched. The most aggressive example this year was the Mego showcase. For the most part, the atmosphere was loud, but soothing... Kevin Drumm’s ocean-like noise filtered visual patterns through closed eyes as his strobe light increased and decreased in intensity; Pita played a soft collage of waves and drones; and Tujiko Noriko’s noise-pop was a beautiful interlude, earning her the compliment: “The new Japanese Björk.” But then there was Hecker – no, not Tim Hecker, but Hecker, who chose to split bodies, minds, the air and the audience in two with violent and worrying sinewave shards, running into frequencies so sudden and vicious that a good number of people fled into the afternoon... the applause was smattering, but for those who stayed, his excursion cleaved the consciousness of what sound can do to you... many people didn’t like it all: Which for me signified an experience inassimilable into the hipster consciousness that wafts like a bad perfume ’round Mutek.
The only other performance to come close was sound performance artist Christof Migone. Three videos side-by-side on the screen displayed, beginning on the left, a man (...can't see his eyes..) holding his mouth open; next over, a man trying to suck through a massive block of ice, held in his hands, with a tomato in the middle; and finally, what appeared to be a bridge at dusk as it slowly moved through sunset to night. Audio was recorded from these actions... the tension, groaning and breathing of the open-mouth; the cold slice-slurping of the ice, the choking; the traffic and far off city-drones, routed via separate amplifier-speakers which were then mic'ed and fed into a central mixing console, electro-acoustic style, where Christoph sat in the middle of the audience. A performance of tension... it ended 45 minutes later, the audio undulating from these live recordings in time with the video, a whole aural field of bodily tensions, of excruciating pain, of endurance, a meditative torture, pushing past the limits of body to sound, yet seeing the process, which finally and only produced audible relief in the audience when the tomato was reached, 45 minutes later, in the middle of the ice... Presumably Christoph, finally closing his mouth, coughing and spluttering from viciously holding his jaw open for so long, his muscles conducting uncontrollable spasms. Three quarters of an hour that was an eternity. Variations of performance-art-sound has never gone over well at Mutek, in fact the very first Mutek performance ever was Alexander St. Onge in 2000 – he and Martin Tétreault related to me one fine night the audience's discord that resulted from Alexander's body-sound conceptual piece....
The sonic organization of this year’s edition surpassed previous years – at least in the grouping of various artists into appropriate venues. The sold-out Ex Centris shows were a treat, with the extra bonus this year of floorpads to sit on instead of the pure cement. Moreover, the shows were aurally engaging, with Thomas Köner and Asmus Tietchens opening ears and closing eyes to an introspective labyrinth, a dark soundscape drawn from field recordings and tense in the directionless interpretations the ambience invited. A still-life tableaux of Tietchens and Köner manipulated us further and further into the post-industrial drones & buried sound streams, repetitions and events that could only be heard after significant immersion, cave-like, a steel-hull, or maybe even the sound track to House of Leaves... The end of the performance was, perhaps ironically, one of the superior moments; the volume reduced, the bass rumble dominated the atmosphere, & as it slowly decreased, and then ended, the audience was perfectly quiet, there was a pause once the sounds echoed into stillness, and then a heartfelt and thunderous applause.
The same can be said for the disciplined improvisational duo of Martin Ng and Orem Ambarchi, accompanied by the visual artist Tina Frank (her work can be found gracing Mego, Staubgold and Chocolate Industries). The ensemble “began before beginnings were realized,” with acute and small tones that slowly, with a restraint rarely heard in improvisation, collided into a careful tinkering of line noise from stock turntables, effected and prepared guitar, and other forms of delicate feedback. A few surprising and shocking, if not violent feedback spikes shook the audience out of quietude; a few tittered and laughed, genuinely unsettled ... at the same time, a madly psychedelic generative-video from Frank, of geometric lines, cubes, holes and sprawling grids flipped representational schemas from 2-D to 3-D, interpreting the sounds as they were processed. This led into Tim Hecker, whose performances are lush and evocative explorations ... and this was not a disappointment .. to warm up the audience, a few audio experiments from the 242.pilots vid collective (including Kurt Ralske), mainly abrasive lines, colors, and biting, cutting hard-edged sounds. But the main course, if not dessert, was Hecker and the Pilots. While I drifted off from the video – which was color-toned and softly delicate, with broad swatches of color occluding swathes of source photo & video, lost in a fog, yet perhaps too bright, not blue enough for what I imagine in terms of Hecker's soundscapes – I was rapt in a deep slumber with Tim Hecker's improvisations through chunks recognizable from Radio Amor: I had a dream, while lying down and listening, and feeling the floor rumble from tones that we could not hear, so deep they were, of creating a deep listening show where Tim would play for a good two hours ... and at volumes much higher than Ex-Centris seemed capable of that evening .. who knows: It may indeed have happen.
