Tuesday, June 04, 2013

MUTEK Montreal: Day 3

On Friday I said goodbye to Cosmin and his housemates and lugged my stuff through the ever increasing heat and humidity to my second host Graeme's place, conveniently located less than a mile away. Graeme is self employed, making his livelihood writing and publishing LSAT solution guides and doing one-on-one tutoring for recent grads preparing to take the test. We had a nice hour-long chat before I was on my way downtown for the day's Mutek events.

My first stop was the Balustrade at the Monument National for an XLR8R hosted interview with Jon Hopkins, the artist whose work I was most familiar with before arriving in Montreal. I showed up at the tiny interview space a few minutes early, pulling up a second row seat to wait while the interviewer chatted casually with an associate. As people slowly began filtering in, said interviewer casually directed each to take a seat while we waited for the scheduled time. One of these people just happened to be Mr. Hopkins himself, who somewhat shyly informed the interviewer that he was there to participate instead of to observe. A few hasty apologies later, he took a temporary seat in the front row to wait out the remaining time with the rest of us. Seeing that he was just sitting quietly by himself, I gathered my courage and asked him if he'd seen any particularly compelling performances while he'd been in town. He responded that he'd only just arrived the night before so hadn't have a chance to do much but sleep (that made one of us), but asked who I'd enjoyed so far. We chatted for a little while about how awesome Nils Frahm's work is before the clock hit 13:00ish and the interviewer called him to the small stage to start the session. This little exchange proved to be a hallmark of the Mutek vibe: the usual divide between audience and artist more or less disappears, and there is an easy, casual exchange between the two as people who played to capacity crowds one night show up in the audience the next. The interview was good, and I enjoyed learning about his writing process and the evolution of his live set, though I felt my heart sink a bit when he casually mentioned having first collaborated with Brian Eno at age 23.

The hour passed quickly, and after a brief thanks and goodbye, I headed downstairs to catch the 1024 Architecture presentation on MadMapper, their projection mapping / external device control software. The presentation ended up being presented in French, and included more historical than technical information (from what I gathered), but it was fun nonetheless.

Stepping into the midday heat yet again, I went in search of a birthday gift for Cosmin, whose birthday was that day, and whose celebration in a local park I had been invited to. I found a nursery and picked up a nice hanging houseplant for his budding suspended garden, then took a long meandering walk in the direction of the park, stopping for some really excellent homemade ice cream along the way. 

In uncharacteristic fashion I ended up at the park about half an hour early, so spent the time hanging out with a really odd and entirely adorable squirrel and working on my meditation practice. I'd only intended to to stop by for a few minutes to drop off the plant, but once things got started I got sucked into conversation and made a conscious decision to miss that night's A/Visions session in favor of connecting with the people I was with in that moment. This was a powerful decision for me, as I'd noticed myself starting to succumb to the anxiety that came from my inability to witness everything that Mutek had to offer. Choosing my surroundings in the moment was a great move, and I felt lighter and significantly more present once I'd discarded the constant mental accounting of places I could be for the place that I was. I ended up sticking around the party for a couple of hours before saying goodbye to my new friends and making my way to the Metro to head to the evening's Nocturne sessions.

Friday was the first day that both SAT and Metropolis (a large theater space around the corner) were open simultaneously for Nocturne events. I met up with Emma and a few friends she'd made (coincidentally also from San Francisco), and we headed to Metropolis to catch Emptyset. I hadn't heard of them before, and found myself pretty blown away by their sound: super raw and minimal, intentionally off-kilter, distorted, bassy, rhythmic intensity. Their music was paired perfectly with hugely stripped down visuals that I soon learned were generated by using their audio output to manipulate the CRT control circuitry of an analog television set. The effect was just right, and the nonexistent latency inherent in analog processing tied the imagery perfectly to the sound.

