Thursday, May 28, 2009

MUTEK revisited

I attended the 2001-3 versions of the festival, but haven't been back since due to a combination of factors ($$, work commitments, and relocation, in that order). Thee is a rich history of techno and experimental/improv music in Montreal, and this unusual combination of scenes (something that isn't easily found in many other cities) helps make MUTEK so unique.

Memories naturally fade over time, and I'm lucky that I can help myself relive those days through the diaries that I kept during those years at the festival (although I still call myself names for never having the good sense to bring along a camera). Years ago, the MUTEK website had an audio archive of past performances, but unfortunately that section has repeatedly come on and offline with the site's many full-body overhauls.

A couple of months ago, I started digging up a bunch of old sets on slsk, and I'm curious to see how well they hold up and what I think of them today. Around that time, MUTEK made that task a bit easier by starting up a podcast featuring performances from past years in the run-up to this year's installment of the festival.

MUTEK10 began yesterday, and I thought it would be fun to pay tribute with a series of new posts about previous festivals. Next year, screw it, I'm getting on a plane.

1. Stephan Mathieu presents Sad Mac Studies

May 30, 2002: "Stephan Mathieu, flanked by a glacially chameleonic video screen, soothes me to the core with drones resembling a cross between chimes and choruses, and [an] electroacoustic hum which is so calming [that] I stretch myself out (never feeling tired for a moment) and reveled in putting my ear to the floor and listening to it purr."

Sadly, I only have about 20 min of this set. It's so incredibly peaceful and serene, something that makes you feel totally alone whether you're sitting at home, or stretched out on the floor of a darkened room surrounded by hundreds of other similarly stretched out people, lounging all over the gymnasium-like polished wooden floors of Ex-Centris. Mathieu performed two days later as "Full Swing" and was even better, confirming me as a fan for life, heck, I even bought a CD of his just a few months ago in my never-ending quest to recreate the 3D, all-enveloping intensity of these shows from 2002. Part of the problem is mine, I have to pick the wrong discs, obediently buying what happens to turn up in the shops even though Mathieu does drone infinitely better than he does weird experimental bleeps.

2. Gentle Bakemono

June 1, 2003: "Pleasing the dance floors has never been his principal focus. Showcasing his brand new digital-based sound as Gentle Bakemono, he opens with beautiful drifting ambient followed by his old familiar sounding material. Except that it's digital, I guess. Since the hub of the Montreal techno scene excludes him, Kristian's been overlooked as of late. But he hasn't been left behind."

And yeah, that opening 20 minutes of ambient is absolutely stunning, easily the best part of the set. David Kristian undoubtedly remains underrated.

3. Closer Musik

June 3, 2001: "... somehow, however inconceivable it may seem, Closer Musik and their dinky, catchy melodies are fun-tastically brilliant. This may all go to pot and fall into a casualty ditch as did with Rephlex records' similar experimentations with electro-retro-futurism, but for now, this crowd adores them ..."

(warning: the nicknaming and silliness in that writeup was something of an experiment, a goofy throwback to the naming conventions of my 90's clubbing days, it probably comes across as infuriating these days, but it was just a bit of fun I was having at the time, so let's be cool)

So much is lost from that Closer Musik set when you can't lay eyes on their dapper pop star clothes and antiquated equipment. Back in the days when everything was archived on the MUTEK website, I listened to this set over and over, wondering where the magic had gone and why it felt so exciting at the time.

This is why I have to take issue with the blurb from the podcast, which feels hugely revisionist to me. At the time, nobody was marveling at the timelessness of their approach or how it was such a departure from other acts on Kompakt. Closer Musik weren't ahead of their time, they were behind the times (their computers were Ataris!), and intentionally so, framing their sound as a throwback to "The Model"-era Kraftwerk, but stretching their primitive, minimally constructed tracks out to epic lengths. I don't think they sounded much like anything Kompakt released later on, unless the tie that binds is little more than Closer Musik's occasional use of vocals.

4. Akufen

June 2, 2001: "The countryman vibe continued with Montreal's own Akufen as your headliner. He started by roping everyone into a false sense of security, Process-style, with the stuck-in-a-cave atmospherics, which soon exploded into furious (but minimal, of course) techno beats with various electronic mayhem spread on top. Oh yes, everyone danced like a bastard again."

Again, the podcast blurb doesn't really ring true -- Akufen's big coming out year as the "great white hope" of the festival was 2002, after the release of "My Way". This is probably as good as Akufen ever got. His creativity was peaking here, later on, his reliance on microsampling became a crutch that pigeonholed his music into a time and place. But it's all here in the 2001 set -- dubbed-out ambiance, funky microhouse beats, and plenty of unusual twists and turns.

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