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Friday, June 20, 2003

++ MUTEK Supergroup

++ Anyone who says that laptop performances suck, or at least that they suck categorically, either was not at MUTEK this year, was not listening, or is a hopeless, rockist Luddite beyond redemption. (So there.)

Montreal's MUTEK festival, now in its fourth year (with an additional installment in Chile and several "micro" events — New York, São Paulo, Berlin — under its belt) has gotten itself a rep as the home-away-from-home for the "laptop set," and not without reason. Most of the luminaries of minimalist house and techno, not to mention some of sound art and "experimental" or "composed" electronic music's most respected players, have graced MUTEK's bill at one point or another, and the illuminated Apple logo glowing on the darkened stage has become as familiar to festival-goers as the shape of the Fender Strat or the head on a Marshall stack to rock fans.

Not, of course, that laptops aren't damn near everywhere these days. (Here in Barcelona, where I am now, most of the club DJs seem to have incorporated Final Scratch into their setups, so that every pair of decks has a notebook computer teetering dangerously next to it.) But while many audiences still seem to chafe against the idea of the artist peering intently into his (or, occasionally, her) screen while manipulating the trackpad or an outboard hardware box, at MUTEK the medium has become standard. It's hard to remember, if you're a fan of artists like Thomas Köner and Akufen and Deadbeat, that for most people, laptop performance still just isn't normal.

And even here, some listeners gripe; Aaron McConomy from Montreal's Intr_Version Records carped one day as I was heading out the door to one of MUTEK's more experimental sessions, "Fucking laptop shows are like watching live accounting!"

There's some truth to the grousing: laptop shows can be boring. Then again, so can rock shows, classical concerts, hip-hop gigs, poetry slams. I've resigned myself to the fact that most musical performances, like most aspects of life itself, are in fact crushingly tedious. So forgive me if I don't think that laptops are to blame.

++ At its core, MUTEK is less a showcase (the typical role of a festival) than a proposal, and an audacious one at that. To capture the evolution of a medium, and of a genre, in mid-flight, as it were — a time-lapse photo, a cross-section sample of an entire musical strain.

There are many subgenres represented — techno, electronica, ambient, sound art, multimedia, noise, improv — so that at first glance MUTEK seems a survey. Which it is; but behind this more obvious function (something of an educational proposition can be felt in some of the afternoon programming) lies the thesis that electronic music is in a state of (perpetual?) evolution. The festival is audacious enough, bless its soul, to believe it can represent this evolution as Muybridge captured a bullet piercing a balloon.

It's impossible not to be reminded of the subatomic theory, which holds that any object behaves differently when observed. Implicit in this and most audacious of all is the fact that by MUTEK's very purpose and structure, the festival (in some small but real way) is helping to redirect the shape, evolution, and development of the music.

A word about terminology: I have always resisted the evolutionary conceit, the progressivist philosophy that music evolves. It is too often a teleology ideologues use to claim that their preferred form — garage rock, deep house, hip-hop — represents the end of history. But electronic music's dialectical relationship with technology does imply a theory of development, and this is made clear in MUTEK's most adventurous performances.

++ What MUTEK demonstrated — gloriously, perversely, humorously, definitively — is that laptop performance is only now coming into its own, and that the potential for further development is wide open, even accelerating, opening up vast new realms for both individual and collective performance. And after five days of seeing all these young men (and, all too occasionally, women) gazing with illuminated chins into their plastic clamshells like so many psychics, what was most surprising was the variety of prognostications made.

To be sure, there were traditionalists (well, relatively speaking, anyway) who manned their machines as impassively as radar operators, and in these cases, the very question of performance was moot. Kontakt der Junglinge, the duo of Thomas Köner and Asmus Tietschens, offered a lovely, immersive, deep listening experience of shifting drones, sub-bass rumbling, and shards of field recordings as buffered as beach glass. But there was nothing to see on stage, and the music, if truth be told, differed not much from Köner's recent Zyklop CD. Not that I could care; I was happy to close my eyes, lie back on one of the yoga mats on the floor (go ahead, call me a hippie), and drift.

