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Sonar 2004

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Dusted's tobias c van veen reports back from this year's Sonar festival.

Sonar 2004

I would find it just as vulgar to be an authority in the resistance to society as to be an authority within society itself. —Guy Debord

By means of music, the very passions enjoy themselves...

—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

I. Into the heat, of night and violent dawn

Landing in Barcelona again, I reaquaint myself with the airport baggage system and proceed to whichever carousel doesn’t list the incoming Iberia flight. The sweltering heat of this dusty, Roman city, its tortile streets, mobs of tourists and predators of the night. A few days in and a friend scarcely avoids an arcing, sharp blade in the oiled, narrow streets of the labrynthine Garcia district (where I stay, above the pandemonium, facing the frontside of the street’s daily feints). Barcelona — one of the last medieval cities on the continent....

In part, the 11th Sónar Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art drew us all to the Mediterranean. The annual festival is a magnet for the European electronic musician, a class that has sought to diverge its artistry from rave’s burn-out while converging to enjoy its allied pleasures. The UK’s Wire magazine has tracked (as well as hyped) Sónar since its inception, stressing its diversity and talent. The festival acts as a rangefinder for the electronic genres while generally avoiding the club fodder (trance, pop house). On any stage, the output of laptoppers to post-rock bands and DJs, manifold label showcases, and this year, as the limelight turns to hip-hop, the sound of Sónar shifts in tune with its time. Sónar is a vortex of disorientation wherein a collapse of direction produces unexpected pulses of cynosure that stitch the beats and noise—with anywhere from three to six simultaneous stages—buried indoors in dark, massive basements, an outdoor tent of sweltering green, a packed, narrow hall of blazing white, a thousandfold throng charging the largest outdoor platform. The Sónar experience, buried in the heart of the sweltering, dusty and sand coloured cityscape, entwined among the tourist havanas and street performers, is unique if not contradistinctive, condensing artworld types with punters, a decadent aural cavity that verges on the bizarre. It’s a spectacle that mirrors not a mandate, but the immanent state of curation—or its futuristic absence—in the electronic media.

The quintessential Sónar moment arrives when, struggling against a tide of sweaty, burnt bodies swarming in the opposite direction, you can do nothing but indulge the flow: toward whatever attractor is seducing the crowd, mesmerized and hypnotic... An organized sport might manage to incorporate the panels, digital and net-art gallery, listening booths and the two main divisions without collapsing in the bar: Sónar-by-Day, at the central Museum for Contemporary Art/Centre for Contemporary Cultural complex, and Sónar-by-Night, a Romanesque carnival of 40,000 hedonists in an Olympic collusus outside the city. While the spectacle of the Night beguiles the hordes, those seeking a slightly more intimate experience adhere to the day (perhaps 2000 at a stage instead of 40k), with many afficionados preferring the Off Sónar events—Kompakt and ~scape nights—to the Night’s thunderdrome.

For those in the biz, Sónar is a trade fair, networking to sustain its niche. The organisation offers label showcases to those it identifies as musically worthy and able to support Sónar’s industry angles. Georgia Taglietti, head of the International Media & PR Department as well as the Advanced Music Booking Manager, writes that "the original word Sónar means and still identifies very well with our brand name: a measuring device which should be able to detect and show the visual, sound and artistic situation of contemporary music and multimedia art as a general perspective."

That is, to say, the Sónar brand is doing very well. Labels and artists struggle to play for its reputation. As Taglietti explains, "we collaborate with the labels in terms of sharing performances costs, there is no ‘buy a spot transaction.’ It's a quite usual trade exchange in festivals and music fair." The Wire explains this a little differently: "But Sónar’s absurdly small team... are not opportunists, but utopians focusing an alternative global network in unusual spaces. Nevertheless they are produced in a real world of contingency. In that light, marshalling hundreds of musicians, each with their own demands and peculiarities, coping with the security and pleasure zones of almost 100,000 visitors, they have created an experience unlike any other, one that still feels like it’s about connecting people and ideas, rather than only trying to sell you stuff" (01.06.03). Perhaps utopianism blinds us all to the unusual. But we’re no longer in the alternative ‘90s, and now that Western timelines have hit 2004, with 855 registered journalists in 2003 (including myself), a massive amount of press and international support, how does Sónar fair, say, compared to Montreal’s Mutek, and why would the festival initially deny this particular writer press accreditation—achieved only by writing, at length, inquiring an explanation—based on a critical, gonzo article written of the 2003 edition? Sure, sure — but what is Sónar so worried about?

