MUTEK 2005
Montreal, June 1-5, 2005

Like any festival of ambitious scope, the MUTEK experience induces equal parts rapture, surprise, and, yes, occasional exasperation and the 2005 version, the Montreal organization's sixth foray into eclectic electronic experimentalism, differed little in that regard. This year, almost 12,000 visitors sampled the festival's offerings, which included six panels in the Intersection series, an outdoor Piknic Electronik event at Parc Jean-Drapeau on l'île Sainte-Hélène, Skoltz_Kolgen's asKaa installation, and PLACARD/MUTEK 2005, a three-day laboratory-extravaganza featuring over sixty live performances. And, lest we forget, five days of concerts with performances by artists like Monolake, Biosphere, and Radian spread across daily twelve-hour marathons.

The Intersection series convenes artists, journalists, and other industry professionals involved in the creation, representation, promotion, and publishing of electronic music. This year's forums (the series' fourth presentation) identified legal, promotional, and cultural challenges that will arise in the years ahead. Creative Commons: A Change of Perspective examined the current legal murkiness in ownership rights and how the Creative Commons licensing scheme attempts to allow artists to clearly define access to creative efforts with simple, legally-airtight language. Evolving Channels: New Initiatives for the Digital Era focused on new marketing and distribution avenues for artists in the electronic field; Minus/Plus 8 label co-founder John Acquaviva, for instance, discussed branding issues relating to minimal techno artist Richie Hawtin. Though Industry in Transition was supposed to deal with internet music culture and online music journals, the participants' initial discussion fixated on the bewildering success of the chart-topping 'Crazy Frog Axel F' ringtone, though talk later shifted to economic challenges facing independent labels like Shitkatapult and Meteosound. The final panel Beyond Borders: Cultural Hybrids examined the theme of disintegrating borders from a creative rather than market-based perspective. Panelists discussed frameworks for exchange and hybridization between Westernized and so-called developing cultures, as well as issues of legitimacy and appropriation, specifically by those from more technologically developed nations who co-opt aspects of a foreign culture into their own work. While Christiaan Virant of Beijing-based fm3 wrestled with the question of identity (a natural fit, given that he spent the first half of his life growing up in Nebraska and the second in China), man-of-a-thousand-monikers Uwe Schmidt assumed a more irreverent position, though that shouldn't surprise, considering his new Atom Heart album Acid Evolution 1988-2003 features tracks by sixteen Schmidt aliases.

The festival featured two striking installations. The Staalplaat Soundsystem duo of Geert-Jan Hobijn and Carsten Stabenow inaugurated the PLACARD/MUTEK 2005 project with their Yokomono installation, a table-top set-up featuring ten red and clear vinyl discs 'played' by toy trucks equipped with needles on their undersides and outfitted with fm transmitters. An impressive phalanx of artists (fm3, Günter Müller, Martin Tétreault, Tim Hecker, et cetera) followed the Staalplaat duo, with each performing for about forty minutes before ceding the spotlight to another, the artists' music available to be heard via Internet transmission or on-site with headphones. Not surprisingly, the latter lent an intimate and meditative dimension to the project, an impression enhanced by the often peaceful style of the participants' music. The fascinating asKaa installation, created by Skoltz_Kolgen (Montreal duo Dominique [t] Skoltz and Herman w Kolgen) and presented at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, revolved around two huge projection screens that displayed synthetic images of virtual plants whose ongoing evolution was influenced by sounds generated by the group itself as well as guests like Richard Chartier, Joe Colley, and Taylor Deupree.

Like years past, the concert presentations split into sit-down 'listening' experiences in a concert hall setting and dance performances in club environments. Last year's all-night 'rave' wasn't repeated (MUTEK personnel decided to not run shows past 3 AM) though organizers did offer something new: two concerts presented at the same time in different locales—not such a great idea for listeners wanting to attend both.

Performing artists at the two Ex-Centris concerts attempted satisfying solutions to the image-sound conundrum. AUTO_SAVE, a multimedia piece by nAnalog (Gabriel Coutu-Dumont, Mathieu St-Arnaud, and David Fafard), matched grimy machine loops and blurry drones to onscreen detritus, Russian letterforms, and waves and seagulls while tINYLITTLEeLEMENTS synchronized Viennese artist Lia's graphics (abstract patterns of white geometric shapes and sticks against a black base with splashes of hot red-orange) to Sebastian Meissner's austere, spindly sound fields. Both performances addressed the laptop presentation 'problem' well enough but were also overlong, with the works inviting formal appreciation more than anything else. Biosphere (Geir Jenssen) paired his initially captivating minimalism with Egbert Mittelstädt's film footage (city street scenes, 360° panoramas viewed from within a subway car, a naked female figure) that, refracted through a distorting lens, took on a liquid fluidity. An aura of reverential solemnity attended Biosphere's performance of churning loops and drones.