So – Mutek continues with its droned-weirdness – how does it feel to perform at Ex Centris? To Mutek’s credit, every year Mutek showcases several unknown Canadian artists. This year, Edmonton’s Clinker – who also played the 2003 New Forms Festival – debuted. And by this I mean that Mutek was, for all purposes, his first prominent live show – before he’s even released an album. It was a focused and coherent debut. Clinker took over the reins with a delightful drone and loop performance that shook the very foundations of the postmodern architecture. During the quiet points we could hear the kitchen staff in the restaurant. (...but losing all thoughts to the hums and strains that retained a classical edge of an avant-garde composition – no glitches, granulation, or high frequency pitch-shifting here – think of what it must have been like to have heard La Monte Young at Black Mountain, massive sine waves enveloping whole rooms of stunned bodies....)
The facts: Clinker is 36, been at it since age 20 – but as a bassist in heavy rock bands aiming to become Primus. Six years ago he lost interest, and began wandering into Tortoise, Björk, and Brian Eno, something Clinker describes as “I had a couple of epiphanies with music listening” – which also comes down to researching minimal classical music, from Morton Feldman to Steve Reich and Thomas Köner. A designer for a living, Clinker fell in love with synthesizers (he uses a Nord Modular, but owned “dozens of synths” in his basement for awhile), falling farther into the land of ambient music.
People coming in from other genres have exploded the field anew. Are you aware of people doing work similar to yours today, or are you still operating in a vacuum?
“I live in Edmonton, so I do feel like I am in a vacuum, it takes an enormous amount of effort to try and source out and find the music that’s been inspiring to me. I found my way to the Mutek website and started listening to a lot of the streams form the first year – when I got to Carsten Nicolai and the Raster-Noton collective, it was a sound I had never heard before. Super clinical and austere, but something warm about it that appealed to me. A lot of the influences come through Mutek.”
Clinker is a text-book case of Mutek’s influence and its force within the Canadian scene. After attending the 2001 edition, and seeing how experimental music is presented, he came back determined to participate – as an artist: “I’m coming to Mutek absolutely from the bottom. I don’t have any releases on anybody. Their decision to bring me in was based on my demo. Mutek is the portal. If you can play there, you will meet all these people that you need to, and if your work is good enough, people will be interested in it. And that’s the way I’ve approached it, and so far its worked.”
And as an artist, he’s followed in the grand tradition of soundscapes, from Hildergaard Westerkamp to Tim Hecker... which led me to ask:
Tim Hecker did his remix of Van Halen. Could you ever converge your interests that way, has that come to mind?
“No, not at all. People tell me that you’re a product of your past... and I can see that now, when I was recording the rock albums and learning how to engineer, all those skills play a huge part in what I am doing now. It was a whole process of learning that end of it, then coming back into the sound design aspect with synthesizers.”
Some people accuse journalists of attaching music to geography, but would you say your dronescapes are a product of Edmonton? I’ve been to the Prairies, spent some time there, and for me, that sort of music comes right out of that sort of place, living – do you see that connection?
“I absolutely see the connection. Maybe it was more a subliminal thing. I didn’t start recognizing the connection until the last couple of years, thinking theoretically about my artist’s mandate and what seems to be happening with the sounds I was coming up with. I turn my machines on, and its natural to build these types of soundscapes. My isolation, locking myself up for the seven months of winter in my basement, its gotta have an influence, I really believe it. I’ve billed myself as a minimal isolationist in that sense.”
BACK TO MUTEK
Mutek’s expanse far exceeds my words here – and no doubt, your patience. As the growing Vancouver contingent can attest, Mutek is not only a valuable, learning experience – like first-time anal sex – but one hell of a party. Chances are, an apartment across the street will burn down. This is true. (Vancouver sends, along with Seattle, by far the most delegates – close to 20 this year.) If you’d like the extreme play-by-play, may I politely point the reader here, where a 15,000 word essay on every single act at Mutek can be found. I say this to spread the love. But also because I’d like to mention one more act – Coil – and one more interview: Robin Judge, who now lives out on the West Coast with her perhaps more well-known partner, Tomas Jirku. Please welcome them – they are fish out of the water, so to speak. But on to Coil. I’d like to bring you to this magickal moment for a second. Some had been waiting 10, 20 years for this moment. Now here we are at Metropolis, a grand ol’ theatre, three levels and round, transformed into a music hall. Larger than the Queen Elizabeth. The show was rammed, a large section of the crowd comprised of young, fat and LSD trippin' goth kids, replete with eyeliner, boots, GAP-black-pants, the whole fucking works. A trio of them insisted on talking through a good 20 mins of Coil's set, one of them even trying to phone someone, whining about how they couldn’t hear anything – direct stage left. I almost gave these goth kids their self-desired suicides... eventually a few of us told them to shut the fuck up, and they couldn't take the heat under the pressure of LSD so they bolted with their inflatable, blue alien doll. Sweet mother. If you're going to do LSD – take the ticket, take the ride... deal with it ... embrace it .. quit whining, dump the cellphone, lose some weight, and wash off the wanna-be makeup. If you want to get weird, get WEIRD. And for chrissakes, if you came for Coil, LISTEN TO COIL... alright...