Immediately after was Jon Hopkins, whose sound was very different from what I expected. He's definitely embraced the techno/house aesthetic, but with the attention to detail and careful sound design I've come to expect from the less dance-oriented material I know best from him. As soon as I accepted that it was going to be a dance set I was able to settle into the groove, and ended up really enjoying the whole thing.

After a killer finale from J.H., Robert Hood came up for an old-school Detroit techno set. I'm not familiar with his work at all, and after giving him about twenty minutes, decided that I just wasn't very interested in the music, and headed out to check the scene at SAT. I don't remember who was playing, but I gave them a fair shot before deciding that I was similarly uninspired by their sound. I decided to take the opportunity to mildly recharge, and wandered back to Graeme's place to catch a full seven hours of sleep!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

MUTEK Montreal: Day 2

Day 2 of Mutek started with a mad dash downtown to catch the afternoon "Finding soul and humanity in digital mastering" clinic at Musitechnic. The session ended up being heavily oriented toward beginners, and I decided to cut my losses and left halfway through.

I wandered a few blocks down St. Catherine St. and made it to the Monument National in time to catch the XLR8R interview with Martyn. This was my first experience with the interview events at Mutek, which I've since come to realize embody the core excellence of this festival: accessibility. The room was tiny and not overful, and Martyn hung out chatting with a few people in the group before the formal interview began. I was a big fan of his early D'nB tunes but haven't heard much of his work since, so it was interesting to hear about what he's working on these days, and how his motivations have shifted.

A brief coffee and journaling break later, I returned to SAT for the Dromo event I'd tried and failed to attend the day before. This installation/performance was housed in a large half-sphere shaped space with the audience lying on mostly-reclined beanbag couch-things. The interior of the space was configured such that every surface could be projected upon, and the visual component of the performance most involved generative imagery filling the viewers visual field. In addition, bright white LEDs arranged around the circumference of the space at floor-level were used to cast moving shadows of the audience and performers onto the walls. I found the piece interesting and engaging, if not totally mind-blowing. The most effective technique for me was the projection of false perspective to make the size and shape of the space appear to shift. Given the fairly uniform shape of the interior and the excellent calibration of the projectors (I couldn't see any overlap brightening anywhere), I really was given the impression that the room was suddenly twenty stories tall, or that the ceiling had suddenly dropped to a few feet from my face.

During the waiting period before and after the performance began, I struck up a conversation with a small group sitting across from me about where the best late-night Chinese food could be found. In the course of that conversation I discovered that one of the group, Emma, was from San Francisco. Further inquiry revealed that we'd talked before, albeit virtually: Emma was involved with the Syzygryd sculture/interactive music installation that debuted at Burning Man 2010, to which I contributed a 30-minute musical "preset." It is truly a small world (of digital arts). Pre-existing connection in hand, we teamed up for the journey all the way across the street for the second A/Visions performance.

A/Visions 2 was my the first time I had my mind blown at Mutek. Nils Frahm, a pianist from Berlin, performed an utterly phenomenal 90 minute solo set on an upright piano (front panel open, stereo mics), a grand piano, a Rhodes electric piano, a synth that looked an awful lot like the Prophet 12, an assortment of Moog effects pedals, and what I'm pretty sure was an original Roland Space Echo. His performance brought together technical virtuosity with moment after magical moment of utter melodic beauty. I am buying all of his albums as soon as I get home- enough said.

The second performance of the evening was as "maximal" a production as Nils was minimal: Herman Kolgen and a group of percussionists performed an intensely cinematic piece called "Train Fragments", stroking huge sheets of metal, bowing glockenspiels, and breathing through what must have been 30 feet of mic'd tubing to create the sounds and soundtrack to accompany a beautiful (and intense) largely computer generated film revolving around a train crash. At the end of the event I had the distinct experience of feeling artistically "nourished", like I'd just eaten a 3-star creative meal. Amazing.

After A/V 2 I ran uptown to meet my weekend Couchsurfing host Eloi and his roommates for a couple of beers. Had a great time connecting with them, and ended up staying far later than I'd initially planned talking politics and liberal frustrations.