Toronto artist AKUMU opened the second evening with clinical electronica accompanied by representational collages (Saturn rising above the horizon, greenish silhouettes of surgical instruments, mutated human skeletons) and animations, the music moving through slow-motion episodes of ghostly shudders, insectoid scratching, and crinkly beats. Italian cohorts and MetaXu members Martux_M (Maurizio Martusciello) and Mattia Casalegno then presented X-Scape+, detailed weaves of geometric and abstract shapes accompanied by atmospheric electronic colour (signal bursts, steely emissions), followed by Bas van Koolwijk whose minimal fluttering tones were mirrored by the onscreen movement of horizontal coloured lines and shapes. While flawlessly presented, the Ex-Centris concerts proved underwhelming for being excessively long and for presenting music that was too often emotionally uninvolving. (By comparison, the music in previous years' 'audio-visual' performances by Rechenzentrum and Coil would have impressed just as much without visuals.)

The opening night's late concert featured Polmo Polpo (Toronto's Sandro Perri), Kapital Band I, and post-rock trio Radian. Polmo Polpo opened with a very Indonesian-sounding arrangement of bleepy dub that grew darker and fiercer as the set progressed and eventually built to a large, rhythmic closer that helped prime the crowd for Radian. Hailing from Austria, the band was by turns tight, jazzy, ambient, slow, fast, but above all, clear in its purpose. Centered around Martin Brandlmayr's intricate drumming, bassist John Norman made efficient use of effects pedals to establish dark atmospheres into which Stephan Nemeth poured flowing melodies. The audience was very much attuned to Radian's flow, and the relationship followed through to an energized encore. It was only fitting that Brandlmayr would follow into the Kapital Band I set. Working hand in hand with a laughing Nicholas Bussman, the two musicians dropped quick, nimble tracks of loose, damaged Korg programs and tight beats, including a hotly rendered “My New Car,” before ending the night with jazzy, broken phrases in front of a grateful crowd.

Peak festival moments occurred during Thursday's late show with the performance space doused in darkness and transformed into an immersive multi-channel environment of eight strategically positioned speakers, all designed to maximize the experience of Robert Henke's Studies for Thunder. With Henke and his laptop in the room's center and listeners positioned in concentric circles around him, the work began quietly with thunder gradually appearing on all sides, the listener transported to the center of an artificially-generated storm. Searing bolts violently tore across the sky and rain pummeled down until the ripples of thunder and rain receded and slowly faded into silence—a mesmerizing performance that remarkably sustained the illusion of natural phenomena from beginning to end; notably, no visuals were needed to bolster its impact and the piece was a perfect half-hour in duration. Argentina's Pablo Reche followed with funereal drones and churning noise of assaultive volume and intensity. How amusing that crowd silence was demanded before experimental sound artist John Duncan would deign to begin his hour-long The Hissing as a roomful of even the loudest conceivable conversations would have been dwarfed by his engulfing black hole of shortwave feedback noise; connecting each fingertip to a mixer knob, he moved his harsh, alien windstorm from speaker to speaker. Describing cauldronesque sets by Reche and Duncan as awesome wouldn't be inaccurate. Ending the evening with a performance of completely different character, Viennese musician Franz Pomassl provided some enlivening dada insanity in a riveting performance. A crackling analog rhythm was destroyed beat by beat, while he smashed an effects pedal and stuck a free patch cable on his tongue, up his nose, in his eye socket, on virtually any available orifice; Pomassl even enlisted an 'assistant,' Russia's Alexei Borisov, to contribute vastly broken vocals. An unforgettable—if violent—demonstration, Pomassl's devilish fun countered the otherwise 'serious' music presented that night. What made the set so engrossing was the element of surprise, of not knowing what Pomassl might do next in a performance poised to move in any direction.

At Friday's 'double program,' attendees were able to choose between performances in two rooms, or drift back and forth between them. Given the choice between the first room's sets by Vertex, Diane Labrosse and Günter Müller, Discom, and Marcus Schmickler, I opted for the second with its ambient and dance emphases. Direwires (Adam Young) opened with an atmospheric stream of placid ambient impressionism that veered into celestial and gamelan zones, though also flirted at times with New Age. An evening highlight arrived next in the form of scarred sonic whorls by Klimek (Sebastian Meissner) and Tim Hecker. An opening section and its incorporation of (I believe) oud playing seemed reminiscent of Meissner's Random Inc. style while a later section suggested Hecker's beatific blur. Like Henke's set, their performance felt like it ended too soon, suggesting it was the perfect duration after all. Refreshingly, the remainder of the concert was given over to dance music. With beats throbbing, Meek (Mike Baugh) delivered straight-up cyborg-funk that, at one point, turned into a tribal stomp. Shouts of 'Bruno!' suggested Steven Ford (aka Bruno Pronsato) is a Montreal favourite (he issues music on Montreal's Musique Risquée as well as on Orac) and his authoritative and exuberant set of bleeping micro-funk didn't disappoint. Much darker by comparison, Germany's Apparat delivered pounding and sometimes brutal punk-techno. High on theatricality and crowd-pleasing histrionics, Sasha Ring invested every movement with an exaggerated flourish, his sound verging on breakcore in its intensity and punk in its anarchistic sensibility. At night's end, Pan/Tone (Shelbono del Monte aka Sid LeRock and Gringo Grinder) delivered a more civilized set of pumping robot techno.