Later that night, Pole brought rapper Fat Jon, of the Five Deez crew, on stage to lend vocals to the German dub poet's rumbling PowerBook soundclash, but Pole's music drifted as listlessly as it does on the new record, a somewhat disappointing slide into featurelessness, and Jon's unassuming presence wasn't enough to salvage either the music or the spectacle. Deadbeat, however — Montreal's Scott Monteith, signed to Pole's ~scape label — did almost the same thing as his mentor, dragging a burlap sack of clicks and scuffle over classic dub bass lines, but somehow managed to make it completely new. Who cares that he was just another shaved-headed guy behind a screen; the shaking speakers provided all the movement you needed.

Speaking of movement in, on, or near the speakers, you should have seen the girls humping the bass bins during Richie Hawtin's set. (I'm not kidding.) His whole show was bass, bass, bass — so loud and thick and full you felt you were drowning in it, like that scene in Three Kings where Mark Wahlberg gets the quart of oil poured down his throat. Standing near the cabinets, my feet tickled from the quivering floorboards underneath; I could feel wind on my neck as the air forced out by the subs bounced off the walls of the corner behind me. As he has for the past year or so, Hawtin played Final Scratch, mixing MP3s of unreleased material (his own as well as other artists', including Ricardo Villalobos's forthcoming Playhouse material) with classics on vinyl.

As a laptopper, Hawtin's contribution to the argument was that there's simply no good reason not to include the computer as part of the DJ setup. Perhaps because the laptop was not the centerpiece of his gear, Hawtin's approach to the machine was unique. Many laptoppers tear into their machines with abandon, overcompensating for the lack of theatricality or musicianship required of routine acts (like opening files) by making every gesture extreme. Hawtin, though, stood with the patience of a DJ who knows when to simply let the record spin, and he spent no more time hunched over his screen than was necessary to pull up the appropriate file in Traktor (Native Instruments' interface for the Final Scratch hardware) before he turned to the decks to cue it up, tear into the effects, and execute the mix.

Musically, Hawtin's set was one of the highlights of MUTEK. It's a testament to the festival that Hawtin, a superstar DJ known for blistering, technically impressive but totally unsubtle techno sets, chose the event to debut his new Plastikman material, which is hushed, claustrophobic, fraught with schizo voicings, and utterly unlike any of his main-room, skinhead-moonstomping epic sessions. Not to overstate the case, but MUTEK, in actively encouraging its artists to challenge themselves, has become the sort of place where the music is sometimes simply better than what the same musician will play elsewhere.

Before Hawtin came Matthew Dear, an up-and-coming artist from the Detroit area whose records for Plus 8 (as False), Perlon (as Jabberjaw), and Ghostly sublabel Spectral have tagged him as North America's most promising new techno producer. Much like Akufen last year, Dear's personality behind the computer could best be described as the unflappable technician; leaning slightly into his rig, he hardly showboated, but it didn't matter. His slippery, rippling tunes, thick with jittery percussion, signal a new mutation in minimal techno and microhouse. They represent a new kind of jack tracks, by which I mean not classic Chicago house but the game of jacks itself: his ball-bearing riddims and angled attacks on the 4/4 template suggested nothing so much as a bouncing ball careening through a field of metal spikes tossed willy-nilly.

The theatrics were left to T. Raumschmiere, who proposed himself as a kind of Darby Crash of the PowerBook generation, albeit without the jagged glass and blood. The Shitkatapult artist's set at MUTEK two years ago was touted for its punk intensity, but what he played then struck me as fairly standard, if capable, click techno. At this year's performance, though, Raumschmiere — now signed to Mute — pulled out all the stops. The music was a mixture of Kompakt shuffle-fever, heavy metal bombast, and new wave; "It's like he took Mike Ink and shat on him," Force Inc's Jon Berry said breathlessly. "It's so wrong, and so beautiful."

