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LIVE REPORT: Mutek Festival
Ryan Alexander Diduck , June 14th, 2013 11:01

Ryan Diduck reviews Montreal's annual electronic festival, taking in Robert Hood, Laurel Halo, Emptyset and more. Photographs courtesy of Miguel Legault

Time is not linear; it runs in cycles. Days, seasons, baktuns, Vine posts - they all signal this sacred truth. Festivals too. Throughout the ages, festivals have been integral to the civilising process, enfolding cyclical time, giving something against which to measure our progress. In 1264, Pope Urban IV designated the first Thursday following Trinity Sunday under the aegis of Corpus Christi, an early modern springtime festival in celebration of the Eucharist, attracting crowds in the hundreds with elaborate ritualistic musical processions. In Montreal in these more profane and post-modern times, the same weekend is now (and for the past fourteen years running) earmarked for Mutek - the city’s international festival of digital creativity and electronic music. It’s another kind of communion altogether.

After fourteen years, the festival has hit its stride; it’s a well-oiled operation occupying some of the city’s finest venues, with a carefully curated schedule designed to deliver audiences through a broad selection of programming, including symposia with artists and technicians, gastronomy prepared by Food Lab, projections and spectacles in public spaces, and the main A-Visions and Nocturne musical events every evening. “The idea over all the different programmes that we organize by time of day and by genre,” explains Mutek co-curator Patti Schmidt, “is to attempt to capture a kind of kaleidoscopic view of what’s going on in contemporary electronic and digital art in any given year”. This year, that kaleidoscope includes appearances by Jamie Lidell, Robert Hood, Laurel Halo, Lee Gamble, Andy Stott, Emptyset, Hobo Cubes and Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory, among other such luminaries at the avant-garde of sound and vision. It’s a high watermark.

On Wednesday night, I miss the opening cocktail party, on purpose, surveying the scene from a distance instead. Walking up Rene Levesque Boulevard, a lone cop cruiser passes with its sirens blaring, a pale echo of last year’s walls of police vehicles and riot squads. One year ago, the atmosphere around Mutek and its downtown headquarters was peppered, literally, with pepper spray as students clanged on pots and pans and chanted throughout the boulevards each night, protesting the Liberal government’s proposed tuition increase, in addition to a host of Occupy-related issues. For better or worse, this year, there are no such pedestrian sideshows, save for the steady number of prostitutes hastily entering and exiting a never-ending convoy of Cadillac Escalades and other assorted sketch-mobiles that circulate along the lower stretch of Saint-Laurent boulevard.

A more sunken political climate engulfs the city today. After last September’s provincial election, newly-elected Parti Quebecois Premier Pauline Marois’s victory speech - which took place at Metropolis, one of Mutek’s main venues - was rocked by an assassination attempt that killed a stagehand. In the months since, the province has been dragged back into old conversations around language and nation; Montreal is mired in crumbling infrastructure and bogged down in a lengthy and as yet inconsequential investigation into wide-reaching allegations of corruption at the highest levels of municipal authority; the students won last year’s battle but lost the war, as universities province-wide were forced mid-semester to accept unprecedented funding cuts, dwarfing the former government’s proposed tuition increases that students fought against so valiantly. Even a pair of earthquakes late last year reinforced a sense of malaise, bad vibes. And so, Mutek comes as a welcome ritual of renewal, if for only a moment to change the tune, and to jumpstart the weakened pulse of the city.

The festival’s new tagline “you never forget your first time” is debated amongst friends and me over its appropriateness for weeks prior. Frankly, I don’t remember mine. Partly, that’s because there have been so many fantastic performances over the years that it’s difficult now to determine which was first. And the chief reason behind that difficulty is how blurred together they were by the effects of alcoholism. So this is my first time at Mutek, in a way; having 7 months’ distance from the bottle (with no small thanks to support from this publication and its editors), this is the first fest that I may have the chance to not immediately forget. To err on caution’s side, I’m still taking notes.

Standout performances at the Society for Arts and Technology on Thursday include blistering sets from Lee Gamble and Andy Stott, whose newest material reveals hints of doom metal and a kind of underwater, chopped and screwed jungle that he breaks out near the end of his act. This is to the delight of both the audience and the bar staff, who dance infectiously while serving up drinks to thirsty revelers. I jet across the street to see Jamie Lidell, whose appearance at the festival I assume will be a large draw. But upon entering Metropolis, I’m surprised to see an almost empty house. This, however, does not hinder Lidell in the least, as he proceeds to knock each song further and further out of the park, building entire tracks with samples and vocal loops prepared on the spot. It’s like a musical cooking show, with Lidell as master chef, serving up nourishing vibes for the soul, and delighting the lucky few in attendance.