Coil came out in white fur suits reminiscent of a Yeti version of Sun Ra .. slowly they walked out with a military bearing.. the relationship was evident: master [Coil] / slave [audience] .. playing the keyboards with dramatic pause and aggressive execution .. sequencing tracks in Live on a Powerbook .. responding with warmth to the darker and colder Coil, and his gaping eyes .. once the hoods came off, we saw their age! Both had shaved heads, although grey could be seen .. mohawks at age .. 50 ? .. impressive: Hardcore and fucked until the end, Coil I think only communicated with those who knew their history or who know something of the genesis of industrial music in the heyday of the ’70s performance-art scene... Thus spending much time in their ambient excursions before tapping into rhythms, playing three distinct tracks with pauses that melded into others... the tension generated by Coil was immense, and by the end the entirety of Metropolis was one way or another captivated. Detroit technoheads speak of “educating” the crowd: This was such a performance, with Coil demonstrating the direction of rhythm, the importance of repetition, the ways in which sounds need not be busy, but need be relational, to speak to each other. Later, the response was mixed. Those who knew Coil were blown away, sampling the references, the gestures; those who knew nothing of Coil thought their performance irrelevant. Regardless of their relevancy today in terms of an innovative force, seeing Coil, in all their weirdness, their dark industrial tinge, their refusal to accede to contemporary performance schemas, all of this served as a historical reminder of a past that is perhaps even less-known and appreciated than Detroit techno: ’70s industrial, the whole nexus of Throbbing Gristle, Genesis P-Orridge, Chris & Cosey, right down through Skinny Puppy, Thrill Kill Kult, Front 242. The goth kids don't get it either, although they are, to an extent, attempting to rebel in a teenage way that shows some hatred for society – in fact I was speaking to someone last night: what can kids do today to rebel? What counterculture is there that hasn't already been consigned to the trash? Isn't ‘counterculture’ or ‘subculture’ or DIY even a cynical joke? Is there hope?
INTERVIEW: ROBIN JUDGE
I’ll be honest – because Judge would want me to be. When various artists find themselves quickly advancing in a field alongside their better-known partners – for example, Richie Hawtin’s handpicked DJ accomplice, Magda – there are some questions to be asked. “The scene” runs on backscratching & piggybacking – everyone knows that. Thus I was happy to see Robin Judge nervous before her first performance – as someone should be, who is presenting new work to such an audience for what is, like Clinker, The First Time in the international arena. And Judge has come to craft her dubbed out, softly minimal techno sound as distinct from Jirku, engaging glitches and atmospheric rhythms, notably with releases on Traum, although they share an album on Onitor that has perked more than a few ears. Judge and Jirku are perhaps closer to the inspiring collaboration between Luomo and AGF... or hell, maybe, The White Stripes.
Judge’s interview was a quicky – captured on the floor of the Juste Pour Rire studios just minutes before she was to go on. From this we can glean that she’s a post-raver, into electronic music since the early ’90s, and has been a gearhead for the last five. But it wasn’t until she got “seriously into software, about two years ago” that she followed the “natural progression” to producing her own music. She met Tomas handing out a demo...
What’s it like working with Tomas?
“He’s very honest. I like that, I like people who are very honest with their opinions. We have a very similar aesthetic, a very similar headspace, so it makes a lot of sense for us to talk about music and do music together.”
– Which is about all that’s worth grabbing. The next day she was off to Vancouver with Tomas, and played the New Forms Festival this year. In any case: I lied, and I want to immerse us in Mutek’s Sunday night to finish this mildly epic rant...
SUNDAY NIGHT: MUTEK ON THE BRINK
Where do we begin – with the massive lineup waiting to get in? The anticipation of viewing the set-up of eight beat geniuses getting ready to improvise a cacophony of dance-meltdowns? Sunday was a first, and Mutek’s tradition of growing back its ecstatic hair was once again renewed. The Phoenix.
