PlanetNotion.com’s Editor Seb Law jetted off to Montreal recently to take a look at what Canada’s first festival of electronic music has to offer. Here’s what he made of it.
My brief three-day sojourn to Montreal’s MUTEK festival is peppered with penny-drop moments about what festivals, were, are and should be, but mostly about why the city works; why festivals in the city work and why it’s more than just music that makes a music festival.
Established 13 years ago as a showcase for ‘digital creativity’, MUTEK (literally ‘music & technology’) is just one of the hundreds of festivals that Montreal hosts each year. So important is the idea of the festival, that the city’s downtown area is arranged around an enormous outdoor performance space; the festival is not just Montreal’s currency, it’s the city’s lifeblood. It’s important to note that MUTEK itself is not just a music festival – it’s an experiential event (apologies for the jargon, but ‘series of gigs’ doesn’t really convey what I mean here); individual concerts are based around specific venues and their sound programming, or jawdropping visuals (more of which later).
The thing about MUTEK is that, like all the best experiences, it’s not just about the music; it’s about the whole thing and how it makes you feel. MUTEK is a music connoisseur’s festival where the quality of sound is truly unparalleled. Now I’m no sound Nazi (well, not massively), but all the venues we visited were filled with the most carefully-sound engineered equipment that I’ve ever come across. The emphasis was firmly on that quality of sound; you know the kind, when you’ve been at a hugely-loud gig for an entire evening and you don’t have tinnitus, or even a slight headache afterwards; when the top notes are as crisp as the basslines are rich; when there’s an invisible wall of sound that you walk through; when you can talk to the person next to you without bellowing at the top of your lungs. That’s great sound design, and it’s a sadly rare thing in British clubs.
By day, Montreal itself is a pretty quiet city; frequently when wandering the streets, we think ‘where IS everyone?’, but it’s also a city with the luxury of enough space for everyone and then some. As we amble semi-aimlessly around, through networks of underground tunnels (which stretch for MILES), into some of the most creative restaurants that we’ve ever come across (props here to Bouillon Bilk for some of the best scallops EVER), past some of the best record shops we’ve seen, and we realise that there’s rarely a horn honked in anger, rarely more than 3 people on a block’s sidewalk or in some streets anyone at all. We wander the subterranean world beneath the downtown skyscrapers, determined to stay inside for as long as possible to see what the possibilities were. The possibilities (if not endless) were certainly more municipal art and design flair than most European cities serve up: every corner had an installation, every window a vista, every open space was there for exploration – my clambering over the glazed roof of Place des Arts being a prime example of that. We manage to navigate ourselves to hipster neighbourhood (natch) St Bernard where we lost ourselves in cratedigging vintage records, riffling through the shelves of the Drawn & Quarterly shop and coming away with piles of old copies of the Face and i-D. Coals to Newcastle for a bunch of music journos, but we like coals…
We take a trip to a brand-spanking new arts complex, the Phi Centre. Created from a disused warehouse building downtown, the Centre aims to provide a state-of-the-art space for creative arts from across the spectrum, and when we visit on the inaugural day, there’s an amazing interactive installation that, although small, showcases the capabilities of both modern art’s integration with tech and the vision of the artist, Jean-François Mayrand. Wandering around the Centre, my inner Kevin McCloud comes alive; everything’s finished to perfection, even insignificant plug sockets and little-used corridor details. It sums up something I find all over the place in Montreal – there’s a sense of doing things properly; not cutting corners and waiting until they’re done properly until launching them properly. It’s tremendously appealing.
Back to MUTEK itself, and there was plenty on show. And show is the only word: in French they use the word “spectacle”, which rather conveys the sense of the shows that we saw. Noise pioneer Tim Hecker played in an amazing wooden church which was lit to perfection (sadly his strummed wafflings bored the pants off us, so we escaped to something a little more exciting). Montreal’s Society for the Arts and Technology’s Satosphere venue is based around an enormous dome that, with the help of 4 projectors and some clever programming, becomes a 3-dimensional screen. Imagine being inside a bell and the entire round of the bell is a cinema screen. The visuals were intense. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of watching an enormous digital wall careen through space above you before it twists and you go inside to a storm of fluorescent bulbs without sounding like you’ve just ingested something very illegal. When you show this kind of visual to a group of people who are listening to a man from Junior Boys and two other musicians reroute a classical organ piece through two increasingly off-kilter boxes of electronic trickery, then it just becomes ridiculous. I think it’s the only time in my life when both the visuals and the music meshed with such staggering disconcertion that I nearly fell over.
If this sounds like a bad experience, I can assure you it wasn’t. It was truly spectacular, and whenever anyone asks me about music & AV, this is the story they’ll get.
The next day, we listen to Nico Jaar talk for an hour about music, without it once ever seeming OTT or unnecessarily pretentious. Thing is, in Britain we can be all too quick to dismiss things like music and fashion as a diversion, something fluffy (and sometimes they are), but it’s at places like MUTEK that the really passionate people get to come and explore their chosen form of expression and really play with it, experiment, flesh out ideas and collaborate. That’s truly collaborate on an artistic level, not commoditise something for mutual profit, of course.
Sorry, I seem to have gone off on a tangent there. But the all-enveloping sense of creation and genuine excitement is so rare at UK festivals – MUTEK, like ATP, Supersonic and some of the fringier events, isn’t about getting tanked and off your tits, it’s about an intellectual approach to music, for which Montreal provides the perfect backdrop. To some that’s not what your classic festival experience is about, but if you’re interested in what the new fringes are saying, what the next big thing might be, or where music will be turning next, then it’s important to take yourself outside of your (ahem, my) Twitter-and-pints comfort zone once in a while and challenge yourself.
On the final day, we hit Piknik Elektronik in Parc Jean Drapeau, just across the river. Dominated by an enormous Buckminster Fullerine structure constructed for a long-gone world expo, the parc is host to a smallish outdoor picnic with the kind of sound engineering that most massive British festivals can only dream of. Once more Jaar and his labelmates get the afternoon started in the most sublime way, with Brian Eno’s ‘The Ending’, and I have another pennydrop moment. Why can’t all festivals be like this? Why is there such a different emphasis of music and atmosphere in British festivals? But then, I realise. That’s the whole point of travelling: to find something different.
With thanks to: Cath Binette @ Tourisme Montreal, All @ MUTEK & Ivana @ Citizen Brando
- Seb Law