International festivals of electronic music tend to boast similar lineups, but Mutek’s saving grace is an annual smattering of regional acts on its roster. This year, the brightest spark is Montreal’s Hobo Cubes, playing from the basement of Monument-National, in the dungeon-esque Studio Hydro-Quebec. Hobo Cubes’ main man Francesco De Gallo is a regular fixture on the Montreal underground music circuit, performing uncredited in many instances, and helming the artisanal Hobo Cult imprint, which over the past several years has released notable works from interesting and obscure artists, including an early cassette of Hype Williams. De Gallo’s creative engine is unquestionably driving some of the most innovative music coming out of this city right now, and thankfully so. Tonight, bathed in blue light, he is knelt reverently before his constellation of knobs and pedals, as he periodically, curiously, strums a BBQ grille with a contact microphone. The consequence is a revelatory set of ambient harmonies punctuated by beat-driven assaults, which makes converts out of newcomers, and leaves familiar listeners speechless.

The afternoon interviews with Laurel Halo and Robert Hood, moderated by The Wire magazine’s Jennifer Allan, give intimate and exceptional insight into not only the musical practices but also the artists’ beliefs and ideologies behind their music - things that infuse it with power and meaning. Allan is adept at facilitating the conversations, allowing each performer to meander into peripheral territories: on Friday, Halo explains how her works are catalysts for catharsis - that hope and positivity are necessary to navigate our modern urban terrain amidst a dichotomy of terror and bliss.

Hood’s interview the following morning divides the audience, as he reveals the hybrid Christian belief system from which he operates. Some find his implication that a strong moral centre magically dissolves social problems like unemployment and political unrest a bit reductive, and I sympathise. But I’m compelled to lurk around afterward. We chat briefly, and just before descending the stairs, Hood turns to me and says, “be blessed”. I must admit, his message of mindfulness, and hope in the face of ultimate loss, hits me right in the crumple zone.

After Halo’s talk on Friday afternoon, we take a well-earned break from the Mutek site, walking up to the Plateau district. Holding court in the shade beneath a wide maple tree, there is me, the Fader’s Emily Friedlander, Jen Allan of the Wire, Bill Kouligas, Laurel Halo, Bradley Zero (whose legal name is in fact Zero - we ask him for ID), Rashad Becker and Lee Gamble, all sat on a yawning expanse of Parc Jeanne Mance’s cool green grass. Topics discussed range broadly, from cities to our systems of capital and governance and how to fix them; from the authority of educational institutions to technologies and their roles in a rapidly changing mediascape; varying tastes in music, family histories - the stuff of life.

We lament the encroachment upon us all of what can only be characterized as Control, summed up in a story Kouligas recounts about his crossing into Canada. He tells it thus: upon entering Montreal, he is detained in a separate questioning room, and grilled by customs agents who suspect he is a secret performer at the festival, operating without a Visa. They hold him, asking a series of questions which end in an illegal search of content stored on his laptop, including the forced disclosure of his personal e-mails. Kouligas’ difficulties are shocking, although less so in light of the recent NSA exposé. Societies that permit the invasive surveillance and restriction of movement of artists and intellectuals have a bit of a bad reputation, historically, and I am embarrassed on behalf of Canada upon hearing all this. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be an equation of what’s legal with what people are willing to submit to.

But the day’s one-liner goes to Gamble, who describes Montreal as “like Berlin in America, but without the Germans … and the Americans” - it’s an apt depiction. Around us, young families, children and friendly dogs frolic in the golden glow of Kodachrome afternoon sunshine. Everything is in harmony. Time slips away, if only for a moment. The menacing vibrations of the teeming city and the wider wicked world are held at bay, but for how long? All around us, cumulus clouds are forming. “I think they’re called cumulonimbus,” Halo says, correcting me. And so, in anticipation of thundershowers, we walk down Avenue du Parc, parting ways with much the same spontaneity that we’d all come together.

