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1 July 2003

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Mutek 2003
Brigitte Poulin plays Morton Feldman

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MUTEK 2003
Various venues, Montreal, 28 May – 2 June 2003

MUTEK, Montreal's premier festival of electronic music, recently enjoyed its fourth annual instalment (having sponsored a number of stopovers and micro events around the globe, from Marseille to New York, from Toronto to Barcelona). The festival has certainly taken off from its beginnings, both humble and ambitious all at once, presenting progressively larger programs with each year, featuring an impressive roster of international artists, but always maintaining its "home-grown" nature by including a consistently strong showing of Montreal artists. This year's program featured nearly 50 sets from as many or more artists. The program once again revealed a diverse group, from more experimental projects to a strong showing of minimal techno, from turntablists to micro-dub kingpins, from noise artists to electronic improvisers, Latin bands and conceptual nightmares. A quick rundown of some of the artists appearing at the festival illustrates this breadth: Asmus Tietchens and Thomas Köner (performing as Kontakt der Jünglinge), Oren Ambarchi and Martin Ng, Coil, Algorithm, T. Raumschmiere, Christof Migone, David Kristian, Richie Hawtin, [sic], Señor Coconut, Monolake, Tim Hecker, Coin Gutter, Pole, Pita and Tujiko Noriko are just a cross-section of the names that made appearances over the five days and nights of what the organizers at Mutek central call a showcase of "music, sound and new technologies."

Following last year's lead, they also organized a series of panel discussions, aimed mostly at professionals attending the festival (artists, label owners, media, etc.), on topics such as the state of electronic music in Canada, international networking and label branding. All were very much focused on the business and marketing side of things, where ideas concerning the state of music itself as a means of artistic expression, or, say, the role of composition in electronic music, seemed to fall behind concerns of how to market oneself in today's technologically evolving world (or, should I have said "marketplace"?).

Media coverage of this year's Mutek has been overwhelming; as such, photos, audio streams, diaries, discussions and descriptions of the performances, of the trends, topics and themes coursing through this five-day marathon have appeared in droves, on the web and in print. Describing the details of the event, to attempt to place you there with me via an eyewitness account, is not something that interests me at this time. Maybe I've entered a state of scepticism, even weariness, when it comes to covering a festival of such breadth, or maybe my enthusiasm for this year's program simply wavered too much for me to describe things with the right energy. It's probably a combination of these things, but in the meantime I have also come to a certain awareness, about Mutek in particular, or festivals in general, about the artists and the music which continue to garner such a tremendous response.

Having attended each of Mutek's annual instalments, it sometimes seems as if the festival experience takes place as much outside of the events as within them. Its performances and panel discussions are almost secondary to seeing some old faces, meeting new ones, or (for those of us not living in Montreal) discovering new parts of the city, a city that stretches beyond the Saint-Laurent strip that the official Mutek occupies, and following footsteps that lead to other quarters, from the ports of Old Montreal to the Quatier Latin, from the verdant greenery of Mont Royal to the string of museums along Sherbrooke. And meanwhile, between the restaurants and the walks, the hotel rooms and chance meetings, we discover some new sounds too, in addition to some old, recycled ideas; we become acquainted with artists whose work had been unknown to us, or we learn of new directions others have been taking, or even how others just haven't changed all that much; we feel the currents of public energy, or see an enclosed space filled with people who are either chattering away (about what? their music, their labels, their likes and dislikes...) or dancing, or sitting quietly, eyes closed, either concentrating on the sounds or zoning out of that space. We come out of each performance with mixed feelings, disappointed at times, impressed at others. Electronic music is such an open term, it's true, but as is often the case with festivals of such magnitude, those that attempt to be a survey of the most recent innovations and trendsetters, we often find such mundane repetitions, redundancies, a striking lack of innovation. And yet, there are always those few gems, diamonds in the sand. Perhaps you could see the light shimmering from a great distance, or perhaps you had to look for it, work for it, strip away the pretense, and only after a concerted effort do you find the precious stone to truly shine.

