The MUTEK Festival, in Montreal, is the largest electronic music festival in North America. This year’s festival took place over five days, June 1-5, and featured eighty performances, as well as workshops, panel discussions, and artist interviews. The performances in this year’s festival had a strong visual component, featuring some outstanding examples of cutting edge visual design. While the focus of the festival is music, VJs and visual designers have become an important part of the most compelling electronic music performances.

In promoting the festival, the organizers said their focus would be on presenting live performances and not DJ sets. While I didn’t see a single turntable, it seemed like many performers used the laptop computer as little more than a playback device, with some artists using a hardware mixer as a performance tool for live mixing. An artist I spoke with told me he rendered his entire set as a single stereo file, and applied various effects as the performance. One of the biggest over-arching questions in the field of electronic music is what constitutes “liveness” in a performance. I’ll consider that as I discuss some of the shows I saw.

Microsoft was a big MUTEK sponsor this year, with product demos and workshops where artists discussed how they used Windows-based software in their work. This seemed like an obvious attempt to stem the tide of artists choosing to work on the Mac. While Apple had no official presence at the show, the Apple logo was center stage at most performances, glowing from the back of laptop screens.

The MUTEK schedule is daunting, but concerts and event are organized into various series. The free MUTEK iPhone app is a useful guide to the festival, providing schedules as well as links to individual artist pages. While there were a few big names headlining the festival, for the bulk of the performers a little research was needed to plan your time. MUTEK is an international festival, nonetheless many of the lesser know artists were Canadian, and as a recipient of government funding, part of MUTEK’s mission is to promote the work of these home-grown artists.

A/Visions

While all performances at MUTEK had a visual component, the pieces in the A/Visions series can be thought of as combined audio/visual compositions. These performances were in a concert hall. The performers here were either established multimedia artists or music producers embarking on collaborations outside of their normal work. What follows are a few highlights.

Purform is a collaboration between Canadian sound artist Alain Thibault and visual partner Yan Breuleux. Their three-screen multimedia performance called Whitebox, is a composed piece based on an installation of the same name. The images are computer generated abstract shapes, while sound design is based on granular processing of samples. Each component influences the other, with the sound dependent on the motion and complexity of the images. The frequency, amplitude and timbre of the sound influences the images. According to the artists, the interaction of sound and visuals was based on self-regulating systems theory. For the performance, both artists were on stage, although their exact role in shaping the piece was unclear. That said, the piece was impressive both for it’s scale and the connectedness of the sonic and visual gestures.

 

Puform/Whitebox

 Art music often finds its origins in dance music and this year saw a couple of producers who are well known in the Dubstep genre expanding into concert presentations. Emptyset is a collaboration between producer James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas where they explore art music from the bass-centric genre of Dubstep. Their sound sources are mainly sine wave tones and noise, processed and mixed through a variety of hardware devices. The music itself didn’t reflect or draw attention to the tools used to produce it. Their improvisational set was mainly textural with a strong bass theme appearing as the piece evolved. In an interview later that week, they discussed how the music in this project is based on process, bringing to mind similar work by Brian Eno. Emptyset was accompanied be a video piece done in collaboration with designers Clayton Welham and Sam Williams. There was no clear connection between the music and visuals which served more as an ambient backdrop to the performance than an integrated part of the piece.

Perhaps the most clever performance in the A/Visions series was Studies for Automated Piano by Seth Horvitz. Here, a Yamaha Disklavier was the sole instrument onstage, and the composer began the piece by starting a MIDI sequence and then walked offstage. While a piece for digital player piano might be thought of as a rather mundane concert experience, the accompanying visuals transformed this into an engaging multimedia experience. The visual accompaniment here was a projection of the front view of the piano keyboard. The piece is as much a construction of visual patterns as musical ideas. The musical composition was obviously influenced by the visual patterns which are created from using certain musical devices. The cadences were as much visual as they were musical. The resulting visualization here reflects the underlying patterns of the musical work. Visualization of music is often based on the properties of sound pitch, dynamics and timbral changes, and in the case of electronic music, this can make abstract work based on pure sound more engaging. What Horvitz has done here is created a visualization based on more traditional musical elements. The effectiveness of the piece really lies in it’s simplicity.

Study No. 4 for Automatic Piano

 Comaduster is a sound designer for game company Bioware by day, and an electronic music producer, active on the Canadian scene, by night. Scrape, the 40-minute piece he performed at MUTEX was his first multimedia work. The music for this was a combination of processed textural sound along with active IDM glitch elements. The visuals were projected on a single large screen and were striking in their originality. The source images for Scrape were all from a DSLR using a macro lens and various tubes and dollies to capture images at very close perspectives and from unusual angles. The result was a visual presentation that had an otherworldly, yet organic feel. While the music didn’t appear to be tightly synchronized, there was a strong connection between the sound and images.

Comaduster – Scrape Preview from Comaduster

Perhaps the most compelling work in the A/Visions series was from Murcof + AntiVJ, a collaboration between Mexican ambient-techno producer Murcof and video artist Simon Gelifus (AntiVJ). For this work, the visuals appeared as 3D images projected on a translucent scrim arranged in a three-screen system that filled the stage. The abstract, computer generated images took on different sizes and shapes throughout the piece, and the sound worked to reinforce this. The visual images roughly followed a mapping of size to loudness, shape to timbre, with the density of sound often corresponding to the density of the images. While these might be obvious connections in the visualization of sound, the scale of the piece as well as the 3D imagery were quite impressive.

Murcof + AntiVJ