Crushed Beats & Anaesthetic Charm: Den Haag’s Rewire Festival

Joe Snape heads to the REWIRE Festival in The Netherlands' Den Haag, and encounters smart, well-conceived collaborations and a club full of bassy delights

If you’re in search of a world centre for international relations, you’ll find everything you could possibly want in Den Haag, the parliament city of The Netherlands. Home to considerably more than its fair share of global corporate headquarters, questionably-motivated politicians and erstwhile genocide dictators, it’s a strange paradise for modern historians and aspiring lawyers alike. But for those invested to any degree in contemporary music, Den Haag is more difficult to decode. Indeed, unfamiliar with the city’s landmarks and without some kind of sound map, even the most dedicated and well-practised listener could spend days stumbling past office blocks and embassies, empty-eared and disheartened…

Not those at Machinefabriek’s Friday performance at REWIRE festival, though. Armed with a lap guitar and a table of loopers and delays, Rutger Zuyderveld slowly fills the room with a pulsing bed of thick, warm interference. His intensely focused sound and calm, unhurried approach strikes a prudent dialogue with an audience of glowing smart phone displays and crunching camera shutters. In a room twitching with the generation of fresh online content, Zuyderveld’s set takes on a distinctly anaesthetic charm.

Zuyderveld’s Saturday collaboration with Peter Broderick takes a quite different form. Introducing the performance as the duo’s first together, Broderick concedes that attempts to recreate 2009’s Blank Grey Canvas Sky during soundcheck felt ‘pretty awkward’. The revised plan: to improvise. Despite a pair of dubious vocal efforts, the ensuing hour of lush A-minor riffs and nostalgic tape hum is well balanced and refreshingly unselfconscious. Bursting into generous and long applause, the three–hundred strong crowd are certainly happy. Nils Frahm and Anne Müller’s tapestry of nimbly figured pedal points and Chopin raindrops is just as well received, their dynamic partnership even accommodating Broderick, Zuyderveld and Sylvain Chauveau for a five-way, centrepiece improvisation. To the patient listener, Rewire’s slowburn laptoplessness offers considerable reward.

Louder, faster and bassier, the club programme at Het Magazijn is spectacular from the start. Headed by techno stalwarts Plaid, and followed closely by the über-blissy London duo Walls, Friday night offers ample introduction to an impressive temporary sound system. Rustie’s outrageous efforts on Saturday send a speaker cabinet teetering dangerously towards the front of the crowd, but technicians are on hand to fix the offending article with precarious strips of duct tape… 60 minutes of ADHD chipmunk vocals, Buckfast bass drops and Soapy Tits later, you’d be hard pressed to find a member of the crowd not grinning like a Muppet. Rotterdam and Warp signee Martyn’s early Sunday morning set takes the opposite approach: shuffling blocks of hard, spare techno, clips fired with frightening regularity. Back-to-basics cool, and some seriously enlightened programming from the festival organizers.

It isn’t all so ideal, though, and a quick flick through the free REWIRE info booklet shows why. Splitting the music into six groups according to type, the text offers a morsel of information for each act. While some headings – Radiant Frequencies, for example – aptly evoke the sounds on offer, others leave the listener in a confused web of awkwardly loaded terms and confused associations. Modern Psychedelica and Contemporary Classical, by far the worst offenders, jar awkwardly with the inclusivity and innovation promised in the festival’s name. Rather than reshuffling and renovating, the festival’s textual framework tends to reinforce tired, artificial borders. The curators needn’t have been so anxious to clarify: the acts are otherwise well-presented, their multiple interrelations no trouble for the listener to discover and group for themselves.

A relatively small qualm, though, for a programme whose greatest virtue is to so successfully meld imported acts with Den Haag’s own scene. Stephanie Pan’s compelling multimedia performance You are Here, and the fascinating DCR Interdisciplinary Orchestra’s WM#1 light sculpture stand tall next to more widely known artists, offering the kind of intimate and personal performances harder to produce in the festival’s larger venues. During the DCR show, a striking thought occurs. Though only a handful of Hague artists perform at REWIRE, any number of others might just as well have represented the city: the Richard Barrett Electroacoustic Ensemble, or A/V trio Vega, for example, or a huge range of those performing at the regular Studio Loos Ephémere series curated by Marie Guilleray. (Think Café Oto with lukewarm beer sold straight from the crate). Even to a not-so-new-anymore newcomer, the quantity and quality of scene protagonists remains impressive.

So it’s clear the city has a lot more to offer than incarcerated mass-murderers and teetering banks. It’s home to a well established and a vibrant scene constantly refuelled by national and international arrivals at its multiple art institutions, and regularly spawns thoughtful, engaging festivals (see also Today’s Art and State-X). Next time you’re here, avoid the impersonal business district and venture beyond the cosy nighttime atmosphere of Het Plein. Instead, head for Rond de Energiecentrale: with REWIRE in mind, you might just have found that codex, looking glass, or sound map you were searching for.

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