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Mutek 2001: A Week in Review

By Richard di Santo
10 June 2001

For the five days and nights between May 30 and June 3, 2001, Montréal played host to the second annual Mutek festival. Mutek is quickly becoming the seminal festival for electronic music in Canada, drawing an impressive roster of artists and performers from around the world. This edition (involving about 40 artists) saw performances by the likes of Matmos, Herbert, Goem, Thomas Brinkmann, Philippe Cam, I8U and Martin Tétrault, Tomas Jirku, AElab, Rechenzentrum and a host of others.

I spoke with Alain Mongeau, the artistic director and curator for Mutek, just prior to the festival about his vision of what the festival has been, what it is now, and what it ought to be. Having walked away from last year's Mutek with mixed feelings, I was looking for some assurance that there was a passionate driving force behind the festival; a momentum and a commitment to create a dynamic festival with a wide trajectory of events, performances, and musical visions. In my review of Mutek 2000 I wrote how the programme seemed to shift dramatically from the experimental to the mainstream; as if what was more esoteric or experimental had a curfew and couldn't stay up past 10. I spoke with Alain about this, and I found that his vision and commitment to creating a successful festival for electronic music to be both reassuring and practical:

All in all, what I'm really committed to is to provide the electronic music scene with a real festival, where we could talk about all the dimensions related to the artistic practice underlying the scene. So just like there are festivals for cinema, theater, dance, so there would be one specifically around [electronic] music and sound.

Each day of the festival had two sets of events. The first was a "happy hour" at the Société des Arts Technologiques (SAT), a free two-hour session featuring a number of artists showcasing their recent material. The main events were either held at Ex-Centris, a commanding (if uncomfortable) multimedia space or at the SAT, which could accommodate larger crowds. All of the main events were webcast at Betalounge and at the Mutek site, where they have also been archived for anytime streaming audio. A compilation CD with exclusive material from 13 of the participating artists is also available.

The Main Events

The festival began with great impact on Wednesday night, with an opening set by Martin Tétrault (already infamous for his improvisational versatility and techniques) and I8U. They began performing just minutes before the audience was admitted into the concert space, so that we could all walk into a performance already in progress. I8U created bass drones (loud, consuming, shifting) while Tétrault fiddled and struggled playfully with his equipment, interrupting yet complementing the flow with sharp sounds or subtle rustlings and crackles. Goem followed with another strong and commanding set: Frans de Waard, Peter Duimelinks and Roel Meelkop mesmerised us with their pulses (tweaked and mixed to perfection), bass tones and surface crackles. Mikael Stävostrand followed with a set of "clicks + cuts" which was impressive (Stävostrand has been making waves recently with a number of strong releases), but lacked the impact of his excellent solo CD Lite (released on his own Mitek label). The night closed off with a set of meandering digital electronica from Montréal based artist Jetone, who created a constantly shifting soundspace of digital sounds and rhythms, leaning toward "ambient" but often crossing over into click-house territories. The energy of this last set was no match for that of the earlier performances that night, and so I thought perhaps Jetone's set was better suited for one of the happy hours which took place in the afternoons.

Day two began with a new audiovisual essay titled Nanospace by AElab, an innovative research and communication unit consisting of Gisèle Trudel and Stéphane Claude. A rich digital soundscape opened up before our ears as a slow-moving multiframe visual component (blending computer animation, text and video footage) unfolded on a projection screen before our eyes. The audiovisual elements were synchronised perfectly; the images, often in the form of abstract patterns, simultaneously examined both the micro- and macrocosmic perspectives. A wonderful work. This presentation was followed by Matmos, probably one of the more high-profile acts in Mutek's programme. They presented three long pieces of quirky electronica with a flair for performance. The first involved one of the members running a wired device over his skin and producing some very strange sounds. Matmos recruited sound artist Richard Chartier, who was on hand at the festival, to film this strange performance, the images being screened live behind the performers. The visual component reached its peak with this first piece, however, since the footage screened during the second and third pieces were prerecorded and seemed to have little relation to the music being performed (forays into ear cavities, mouths and black and white spirals). During the course of their performance, which captured a lot of attention that evening, they wired a birdcage and played it with bows and strikes, took out a guitar for some melodic motifs, laid down some hard rhythms and quirky beats, and filled the room with a refreshing sense of spontaneity. These guys were a joy to watch. The German audiovisual duo Rechenzentrum followed with another great set, also incorporating a visual component. Texts, shapes, and images of machines throughout history flashed before our eyes, while the duo of Lillevaen and Marc Weiser filled the space with rich digital sound with a strong post-industrial atmosphere. Strings, hard beats, rich sonics, digital textures and dark moods dominated this engaging set. Then it was over to the SAT for a nightcap performance by Ric y Martin, a duo comprised of Ricardo Villalobos and Martin Schopf aka Dandy Jack. A bit of a party, a catharsis dominated by retro-techno grooves shaking off the "seriousness" of the evening's earlier performances.

Day three featured five artists from Cologne's Traum label, which is quickly becoming a pool of talent from across the world taking the limelight from Cologne's already strong presence in the techno scene. Process, Gustavo Lamas, Philippe Cam, Akufen and Triple R each had their turn spinning tunes and presenting their own variations on what is characteristically known as the "Cologne sound" of minimal techno. Strong driving rhythms and some excellent sets by all of the performers (particular favourites of mine were Akufen, Philippe Cam and Triple R).

