The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Three Songs No Flash

The Last Of The Season: Elevate Festival Reviewed
Tristan Bath , March 24th, 2020 09:59

A fortnight ago we sent Tristan Bath to report back from Elevate Festival. Little did he realise that this could be his last festival report for some time...

Roi Vaara by Clara Wildberger

Despite additional thoughts only being added to this review of Elevate 2020, two weeks after the event, the festival already feels like an epoch ago. Now shielded from the outside world inside my (admittedly very sunny) flat, I’m leaning into this whole new reality, just like the rest of you. ‘Work’ is effectively on hiatus – although like many a millennial, this really just means getting paid is on hiatus. The working never stops.

Relocating my social life online is easy at least. Anyway – it’s with no small amount of irony then that this year’s Elevate felt like a celebration of shared and public spaces. The solid still stone and rushing river waters of Graz were at the centre of the festival, with shows taking place further apart than before, even including a carillon performance by Charlemagne Palestine, a crowd gathered in the square below, ears poised skywards. Now a week-and-a-half later, we’re all in isolation, the Austrian government having banned gatherings of upwards of five people.

I’ve been going to Elevate Festival every year since 2014, visiting Austria’s second city of Graz for a reliably bacchanal weekend of booze and beats inside the belly of the caverns that forms the festival’s main venue (inside a small mountain no less, very Austrian indeed), plus killer experimental sets scattered around the city, and some political discourse in the daytime if my hangover can handle it.

This year saw no time for the latter though, as I spent much of my time trundling through the cool and calm streets of some 300-400 thousand. Entering what feels like the third act of years of desperation – globally, politically, environmentally, economically I’ve got to say, simply having some eye and ear candy at a festival is extremely welcome. This has always been a festival a step or two ahead of its European sister events, so the lack of ‘conceptronica’ at Elevate 2020 is perhaps the thin end of a coming wedge, swapped out for experience-tronica (I’m not sorry).

The flagship event this year was clearly the installation of the Acousmonium at a local uni’s concert hall. The vast 50-loudspeaker ‘sound diffusion system’ was first developed in the mid-70s by French concrète maestro, François Bayle, and was reformulated here by the current iteration of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), under the direction of François Bonnet (aka Kassel Jaeger). The system played host to some dozen or so performances of compositions old and new, including brand new Acousmonium sounds from KTL (Stephen O’Malley & Peter Rehberg), Okkyung Lee, and others, plus some old pieces from the GRM repertoire, brought back to life for this unique performance space. Initially, my expectations were that the academic nature of the group, the lack of visual activity during performances, and the sheer length (most pieces were 20 minutes at a stretch), would add up to something challenging – especially for a music journalist now the wrong side of 30 and most likely underslept and overdrunk. Suffice to say, the experience was anything but dull.

Okkyung Lee by Johanna Lamprecht

A gang of red spherical speakers resembling eyeballs populate the stage, while sounds emanate from all directions in the room. Most performers man the desk itself (they call it ‘diffusing’ the sound, rather than mixing or performing, due to the rare nature of how this system works), plopped in the centre of the hall, while the audience face the empty stage and those loudspeaker eyeballs peering down on us from above. It all adds up to a strange kind of abstract theatre, the instrumental musique concrète equivalent to Beckett.

A newly commissioned piece by utrumque – the duo of IEM-Professor Gerhard Eckel and KTH-Researcher Ludvig Elblaus – sees a microphone positioned alone on the stage while the pair man the Starship Enterprise control desk in the centre of the room, and guide a hanging feedback tone gently around the 3D space. It’s a red raw demonstration of the Acousmonium’s abilities, and as the tone shimmers and glitches into dizzying rhythms flying around our heads, an assistant leaps onto the empty stage, runs between the eyeball-like loudspeakers, and yanks the plug out from the microphone and brings the demonstration to a swift close.

Spread over two nights, pieces from the likes of the late Luc Ferrari or the not-so late John Chantler drip sonic elements into the system from all sides, tasting its details and gentleness. Two cellists deliver perhaps the two most memorable pieces however, adding instrumental contributions from the stage in a performance-centred update to the format. Lucy Railton scrapes luscious chords at the tail end of an acousmatic sound diffusion, while Okkyung Lee surrounds herself with an orchestra of sampled cello scrapes, resembling a vast creaking ship engulfing the space. KTL closed out two nights of explorations with a hefty blast of drone, ceremoniously taking the sonorous beast to its logical conclusion.

Following the aforementioned carillon performance by Charlemagne Palestine up in the bell-tower of Graz’s Mariahilfer Church, we all step inside for another reappropriation of dusty Catholic tools by a radical modern voice: an organ performance by Austrian composer Katharina Klement. It’s intriguing to compare the Acousmonium to the vast sonic spectrum and range of echoes offered by organ and church – as ultimately Klement’s incredibly powerful church organ piece packs as much punch and sonic detail as any GRM composition. The composer’s backlog of works includes plenty of electronics alongside her piano, and somehow she manages to pull out all the stops (literally) and stomp the pedals with enough vigour to coerce the organ into enough sonic shapes to outstrip the best modular synth bro jams.

Jessy Lanza by David Visnjic

The rest of the festival lives up to Elevate’s wonderful standards, the mixture of daring programming, local talent, international stalwarts, and no-nonsense DJs that make it well worth returning to after seven years. Jessy Lanza runs through a life-affirming set of hits from her Hyperdub albums, still fresh and addictive and still stuck in my head as I write this. Austro-Poish duo Mermaid & Seafruit fill out the intimate club dungeon and put all their energy into singalong stadium-style bangers, soaring R&B choruses, Ibiza synth roars, and gabber breaks underpinning a hyperactive duo spitting on the mic. Similarly Giant Swan draw a busy crowd into the dusty Dungeon room to get our buns shaking over their now-legendary stream-of-consciousness noise-punk-dance fire. The same space hosts Austrian newcomer Gischt for a set of fat beats and bass guitar, edging Bristolian industrial territory of the likes of Vessel, plus Via App brings their brand of ‘freak techno’, fucking up samples at a pace of knots, confusing everybody in attendance as a straightforward techno set starts to go wrong (in the right sort of way).

It’s a festival I know better than any other by this point, but Elevate did something new in 2020 and brought the city to life like never before. Finnish artist Roi Vaara (you’ve probably seen the viral videos of him) dragged an electric guitar hooked to an amp over the city’s cobbled streets one afternoon, leading the crowd to the church for Charlemagne Palestine’s vast bell performance. Unsurprisingly for anybody acquainted with the Austrians, Vaara drew the irritated attention of some locals (one of whom switched off his amp temporarily), and the local fuzz (who were luckily fobbed off with the correct paperwork from the festival officials). From church bells and dragged guitar drones in the city squares, to church organ noise from the pews, to a uni concert with an empty stage, to clubbing and spiralling pop sounds in the belly of the subterranean cave-like flagship venue, Elevate 2020 was a celebration of public space and shared consciousness. It’s pure serendipity that it’s the last live music I got to see before checking in to home quarantine during this unprecedented global crisis.

It’s a precious recent memory to have too, luckily. A reminder of the outside world, the social bonds, the ways to use shared space, which we have to fight so hard to preserve and extend. Events like thus turn the stone of cities into something even harder to erode: cultures.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.