As a performer, Raumschmiere outdid himself, dressed in a skater cap (the "Anti Hero" logo was a telling touch), a white tank-top that showed off swathes of tattoo, and baggy trousers slinking downward and threatening, by the end of the show, to topple him every time he leapt upon his gear table. He brandished his MIDI controller like an angry mama gerbil about to lunch on her baby; he rolled on the floor, banging his head repeatedly against the monitors. Grandstanding? Sure, but as a "fuck you" to the pusillanimous purists and the nattering nabobs of negative instruments ("b-b-but software isn't a real instrument!"), it was a righteous kick in the teeth, and a rousing good time. At a festival where performers and theory-prone audience members can occasionally put on airs, he proved that it was OK to be stoopid (or stupid, depending upon your take). Sure, it would have been nice if he'd actually set something on fire, smashed his laptop, hung himself by the patch chords — there was something disingenuous about so much destructive energy and so little actual destruction — but hey, there's always the next gig. Somebody toss this guy a lighter.

If T. Raumschmiere's performance seemed calculated to scream "rock star," Luciano's went one better, introducing the quiet, dark-horse contender as the unlikely solo star of the festival. Luciano is a young Chilean living in Switzerland, and his records for labels like Perlon, Playhouse, and Mental Groove — which silverplate microhouse at its most syncopated with the resonant melodics of classic Autechre — are almost all astonishingly good. But who'd have known how engaging he would turn out to be behind his PowerBook, one knee cocked and one foot thrown back, pushing against the table (but naturally, without drama) like a desperate Dutchman holding up his dike.

Before Luciano, Señor Coconut — Atom Heart's Kraftwerk cover combo, done up Latin big-band style — had played, with a Chilean bandleader calling out the songs and rhythms ("This is 'Man Machine' in a cha cha cha!") front and center while Atom Heart himself kept to the side of the stage. While he tapped at his notebook, nearly obscured by the stage curtains, his crew of multiple percussionists, standup electric bass, vibraphones, trumpet and saxophone turned the 2000-strong Metropolis into a weirdly traditional dance hall.

Now, with Luciano on stage, the bass player walked out, plugged in, and started playing simple but not irrelevant bass lines underneath Luciano's shifting array of polyrhythms. A few songs later, one of Señor Coconut's conga players joined him, and before long, the entire band was on stage, improvising around Luciano's flexible session. I'm usually skeptical of drummers playing along with DJs, the way conga players are brought in to add an "ethnic" element to a deep house set, but this was different; you could tell they were really improvising (and as it turned out later, the entire walk-on performance was totally impromptu), and you could tell that Luciano wasn't simply running through a set of prearranged changes. (Often, he would drop an element from a familiar song, and then pull it out again — only to bring it back into play 10 minutes later. In this way, he shifted the idea of a laptop set from one in which the artist essentially DJs his own tracks with minor variations to one in which he remixes his own archive on the fly.) When it was all over, the applause for Luciano was nearly as frantic as had been the multiple calls for encore after Señor Coconut, but time was up, the club wasn't having it, and so with a gracious shrug, Luciano closed up his notebook and left the stage.

But nothing — nothing — so far comes even close to what happened on the last night. Sunday night's closing presentation was billed as Narod Niki, a "secret supergroup" of esteemed laptoppers from several continents, but little more was publicly known. Even those who knew something about the lineup (like myself) either couldn't remember exactly who was involved, or couldn't believe that it would ever take place, so when the group finally took the stage in the cozy Studio venue, sometime after midnight on Monday morning, the surprise was intense, and slow-coming — it took a while for most of us to figure out who all of these semi-anonymous looking types actually were.

