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June 7, 2002
++ Finding A New Genre At MUTEK
++ Somewhere around seven in the morning bedtime, that is it occurred to me: I might have just witnessed the birth of a genre. The night was already becoming blurry well, it had been pretty blurry to begin with but I had the sneaking suspicion that right there, before my very eyes and ears, I had witnessed something akin to the birth of house music or the very first scratch. There had been this beat, this beat I couldn't explain, this winding, this insistence. It was only a hunch.
All around me, the revelers eased themselves into the day; we were lounging in a sparsely decorated Montreal loft, the DJ with his back to the windows dropping various shades of minimal techno and microhouse, now soft and cushioned, now tough and sinewy. Some people still danced, though I have no idea how; others lounged against the walls on the dusty, hardwood floors, sipping on bottles of water or the night's last remaining beers. Sunglasses had been dug out of nowhere and donned against the morning glare. The day was in full swing by 6 a.m. that far north. Conversation came easily, bouncing off the profound and the incidental with bleary indifference. My mind was already turning to the cab I'd catch in four short hours, wondering how many hours of sleep that left me. I'd packed the night before, suspecting the trip's finale might turn out something like this. That rhythm, that hunch, was already fading, but I tried to hold onto it.
++ I'd come up here for MUTEK, the annual electronic music festival. The third installment of the series, it was my second. MUTEK launched in 2000, spun off of the longstanding "Media Lounge" performance series from the Montreal new-media festival FCMM. The Media Lounge had established itself as a key venue for pioneering electronic music, and MUTEK extended this mission, devoting itself especially to the minimalist/microsound aesthetic. At the time it was a bold move, because not many in North America were giving credence to those styles of music.
The 2001 installment retained that vibe, opening up slightly, and while the festival was a success it's hard to believe how organized this skeleton crew had become, by only their second year in retrospect, it was starting to feel limited. Kompakt, Traum, Perlon represented the dance floor, but all was so whooshy, so cushioned, lacking bite. Likewise, the "experimental" plane for the most part remained all brushed aluminum and bubble wrap, the surface broken only by the surgical incursions and sonic fuckery of Matmos.
Judging from the program alone, MUTEK 2002 didn't appear to break so radically with the previous years' aesthetic. After all, there were lowercase luminaries like snd, Radboud Mens, Stephan Mathieu, Janek Schaefer; and there were the minimal techno highlights like Deadbeat, Monolake, Akufen, Håkan Lidbo, Farben, Losoul, Ricardo Villalobos.
The program did suggest some divergences: the irrepressible Felix Kubin returned after an autumn visit to Montreal, this time accompanied by Nova Huta, who might in his antics on- and offstage be even stranger than Kubin. Both specialize in circus electro informed by East German Cold War camp, played on vintage keyboards archaically wired together.
Huta began his set with a rambling monologue about a deceased uncle who had passed on a box of musical secrets; only five minutes into his introduction did the audience gradually realize that he was lip-synching the entire speech and not very well, at that. The trick elevated his odd framing technique to the status of conceptual art an example of the Derridean par ergon if ever there was one. The highlight of his performance was a song called "Politics," for which he blew into an inflatable baseball bat colored with the American stars and stripes, stepping down into the audience to demurely bonk listeners on the head, intoning the chorus "Politics" every time. (The bat remained curiously limp, but it wasn't a comment on American military virility; no, he explained later, in Scotland an audience member had bitten into the bat in mid-song, and it hadn't kept its shape since.)
Kubin's set was just as wonderful; he banged away at his keyboards, churning out a weird sort of Bar Mitzvah electro, juggling preset rhythms with jaunty lead melodies. One of electronica's most debonair entertainers, he stripped off his leisure suit in mid-performance to reveal his trademark outfit, a silver spandex getup with red piping on the shoulders. Behind him, video screens showed another Kubin performance itself in front of video screens showing Kubin cavorting in front of, yes, a video backdrop. It was a dizzying mise en abyme, and a brilliant way of skirting the crisis of laptop performance as though this laptopless musician needed any visual aids to keep his audience enthralled.
++ Toronto's Solvent and Lowfish were billed as "Solvent vs. Lowfish," but there was no sound clash, only a punchy performance of dry-as-a-bone electro and sweetly vocoded choruses. "You inspired me to buy my first machine," sang one of them, and in the context of the event, it sounded like the most touching compliment that one could give a lover.
