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MUTEK 2000: A Week in Review

By Richard di Santo
18 June 2000

The first annual Mutek festival, held in Montreal from 7-11 June, was a diverse showcase of talents and personalities in the electronic music scene. The event was organised by Ex-Centris, a new media exhibition space self-described as "a mecca for the avant-garde". Subtitled "Music, Sound and New Technologies", the festival dedicated its attention to new forms of electronic music. A quick glance at the roster of musicians in attendance gives you an idea as to the festival's diversity: Vladislav Delay, Pole, Kit Clayton, Noto, Thomas Brinkmann, Taylor Deupree and a host of other European and North American artists (with a healthy dose of local talent as well). Each night presented 2 sets of performances. The first was a "happy hour" at the nearby Café Laïka, where musicians presented their work in more of an open-environment concept, inviting those walking in the street to pause and listen to some new and innovative sounds emanating from within. The second was the main event for each evening, presenting more formal concert structures in venues which were more enclosed; first, the uncomfortable but technically superior Ex-Centris performance space, and second the nearby club Café Campus, technically inadequate but much more comfortable for the audience.

The first evening began with performances by Oral Collective members Herri Kopter and Afuken (Marc Leclair), two Montreal artists specialising in minimal techno. Akufen's set was a nice concoction of deep grooves with zero ornamentation, while Herri Kopter played some more Kraftwerk-inspired electropop. Not exactly groundbreaking work, but it was nice to listen to while sitting in the shade on a warm spring day.

The main events that evening were held at Ex-Centris, and was a showcase for the Architettura series on Iara Lee's Caipirinha label. The opening act was a performance by Alexandre St-Onge, who played some minimal sounds in the mould of Aube's audio experiments. Taylor Deupree opened up the Architettura set with some music based on his work for his Tower of Winds CD in this series (originally co-produced by Savvas Ysatis (aka Sound Track). The music was not as minimal as I was expecting (knowing well Deupree's recent output of microscopic sounds), but it had an amazing depth and dimension. The piece worked well as an organic whole, however the experience suffered because of its ill-conceived visual concept. While Deupree was playing, a small collection of slides of the Tower of Winds was projected onto a large screen behind him, each image being displayed for about 30 seconds in rotation. Aside from being an unimaginative counterpart to the performance, I found that this just marked the music temporally, and did not compliment its organic qualities, in which we could have lost all sense of time. The next set that night was by Panacea, a hard-core drum'n'bass artist who somehow got involved with the Architettura series. There seemed little correlation between the music he was creating and the theme of architecture, or the slides being projected onto the screen. You just got the feeling that Panacea just wanted to break into a solid d'n'b rhythm, which he finally did after 40 minutes of fragmented beats, violent cut-ups and radio interference. Savvas Ysatis gave the final performance that night, and this was just pure techno-house. Nothing relating to architecture from what I could see, and really nothing terribly innovative either, but some crisp beats and rhythms that were expertly crafted.

The second evening began with some quiet and minimal electronics performed by 12k artists Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree. I was surprised that Chartier was performing in such a space, which was very much alive with activity, discussion and noise, because his sound is almost inaudible, working with very minimal sounds on a foundation in silence. But both artists performed some more audible soundscaping from their catalogues, masterfully done, but still the venue wasn't exactly suited to this kind of performance, where the need to really listen is essential.

The main event that night presented a set by Raster-Noton artists Noto (Carsten Nicolai), Byetone (Olaf Bender) and Komet (Frank Bretschneider), and CoH (Ivan Pavlov). These artists presented the more rhythmic side of microwave: clicks, abstract frequencies and static sounds formed the basis of these compositions. By far the best of these performances was Noto's, who is probably the most innovative of this foursome, complemented by some stunningly stark visuals - neon-blue squares fluttered across the screen in time with the ever-changing sound elements.