Indeed, first with Robert Henke as Monolake, who proceeded to deconstruct, via Ableton Live – he’s one of the software’s designers – a few of his hallmark & patterned echo-scapes into the stratospheres of techno-dub. A few moments of hilarity from the truly genial Henke – he had to ask for a mouse halfway through as his “trackpad was going crazy” – in a wonderful German accent, may I add –and he took the time to thank everyone, noting this was the last night of Mutek. Sometimes you just need a 6-foot plus, bald, tall and smiling German guy to remind you to have fun. And for many of us, this was the chance to see a Monolake we had hunted out, record by record, since 1995. Eight years ago... And Henke did not disappoint, submerging the casa into watery realms, and as the drinks were washing down numerous pills in the audience, the soundsystem – administered by Julien Roy – was put to its furthest limits of volume... time to prepare for what was to come: Narod Niki.
According to the Mutek booklet, Narod Niki was a group of “students and professors who traveled Russia teaching the peasants to read and to understand the basis of the revolution” (p. 45). Now, I don't know if this is meant to be revolutionary – all those loops in revolution – or ironic [ultimately, Russian socialism failed...]. Whatever: Narod Niki was, from left-to-right: Richie Hawtin, Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos, [master mixer controller & conductor: either Julien Roy or Robert Henke], Pier Bucci (Zip from Perlon), Dandy Jack, Luciano, Cabanne and Dan Bell. For those counting, Richie Hawtin + Dan Bell = Cybersonik. History in the remix.
The result was speaker meltdown. Some poor soul I met was a little disappointed, saying that although the grouping was legendary, the results were anything but. I think I have to disagree. I remember at the first Mutek I was disappointed by the live sets – after practicing the speed at which a talented techno-turntablist can dive records, hearing producers play their own tracks remains somewhat boring. Tracks need to be mixed, and Mutek is still trying to grudgingly admit the role of the DJ, the turntablist of beats and not just phonographic experimentalism. To a degree, I've come to expect an element of long-track-dancing at Mutek, and accept the changing parameters of playing from gear, laptops, and so on, as part of the sonic shift. But since 2001, the technology has also improved to the point where the producers are able to remix their work live. And the producers themselves, those who are not DJs, have started utilizing DJ techniques. Which is not to say that all producers are good DJs, or for that matter, know how to really play their own work – for often it takes a third party to interpret what was not heard at the origin...
Give thanks, then, that each member of Narod Niki had such an idea of how to mix – although the stand-outs were by far the most talented turntablists: Richie Hawtin, who stripped everything down, sound-sculpting the mix, and Dan Bell, who jumped into the repetitious loops of mindfuck-vocals that made him famous [“I'm losing control...I'm losing control...”]. Each had their own unique quality – Luciano led into two desire-filled, epic, but not cheesy, breakdowns, sweat dripping off bodies packed into this brick box... Dandy Jack dropping the four-on-the-floor into Latinate, organic breaks – dancing away like mad, his energy infected the crowd and drove us into orgies of movement – there’s Eric from Oral throwing his water bottle again... Cabanne working with Bell on the tight beats – while Ricardo opens the whole mix to surreal basslines and vocoder sing-songs... Akufen's sliced-and-diced sampledelia cut through Hawtin's minimalist sound-sculptures, and every time his trademark beat-dicing could be heard, another surge erupted from the crowd... that’s our man...Richie would look up, smiling and laughing at Dan – who remained stone-faced the entire time, dead serious – as Bell pushed the bangin' mindfuck. Ricardo would gesture over, pointing out who had come into the mix.. it was like a big jazz jam, trading off beats, winding through various tortures and ecstasies, gesturing the magick of sonic ritual, conducting, a digital clone of a Sun Ra jam, & at the helm was either Julien Roy or Robert Henke, manning the master mixer and pushing it as loud as it would fucking go, thudding the bass – that warm, hard bass, so loud that those in front of the speakers had both hands over their ears in pleasure... bleeding loud...when the three-hour jam ended at 4 a.m., the crowd cheering with the lights on, it seemed like we were only just getting started... indelible memoirs...we were stunned: this is, after all, what we are here for, and this is the social found in the sonic.
...& then the Gods granted the free, intimate warehouse after party. Richie and Ricardo spinning, dropping deep acidic techno and Latin minimal house jams... solid thumping.. all chilling, barely awake, more substances consumed, famous journalists passed out in awkward positions on couches, wild dancing from gum-chewing label-owners, all that shit I just cannot talk about, Mutek Director Alain Mongeau actually smiling and looking relaxed, and finally, after days of cloud & cold, the sun rising over the echoing streets of Montréal ... enough time out of joint to see a strange post-hippie bike down the street in the oddest of wheeled caravans...and to eventually move the decks up to Mont Royal to continue the beats into afternoon suns...” (Taken from van Veen’s fifth Mutek entry Resolution, Resonance & Caveat Emptor: MINDFUCKING)
From the annals.
By tobias c. van Veen