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Life All The Way Up To 11: Robert Barry on Skrillex & Maximalism
Robert Barry , July 23rd, 2014 11:02

Robert Barry travelled to the Eurockeenes festival to see Skrillex and MIA live. Here, he explores the spectacle of the festival, maximalism, and notions of the real and fake in music

Srillex photo by Lilian Ginet

It's almost three in the morning and ten thousand people are standing in the mud with their hands in the air. A scrawny little man with NHS specs and a lopsided undercut is on top of a pair of CD decks mounted on a 15-foot salvagepunk spaceship and telling everyone to "get low". A score of lime green lasers transect the sky, spiralling wildly, incandescently. Smoke enfilades the crowd in bloated plumes. Jets of multi-coloured flame shoot up from the footlights. On a screen at the back, Geiger-esque vector graphic aliens twerk feverishly.

Skrillex has been on stage at France's Eurockéenes Festival for a little over an hour, bass flowing from his touch like ectoplasm from the fingers of a medium, a heaving scrum of compacted human bodies writhing in blissful abandon. Everything is kicking off. A visitor from a century ago would truly have thought himself a witness to some vision of Hell.

Not that the musical life of a hundred years ago was any stranger to excess. In 1914, Paris had just witnessed Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring with its multiple tonal centres, juddering dynamic leaps, and manic overlapping rhythms so confounding even the Ballets Russes found it hard to dance in time. Charles Ives was working on his Universe Symphony for multiple orchestras spread across the hills and valleys, painting in sound the very origins of matter. Richard Strauss had recently leapt from the high modernism of Elektra to the high camp of Der Rosenkavalier, while his Alpine Symphony called for 125 musicians and lasts an uninterrupted 50 minutes. The Russian composer, Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, meanwhile, continued to struggle with his Mysterium, a work he considered so powerful that it would bring about the end of the world.

For the musicologist Richard Taruskin the avant-garde of this period "is perhaps best characterised as maximalism". The turn of the century, he writes, was a period in which the "acceleration of stylistic innovation" became "so marked as to seem not just a matter of degree but one of actual kind".

Taruskin points to the extension of musical lengths into "awe-inspiring mountains", to the vast amplification of volume and resources, to a dramatic increase in the acceptance of dissonance and its suspension, to a "saturation … with significant motifs to be kaleidoscopically recombined" such that "the musical texture was made ever more pregnant with meaning".

These were the contours of maximalism at the last fin-de-siècle. Few would argue that ‘Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites' is exactly "pregnant with meaning" (turgid with allusion, perhaps), but we may nonetheless start to recognise a like work of supererogation amongst some of the leading lights of our own never-ending end-of-days. Saturation, amplification, kaleidoscopic recombination. The specifics have changed, but we can recognise the general shape.

For instance, a couple of months ago Michigan-born techno DJ Seth Troxler wrote an editorial for Thump in which he complained that the dance music scene is "so flooded … you get it all on a platter up-front. Lasers! LED screens! Pyrotechnics! DROPS! CAKE IN YOUR FUCKING FACE!" Troxler did not approve. "That's not clubbing," he insisted, "that's a concert of cunts." The article ended with a plug for something called the "Big Titty Surprise Party" being hosted by Troxler in Barcelona. Sounds pretty classy.

It's hard to avoid a certain air of snobbery in Troxler's tirade. When he claims that the very same action – something as simple and innocent as "a girl doing lines of coke off another girls naked vagina" – could stand for "freedom" at Berghain, but mere "trash" at the Ultra Music Festival, isn't he just appealing to the elitism of the techno purist? Like, sure, go ahead, shed your underwear in a public place and dowse your nether regions in Class A drugs for all to partake of – but do make sure you're doing it in the right public place, with the right sort of people, wearing the right sort of clothes. Say what you like about big music festivals, but I've never heard of a festival refusing admittance to someone for sporting the wrong shoes.

Inheritor to a strange utopian tradition stretching from medieval carnival to the instant cities of Archigram, there has always been something distinctly rabelaisian about the modern music festival. Wandering about the rain-sodden byways of the Eurockéenes site, in amongst banners proclaiming the festival's promotional slogan ("Music in Paradise"), I saw a whole menagerie of novelty onesies; people with writing on their face drinking from colostomy bags; a crowdsurfing reveller in a latex horse's head; a cardboard sign triumphantly held aloft with "FUCK HER RIGHT IN THE PUSSY" in crudely marker-penned block caps.

I stumbled through rivers of slurry pockmarked by discarded tampons and leery-looking men offering "free hugs"; past fat white men in shorts breakdancing ineptly in the mud before a jeering crowd; another man, topless and sunburnt, staggering through the crowd with vomit streaming from his chops.