After leaving the bar, I ran back downtown in time to catch the last 45 minutes of Martyn's 2:15-3:15am timeslot at SAT. He played a techno-heavy set, and I found myself opening to the nuances of a genre I haven't had a strong interest in historically. Midway through he bumped the tempo up a bit and started dropping early-breakbeat sounds that ultimately led to some nice amen jungle rollers before calling it quits.

Had a great time eating cheese and drinking tea with Emma for a couple hours after the show at her Air BnB'd "chick magnet" loft before stumbling home around 6am. Four hours of sleep later, I was up for Day 3.

MUTEK Montreal: Day 1

Started my Mutek experience by getting royally rained upon during the 5pm trip from my host's house to the Downtown ticket office. Seriously drenched. But it was a warm rain--the kind so foreign to my West coast experience--and though I stayed damp for most of the rest of the day, it wasn't an unpleasant experience.

The first official Mutek event "Experience 1" was, coincidentally, going down in the same room as the passport pickup desk. House/techno and $7 beers in a window-lined room on the fifth floor of the 2-22 building downtown. I stuck around for a few minutes, but nothing about it felt like "my scene," so I took off shortly after I arrived.

Just around the corner, I hopped in line for the "Dromo" immersive A/V performance at the Satosphere. Had a really interesting conversation with an old-school sound artist during the wait, mostly about the relative merits of considering aural composition as a constructive process (starting with nothing and adding pieces to reach the final work) vs. a destructive process (starting with pure white noise and removing pieces to reach the final work). Would have liked to have continued that mental exercise, but as we began filing into the semi-spherical performance space I learned my first Mutek lesson: passport holders still need to get get tickets for some performances. By the time I made it back to the box office, the event was already almost full, so I just picked up a ticket for the next day's identical performance.

I used the little bit of extra time I'd gained to wander a few blocks into Montreal's Chinatown district. A fascinating shift of culture from a kind of Westernized-French to Asian in the space of one intersection. I grabbed some coconut water from a shop and headed back up the street to grab a seat for the first A/Visions performance at the Monument-National. I got my seat in the almost empty theater about 30 minutes before the show, and with no WiFi available, was forced to actually engage with the world around me. :0 I had a really nice conversation with a ten-year Mutek veteran who happened to be sitting near me. She filled me in on the performances she was most excited about, gave me a few festival tips, and told me about how the event has (and in many cases hasn't) changed over the years. Closer to showtime she was joined by a jovial and extremely talkative friend, and I had a nice time learning more about Mutek from him and observing the often comical push and pull of their interactions with one another.

The program that evening was presented in two parts: a 45 minute experimental film, with audio and visuals generated in real-time by the artists, and a concert-length conceptual performance by Mathew Herbert (and a few associates). The film was a mild assault on the senses, with rapid fire still imagery providing a rhythmic foundation for the abstract drone/glitch soundtrack. I felt entirely engaged for the duration, and really enjoyed drifting from passive "pure aesthetic input" mode to a more analytical stance throughout.

Matthew Herbert's performance was built around the life of a (factory?) farm raised pig. Much--maybe all--of the audio source material was created from field recordings. Five performers were involved in the piece: one person on percussion (triggered electronic and a physical drum made from the cows skin), one on keyboards, one on some kind of phrase sampler, Matthew Herbert in what appeared to be a kind of Brian Eno-esque live mixing role, and one person playing the pig cage. The pig cage (my name for it) was a boxing ring-shaped space create from four drum stands with strings tied between them to form "walls". Each string was connected to a sensor, and by touching, plucking, and pulling the strings the central performer was able to trigger samples and manipulate FX parameters in a very physically expressive way. About halfway through the performance a chef emerged on stage and began preparing a pork dish in a pair of hot plates, and before long the smell had filled the theater. Overall I found it an effective performance, and I experienced an appropriate amount of dread leading up to the musical representation of the pig's slaughter.