Day four featured artists from the Kompakt label, also from Cologne, and presented a sound very similar to the previous night. Featuring sets by Olaf Dettinger (who played for a mere 20 minutes!), Closer Musik (a duo comprised of Matias Aguyo and Dirk Leyers), Jonas Bering and Tobias Thomas, day four presented some strong sets of minimal techno, but I was essentially disappointed with this one. This music was just too similar to what we heard the previous night, and really this 5 day music festival is too short to have repeats.

Day five restored much of the momentum with a fresh performance from Matthew Herbert, showcasing material from his new Bodily Functions CD on Studio K7. His music is immensely accessible; house rhythms, easy jazz, and generally downtempo material is created using samples from domestic objects (he's gone so far as to write a "manifesto of mistakes" for creating music). For his live set, which featured vocalist Dani Siciliano and Phil Parnel on piano, Herbert struck glass bottles and various objects together to create his samples live, which were then used as the foundations for the tracks. Nicely done. Dimbiman followed with a nice set of minimal sounds and compelling rhythms, and the night was topped off by an anticipated DJ performance from Thomas Brinkmann, who showcased his minimal techno material (as opposed to his set last year, largely taken from his Soul Center material of intoxicating techno-funk). Brinkmann was clearly the best DJ to present through the entire festival; his ability to get a crowed worked up, rouse their energy level and keep it high for hours is simply phenomenal.

If I seem to be passing over the performances from the last three days of the festival without much detail, it's with good reason. The momentum achieved in the first two days was neither surpassed nor matched by these three events, which focused more on the "techno" rather than the "new technologies" aspect of the festival. I find I have very little to say about techno, the distinction between the supposed qualifiers "minimal", "Cologne" or "mainstream" sounds really becoming blurred (and admittedly unexciting) in today's musical arena. I have a particular bias for the experimental, and so as a general rule I will be less captivated by a 4/4 rhythm and a solid hook than I will with an innovative performance technique or a new and exceptional sound.

The Happy Hours

With only a couple of special exceptions, for me the happy hours were the lesser events of the festival, which probably had something to do with both the venue (an irregularly shaped performance space) but also with the material being presented. Dandy Jack and Ricardo Villalobos presented some retro drum-machine grooves. Julien Roy, Vrac and Rodeo in Reno showcased their unique digital soundscapes, from abstract noise and quiet crackles to more rhythm-based material. Three sets from the Toronto-based label Dumb-Unit (Jacob Fairley, Matt + Mark Thibideau and Jeremy Caulfield) showed off their relative talents for analogue mixing, groove, ambient, digital cut-ups, and also for simply spinning tunes.

The biggest surprise was a wonderful set by Kapotte Muziek during Friday's happy hour. Earlier in the day the three members of Kapotte Muziek (the same members as in Goem) conducted a workshop with a group of seven students, giving a general introduction to the concepts behind sound-recycling, providing a rough history, and quickly moving on to giving instructions on constructing contact microphones. The students then went out onto the street, recording material and finding objects on which to "play" for their set. At 5 pm, the members of Kapotte Muziek grouped together two sets of students and performed short sets with them, creating some of the most engaging sounds of the entire festival, entirely improvised from performing on their found objects and by mixing some basic source material. The real surprise was that they were able to capture a whole audience's attention during happy hour. Remarkable!

Another strong happy hour set was the launch of Substractif, a new sublabel of Alien8 Recordings. There were two sets, the first by Mitchell Akiyama and the second by Tomas Jirku, coinciding with two new releases on the label. Echoes of Pole, Vladislav Delay, and perhaps even the minimal clicks of Brinkmann (not to mention Jirku's citation of the KLF!) could be discerned in their sets, but really these two artists have styles and identities that are completely their own.

Considering the Whole

I must commend the organisers of the festival; they have been able to pull together an impressive roster of artists and performers and organised the best electronic music festival Canada currently has to offer. In time, I am confident that Mutek will become flawless.

Speaking with Alain Mongeau, the festival's main organiser, I really have developed an appreciation for the difficulties in curating a festival of this magnitude. Alain spoke to me about the challenges of creating a programme for Mutek:

The result is the end point of a long kind of organic process, where you start with (at best) a vague idea and as time goes by, you launch requests, encounter pockets of resistance here, receive a bit of help there... It's like a sculpture over time, where some things fall into place easily, others not. I realize that everything I have done in the past 5 years forms a background for whatever I do today. An effective network of contacts has been built. And sometimes it takes 2 to 3 years of exchange with an artist before it actually leads to something. [...] I think that what drives the programming is mainly the will to be connected with what is happening today in terms of innovation, to look for different creative drives, to play a certain function of seeding new ideas/sounds/players into the environment, and to help bridge the gap between what is happening in Europe and here.

If I criticize Mutek for perhaps tipping the balance between experimentalism and the commonplace, I do so because what I have in mind for Mutek is the "end point" which Alain speaks of; a music festival that thrives on new ideas and innovation, organised for a growing public who will no longer need the pull of cathartic 4/4 techno rhythms to check things out, but who will feel transcendent in their embrace of new media and experimental electronic music. The idea of incorporating more workshops into the programme is an excellent one, since a workshop can change a spectator into a performer, and this shift has the potential to foster a strong and growing public interest in the event and the industry as a whole.

Mutek has become an amazing success in what is only its second year, and I am confident that it is on the right path to become even better with every new year that passes; an international festival in the heart of Montréal, giving equal value to local and international talents, and showcasing some of the most innovative music around.