Later that evening, the heavens open up, and a real rain comes down, leaving just enough scum on the streets. It’s been scorchingly hot for days, and the downpour brings a welcome and much-needed cooling. Then, Emptyset moves the Metropolis a few feet with their thunderous sounds, affecting change on a quantum structural level. At the 2010 installment of Mutek, I was fortunate to see their first-ever live set, and so make good and sure to be present again this time around. Brothers-in-arms James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas stand side by side as they pummel the crowd with sound pressure that deconstructs and rebuilds bodies anew. Their visual man Clayton Welham’s resolutely analogue projections pulse in time, emitting concentric circles of static that correspond like reflexes to Emptyset’s piledriving set, and indicate that video is the thing this year.

I walk home to the pre-dawn sounds of sparrows chirping. While stopped at a red light, a man shaves with an electric razor at the wheel of his car. Another man walks sideways, dragging a rolled up foam mattress under the crook of his arm. Who are these people stumbling about on these greasy Montreal streets at 4 a.m., doing the strangest of things in no particular hurry? And for that matter, who am I to bear witness to it all? What am I supposed to do with this info? Just file a report.

On Saturday, Laurel Halo takes the stage, hunched over a table-full of gadgetry and wires. Her performance at Metropolis surpasses previous accolades and expectations, and confirms Halo as one of the great electronic music producers of the decade, indeed. She appears keenly aware of what her audience anticipates, and deliberately veers into uncharted terrain, only occasionally dropping in a sense-making snare into an otherwise arrhythmic assemblage of frayed beats. This placation, however, is momentary: Halo quickly destroys her fans’ pleasures with sonic swordswomanship that cleaves through the room and renders all unsettled. It’s truly a work of ecstatic sorcery that clearly wins the night, if not the entire festival itself.

Sunday morning, I meet with Allan and Purgas for coffee at Pikolo, and we walk up Saint-Laurent for gear porn at Moog Audio, then meeting up with Francesco De Gallo and his partner Jane L. Kasowicz for crate digging at Phonopolis, and a quick fetishisation of paper products at Drawn & Quarterly next door. I decide to hang back, and the two Brits taxi down to Parc Jean Drapeau where Purgas - along with Gamble and a handful of others still in town - is slated to spin some records at the annual afternoon Piknic Électronik. It’s an apparently overheated affair, and I’m secretly glad to take the bench.

By evening time, the crowd is appreciative for a set at a seated venue, the newly constructed Maison Symphonique - one more first for the festival this year. The concert hall is what I’d imagine the Metropolitan Opera House would look like if lumberjacks built it: an acoustically perfect room boasting the city’s largest pipe organ, and all adorned in luxurious woods and fine fabrics. The stage is set for Nils Frahm’s encore performance, a saccharine and emotionally manipulative rollercoaster of imperceptibly soft to unnecessarily loud chords that unfortunately starts a little flat and stays there. The crowd applauds politely; perhaps sensitive that this is Frahm’s third set in two days.

Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory are up next, and rise to the occasion of ringing the audience’s bell one last time. The most captivating part of their performance comes not from the vast array of state-of-the-art electronics onstage (including a very out of place Red Bull Music Academy sign, an eyesore that in my opinion wastes the two perfectly good instrument stands holding it up), but from the delicate attack and effervescent sustain of their handheld bells as they walk off stage and into the crowd, exiting through the auditorium’s main doors. And with that, the weekend comes full circle.

Even within nature’s cycles and repetitions, there is a first time for everything. I’m grateful for a sober second look at Mutek this year, to bear witness to this festival, in a mainly benevolent city, with newly cleansed eyes and clear-hearing ears. Montreal and its citizens have been irrevocably stirred by the lessons of the student and Occupy movements - it’s a crucible for distinct culture, after all. As co-curator Patti Schmidt explains: “I think there’s a long history of avant-gardism and risk-taking in music and technology that comes from this province, and Montreal in particular. Montreal is the most receptive city in Canada to this mixing of technology with sensuality and art”.

Still, real change happens slowly. In 2012, Mutek took place in waves of awakening, and it may seem that we’re not much further ahead today; but we are still experiencing their ripple effects. The reason that we relinquish control at celebrations like these, from 1264 to 2013, is to find ourselves again, only better. And in addition to pleasurable distractions from the quotidian, festivals throughout the ages have been forums to make our world a better place, starting with ourselves. The project now is to cultivate and sustain vibrational ecosystems that are beneficial rather than destructive - a pursuit in which Mutek has been engaged at the front lines for fourteen strong years. This time, Mutek achieves that delicate balance, and I’m already eagerly anticipating what number fifteen will bring.