All of which is somehow normal, par for the course in this heterotopian mirrorworld. The average festival field paints a picture worthy of Bruegel.

But the festival is also a site where one stall amidst the burger bars and panini stops can pledge its ‘Solidarity with Burkina Faso'; where a vast anonymous crowd can suddenly feel at one, united in melancholy by the defeat of the French football team and the equally melancholy universalist pop music of Stromae; where striking technical staff are given time on the main stage to say their piece and connect their complaint over changes to benefit structures in recent French legislation with anti-austerity protests across Europe. "Our struggle," they insisted, "is your struggle."

Half a century ago, the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin recognised in the medieval institution of carnival the creation of "a second world and a second life outside officialdom" in which hierarchies are overturned and everything, for a brief moment, is permissible. Central to Bakhtin's analysis is the formulation of a certain kind of bodily and material excess, grotesque overindulgence, and "brimming-over abundance". But for Troxler, the mud and the cake and the energy-packed-extremes of the festival are a distraction and a betrayal of the original purity of the Paradise Garage and authentic club culture. Just "trash" without the mystical "something more" celebrated in these hallowed temples of dance music.

Troxler's allusion to "trash" is telling. Minimalism has always been the preserve of an elite. Furniture by Starck or Conran; gleaming office blocks and apartment complexes by Mies van der Rohe and his many imitators. There is no minimalism in a slum. Shanty towns are invariably characterised by a bricolaged aesthetic of teeming incongruities. Everything in heaps, spilling out everywhere. And perhaps it was in the slums of the world's cities – or rather in colourful appropriation of the image of the slum by artists like Diplo and MIA – that we might seek to find the origin of the contemporary revolt against minimalism.

One hour before Skrillex began, MIA had strutted onto the second stage at Eurockéenes. She came accompanied by dancers, hype people, flanked by two giant neon snowflakes, each one riddled with filigreed arabesques like an Uzbek temple recreated on Blackpool pier. Maya Arulpragasam's global hypercolour dancehall is voracious in its magpie tendencies; freely appropriating from reggaeton, baile funk, dubstep and son in the service of a bustling international style intertwining global ghettoes and hip urban labels.

Somehow the set feels more like a fashion show than a gig – ironic, then, that Arulpragasam had apparently specifically refused to allow any photographers to capture the set from pit at the front of the stage. Every song sounds as if composed to soundtrack the bursting of flash bulbs, all Hollywood brass fanfares rendered in tinny FM synthesis and algorithmically rippling 808 snares, as if trap had been commissioned as the corporate ident of some movie studio of the golden age.

In 2007, the year of MIA's biggest hit, the award-winning multi-platinum ‘Paper Planes', lifestyle blogger Charlotte Rivers published the book Maximalism: The Graphic Design Of Decadence & Excess. "After years of minimalist rule," she wrote, "graphic design has seen a return to a more decorative, maximalist approach. Ornament is no longer a crime." Rivers applauded work like Michael Nash Associates' designs for John Galliano, the "legendary" Visionaire magazine, and Takashi Murakami's encrustation of Louis Vuitton's handbags with diamonds and cartoon characters for ushering in a new era of decoration, sensuality, luxury, and fantasy.

But in the design world, the term was then already old, familiar at least since Aurora Cuito had "been so bold" to apply the label to the likes of Alsop and Stormer's Peckham Library, Ettore Sottsass's Olabuenaga House in Maui, and numerous buildings by Zaha Hadid and Eric Owen Moss, in a book for Loft Publications in 2002. What both publications share is a prefatory assertion that minimalism and maximalism are opposing tendencies that have forever oscillated back and forth in some never-ending and seemingly inevitable historical cycle. But this is to posit a false equivalence.

Everybody knows what minimalism is – in music, especially, there are well-defined and historically bracketed minimalist schools in classical music (mostly in New York in the 60s and 70s but also in California from the late '50s) and techno (mostly in Berlin and Cologne in the 90s). Maximalism is another matter. You can count the number of English books with that word in the title on one hand, while minimalism's volumes surpass triple figures. In fact, no-one spoke about maximalism at all until long after minimalism had been codified and institutionalised (Taruskin's comments on Stravinsky, Strauss, and so on, were retrospective, written only in 2010). Even then it never really caught on.

The art critic Robert Pincus-Witten may have some claim to precedence here. "I'm repeatedly being fingered to pull together an exhibition of all the truly innovative artists including the young Italians from all the stables," he wrote in Arts Magazine in 1981. "If I do it, I'll call it Maximalism to make as strong a differentiation from the indurated and academized sensibility Minimalism of the 70s as possible." He would later admit that it was "a shock-value journalistic term" but he did regret that it had a "harder time" gaining acceptance than his previous coinage ‘postminimalism' which he regarded as part of the same continuum.