Saturday afternoon featured a program by Latin American artists that eschewed stereotypical rhythms for Danieto's trance-inducing mood music, Emisor's murky tribal stew, Skipsapiens' Warp-styled crunchy IDM and, best of all, Andres Bucci's infectious techno. Though the roster for Saturday night's Metropolis concert—Monolake, Mathew Jonson, Sense Club (Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano), and Zürich duo Galoppierende Zuversicht—promised much, plans had to be revised quickly on account of Villalobos's absence (a missed flight apparently). First up was Monolake whose tracks, for all their immaculate finesse on disc, come to life with a Herculean force in concert. In a set highlighting material from Polygon_Cities, Henke, dancing with abandon behind his gear, and the more reserved T++ stretched out their tracks' perpetually rolling grooves, at one point revisiting the towering style of the group's Chain Reaction days before exiting with the irresistible stomp of “Plumbicon.” Vancouverite Mathew Jonson then delivered a flawless and occasionally anthemic set of gleaming, spacey techno. Sans partner Villalobos, Luciano (Lucien Nicolet) gamely soldiered on, only to have a blown fuse abruptly derail his stoked brew of churning microhouse and techno. Further surprises awaited when Uwe Schmidt (aka Atom Heart, Señor Coconut et al) and Vicente Sanfuentes (aka Original Hamster), having just cobbled together enough gear for an unscheduled appearance, took the stage for a short but stunning set. Starting tentatively with simple, improvised drum machine patterns, the music gradually developed into a roiling fusion of acid-funk-robot-dancehall (an acid-reggaeton hybrid ultimately christened 'acid-ton') with a ridiculously sped-up vocal sample the cherry on top. A final surprise was the closing performance by the relatively unknown Galoppierende Zuversicht. Swiss duo Styro (Marcel Ackerknecht) and Bang Goes' (Roland Widmer) used only sequencers and other custom-made instruments in their unhinged performance, its hallucinatory quality deepened by Styro's brightly glowing red headlamp.

At the Piknic Electronik event on l'île Sainte-Hélène, shelter provided by the towering Calder stabile helped cool the sizable crowd of 3,000 during a lazy Sunday afternoon of sunshine and music. Chile's Pier Bucci and Switzerland's Serafin collaborated on an Orb-flavored set of minimal techno that had the kids bouncing and bopping up front, with less energetic listeners nodding heads underneath whatever shade they could find. The day's chilled vibe extended into the evening, with si-cut.db (Douglas Benford) initiating the festival's closing concert with two slow, beatless cuts from From Tears: Beach Archive. Much like the album, his hypnotic digi-dub teemed with smears, ripples, crackles, and snake-like rattles and offered a refreshing stylistic change from the festival's other sounds. In a commanding set of minimal house, Thomas Melchior merged a distorted, “Baby Judy”-like voice sample with razor-sharp hi-hats and crisp pulses. MUTEK 2005 ended with the SoulPhiction duo of Michael Baumann and singer Suzana Rozkosny, her singing often window dressing for the dark and hazy tech-house Baumann coaxed from his machines, and finally with Nego Moçambique's Brazilian funk-techno fusion.

So what could possibly be exasperating about such plentiful offerings and such diverse programming? Ignoring altogether the fact that trade-offs are inevitable (attending a three-hour Ableton Live 4 and Operator workshop conducted by Robert Henke meant missing the Beyond Borders-Cultural Hybrids panel, for example), set duration and programming rendered the experience slightly less enthralling than it might have been. Firstly, too many performances were too long (nAnalog, Direwires, tINYLITTLEeLEMENTS, Meek, Mathew Jonson, AKUMU, and others); even the impact of Bruno Pronsato's jubilant techno was diminished by its length. By comparison, it's telling that sets by Klimek/Hecker, Schmidt/Sanfuentes, and Henke were succinct, so much so that when each ended there was a craving for more, not less. And, secondly, this year's festival lacked the revelatory moments that distinguished past MUTEKs. None of the admittedly credible showings at Ex-Centris this year came close to matching 2004's remarkable Chessmachine presentation by Richard Chartier and Ivan Pavlov, for example, and not a single 2005 performance equaled riveting ones by Portable last year and Coil the year before. There wasn't a single moment that jerked me to attention, my listening re-calibrated by the sudden appearance of something completely alien and fresh, though sets by Duncan, Schmidt/Sanfuentes, and Galoppierende Zuversicht came close to doing so. Yet, in the end, such grumbling seems curmudgeonly and rather ungenerous when the overall caliber of the festival is considered. For a festival so technology-dependent, the efficiency with which it unfolds is impressive and, notwithstanding a technical snafu or two, that it runs largely glitch-free is remarkable. And, in isolated moments, some artists deliver performances that are so potent and elevating they render moot all criticism. Of what import are festival weaknesses when Andres Bucci's infectious stomp, for instance, pulls the crowd so deliriously onto the dance floor?

September 2005