That same night, Bola, the reclusive Skam recording artist, was brought in to satisfy the IDM diehards, and his set didn't disappoint (when, in fact, I had thought that it might). He played deep, intricate grooves brimming with mournful analog tones and gritty rhythms, drawing from his recent album Fyuti and previous releases alike, even reaching back to his long-deleted debut EP for Skam to perform the heartbreaking, arpeggiated "Forcasa 3," a rare treat.
Bola's visuals, a series of animated sequences drawn from his cover art, reflected MUTEK's ongoing commitment to audio-visual interplay, but they also pointed up the problems of club visuals. Did they add to the music, or did they detract? They were beautiful, even gripping, but had we lost something by being so captivated by them? What would the music have sounded like with nothing to focus on? As I stared at the triple screens of the SAT, the venue for Bola and most of the other performances, I began to feel much like a child of MTV, perceptually crippled by years of hobbling along on visual crutches.
++ All in all, the collection of performances, across five evenings and five late nights, far surpassed even the most ambitious expectations for the festival. It wasn't all mind-blowing snd sounded a little flat, their intentionally anemic touch failing to translate to their new explorations into garage; relative newcomers like hellothisisalex and Ghislain Poirier showed promise in manipulating familiar tropes from minimalism to shoe-gazing, but they lacked some essential spark.
Even amongst the newcomers, though, there were surprises. Toronto's Pan/Tone presented a brilliant set of electro-heavy minimal techno, a slick merger of New York and Montreal styles. Dioxyde, recently returned to the art world after several years devoted exclusively to commercial design, offered one of the more compelling audio/visual generative performances I've seen yet, translating delicate electroacoustic drones and rumblings into a starlit array of white pixels on a black field. (My friend Ned Bouhalassa, however, a Montreal electroacoustic composer and cheerful curmudgeon, claimed they were merely "good for a screensaver." The interesting thing about audiovisual performance in 2002, it seems, is how radically its critical assessments differ; our collective taste, it seems, is still developing, often at a rapid pace.)
++ Radio Boy Matthew Herbert in his anti-capitalist guise tore the roof off with a caustic set of his "Mechanics of Destruction" tracks, shredding Disney DVDs, Gap boxer shorts, and other byproducts of global corporate consumerism with gleeful abandon. He'd open a can of Coke into the microphone, sampling the sound in real time and tweaking it into a dense patchwork of white noise and post-industrial funk. Herbert indulged his performative side: clad in a pinstripe smock designed by an obscure French designer from the house of Balmain, pitching Big Macs against a plywood target, he came across like a mad scientist wreaking destruction in a Frankenstein laboratory.
The crowd went wild, the front row exploding in flashbulbs every time he attacked, and the set built to a furious crescendo as he tore into a television set with a hammer. At his performance's end, he stood with a Gap shopping bag inverted over his head and posed, arms upraised, like a diabolical specter of globalism. (I'll admit, however, that I'm becoming more and more leery of the political viability of this project. Can entertainment serve an activist function? Is consumer culture the appropriate target of rage? In buying his props, isn't he complicit in this very economy? These questions went unanswered, as wildly entertaining as his performance was, leaving the audience short of critical catharsis.)
++ But that entire bill MUTEK's first foray into true club culture, set in the cavernous space of the 2000-person-capacity Métropolis still proved one of the week's most entertaining, sandwiching Herbert's anti-globalist grandstanding between a blistering acid set from Paris' Copacabanark and Akufen's radio-pillaging "microsampling," a live rendition of his recent album for Force Inc., My Way, configured into total booty-shaking microhouse mayhem. After witnessing Akufen live, seemingly a different performer than he was only a year ago, I understand why London's Fabric was reported to be transported into riotous paroxysms under his spell.
After Akufen came Sweden's Håkan Lidbo, who cancelled his FCMM gig last fall, and thank goodness, because now we got to hear him through the massive soundsystem MUTEK had installed in the Métropolis, beneath the domed ceiling and atop the hardwood floors that acted as virtual bass magnets. You could tell that Lidbo spent a decade producing commercial dance pop, because he knew how to get the sounds that go straight to the jugular; his bass prickled with pins and needles, his highs popped like arcing electricity, and every element in the midrange staked out its own turf, permitting no trespass. Armed with a set of cheap, electronic toys, he punctuated his tracks with their squeals and beeps, often injecting an uncannily melodic component with their simple, monophonic squawks. In contrast to Losoul, whose set sounded flat next to his carefully produced records, Lidbo managed to recreate the most thrilling effects of his recordings.