II. Hear no evil...

Music journalism today — of which I don’t pretend to be a practitioner — tends to focus on acts and their performances. Even then, any sense of criticality directed toward an act can backlash—in lost advertising, strained relations in a world that is all-too-miniscule for positions to survive. Taking a perspective on the festival as a whole—on its organisation, curation, structure, intent—isn’t necessarily rare, but it often only serves to mask deft public relations. As Taglietti said to me when we met this year, she was concerned I didn’t "get" it, as if I had somehow misinterpreted the context, perhaps essence, of the festival.

Perhaps this is all a slight misunderstanding, then, in which case we’ll begin with the misreading that is always the outcome of any text. In fact, it is something of a writer’s desire. If all a writer penned was the remix of the press release, then—well, perhaps we’d start to crawl out of the muck we are floundering in today: a lackluster, consumer-driven global culture with little attention to thought, reproducing art that is becoming lost to its actual force. And without a doubt, despite a continuous, flak-ridden stance toward Mutek—one possible stance of a writer, acting as a cultural critic—Mutek has responded generously to its critics and sought to improve as an organisation each year. Moreover, the writer tends to cherish that which Sonar claims as its raison d’être: to mirror the situation at the time (Taglietti writes: "the main intent of the festival is to mirror the actual situation on the artistic level, and lately also on the industry level, due to the increasing participation of the electronic and multimedia creation industry to the festival"). Consequently, the funhouse mirror of the text — for the writer never just mirrors, but always engages the thinking, fleshy bits of the faculties, the filtering, distortion, differential proportions and amplifications. The questions. Let’s pose one: is the refraction, especially of the prepared image so carefully manufactured by the public relations cabal, really welcome at Sónar?

The answer divides art from the commercial—that’s all, and which isn’t claiming that the two shouldn’t mix, or aren’t already, essentially, blended. Yet at what difference?

For here’s the infraction which I will leave us with, before turning to the festival’s performances—of which there were notable highlights as well as disappointments. Taglietti signals how, in the creation of the festival byline, "Advanced Music," "the history of music ‘advances’, mostly using technological devices, i.e. electronic;" thus "we thought that ‘advanced music’ was much more suitable to include more genres all linked by their wish to be evolving and experimenting." A sincere vision for the festival. But if Sonar is a festival of "Advanced Music," one which bears a history to the aesthetic manifesto of modernism (and futurism), it is also a festival of Advanced Music© — of artists working with the Advanced Music company in Spain that operates Sónar. Thus, Taglietti is also "Advanced Music Booking Manager." The convergence of these two names—of an aesthetically intertwined corporate agenda—is more than just conveniant; it allows a certain irony to pervade the festival’s roster, not only in the yearly repeats of Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin, but in the ghostly fulfillment of certain promises left buried alive by futurism.

III. Journey to the end of the ecstasy...

"...an overproduction- a surfeit of... signs, images, slogans, books and buildings—to compensate for, fill in, and cover up its forever unstable ideological core."

–Jeffrey T. Schnapp, "Epic Demonstrations."

Insanity in individuals is something rare—but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule...

—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Notes on the ground—the picks of three days:

How to approach this massive poster that graces Sónarama, the venue for artists such as Thomas Köner? What a clash between the artistic content, its aspirations, and the festival’s representations! Sonar’s advertising, in an irrelevant display of fatuity, parades souped-up hotrods and their (usually male) owners. Despite a pronounced irrelevance to Sónar’s aim and content, the representational vertigo worsens. For why indulge, and repeat the motif, of the presence of a scantily-clad woman, dressed in yellow, low-cut top, and thigh-high shorts, pretending to be a photographer, as part of the photograph itself, pretending to take snapshots of the cars and their (usually male) owners, gracing every poster, postcard and catalogue, prominently featuring, and reinforcing, the male gaze on her crotch, breasts and ass? (A classic example for cultural studies: given the machine of the gaze—the power of the camera — she is still molded into a sex-object that becomes centre to this pictogram engineered to incite heterosexual, phallic desire—for the purpose of selling the sex of Sónar—her camera only a representation, a farce, a fetish object par excellence, of which we never see her viewpoint, her snapshots, her angles, the interiority of her subjectivity). What does this have to do with Advanced Music? Is this a mirror to the state of the industry Sónar is engaged in? The "evolution" of female representation (and subjectivity) vis-à-vis technology?