Mutek always carries such gems, sometimes much more rare than others, but always worth discovering. Not to dwell on the disappointments from their latest edition, consider this year's rare chance to see Asmus Tietchens and Thomas Köner perform together (one of the finest sets of the festival), or Señor Coconut's 7-piece live band perform their electrifying Kraftwerk classics, or Coil (even if they were missing John Balance) scoring the cosmic space with their nostalgic sound. Others might have preferred the bumping minimal techno of supergroup Narod Niki, and their desperate attempts to coordinate the efforts of 8 djs up on stage; or the opportunity to see a quartet of turntablists (Martin Tétrault, Marina Rosenfeld, Philip Jeck and Martin Ng) work their vinyl magic, albeit in a set that stretched a little too long for all its ambition. Unique opportunities indeed, some with mixed, disappointing results, but others revealed sounds and combinations that were sometimes subtle, sometimes larger than life, and sometimes unforgettable.

This has pretty much been my assessment of Mutek through the years, valuing its diversity and breadth of programming, its ability to bring together such a diverse group of artists and spectators (and let's not forget the professionals), but critical of so much of what's going on with the "state of electronic music today" (as you hear so many profess during the festival), that I always leave with something of a heavy heart. Then later, while sitting in the train that takes me home, or after a few days, weeks even, of mulling over the experiences from the festival, I uncover certain details in my memory, or maybe even reconstruct them in a way that suits me, and reinvent the festival in my head, set by set, moment by moment. Only then do I rediscover some of my levity, a balanced enthusiasm for things past and present, and a looking forward to what we'll surely encounter as we move forward, just around the corner. [Richard di Santo]



BRIGITTE POULIN plays Morton Feldman
At the Music Gallery, Toronto, 24 May 2002

While Morton Feldman's complete catalogue of compositions is slowly making it to CD, most notably via the efforts of labels like Mode Records, HatHut and Col Legno, and with live performances of his most significant work seem to be increasingly rare (at least, in this part of the world), it was a real treat to visit the Music Gallery in Toronto for this piano recital by Montreal's Brigitte Poulin (soloist, chamber musician and vocal accompanist). On this cool and quiet spring evening, Poulin performed Feldman's For Bunita Marcus in the quiet confines of a small church, nestled in the heart of the city. Feldman's later works in particular are noted for their marked stillness, for exploring the possibilities and tensions between sound and silence, taking shape on the most muted canvasses that seem to expand with every breath. Composed in 1985 (just two years prior to his death in 1987), For Bunita Marcus is no exception; the piece, one of only a few compositions for solo piano from Feldman's later years, runs 77 minutes long and is characterized by suspenseful pauses in which the echoes of notes seem to hang still in time and space, and the listener hangs there with them, ears bent on each subtle shift, following each disappearing resonance into the soft hush of silence. Listening, I found myself becoming so sensitive to the music that even the slightest movement from a member in the small audience assembled there appeared like a ringing knell in my ears. And yet during the duration of the piece, another instinct is pulling me in a different direction; face to face with the challenge of sitting through the performance without making a sound (stupidly, I couldn't imagine moving so much as my arm to scratch my forehead, or crossing my legs to relieve the circulation, for fear the sounds might overtake those of the piano), my thoughts moved about freely, from the performance and on to other subjects both mundane and exceptional, from daily monotonies to gathering ideas for a new character, plus a few stops in between. But the piece always anchored my thoughts, I always came back to it, it was waiting on the other side of each corner, in each turn of the road, and when I came out of that space, when the concert had ended and my thoughts returned abruptly to the here and now, I found the piece to be with me still, my mood still governed by the tensions and pauses, by the sensitivities inherent in the piece and by the performance itself, the very presence of a solitary piano in this small church. Indeed, Poulin's performance showed all the restraint and skill of her experience, her passion for this music evident in her every gesture. For Bunita Marcus is a difficult find on CD, but there are two editions that might be found with a bit of effort; the first is on hatART (Hildegard Kleeb, piano; CD 6076; 1990) and the second is on Col Legno (Markus Hinterhauser, piano; CD 31886; 1995). [Richard di Santo]





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