++ The next night, I missed most of Farben, but the few tracks I caught saw him playing louder than I've ever heard him, all bass and rumble. (In fact, I missed more than I wanted to, but between deadlines, moderating two MUTEK-associated panels, and that pesky little thing called sleep, there was only so much I could hear.) Ricardo Villalobos debuted tracks off his forthcoming Playhouse album, which promises to be a highlight of 2002. Worlds away from his Perlon work, it's become heavily infused with New Order and Depeche Mode (apparently he's seen the latter 31 times, once essentially following them on a world tour), and is a brilliant combination of punchy rhythm and affecting melody. Sadly, Villalobos had to quit early after Losoul's set ran long, but the lithe and lanky artist bowed out like the most generous of rock stars, flashing thumbs-up to the crowd and smiling coyly as he skipped offstage. And on came Finland's Vladislav Delay in his Luomo guise, giving a trial run to tracks off next year's full-length.
++ Good lord. Luomo. I wasn't prepared. Following a similar tack that Locust has taken in terms of overdriven pop, Luomo has further submerged his house and disco elements, foregrounding ecstatic voices shivering in four-part harmony. The drum lines barely rippled; the bass flowed like liquid glass; and the vocals peaked again and again, intoning phrases of such romantic simplicity that it seemed he'd distilled the essence of pop into a kind of sonic Armagnac, almost overwhelmingly fragrant. It's no secret that Ecstasy is still present in club life, but with Luomo you wondered if the drug's users would be able to stand the music. All by itself the music felt almost overpoweringly ecstatic, gripping your entire body in a rush of synthetic emotion. Delay, far from the taciturn laptopper he'd been only a year ago, relished playing the crowd through his manipulative treatments, indulging in Prince-Valiant-in-orgasm theatrics from behind his spotlit notebook computer, backlit and heroic beneath his long, blond hair. It will be worth watching where he goes in 2003; it's possible he could capture the club-going audience that hungers for superstars. It's even possible that he could become an actual pop star. I'm not betting money on it, but then again, if Moby could do it....
++ Earlier that afternoon, Delay and Antye Greie-Fuchs had presented a beautiful set in tandem, billed as AGF/Delay, as a part of Orthlorng Musork's showcase. Their interaction is almost unnervingly intimate, as the romantic pair lean over each other to twist knobs or shove sliders, wrapping their arms around each other as though such physical contact were coded into the software. At the same performance, Stephan Mathieu presented his Full Swing project, offering up a pixellated wash to the accompaniment of Angela Lorenz' microtonal visuals. His set of "Sad Mac Studies," however, in which he had remixed Handel earlier in the week, was the stronger performance. New York's Timeblind rocked a delicious set of grainy dub and dancehall riddims, and throughout it all Sue Costabile of Orthlorng Musork performed real-time animation and video manipulation using Jit, a software tool developed by Kit Clayton.
++ With so much to hear, it was easy to get bogged down in or hopped up on the details, but a step back afforded a useful perspective: one of MUTEK's strong points is its curation. The Copacabanark/Radio Boy/Akufen/Lidbo night was a carefully arranged presentation of related rhythmic forms, just as the two-night juxtaposition of Akufen, Lidbo, Villalobos and Luomo suggested new configurations of pop and dance music. Likewise, the last night's program presenting Tijuana's Murcof, Argentina's Juan Self, and the German/Chilean trio of Atom Heart, Ricardo Villalobos and Martin Schopf (AKA Dandy Jack) suggested MUTEK's commitment to expanding the idea of electronic music in the Americas.