Once inside, and clear of the image’s obtrusive façade, Köner’s performance transports its prone audience with a synesthetic breath of nordic air. Lying on the floor in this magnificent, stone building with vaulted ceiling, eyes closed to the tectonic drifts & aerial shifts, as photographs from the lands of ice and snow illuminate flanking screens. It is disappointing that the soundsystem is inadequate for the performance—bassbins flap, unable to support Köner’s cavernous tones. Despite a few technical oversights, Sónarama packages a selection of the more intriguing performances and exhibitions of the festival: Montréal artists Artificiel and their Bulbes installation (dozens of humming, overgrown lightbulbs chiming in sound synchronization, hung from the ceiling—unfortunately the building lacked the electrical power to wire them all); a meditative, icelandic installation from Köner, and an expressive, sensor-based performance from France’s SSS (one of few acts seen using gesture technology to generate electron sound). Down the Ramblas from the Day complex, transparent relief from those masses, the lumpenelectron, and the heat (in fact, the skies open, and it rains)....

On the fringe of the main complex hides another commendable entity: the SónarMàtica church, featuring the 1st Universal Micronations Exhibition, with members in attendance from "states" NSK, State of Sabotage (SoS), the Kingdoms of Elgaland & Vargland, Evrugo Mental State, the Jennifer Government, and the very real & sovereign Principality of Sealand—what was an abandoned WWII fortress built in international waters in the North Sea, claimed by Major Roy Bates and his family in 1967, and defended & habitated ever since (despite a few attempts by the Royal Navy and business pirates). A memorable highlight is meeting the Prince himself and sending a postcard through Sealand’s postal system. As for the digital art and cinema exhibition, noticeably smaller than last year’s anniversary-size archive of several floors, the exercise-bike interfaces for the computer-based digital and net-art pieces prove comfortable and inventive (the twenty or so consoles had long waiting lines). The Musica à la Carta, with a deceivingly simple set-up of CD players and headphones, with one taste decimates an addict of unheard genres, including articulate genealogies of music from Philip Sherburne (the Schaffel mix, tracing the shuffle beat from ‘70s progressive rock to Kompakt techno), a selection of Brazilian "Funky Carioca" by Eduardo Marote (hip-hop’s mantra from the favelas), "Glitchtarras" (Vidal Romero genrefies "guitars plus glitches") and Simon Reynold’s take on Grime ("The sound of London’s pirate radio culture, grime is gangsta rave, a mix of UK garage, Southern rap, and dancehall, its jagged beats designed for MCs to rhyme over").

In the thick of the maelstrom are the main stages, indoor and out. The dark, downstairs and exceedingly loud Escenario Hall monopolizes the more aggressive agitators: an assaulting, no-holds-barred sanction of sharp sinewaves, growling noise and cut beats from Pan Sonic, and a Shitkatapult records showcase that unleashes a fiend of techno and IDM known as Apparat. In the narrow, white enclave of SónarComplex, Carsten Nicolai programs an elaborate charter of what was only hinted at Mutek, extending his geometric brokenbeats into a battle royal of mathematical noise, while earlier, the Rune Grammafon label held court. Outdoors, the green-tented SónarDome is bodyrocked by Geoff White’s Aeroc downtempo project (somewhere between Prefuse73 and Boards of Canada), while Tigersushi’s K.I.M., Joakim & Charles spin an eclectic, layered mix in the SónarLab of drones, abstract beats and oddities (a small stage dedicated to dj sets from label owners). Much of what passed at the concert-size SónarVillage is overrun as the hip-hop centre (nothing against hip-hop—it was just a rammed suntan social scene), or unfortunately, bears witness to trainwrecked club house mixes from François K.—but opinion can’t be passed; too busy drinking with the fish swimming upstream....

As for Sónar-by-Night—it was little surprise that Ricardo Villalobos, not the world’s first technostar, appeared overcome by the size of his stature, leaving the stadium techno elegance in the fine hands of Richie Hawtin. It’s a good gig—an impressive vomitorium in true Roman style—but the footloose these days tend to proceed Off-Sonar, where the sweat and the music mingle. Miss Kittin might be up on stage, but with tens of thousands of meatpackers between you and the show, what is there to absorb? Head to the bar & chat unto dawn, avoid the mad dash for the few schoolbusses and scant taxis that venture for the raucous morning pick-up (warning: conundrum!).

