Last weekend brought with it the annual meeting of musical minds that make up the MUTEK electronic music and digital arts festival. This the 14th installment of the festival that annually takes over a variety of institutionalized venues throughout Montreal. MUTEK’s mode of operation always seems to be same, as it consistently brings with it the element of surprise. The programming is meant to keep everyone guessing. Still, the backbone of the festival remains the same with its consistency. Every year the organizers provide a consistent string of panels and music programming that always ups the ante of years past, never bound by genre restrictions or any other boundary for that matter. This year was no different, in fact, with one look at the lineup, most would admit this year’s program was the most adventurous to date. Needless to say, I was eager to jump right in and see how every day played out.
The nighttime programming was divided up between evening A/V Visions and late night Nocturnes, all mostly confined to three different venues: Monument-National Theater, Societe de Arts Technologies (SAT), Metropolis and the addition of a brand new conservatory called the Maison Symphonique, rumored to cost the city thirty-million dollars, for a one-off performance (more about that later). These venues are all in close proximity to each other making moving between them effortless. I arrived just in time for the final set of the first Nocturne of the festival, which for the most part was a Kompakt showcase ringing in the 20th anniversary of the celebrated label. Michael Mayer was just starting his set and moved comfortably through his label’s back catalog, tightly weaving between tracks like “Timecode” by Justus Kohncke and Superpitcher’s “Rabbits in a Hurry”. The set proved an ideal way to close the first night of the festival.
The first A/V Visions I attended was the much-anticipated performance of piano virtuoso Nils Frahm. There was an early week of buzz surrounding the German composer presumably, because there was a shortage of classically trained pianists on the festival bill. Quickly after he started, it was clear that it would end well. His performance was a balancing act, alternating between 3 different pianos: an upright, grand, and electric piano; often midway through his pieces. The performance was elevated further by the addition of synth stabs and looping plug-ins stashed throughout his set up on stage. His neo-classical approach behind the piano was received well and lead to several standing ovations as his performance was nearing its close. Throughout the festival there were many performances at SAT.
By the end of it all, Andy Stott’s live set seemed to fit the reformed warehouse setting the best. The Mancunian opened his live set at a snail’s pace and eventually got up to around a whopping 97 bpm by peaks-end. Tracks like “Numb” made up mid-set material and led to the uniform march of revelry by the crowd and quickly became an early highlight of the festival. By the time I headed over to Metropolis, Brandt Brauer Frick were already into their set. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve seen these guys a number of times and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, on that night, the 3 piece ensemble abandoned the silky organic grooves that gained them their original notoriety. There is of course nothing wrong with that, if you are on a clear road travelling away. Unfortunately, the rich grooves were replaced by muddled ones which were played percussively with aggression. Last I saw them; their set gave way to a vibrant dance floor and on this night it led to an idling, confused one.
Friday afternoon began on a high note when I decided to head over to the 222 building that was hosting a series of free parties called the Experience. This series provides a platform for up-and-coming artists to showcase their sounds. I was able to catch a live set by respected local DJ/producer: HEAR. His set was full of cosmic grooves with a Middle Eastern musical tilt which proved to be unique in its form.
Nocturne 3 started for me with UK producer Jon Hopkins in the main room in Metropolis. The set was largely comprised of new material off his forthcoming record "Immunity" out on Domino Recordings. His live set has acquired an extra gear to say the least since he toured his last record “Insides”. The surging melodies are still there but the beat progression is cataclysmic and at times could only be described as astral in nature. It was here where Metropolis was optimally used for context, with 2 floors worth of projection-alternating color spectrums and a triangular backdrop with Hopkins at the center providing the soundtrack for upward flight. The night continued with Robert Hood’s live set which was large and linear, mostly made up of re-sampling his own tracks off “Implant Records” live. As expected, his performance appealed to the purists and alienated the varied listener. The night ended by his faithful following filling up the dance floor and stomping in herded form for more. Two encores followed.
