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Things Learned At: Red Bull Music Festival New York Week 2
Lior Phillips , May 31st, 2018 13:54

Adventures into Dream Music, the sticky power of Fever Ray, the unsung talents of Jada Pinkett Smith: RBMF sprinkles good stuff across New York

Fever Ray photo by Mary Kang

Rather than being contained in a single weekend and a single field, Red Bull spread their Music Festival out across the diverse spectrum of experience that is New York City over the course of a month. More importantly, they do so while keeping the context of each individual event and space in mind. There’s no need to worry about choosing between conflicting time slots or sound bleeding between stages. Each event, from massive orchestral concerts to intimate panel discussions, warehouse-filling headliners to cinema-packing screenings, is developed to maximise its impact, and that care shines through. The festival’s greatest moments are usually the most unexpected ones: sound waves emitted at volumes designed to vibrate your core to a point of voluntary exodus from your body, spiritual awakenings in a beautiful cathedral, and mental exercise on Coney Island. We checked in during the second week of the festival.

Entering Heaven on the Wings of a Single Bit

While he might not have arranged a psalm for pipe organ and a choir, Tristan Perich’s Drift Multiply cracked open the ceiling of the Cathedral of St John the Divine and raised the festivalgoers into the celestial spheres. The composition featured 50 violinists tapping into ethereal wonder alongside 50 1-bit speakers that Perich had built himself—pairing the heavenly acoustic instrument with the lowest-quality-possible digital sound. After a brief but essential opening set from Lesley Flanigan (a wondrous moment full of ecstatic inhalation and stretching into the horizon??) and an introduction from a maroon-robed church representative (detailing the beautiful space’s 125-year anniversary), Perich’s interlocked atmospherics worked in blue-hued waves across the space. The rough-hewn digital sounds burned and blended with the lithe violins, bows bobbing up and down above the entranced visages of the musicians. Equally influenced by his studies of math and physics as by a deep, abiding connection with abstract beauty, Perich’s ocean of sound washing over wach smiling attendee. As the piece reached its climactic end, it was hard to tell whether the dazzling light illuminating the stained glass was natural or an angelic glow.

The Early Hidden Talents of Jada Pinkett Smith, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Ginuwine

At a celebration of the work of the director Hype Williams, a discussion of the video for 2Pac and Dr Dre’s ‘California Love’ proved revelatory. While Williams was quick to explain that the treatments for most videos came straight from his own feelings for the music, Smith had had the original idea for the Mad Max-inspired clip. Per Hype, Dre had been wanting to use the expanding budgets of 90s rap video production to showcase his love of film. Jada came up with the concept of putting the two in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland, and they brought in the director to make it happen.

And if that early-career twist wasn’t enough, the production for Jodeci’s ‘Feenin’ video featured three future stars filling in in other capacities. One of the group’s founders, DeVante Swing, had at the time been working closely with some very familiar names: Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Ginuwine. According to Hype, Swing wanted to give the then-youngsters an inside look into the business: “I need my kids to be around you and around us so they can learn and I'll let them do anything," Hype recalls the Jodeci member saying. But rather than performing, the trio wound up helping out at the craft services table. So, yes, there is a world in which Ginuwine may have helped get you a snack on set.

Nas’ ‘Hate Me Now’ Could Have Been The ‘This Is America’ of Its Time

Though Hype Williams voiced his discomfort at watching any of the videos he’s directed (although the seat-dancing crowds in the movie theater more than overcame his humility), there was a special hesitation in his response to ‘Hate Me Now’. The Puffy-featuring Nas track is an explosive thrill and the video takes it one step further, alternating scenes of the duo promoting their massive wealth set against burning walls, exuberant mobs, and honest-to-goodness white tigers in the club with footage of Nas, clad in a crown of thorns, being executed. And while that might sound delightfully sacreligious, Hype notes that the first cut of the video went even further, though we’ll never get to see it.

“That’s the Bambi version,” he said to moderator Jeff Mao, adding that it has “zero per cent” the intensity of the first pass — which apparently left Puffy, Hype’s longtime friend, jumping up and down for joy. But sometime between that response and an incident in which Puff smashed a champagne bottle over Nas’s manager’s head, the Bad Boy honcho changed his mind — in large part, Hype seemed to suggest, because of the involvement of upper-level executives. While he might not be able to share the non-Bambi version of ‘Hate Me Now’, Hype wasn’t shy about telling the world about its radical tendencies. “This is very important and I want everybody to know: this video was probably, for its time period, the equivalent to what Childish Gambino just did,” he said.