IV. Art in the neo-classical age of reconciliation...

As part of Sónar’s sincere attempt at reparation, I was granted a ticket post-haste to the sold-out Auditori performance featuring the Barcelona Orchestra and electronic musicians Fennesz, Ryuichi Sakomoto (of Yellow Magic Orchestra), and Pan Sonic. Expectations for the rendezvous of classic and contemporary approaches as well as epochs in the traditions of Western-Eastern musical history were high. Yet, it is an unfortunate truth that the encounter was missed, a sonic as well as conceptual disappointment. For the most part, the electronic musicians were restrained as second-line players in a full orchestral entourage that was much too vast—and concerned with harmony and melody—to admit their entrance. The amplified sound itself was channelled into ceiling speakers that were muted and conservative—especially in the case of Fennesz, whose much-vaunted performance claimed to remix the entire orchestra; unfortunately we could barely hear him (when he should have dominated, with electricity, the staging of his laptop reconfiguration of acoustic immediacy). Sakomoto was left over-acting to delicate treatments of prepared piano and synthesizer, while Pan Sonic, in their first piece, were reduced to window-dressing, flittering docile accompaniment. In other words, while the electronic musicians contorted themselves to the orchestra’s will, the orchestral juggernaut remained pure and untouched, curtailing and abbreviating the electronic musician—who should have been granted the prominence of a soloist and composer—to a whimper. The only moment in which the future touched the past, the orchestral transacted with the desires of the electronic, erupted in a piece composed and arranged by Pan Sonic themselves. Leaping to their feet, the percussion section of the orchestra proceeded to strike with abandon as suddenly, the entire apparatus formed a cohesive sound, as the intricate call-and-response designated by Pan Sonic with the wind and acoustic divisions carved an ensemble that only could be imagined by a wired generation steeped in electroniculture. The audience, despite excessively applauding every piece with a complete lack of sensibility, took notice of the exchange and gave Pan Sonic’s Vaihtovirta a charged and sustained reception. As for the rest of the programme: how can the electronic and orchestral rendez-vous when the historical grounds are swept clean with Dvorák’s technicality and Bach’s melodrama? With a completely "seasonal" piece—as in watered-down Vivaldi—from Serguei Prokófiev and something utterly inconspicuous from Michael Torke? Even the one "contemporary" piece chosen—John Adam’s Lollapalooza—became directed in such a way as to offer slim chance for Fennesz’s auteur interpretation (was this an honest attempt at "being hip"?). The dreamers, then, left in a lost chiasmus, of Reich, Cage, Schaeffer, Glass, Subotnik, Boulez, Xenakis, the absent progenitors... phantomic figures extending the academic realms, and from the orchestral tradition that broke its classical mantles, of modern music that foreshadows (as well as haunts) today’s experimental electronic... where were they? Reverse the keys: why not, one hundred years since the Art of Noises, a prescient intrepretation of—horror of horrors—Futurist Luigi Russolo! What an event that would have been: the intonarumorri have returned...a fleet from the past avant-garde’s future, now encased in sleek laptop and with the force of Volta! What an opening of commentary, an incision via the tradition: from the return of modernism that spirals in every direction, the critique implied of the technology fetish, and not only, but its social formations... the very construction of the festival itself in its alliance of aesthetic and representational strategies derived from marketting agendas... the implicit philosophy of it all!

I am no more than human and I know that anyone who insists on playing the great game on his own terms is bound to take an occasional beating.

–Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway

Undoubtedly these words will be read as invectives in a barren world of praise. The context of the Auditori concert seems to have exceeded that of music journalism. For the most part, it entrenches on the side of the audience’s sympathies—or worse, plays the public relations game while pretending to its "objectivity." Despite an incorporation of a normativized audience/performer dialectic in the most classical of settings, the framework of the Auditori demands something other than a spotlight. Not too long ago, it was called "composition"—and its response, critique.

The contextual excess, and excess of the context of the Auditori can only be traced as synecdoche for Sónar, a forum in which the unimaginable, fostered in creativity, potentially aspires to the moment—or, more likely, the motions of the institution slumber in postmillenial tedium. If Sónar is a mirror, it holds the vanity to itself—here, represented so well in its choice of patriarchal, and parochial, advertising. For the mirror is a highly engineered device, one that repeats its representations as the business of the image. Does Sónar accept responsibility for its image? Or has Advanced Music—mirroring the state of its image, and the future images of its possible states—become accelerated narcissism?

What misses itself, even as it is already past, becomes a chance for an historic encounter between distinct temporalities that unfortunately will not go down in history: not only because of a lack of vision (cluttered with images of fervour), but because "history" itself was forgotten, which is to say, treated not only with reverence, as a category beyond tampering, but as an image. Which is all the encouragement to force a vibrant happening at the next juncture—and one which partakes in the historical milieu in which it currently drifts, without mooring or direction, in which "history" is shaken, and rewritten, without warning nor expectation, through the vibration of voluminous currents....?

By tobias c. van Veen

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