Earlier this summer, I was in Montreal for the 11th annual MUTEK Festival of Electronic Music and Art, June 2 through June 6. The festival organizers have worked hard over the years to make this a premier electronic music event, and attending for the first time this year, I saw why. The range of electronic music presented by over 150 artists covers the entire gamut of electronic music, from experimental noise and sound art to classic house music and just about everything in between. The schedule itself was daunting, but much to the organizers credit, they released a very useful iPhone app that organized the schedule and gave a brief overview to each artist, including links to their MySpace pages and other Web resources. The app is free and you should still be able to download it and use it as a way to perhaps find out about the artist who appeared at MUTEK.
Minilogue at MUTEK 2010
To make sense of the range of artists, the festival was organized in several different series, each in it’s own venue. Experience and Ectoplasmes events were held in a black block theater that worked well for presenting audio-visual work as well as more experimental and emerging artists. The A/Visions series events were held in the Monument National concert hall. As the name suggests, many of the concerts here were multimedia presentations, with a massive display as the backdrop for the performers onstage. Nocturnes were club events held in three different venues not more than a block away from each other. SAT had more of an underground vibe, and while still in the dance genre, hosted edgier performers and DJs. Club Soda reminded me more of a classic dance club. Friday was the big club night and MUTEK attendees were in a constant flow between the two venues, checking out House and Techno at Soda and Dubstep at SAT. Metropolis was more of a concert club that also hosted small acts simultaneously in separate lounge. So, on just about any given night of the festival there were two different scenes going on. And, if that wasn’t enough, there were outdoor events as well, culminating with a free concert on Montreal’s main outdoor stage.
Montreal is a wonderful city for the arts and they really know how to present festivals. While I was there I saw no less than eight outdoor stages in various states of construction for what appeared to a very busy season that includes the well-established Montreal Jazz Festival. While MUTEK was an international festival there was an emphasis on Canadian artists. The Canadian government and a range of private sponsors support the festival with the caveat that it provides a venue for home-grown talent. Canada has a vibrant music scene with talented artists in all genres who are largely unknown outside of their county, and this was a good opportunity to check some of them out.
Señor Coconut at MUTEK 2010
For me, one of the big issues in electronic music is live performance, and the connection between studio production and how a work is performed. MUTEK provided a great opportunity to see a wide variety of performance styles, from DJs to computer-aided acoustic performances. What follows is an overview of some of the artists that impressed me at MUTEK and how they approached performing.
Matmos was one of the acts high on my list to check out at MUTEK. Partners since 1997, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt are perhaps best known for their playful way of working with sampled sound, and have collaborated with a number of artists from Bjork PLOrk. Onstage, each has a distinct role, with Daniel on laptops and controllers and Schmidt on realtime keyboard and assorted noisemakers. In the Matmos brain, one half is digital, the other analog, and they have no problem navigating the aesthetic corpus callosum, and this distinction is one of the things that makes their music compelling. In an interview session the next day, they were very articulate in discussing their work and adopted home of Baltimore. Their work is highly conceptual with each of their albums centered around a core concept. While electronic music seems to offer infinite creative possibilities, they feel that limiting choices and creating from a core concept is essential. Although the idea of an "album" is rapidly disappearing, they feel it’s still an important part of their process. A good example of this is their 2008 release, Supreme Balloon, where the idea was to break their mold and create an album of purely synthesized sound, where no recordings of acoustic sources of any type are used. Fittingly, most of their set at MUTEK came from this work, culminating with the 24-minute piece Supreme Balloon, an electronic tour de force.
Matmos at MUTEK 2010
In contrast to the discipline of Matmos, Mouse on Mars thrive on a kind of controlled anarchy. The German duo of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner began working together in 1993, with ten releases and numerous side projects to their credit. Their live set was a dense, rhythmic stew that seemed more stream of consciousness than composition. Each had a laptop, presumably running Ableton Live along with an assortment of controllers. There were no defined roles here and there was no clear connection between the sound and who it came from. Their production process has more to do with assembling ideas from sounds collected on their hard drives than a clear concept, where lots of sounds and idea get refined until an album is done. When is a project "done?" St Werner mentioned in an interview the day after their performance that record company deadlines and hard drive crashes are what signal the end their process. While they currently working on new material, their last studio effort came out in 2007, so perhaps the demise of record labels and more reliable hard drives are extending their creative process. They’ve actually spent a good part of the last few years performing live, often with a drummer, and they feel this experience energizes them for their work in the studio. In performance, it sounds like they’ve emptied the choices bits from their hard drives into Ableton Live and freely improvise their dance set.
Jon Hopkins at MUTEK 2010
One of the high points of the festival for me was Jon Hopkins‘ set. Most have probably heard of his work through his association with Coldplay, providing the opening and closing instrumental sections of their Viva La Vida CD, and opening for them on many dates during their last tour. Hopkins is a trained musician, and as a pianist and composer his work reflects a more traditional melodic and harmonic vocabulary. Given that, I didn’t know what to expect in a dance club performance. His hour-long set was absolutely brilliant, and showcased a well-rehearsed, seasoned electronic performer. Each piece was a composition, and I recognized a couple from his most recent release, Insides. My sense was that each piece provided an overall form and that he was free to extend sections and improvise variations. On stage, he mainly used two Korg Kaoss pads along with a keyboard controller, and with these, he was able to control every aspect of the performance, he’s clearly in the "controllerism" camp of live electronic performance. From the audience’s perspective, Hopkins was really "playing" his set and much of their reaction was not just to the music, but to the clear sense of virtuosity that he conveyed.
While this is just a small taste of what I experienced, there are numerous reviews and videos of MUTEK 2010 on the Web.