Not All Dream Music Has To Be Dreamy

“So, was it really calming?” I heard a woman waiting in line ask, upon leaving the earlier of two performances of the Dream Machine at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works. To the uninitiated, the idea of a 14-part performance meant to follow the progression of a night’s sleep might sound soothing, but a closer look at the star-studded experimental lineup should reveal far more intensity. Dave Harrington of Darkside and Sophia Brous (collaborator with Colin Stetson, Marc Ribot, and more) led the musicians, alongside Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Liturgy’s Greg Fox, Trevor Dunn of Mr Bungle/Fantomas/Melvins, harpist Zeena Parkins, violinist C Spencer Yeh, and more — not to mention Sufi trance ensemble The Master Musicians of Joujouka. And that’s still omitting the fact that the piece reimagined a light sculpture produced by Bryon Gysin and writer William S. Burroughs. Their instrumental prowess ensured phases like “Night Terror” hiccuped with layers of seething energy, while the “Dream” phases contained their own eccentric languages.

That’s not to say that the performance went without moments of pensive beauty. The room was divided into two halves, each with a replica of Gysin and Burroughs’ original Dream Machine (a lone bulb housed in the centre of a rapidly spinning cylinder of perforated metal), with a canopy hung above to show bleary, beautiful projections. Matching dizzying scenes of distorted natural beauty, Brous’s ephemeral vocal harmonies lit and fluttered amongst the electronics. Yeh skittered across his violin with two bows at a time, Oliver Coates doubled down on the cello, and Harrington added glitching guitar noise as the dizzying strobes produced a prismatic array. The performance was designed to be watched either with eyes open or closed, and either proved transcendent; it was difficult to keep eyes off of the performers, but the experience of having lights and images flash across closed eyes proved just as magnetic. As the night reached the “REM” phase and drove toward awakening, the woodwinds swirled and rose, percussive textures multiplied, and the musicians pulled together towards a pop of radiant warmth. Much like a good night’s sleep, the performance was as full of action as peace, and ended with a feeling of replenishment, the audience newly ready to face the world.

Take Care to Note Safety Precautions

Before the Dream Machine performance, attendees were warned frequently about the use of strobe lighting. The effect can of course produce seizures in some, making these warnings essential. Perhaps due to never experiencing the issue before, a listener during the second performance reportedly fell into a seizure midway through the performance. Whether looking out for lighting issues, over-loud sound, intensity of crowds, or many other issues, it’s always important to keep aware and prepared for any potential safety concerns in a festival environment.

Getting Your Higher Self on the Phone

Opening for Fever Ray is a tall order, but when Bunny Michael start their set with a telephone call from their “Higher Self”—a presence known intimately by fans following the art rapper’s regular self-memeing on Instagram — it was clear that the right choice had been made. Bunny Michael cooed and howled in equal measure, dominating every inch of the stage, each step purposeful and yet also somehow feral. A stuffed toy rabbit on the end of a rope bore the brunt of their euphoric sorrow, as if a representation of a less-than-fulfilled self that needed a wakeup call. Whether through their infectious cover of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” or detailing the story of an “androgynous butterfly sex toy” on “888”, Michael kept the crowd moving and feeling a little bit more in tune with their best self.

Intergalactic EmPowerment Rangers

While Bunny Michael started the night on a high note, Karin Dreijer and her Fever Ray band came out in extraordinary, colorful costumes ready to keep the empowering tones moving — cartoon superheroes from a long-lost show designed to encourage women to find their inner and outer strength. The six women on stage each played a different character: Helena Gutarra the posturing muscle-head, Maryam Nikandish a ‘90s pop star mixed with a professional wrestler, and Dreijer herself grinning maniacally through a thick coat of ghoulish makeup, clad in sagging white shorts and a shirt that read ‘I <3 Swedish Girls,' only with the ‘Swedish’ crossed out. Add in the fact that a majority of the crew was also female, from light and sound design through to the tour manager, and each and every aspect of Fever Ray’s set made it clear that the experience was for everyone.

That feeling is doubled considering Dreijer’s 2017 album, Plunge, and its accompanying tour’s explicit focus on personal politics and queer identity. “This country makes it hard to fuck,” she and the band chanted during the magnetic ‘This Country’, followed quickly by exuberant pantomiming of sexual activity between the three vocalists and the song ‘Falling’, which features a line about undergoing “queer healing.” And, to be sure, there’s something life-affirming about seeing Dreijer — once shrouded in darkness and mystery — embracing a new side of herself, one far brighter and warmer. While she may still be in costume and in character, Dreijer is reaching her arms out between the prismatic laser lights and welcoming the whole queer world to the Fever Ray experience.

The Refreshing Joy of Polyrhythms

While Fever Ray’s set relied primarily on Plunge, the songs from the project’s self-titled debut felt as fresh as ever thanks to layer upon layer of live percussion. Pulling out tracks like ‘Triangle Walks’ and ‘When I Grow Up’ would automatically get a massive response, but the jubilant steel drums, congas, and more led to some of the wildest dancing of the evening. Relying on a trio of percussively-strummed acoustic guitars for a live arrangement, ‘If I Had a Heart’ provided the perfect encore: concussive yet intimate, familiar yet new, and centred on desire.