Culture | Let’s get teknical

Treking through Mutek

On its website, the Mutek International Festival for Digital Creativity and Electronic Music claims to provide “an open, inviting environment that encourages rewarding exchanges between artists, professionals, and the public.” This statement, whether purposefully or not, strikes upon one of the main points of tension that can be observed in the production and consumption of digital art and electronic music: accessibility.

In many ways electronic music can certainly be “open” and “inviting.” It’s the most participatory of popular music genres; the transition from consumer to producer is a fairly simple one to make, as so many of us have the means to create electronic music at our fingertips and on our relatively ubiquitous laptops. Equipment and training are limited in comparison to other genres, and the ease of online dissemination helps to mitigate the need for what is often conceived to be an insular and unapproachable music industry.

However, with a plethora of sub-genres and counter-waves, as well as complex cultural associations, electronic music can also prove to be confusing field to navigate and make sense of. It is thus with a dose of skepticism, and an eye towards approachability that I have entered into Mutek’s 2012 installment, which takes place here in Montreal, from May 30th to June 3rd.

Nocturne 1

In discussing Mutek, a music-savvy acquaintance outlined a simple delineation in the festival’s programming. On the one hand, there is a fine sampling of electronic dance music (EDM), while on the other, listeners can get a taste of more ambient, experimental electro. The two bands I saw at Mutek’s first evening “Nocturne” performance seemed in many ways to present a simultaneous blend of these two poles.

Blondes, a Brooklyn-based DJ duo, are not exactly performers – they are the head-down kind of DJs that mostly leave the crowd to their own devices. But this brand of showmanship, or lack thereof, makes a great deal of sense for their deeply measured and synth-based brand of electronic music. Blondes trades in repetitive washes of sound, that slowly, almost sneakily, intensify, creating a pattern of soft builds and drops – nothing like the abrasive, jolting examples heard in so much more mainstream techno.

Berlin-based Apparat took the stage next, playing to a swelling crowd with front-man Sascha Ring and three additional instrumentalists, one of whom showed his solidarity via a red square pinned to his sleeve. Apparat’s sound once again fell somewhere between the ambient and the dance-worthy, but in an even more blissfully self-contradicting manner than Blondes. Ring’s ethereal vocals, which spanned a dynamic range, wove through driving beats and intense bass, the likes of which I hadn’t felt since seeing James Blake (the British electronic musician) in concert a few months ago. And if, as a music journalist once wrote, Blake is a “mop-topped angel,” then Ring may be a fallen one, given the gritty intensity of his performance.

Panel 1: Taking the Pulse of Canada’s Electronic Culture

A major hindrance to Mutek’s accessibility is ticket price. With a “Festival Passport” listed at $280, and individual shows priced as high as $40, Mutek isn’t exactly affordable. However, the festival has taken some important steps to offset financial obstacles by offering a significant amount of free programming – in fact, Nicolas Jaar, one of the festival’s headliners, is participating in a free event on June 2.

Included in the festival’s free programming are a handful of discussion panels, the first of which proposed to take a look at the current state of electronic music in Canada. On the panel were Vancouver-based DJ Max Ulis, Malcolm Levy, an artist and promoter from Vancouver, Jeff van Harmelen, a Toronto promoter and General Manager of Thoughtless Music record label, and Montreal producer and DJ Ghislain Poirier, with writer Dimitri Nasrallah moderating the discussion.

The panel quickly moved in the same direction as many discussions about the arts in Canada, landing upon the problem of sustainability. A key issue in this respect is the development of localized electronic music scenes, which actively foster local artists. In an attempt to draw crowds and revenues, there is a great deal of impetus for promoters, when booking electronic shows, parties, and festivals, to give international artists later and better-attended time slots, while relegating lesser-known local musicians to the task of filling space and warming up the crowd beforehand. However, as Poirier observed, “If you just play opening sets, you’ll just play opening music.”

The panel agreed that another significant obstacle to the fostering of productive electronic music communities is a lack of venues that afflicts most Canadian cities. This is a problem that falls under the broader conundrum of a lack of the cultural infrastructure needed to support Canadian artists.

And, while improvements are required in individual communities, the panel also cited the need for greater national infrastructure in order to better disseminate the electronic music being produced on disconnected and disparate coasts. The panelists mentioned the CBC Electronic project as something that had the potential to fill this void, but has so far failed to do so, in part due to cuts in government funding.

It seems that the consensus among the panel was that, like so much of the arts in Canada, electronic music is in a tenuous position, but has the advantage of some hard-working innovators. As Poirier noted, “the scene is healthy, there is renewal.”

Renewal perhaps, but judging from the composition of the panel, one thing the electronic music scene doesn’t have is diversity. With no women or minorities represented, the question of access in electronic music was once again brought into glaring focus. If the homogeneity of the panel serves as an indication of its current “pulse,” Canada’s electronic culture is ailing, and would certainly benefit from some new, and hopefully more diverse, blood.

Nocturne 3

Mutek’s third night of shows provided a contrast between two distinctly different approaches to electronic music. The evening’s headliners included Nicolas Jaar, a 22-year-old DJ with a fresh and nuanced take on electronic music making his Montreal debut, and Kode9, a heavyweight name in British dubstep.

Jaar walks a fine line at the border of club music by maintaining a house sensibility amidst plenty of beat-less sonic experimentation. Readers of all-important online music magazine Resident Advisor recently voted Jaar as 2011’s best live act, setting high expectations for Friday’s midnight performance. On stage at Metropolis, supported by a two-person band with keyboards, guitar, and saxophone, Jaar recreated the languorous atmosphere of 2011’s Space is Only Noise LP, exploring at length the textures of his varied style. He also played previously unheard material, and seemed eager to share his virtuosic creativity with a highly appreciative crowd.

Kode9 played the ground floor of the Société des arts technologiques, bringing his UK-based dub aesthetic to a raucous DJ set. The founder and owner of London’s Hyperdub label, home of dubstep luminaries The Bug and Burial, Kode9 is a keystone of the UK music scene. Active since 1991, Kode9 is a veteran, and demonstrated his ability to move the crowd in a set that drew heavily on manipulation of vinyl samples. Unlike Jaar, Kode9’s show possessed an unrelenting dancefloor-friendly energy, but thankfully avoided the cliché wobbling bass that characterizes so many less creative DJs of the genre.

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