Part of the problem was that many of the stylistic tropes (ornament, kitsch, appropriation) and several of the artists (David Salle, Julian Schnabel) that Pincus-Witten had hoped to dub ‘maximalist' were very shortly to be subsumed under the all-conquering rubric of postmodernism, a term that Pincus-Witten seems to have regarded as some sort of commie conspiracy. So despite one gallery show of mostly neo-expressionist artists in New Jersey in 1983 and a single follow-up essay in the winter 1986 issue of Effects, ‘maximalism', as a figure of critical discourse, was largely stillborn.

But in the twelve years since Cuito's book of maximalist buildings, the word has started cropping up all over the place, inventing its own history as it goes. Notably, three years ago, in several reviews of Rustie's Glass Swords.

"Rustie most reminds me, not of rave per se as so much as a certain kind of rave-inspired dance maximalism," wrote Mark Fisher in The Wire. "Glass Swords recalls the managed overload of Basement Jaxx, Daft Punk's Discovery, or – reaching even further back – 808 State. What it has in common with these three precursors is the ambition to produce a dance music that can compete with – and outdo – rock at its most maximalist, with electronic flatulence, spiralling synths and digital excrescences replacing bass and guitar."

Fisher was not alone. Reviews in Dummy, Pitchfork, and Discobelle followed suit. And a little later, so too did Spin, Village Voice and The Guardian. As Simon Reynolds would sum up, part of the vogue stemmed from the word itself being "vague and capacious enough to contain a whole bunch of ideas and associations". But he did find sufficient coherence in the sheer density of inputs ("in terms of influences and source,") and outputs ("density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty") to connect Rustie's debut with scores of other maximalists, from the jazz fusion of Weather Report to the more contemporary psychedelic sounds of Gang Gang Dance, Flying Lotus, and James Ferraro.

For Reynolds the excesses of the present are a by-product of technology, whether the infinite possibilities of digital music software or "the endless upgrades in audio-video entertainment, from high-definition flatscreen TV to CGI-saturated movies and 3D cinema to the ever-more real-seeming unreality of games". Glass Swords, he claimed, evoked "the euphoria of gliding frictionlessly across the datascape." To find out how the maximal virus has mutated since Reynolds's essay, then, it makes sense to delve deep into the datascape itself.

For some time now such digital dumpster diving has been the vocation of Adam Harper, a writer and blogger who has spent the past few years scouring the morass of Soundcloud and Bandcamp pages in search of the "new online underground" and exhibiting its tastiest morsels in a series of columns for Dummy, Electronic Beats, and Fader. In one such excavation from last summer, Harper arrayed the "neon" sounds of net label Donky Pitch alongside more overground material by Hyetal, Ikonika, and Sophie.

Harper's suspicious of calling all this stuff ‘maximalism' even if he'll grant that it is somewhat "thicker-textured and more formally active than some classic dance styles." But there's something in his description of the Sophie's track ‘Bipp' – "rhythmic architecture … hidden inside its deceptive bulk … in the blobs of curved muscle … wave upon peristaltic wave" – that recall the ‘grotesque realism' favoured by Mikhail Bakhtin.

Richard Taruskin was ultimately fairly critical of his pre-war maximalists as a mere "radical intensification of means toward accepted or traditional ends". Arguably the same could be said of our contemporary audio gluttons. Today's maximalism could be seen as just an acceleration of the twentieth century project of streamlining, instrumentalising, – and, ultimately, weaponising – of music's seductive charms. For Taruskin, modernism proper didn't get started until a bit later, when the nineteenth century's yen for "emotional expression", "sensuality" and "religious awe in the presence of the sublime" could finally be put aside. Might our own era's maximal bent then be a like prelude to some great flowering, a sort of clearing of the stage before the entrance of the twenty-first century's very own Varèse?

I rather suspect that a lot of the gnawing suspicion reserved for maximalist musicians and maximalism generally derives from a concern that all that bluster must be overcompensating for something and beneath all the hyperbole little remains of any substance. By the end of my weekend at Eurockéenes I had come to divide the artists I'd seen between the ‘real' and the ‘fake'. Skrillex and MIA, of course, were decidedly – even defiantly – on the side of the fake. Likewise, looking back, Strauss, Schnabel, and Frank Zappa (the subject of a 2005 book subtitled The Secret History Of Maximalism) are clearly all fakers.

But what of real music? At Eurockéenes we saw Robert Plant's Later… With Jools Holland-friendly worldbeat-dadrock, the meticulously recreated 70s psych of Temples, and the plodding meat and potatoes tradrock of The Black Keys.

Of course, I favoured the fake every time.