After the show, I headed to the first Play sessions, an event featuring music with a more ambient/drone/noise aesthetic. I teamed up with a fellow Couchsurfer for the show, Diana from Mexico City, who's living in Montreal at the moment finishing her Masters degree on psychoacoustics and the cognitive perception of music. The three performances we saw varied a lot in quality, but they were all quite different from what I'd normally see at a show, and I felt grateful for the experience. Afterward, Diana and I hung out at a bar geeking out about music and gear until early in the morning, when I finally drifted home to my host's house. A full day in every sense!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

MUTEK Montreal: Day 0

This post (and those to follow in the next few days) are a bit of a departure from the angle I've been taking with this blog over the last couple of years. After years of wanting, I've finally found my way Montreal for the Mutek digital arts and music festival. I'm traveling alone, and have gone all-in on Couchsurfing.org for housing while I'm here. I'm going to be using this space to record my experiences in a journal format, mostly for myself, but also for friends and family that might want to follow along. It's my first time in Montreal, and so far (albeit less than 24 hours in city) I'm feeling enthusiastic about the adventure.

I took a 6:20am flight out of San Jose on Tuesday morning (airfare was just over half the price of comparable flights out of SFO), which meant leaving my house in San Francisco at 3am. I'm nothing if not an experienced navigator of sleep deprivation states, so this wasn't a problem.

Typical airport theatrics and a long layover in DFW later, I arrived in Montreal around 7:30pm local time. Very first impressions:
  1. The money is plastic with portions that are totally clear.
  2. There is orange everywhere!

After a short ride on the 747 shuttle, I boarded the orange line (yep) at the Lionel Groulx
metro station. A kind Montrealaise woman stepped in to help me parse the route map (it turned out we'd been on the same flights that morning!), and we had a nice conversation about the parallels between San Francisco and Montreal neighborhoods.

I exited at the Laurier Street station, stopped at a market to pick up some food and beer, and made my way to my first Couchsurfing host's home. I knew from our prior correspondence that we had a lot in common (he's almost exactly my age, and has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence), but I wasn't expecting just how comfortable and familiar the experience would end up being. The apartment is full of bikes, one of his roommates is a musician that made his first trip to Burning Man last year, and there was kombucha in the fridge. An enclave of familiar culture in a foreign land? Or just the way things are out here? It's too early to draw any conclusions, but needless to say I felt right at home. Chatted for a few hours with the flatmates and friends in attendance before my host took off with his girlfriend to her place, leaving me with a key to the apartment and an invitation to use his room for the time being.

Today begins my first full day in the city, and the start of the festival that brought me here. I'm writing this from a comfortable Italian cafe around the corner from my host's spot. I'm drinking a hell of a latte. It's drizzling but warm, and the barristas are singing along to hits of the 80's on the house stereo. I'm going to explore a little more, get some lunch, and then head downtown for the Mutek kickoff at 5pm. More tomorrow!

Friday, November 30, 2012

John Cage on The Meaning of Sound

"I love sounds for what they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sound Design: "Sensory Overload"

I stumbled across this animated short from the "Interacting with Autism" project through Robert Krulwich's blog on the NPR website. In it, we follow a boy on his journey through a nondescript urban landscape made unexpectedly nightmarish by his (and thus our) inability to filter and prioritize the sounds around him.

Sensory Overload (Interacting with Autism Project) from Miguel Jiron on Vimeo.

While I find the visual style compelling, the brilliance (and in fact the focus) of this work is the soundtrack. There is no music- just pure diegetic audio that's been mixed, mashed, and manipulated to overwhelm the listener in a way that might approximate the experience of a person living with autism. Sound designer Katie Gately did an amazing job sculpting a whirlwind of sonic energy from the sounds that we city dwellers are surrounded by, and the success of her effort really sets this apart from the pack.