Mutek Festival, June 2005
Text and photos by Geeta DayalBeat aesthetes far and wide crowded into Montreal for Mutek, a five-day festival that promised to push the boundaries of live electronic music. The focus of MUTEK is on live laptop sets. It took a little time for me to get used to this; I'm so conditioned to receiving electronic music in the form of DJ sets, where every track is by a different person and there's still a bit of a mechanical/analog feel to it. Seeing performers stare at laptop screens all night, playing only their own music, could be a little wearing at times. But when it was on, it was on.
The festival mixed ambient sets from the likes of Tim Hecker (who performed his set with an actual wolf reclining by his side) with the more bangin' dance-oriented music of Berlin's Apparat and Canada's Mathew Jonson. Once Apparat got comfortable--he had a laptop crash midway through which temporarily destroyed the vibe--the second half of his set was pretty stunning. Low on the clicks'n'cuts stuff that bores me to be honest and heavy on hard, bangin' techno. I'm not too familiar with his oeuvre but I thought I was hallucinating, because it felt like a DJ set even though I knew it wasn't. Some of his tracks bore slight resemblances to things I already knew. Not that he was copying any particular sound, but there were faint traces of familiarity--one had a bassline that reminded me of Superpitcher's "Fieber," and another had that expansive roiling-mass-of-energy quality to it that felt like Joey Beltram. A good night, but basically a preface to Saturday and Sunday, which promised total insanity.
But the festival was dealt a serious blow when headliner Ricardo Villalobos 'missed his flight' from Berlin, leaving a sudden, gaping hole in the program. Luciano, Villalobos' partner in Sense Club, played a solo laptop set and Atom Heart made a surprise guest appearance, with only a few scant hours of preparation.
The real scene-stealers though, came by way of Galoppierende Zuversicht, a shadowy Swiss duo that proceeded to slay the audience with a brutal live techno set, aided by several homemade pieces of equipment. They have a recent Basta EP out on the Swiss minimal techno label Bruchstuecke, which as far as I can tell is their only release as a duo. All of their gear--samplers, etc--was homemade, which reminded me of, er, Wolf Eyes for some reason, and Styro 2000 was wearing a red light strapped to his head, as if he was about to go spelunking. One key piece of hardware was broken, but they galloped confidently (that's what 'Galoppierende Zuversicht' means, seriously!) ahead regardless.
The last day of Mutek brought Piknik Electronik, an outdoor daytime event in Montreal's lush, grassy Parc Jean-Drapeau where festivalgoers danced under a massive Alexander Calder sculpture to the sublime sounds of Luciano, Serafin, and Stephen Beaupre of Crackhaus.
Berlin producer Thomas Melchior's live set as Melchior Productions that night was achingly gorgeous; his minimal house music played like a massive, euphoric drone, shimmering as it swelled over the crowd. He had an album last year called The Meaning that really crept up on me. On first listen, I wasn't really into it. I mean, 2004 was the year of huge hooks, of electro-house, of slam-you-over-the-face Tiefschwarz and Ivan Smagghe, of Get Physical's glossy, maximalist take on classic Chicago house and the triumphant return of über-rockers Alter Ego and on and on. I wanted to be pounded into submission by dance music, not seduced by subtle slivers of hi-hats. But then I listened to The Meaning again. And again. And again and again. I became completely seduced by those slivers of hi-hats. In a lot of his tracks, he uses brief vocal snippets--usually no more than a second long--but he uses 'em differently from the way someone like (genius) Todd Edwards does, or the way Akufen does. There's loads of space in Melchior's music; it all sounds very airy, no matter how busy the track gets. Part of what fascinates me about minimal dance music is how your brain fills in the blanks of what's not there, using almost no cues--a bit of hi-hat here, a tidbit of vocal there, a smattering of bassline, a teensy bit of melody. It's kinda the same cognitive trick that Scott McCloud talks about in Understanding Comics, of "closure"--how your brain "finishes" incomplete pictures and figures out what's happening plot-wise in the space between two comic-book panels.
A few hours after Melchior's set, some dude who was big into drone/psych/noise came up to me and asked me what "the beautiful drone music" a few hours back was. I thought he meant one of the earlier ambient laptop acts, but then I realized he was talking about Melchior's house music. "That was Melchior Productions," I said. "I guess you could say it's drone music." I thought about it for a minute and figured that, genres be damned, they were all really all the same thing, that I loved Phill Niblock and the Boredoms and Neu! and Earth and Indian classical music for the same reasons I loved house music and techno. I got all weepy for a second, like I could see all the music I ever loved swirling in front of me in a single shimmering, luminous vortex (I was sober, by the way).
But even more mindblowing was a surprise appearance by Mathew Jonson at the final afterparty. Before his set, I somehow got into a conversation with him. "You have a track called 'Folding Space,'" I remember saying. "Are you a mathematician?" Or perhaps a physicist. Okay, perhaps I was a little addled by this point. His response was really interesting. He said he had no background in math but that he thought about math a lot, as a lot of musicians do. "It's all very organic," he said. "I can feel math, but I don't really think about it consciously." He said he even had dreams sometimes, about math, and about music (yipes- if you ever want to make me swoon, tell me you have dreams about math).
As the sun rose over Montreal, Jonson slung a heavy, funky live set of his own greatest hits, cutting, splicing, and slicing them in unexpected ways. It was a lot more heavy and funky and danceable than his Mutek live set, with a good sense of humor to it. There was no pressure here to be 'pushing the boundaries of electronic music' or whatever; the goal here was to rock the goddamn party. And good God, it rocked. He cut up and sliced his own tracks with occasional bits and pieces from old records. Everyone was dancing their hearts out. I don't remember much, just a blur of rose-tinted euphoria, really; at one point I remember standing there, gazing at the tarp-covered windows and hearing Jonson The Mole suddenly fold in a sample from "Is It All Over My Face?" so it just went
...and I almost lost it, I was so happy to be alive, and there, and dancing, in that space. It was an auspicious end to the brain and body workout of the last five days, and a hint at the surprises to come for Mutek 2006.
Also see the Geeta's blog The Original Soundtrack where some of this article was excerpted from
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