One of the most notable performances of the festival was a film about the life of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla called S8P Antennas, Transmission. The film was made by AE, "a research and communication unit" comprised of two Montreal artists Gisèle Trudel and Stéphan Claude. The film was a stunning audiovisual marvel; an inventive use of the split screen (vertically, in half), with interviews, sounds, montage and computer graphics. The theme of the film was the visionary behind an innovator in wireless communications, altered consciousness, antennawork and more. The intention I think was to inspire awe in light of the Tesla's largely unacknowledged achievements. Some incredible scenarios, crisp sound and superb image quality and direction. I'm eager to see more from this innovative duo.

The third evening began with music presented by a Montreal-based label Hautec, specialising in techno and house music. The performances were just that, with nothing new or innovative, and made me wonder just what the nature of this festival was really all about. There was such a sad contrast between a performance like that of AE the previous evening and this everyday techno being presented by Mateo+Pheek, Deadbeat and DJ Martin.

The main event that night, a showcase of Mille Plateaux / Force Inc. talent, was prefaced by another club-friendly force called Safety Scissors. The evening really got going however with a spectacular 2 hour set by Vladislav Delay. Delay's work, filled with submerged sounds and incongruous rhythms, is truly remarkable. Though his rhythms are uneven and complex, you can see that he is still moved by his music, it creates an internal rhythm in him so that as he performs he rocks back and forth with contentment (or, maybe the music is a manifestation of that internal rhythm?). He was followed by more club-friendly sets by two American artists Jake Mandell and Sutekh.

The club-culture took over on Saturday night, led by strong performances by Thomas Brinkmann and Riley Reinhold (aka Triple R). I was curious to see which side of Brinkmann we would get to see that night, as his music can range from the quiet and minimal to more harder-edged techno rhythms. We definitely saw nothing of the former; it was all hooklines and big beats that night. Brinkmann mostly played material from his Soul Center series of techno-funk fusions, and shook the foundations of the building with what was probably the loudest set of the week. Triple R also played a hard and vigorous set of loud and intoxicating techno. The music was perfect for the venue, the positive energy in the room was undeniable, but the performances on Saturday night were less to my taste for all things abstract and experimental.

Sunday night redeemed everything, and reconciled me to the lesser events of the festival. It began with Anne Hilde Neset, aka the Wire Sound System, spinning what was undoubtedly the best set of all the happy-hours at Laïka. Beginning with Nuno Canavarro and Johnny Cash (!), she worked her way through experimental mood music to more uptempo jazz, funk, abstract breakbeats and back again to more ambient sound textures. A strong set certainly representative of the Wire magazine's diverse coverage of inventive music.

Later that night were two earth-shattering performances of experimental dub courtesy of Stefan Betke's ~scape label. This label's activities have impressed me from the start, with releases from Burnt Friedman and Kit Clayton, to the most recent Staedtizism compilation featuring dub excursions by Vladislav Delay, Pole, To Rococo Rot with I-Sound, Trash Aesthetic and others. The first performance that night was by Kit Clayton, who recently released his full-length Nek Salanet on ~scape. He presented a long track that developed in unexpected ways, creating a very complex sound structure with some incredible bass and some intense rhythm construction. Following Kit Clayton was Stefan Betke (aka Pole), who spread some amazing dub tracks coloured with his trademark clicks and crackles. The bass ran deep, and the small room was alive with the music, making this one of the most memorable nights of the week.

Although my experience at MUTEK was a mixed bag of musical bliss on the one hand and gross dissatisfaction on the other, overall my feelings of the week's events are positive. I am definitely looking forward to see how the festival will evolve in the coming years, and so I very much look forward to attending MUTEK 2001. My only hope is to see more innovation at next year's festival and less of the everyday. MUTEK undoubtedly succeeded in being an effective showcase for more experimental electronic music, while still keeping the balance and letting the less daring groove to the more club-friendly events through the week. It was great to see artists of such calibre being brought together, projecting their musical visions and developing new appreciations for the sensibilities of their audience. In spite of its occasional (and inevitable) disappointments, the festival was punctuated by some incredible performances, namely those of Taylor Deupree, AE, Noto, Vladislav Delay, Kit Clayton and Pole. My compliments to the organisers of the festival, who did a wonderful job keeping everything under control. It was clearly a very positive experience for everyone involved, from the artists to the audience members and everyone in between.