Day 2 at Montreal’s MUTEK

Mathew Jonson, Fake Electronics, Pheek, Atom™ & Robin Fox, Takami Nakamoto & Sebastien Benoits and Basic House

Mathew Jonson, Fake Electronics, Pheek, Atom™ & Robin Fox, Takami Nakamoto & Sebastien Benoits, Basic House and others as part of MUTEK, Thursday, May 28. Rating: NNNN

MUTEK is primarily a music festival, but unlike most, the daytime workshop events are less oriented around the music business and more focused on technology – including how to map video projections onto 3D surfaces, which even includes some basic welding lessons.

Of course there’s still actual music to hear while the sun is still up, at free outdoor events near the main MUTEK site. Rain threatened to move Thursday’s program indoors, but thankfully it cleared up enough that by the time headliner Mathew Jonson took the stage there was a still a great turnout.

Jonson’s set focused more on his dance floor side, with lots of funky synth melodies, house rhythms and detours into 90s breakbeat sounds. While not nearly as experimental as he can be, he was clearly enjoying himself, sometimes dancing harder than the audience.

There was a refreshing lack of obnoxious visual branding on the part of the sponsors, a sharp contrast to how things tend to work in Toronto. Similarly, the security staff were exceptionally chill – so much so that I got mistaken for one by a random partier. The bar encourages you to reuse your cup by taking a $2 deposit, which you get back at the end of the night when you return it. It’s a small thing but seemed to significantly reduce litter.

Later at the main venue at Musée D’Art Contemporain, the mood was decidedly less conducive to dancing, but no one seemed to mind. It’s impressive that the crowds at MUTEK are so willing to move between clubby beats and avant-garde experimentalism – even programs dominated by relatively abrasive sounds.

Montreal-based Fake_Electronics (aka Jesse Morrison) is more known for the tech house he makes as Ana+one and as half of Yes Ma’am, but this persona finds him diving deep into modular synthesis and coming up with something closer to free jazz. Random thuds, crackles, pulsing drones, blasts of static and plenty of wet squishy synthesizer splatters.  

Many artists on Thursday’s night program presented work that paired electronic visuals with electronic music, but with very different approaches. Dasha Rush’s Antarctic Takt married icy cold experimental electro with mangled video footage of actual cold stuff, while Takami Nakamoto and drummer Sebastien Benoits used a stage full of LED bars, projections and strobes for their post-rock-influenced assault on the senses.

The most effective A/V performance went to Atom™ & Robin Fox. Setting up at the back of the room made the video projections and lasers the visual focus of their set, and they used that to bombard the audience with abrasive noise and blinding lights. While the set was often intense and not always musical, a playful undercurrent kept things from feeling too oppressive.

Downstairs in the second room, the sounds were easier to move to but still plenty weird. Pheek’s deep dubby ambient techno made great use of processed field recordings and subtly modulating synthetic rhythms. You could dance to it, but it was so sparse and minimalist that most were content to sit on the floor and listen.

That changed partway through UK’s Basic House’s live set, when his highly abstracted take on house finally settled into that familiar four-on-the-floor pounding, and the seated crowd all simultaneously decided that it was time to stand up and let loose. But even once he got a dance floor going, he kept the textures and melodies unpredictable and raw.

Like many of the performers at this year’s MUTEK, Richard Devine’s performance was centred around his modular synthesis rig, which he used to generate constantly shifting glitchy granular beats. It seems like everyone in electronic music these days is experimenting with this old-school way of generating sounds, mostly a result of access to a flood of relatively affordable modules built by small boutique companies all over the world.

Each modular system creates impressive amounts of diverse results, making it difficult to pin down its “sound” the way you can with certain immediately identifiable drum machines. Still, there’s a risk that these custom systems are becoming a type of status symbol, and that the cost of working with analog in this way puts the technology outside of many people’s reach. | @benjaminboles

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