I’ve learned from years past that MUTEK is a marathon. Rest is not optional, it’s essential, if you want a chance at getting a little piece of everything. I took it easy during the day on Saturday and arrived at Nocturne 4 at Metropolis just in time to catch John Talabot. As expected, their slot was well attended with 2012’s release on Permanent Vacation “fIN” striking the proverbial musical cord reigning in universal fanfare. Talabot took the stage with fellow Spaniard Pional as usual and they went through the majority of their celebrated LP, with songs like “Destiny” and “So Let it Be Now” opening up nicely in the massive room. Most impressive though, was some of the unreleased material performed. Great new songs like “I’ll Be Watching You” gave a glimpse of what is to come and showed no signs of slowing down in the future.
After a quick break, I made my way back to the dance floor for Innervisions stalwart, Ame’s Frank Wiedemann and his live set. Placed perfectly, midway through the longest night of the festival, he wasted no time firing clips off at the well-oiled crowd. The set included the duo’s own prized tracks like “Rej” and reworks and remixes of Tiga’s Plush (Ame remix) and Radioslave’s N.I.N.A. (Ame remix) which led to an eruptive dance floor. Afterwards, Hamburg veteran Efdemin took over deck duties in what was one of the most sparsely booked DJ sets at the whole festival; given an extended set and the task to hold the attention of the sizable crowd in the main room. Records like Francesco Tristano’s Idiosynkrasia (Ben Klock remix) were floorfillers, drawing in the room’s remainder to the center of the dance floor to be rinsed.
Weather is always a contentious subject in Montreal because of its constant unpredictability. The forecast for Sunday called for various bouts of rain and scattered thunderstorms. On the day of, the sun was out and shining without a hint of rain and so Piknic Electronik began as scheduled. Of the many highlights of that day there was a surprise billing of John Talabot for a DJ set and a subsequent VS set with Axel Bowman who expertly opened Piknic. The two complimented each other by contrasting their respective styles. Both DJ’s fit the daytime superbly with records being dropped like Joe Clausell’s “Je Ka Jo” into Bowman’s own recent release: “The best ever made” off the Europa EP on Studio Barnhus.
As Piknic was drawing to a close, it was time to head to the Maison Symphonique for the Pantha Du Prince and Bell Laboratory show performing at the very last A/V Visions. I must admit there was a great deal of chatter and intrigue surrounding this event at the festival’s start; mainly because, it’s the only event of its kind being hosted at the freshly built conservatory. Also, this the first proper tour for the Pantha Du Prince & Bell Laboratory, add in, this being the Canadian premiere for the performance and anticipation built up nicely. While being seated it was clear that this was not going to be like any other performance at the festival. The conservatory: beautiful, with some of the best acoustics I’ve ever heard.
The performance started with a long interlude of very low-dynamic sounds being performed by the 6 piece ensemble. Instruments on stage ran the gamut, from a drum kit, xylophone, various bells & chimes, tribal instruments and Pantha Du Prince manning the only apparent electronic instrumentation at his station. At some unspecified point the fluttering combination of sounds came together and gained traction and capitulated harmonically. Observing the crowd response to these moments was most interesting. At points throughout the performance, true outbursts of energy took place, as much of the auditorium abandoned their assigned seating and either took to the isles or starting dancing where they stood. Put simply, great art does this, fits of dizzying emotion that are not easily explainable and begs introspection as a result of it. Suffice to say, most of the crowd was awestruck by the end of it and long conversations ensued. Much credit need be given to the organizers for creating the track for those coming directly from Piknic, forcing festival goers to walk right into this kind of energy transposition; a true stroke of genius.
With very little left in the tank, I reluctantly headed SAT for the end of the closing Nocturne. I’m glad I did, as JuJu and Jordash were just beginning their set. I learned earlier in the week that the Israeli duo aims for a wholly improvised performance every time. It was essentially one long jam session using a load of hardware on stage. Those that stuck around were pleasantly surprised as their non-linear approach to house and techno proved to be rhythmically experimental, filled with unexpected round drops of bottom heavy percussion. The closing performance fell in line with the ethos of the festival and closed in an appropriate style.
As another MUTEK drew to a close, they’ve yet again took the chances and successfully created platforms that always look ahead to see how far this music can take us using this model of progressive programming. This is what the festival hinges on and what keeps people coming back every year. These moments are what MUTEK promises and provides, consistently.
All photos and videos taken by Zach Dilgard.