Just 20 minutes past arriving in Montreal after a troubled train ride from New York, we were whisked into plush seats in a grand theater—decorous, stately, with an 800-person capacity and a rich balcony that all but begged for bunting—to see and hear a seriously abstract electronic-music act called SND. The distinction between seeing and hearing would play out in a number of different ways over the course of the Mutek festival, as would different modes of serious abstraction. But it was simple at the start. SND, a duo from England, played austere techno tones fitted to distended, glitchy rhythms, while improbably hi-definition lines drifted behind them on a huge screen, like abstract-expressionist Barnett Newman gone hyper-digital. Another duo, Nsi., followed with a set of processed analog timbres spun like silk, as back-projected stars shot out on scrims in refined galactic patterns. The big crowd on-hand sat rapt, some either sleeping or lost in eyes-closed states of reverie. Fashions ranged from wan guys in thoughtless hoodies to Montrealers in high-Montreal garb (an appealing but always slightly off mix of Parisian chic, Williamsburg wildness, and high-top sneakers). Everyone there qualified, in some way or other, as a certifiable techno warrior—or at least the special kind of techno warrior who descends upon a festival that treats techno as a cerebral pursuit.
The idea to take the train had seemed like a good one. The ride to Canada would be nearly 11 hours, but it was cheap and promised a lot more DVD-watching and a lot less tangling with maps than a rental car would. All you might have heard about Amtrak’s troubles in the Northeastern corridor, though, turned out to be true, at least this weekend. A train ahead of us had derailed, not injuriously and kinda-sorta routinely we were told, so after two hours of kicking gravel on the tracks near Saratoga Springs, we were packed onto buses for the rest of the trip. Gone was the romantic notion of lounging around in the dining car with lips pursed for drinks in the afternoon sun. Gone were romantic imaginings of mesmeric train sounds droning on and on like aural balm. Gone was any notion involving anything like romance.
Mutek, however, proffered its own kind of post-romantic ideals. The five-day gathering, an annual affair in Montreal for a decade now, was billed this year as an “international festival of digital creativity and electronic music.” The latter is what gets most people to travel, this year especially. A Sunday afternoon picnic to feature the Chilean/German DJ auteur Ricardo Villalobos counted as pretty much the biggest event a North American techno geek could imagine, and the rest of the bill included important figureheads from Detroit, Canada, Berlin (lots of Germans, to be sure), and various points between.
The latter part, though—the “digital creativity” part—is what proved most striking. The visual aspect of most electronic music, whether at dance clubs or fitted into concert halls, tends to play as an afterthought—a collection of images and effects cobbled together under the tellingly hollow rubric of “visuals.” Not so at Mutek, which functions as an art event as much as a music festival. Day two of our weekend stay included an afternoon performance of an ambitious installation piece called “Atom,” in a hangar-like space made dark as night. Ushers showed everyone to seating, on the floor, with flashlights. As waves of confused whispering started to swell, a drone drifted in from big speakers while subtle illuminations began to reveal 64 white balloons floating in a grid in the center of the room. The drone got loud and cinched to a dramatic hiss, and then a series of digital ticks started on cue, coalescing into a rhythm in time with the balloons as each lit up, one by one. Then the whole array slowly rose and started moving into elaborate formations—lifted by helium and tethered, each balloon, to pulleys controlled by computer.
Robert Henke (who created the piece with fellow Berlin artist Christopher Bauder) just released an Atom/Document CD that works well as an album of minimal-techno with an atmospheric bent. To hear it independent of the installation, though—minus the synesthetic vision of balloons behaving to the music and vice-versa—is to experience much less than half of the whole. It played like a child’s wildest fantasy dictated by equally wild formalist designs.
Later that night was a club event in a warehouse-like space called SAT with a 4-way ping-pong table and a giant picnic table taller than any person in the room. The lineup was drawn from the roster of Raster-Noton, a German record label devoted to fractious techno and electronic noise. Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai opened with a set of deeply singed beats that triggered projections of what looked like quantum static—flashes of white that would billow and break in sync on screens all around.
The highlight on Saturday, though, was Atom TM, a storied electronic-music veteran who doubles as Senor Coconut (a character who reworked Kraftwerk songs a few years ago as salsa classics—worth hearing still if you haven’t had the pleasure). The Atom TM live set drew from a brilliant post-modern conceit: As he played a fleshy kind of Latinized techno, full of antic polyrhythms and quasi-woody clangs, he did so by loading actual old floppy disks whose contents displayed on a screen behind him. It was the live view of his own ’80s-looking programming interface, with shows of in situ beat-counts, cowbell measures, and so forth. It was a throwback stunt with a defiantly progressive lean: a working commentary on how the notion of “live” techno is both more and less significant than most of us know.
The late event on Saturday, at another really big and really beautiful venue called Metropolis, was more or less a standard club affair. But even then, the meticulousness and scale of Mutek manifested in an elaborate graphic stage-set that looked like something grounded equally in Busby Berkeley and Tron. A live collaboration between Mathew Jonson and Dandy Jack started fantastically but fizzled a bit over time, as did a headlining set by Detroit techno legend Carl Craig, who played safer and more standard than the context seemed to call for. The highlight by far was Tobias Freund, a Berlin icon who plays these days as "tobias." (He's also half of the aforementioned Nsi.) Tobias made a big impact in techno last year with an EP called I Can't Fight The Feeling, and his set followed in a similar mode: warm, fleshy analog synth sounds with good, grotty drum-machine breaks, all controlled with a startling mix of force and finesse. Whatever we mean when we talk about "touch" in relation to a pianist or a pool player, Tobias brings to electronic gear that would seem to laugh away the entire human enterprise and all of its silly human desires.
Sunday was the main event, in a way, with Ricardo Villalobos and Zip playing a tag-team DJ set for seven hours in a park—directly underneath a giant Alexander Calder sculpture and within view of a huge Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. It was part of the ongoing summer series Piknic Electronik (how much cooler does that sound in French than in English?), but the presence of Villalobos was Mutek's doing. The storied DJ/producer—basically the most revered, most fetishized figure in the realm of heady dance music these days, full-stop—doesn't come to North America often, so it was no surprise that a big crowd arrived early and stayed even as the weather started to seriously suck. Villalobos was very much the laid-back Latin/German DJ dandy, dancing a bit and flipping his bangs as he moved through scads of minimal house-music tracks that all sounded humid, slightly tweaked, functional but not forced. It poured rain for a good amount of the afternoon, but the sky cleared by twilight. Dancing continued very much unabated, as flocks of gulls circled overhead, curious about the action below.