Left to right, the lineup was stunning: Richie Hawtin, Akufen, Ricardo Villalobos, Dimbiman, Dandy Jack (AKA Martin Schopf, one half of Ric Y Martin with Villalobos — also the official, mustachioed face of Señor Coconut), Luciano, Cabanne (a Parisian collaborator with Ark), and Dan Bell (AKA legendary Detroit techno producer DBX). Monolake came on stage to run the sound board, and Cassey Britton occasionally contributed vocals. But the real action was in these eight men standing behind laptops, networked together, making improvised, collaborative techno in real time.

The group seemed almost to emerge out of the fog, like a stealth crew dodging radar (though Pol Taylor from Chile suggested a different twist on the radar metaphor — that hidden as they were in the fog of their own technology, their signals were like radar proclaiming each artist's position). Visually, I suppose, it wasn't much more interesting than watching live accounting by an eight-person crew of number-crunchers — until you started watching their individual expressions. You can't fake the kind of intensity that flashed across each of their faces. Hawtin, normally one of the calmest DJs in the world, unflinchingly appearing before five- or ten-thousand-person crowds, later admitted that he'd been shaking in his boots before this almost living-room sized crowd of 800. Akufen stared stone-faced into his machine, occasionally cracking a sly smile. Dandy Jack and Luciano seemed typically ebullient, though all their attention was focused on their gear; and Villalobos assumed that strange expression he gets, a cross between tranquility and extreme duress, prompting speculation as to whether he or his system would crash first.

As for the music, I find it almost impossible to describe. (Though the archived set is available at MUTEK's Web site.) Sure, it was minimal techno, microhouse, what have you, with all the hallmarks of its players and their affiliated labels (with Perlon's hyper-synchopated, truncated funk providing the center around which all other elements revolved). But the music passed a bit like a cinematic pan; as soon as you'd fixed upon one element, it fell out of focus and something else came into view. Sometimes a theme was carried out for only four or eight bars; other times it built over the length of a 12-inch track. It was hardly all four-to-the-floor; there were funk breaks and Latin shimmying; there were melodic moments, and passages of pure percussion. What was most surprising, though, was how difficult it was to discern who was doing what at any given moment — surely that was a DBX acid line, no? And surely that was one of Luciano's rippling harmonics? But there was no guarantee of authority for any single piece, and one wondered if even the artists themselves were occasionally scratching their heads trying to determine whose machine had made that caroming wave of bass.

Fuck the garage rockers playing Letterman, I thought; this was rock 'n' roll. All of a sudden, with all the brutal poetry of a creation myth, electronic musicians had finally found a way of playing together that drew upon the strengths of collective effort and flaunted the risks that have always made rock 'n' roll so rule-floutingly appealing. The White Stripes may plumb the canonical catalogue, but this is the real deal-with-the-devil shit.

++ And then, after two, two and a half hours, the stage thick with smoke, utterly unspectacular except in the minutiae, a conference table full of techno executives typing away as though their careers depended upon it, sweat rolling down their foreheads and staining their underarms, it was all over. One of the MUTEK organizations approached Villalobos to explain that the club's closing hour had long come and gone. (Villalobos, of course, was precisely the wrong person to approach with a concern like that; he looked like he could barely follow what she was saying as his glazed eyes grazed over her and he returned to his sequences.) The lights went up, and the music receded. The applause was an organism in its own right, not something that came out of us but something that sucked us all up in its vortex — much like the music we'd just witnessed, I suppose. Hawtin looked utterly disgusted at the idea that something as arbitrary as local law had been audacious enough to interrupt a performance this historic, this unprecedented, this wildly successful. There were earnest entreaties from Monolake to raise the volume again, and after 15 minutes of applause and whistling and stamping, one of the computers — Dandy Jack's, I think, or Luciano's — was granted a tease of a reprieve, with eight or 16 bars of music rising to half-volume before dying out again. By this time, though, the musicians all looked almost relieved, hugging each other and wearing stupefied grins, as though they knew there was no more going to that place. Not tonight anyway.


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