I missed most of Murcof's set, but what I heard sounded much like his album for Static (Leaf, in the UK), configuring samples of Morton Feldman into a delicate but never dainty minimal techno framework. Somehow I missed all of Juan Self. Finally Atom Heart went on, understated in his orange suit and orange sideburns. As far as I can tell he didn't play from his recent Geeez 'n' Gosh record, as had been predicted, but instead he opened with a bizarre polyrhythmic concoction that sounded like a cross between Germanic minimal techno and West London broken beat, lurching, shuddering, lumbering. (I wouldn't believe it either, if I hadn't heard it it seemed so simple, in retrospect, such a natural meeting of styles, but there it was, and it was utterly original.) Atom Heart gradually increased the tempo until he was way up there, somewhere between two-step and drum 'n' bass, but the entire crowd was throbbing unflaggingly.
After Atom Heart, I must admit, it's all a bit of a blur: Dandy Jack joined Atom Heart on stage, the first time the veteran collaborators had performed live in several years, and they proceeded to riff on heavy, chugging techno rhythms. All the "minimal" fell away: shit was pounding, undulating, deep, and the audience responded in kind. It was one of those moments where time stopped. The room fell away; there was only the music and the body of dancers. At some point you look up and realize that Villalobos has joined them; the three play on and on, never stopping, simply driving textured rhythms like German automobiles along the winding road from Santiago to Valparaiso. And then at some point Atom disappears and it's just Villalobos and Schopf Ric y Martin behind the machines, doing their thing. But with a difference. This was not the carefully aerated groove the powerhouse duo has perfected on track after track for Perlon and likeminded labels.
And this is where it all came together. By which I mean the room was wrapped in a great unraveling. The recollections come in flashes: there was wave after wave of bass, tunneling up through the legs, the gut, the chest. There were bursts of treble vocal samples, melodic leads that nestled into your skull. All sense of space collapsed on top of the body of time, itself lying motionless somewhere beneath the dancers' feet. The music was so aggressively present that it became possible to forget it was there at all it simply was. And in this odd semblance of silence, the crowd heaved in unison. Adorno would have hated it: the mass mind. I'm not sure I was comfortable with it, frankly. Looking around at a room full of dancers, all ringed around the stage that sat in the center of the room, 360 degrees of zombie choreography. But there it was, and what could you do but submit, if you wanted to listen?
And how could you avoid it? The sound, as I mentioned before, was doing something I'd never heard. Villalobos and Schopf at first seemed simply to be improvising techno grooves, layering bass and drums and effects, but there was something wrong, something off. Things didn't fall together quite right. And then, slowly, it became clear: they weren't playing in sync. Their gear wasn't MIDI'd together; they were manually synchronizing their tracks, playing by ear, but allowing their machine tempos to pull them into a heaving riptide where the beat was neither on nor off. For an hour, two, more, they played groove off of groove, wrapping disparate rhythms around each other, sparking a magnetic field that held the entire audience spellbound. This now this was something. Something I'd never heard before, a whole new kind of electronic music. But there was no time to think about it then. This tidal ebb and flow went on for hours, literally hours, building an impossible tension. The crowd was enraptured, lost in one of those moments of total communion. The club, which was supposed to close at 3 a.m., kept going until 5, drawing black velvet curtains against the sunrise outside. It was deafeningly loud (yet I perceived little ringing after it was over, a testament to the clarity of the sound system). The bass ate at you from inside. The high end played epiphyte in your skull. The rhythm swirled around and around in a self-canceling moment of equatorial confusion where clockwise and counterclockwise collide.
++ And when it was all over, we remained in the space, dazed, milling around for 20 minutes, bobbing heads to silent music, the aching silence that was MUTEK's final triumph.
And then there was that afterparty, a hazy affair at a St. Laurent loft where Steve Beaupré spun still more minimal grooves, and Ark, the crazy Parisian, jumped on the decks, pilfering the other DJ's bags as he'd done at least once before in the week. (I know because that first time, they were my records; it was OK, because he played them much better than I. Besides, I was packing one of his own releases how could I refuse him?) I was fading fast, trying to hold onto that groove. Running through inane, sleep-deprived checklists: Passport. Laptop. And did I pack the Ibuprofen already? Thoughts tumbled into intersecting cadences and words dissolved into leaden beats. My feet were moving before I registered it.
I climbed down the two long flights of stairs and walked slowly back to my hotel, the night long over, workers clutching briefcases waiting at their bus stops. I heard later that there was another afterparty to the afterparty, an intimate gathering up on the mountain that lasted well into the afternoon proof that people in Montreal put us would-be revelers to shame.
See you there next year?