It was an incredible sight to never forget, on the last A/Visions of this MUTEK 2013: The Maison symphonique, glittering new home of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM), rattling to the sound of the bass rolling over the room, and pulled upwards by an orchestra of three tonnes of heavenly bells. And the people – ah the people – the chairs couldn’t hold them, they sprung to their feet! In the aisles, in the rows, wherever an inch allowed, there the dancing grabbed their limbs and sparked a riotous contagion, rippling out across the room like a tide…
Such revelry as if the world had seen its last sunrise; such throbbing life that the hall itself seemed to pound with a beating heart. This was Berlin’s Pantha du Prince at the closing night of MUTEK’s fourteenth edition. And it was a brazen and viscerally memorable spotlight aimed deep at the soul of this festival that’s so much more.
In 2003, Piknic Électronik sparked a mini-revolution in the culture of this city when they brought electronic music out of the clubs and into broad daylight. In this family-friendly party in the park (until this year, with your bottle of wine – but you can thank the SPVM for that change), people of all ages, backgrounds and lifestyles came together for the pure joy of dancing under the summer sun in a spirit of unrivalled freedom and ebullience.
There beneath Calder’s soaring hommage to humankind, world-class DJs and producers play the shamans to a weekly ritual of collectivist physical and spiritual release. Piknic has become an icon of Montreal’s free-wheeling and fun-loving soul. But it also transformed the image of electronic music in Montreal, and made its genuine and artistic appreciation not merely respectable, but mainstream.
Since 2000, MUTEK has been expanding further the cultural reach and currency of electronic music and related digital arts, in a certain sense dragging them up by the other end, though with no lesser mastery or innovation: out of the clubs that is, and into the halls of high culture. What happened on Sunday night at the Maison symphonique was a freezeframe of the festival’s phenomenal triumph in achieving its core mission. Occupying the home of the OSM with rumbling bass, strobing lights and an orchestra of bells, MUTEK and Pantha du Prince joined hands to pull ‘high art’ down to meet the pulse and sweat at ground level, while simultaneously raising electronic music up to the status of high art.
Memories of MUTEK 2013
It marked the crescendo of a 14-year cultural project which has fuelled the festival from its audacious beginnings. This year, it was also channelled most notably by Berlin virtuoso Nils Frahm, whose soaring, emotively searing multi-piano and keyboard solo performances (!) roused the crowds to near ecstasy when he played the Monument-National for Thursday night’s A/Visions 2 – and I can only imagine he repeated with equal grace and acumen when he replaced a cancelled performance for the first act at the Maison symphonique last night (which I sadly had to miss).
And it was equally instrumental in a concert presented by Berlin’s CTM festival at the Centre PHI Saturday afternoon. There, the melding of experimental and Classical forms found its utmost expression when German avant-garde composer Ernstalbrecht Stiebler (b. 1934) delivered a piano recital of his stark minimalist compositions, considered a foundational source for much of contemporary minimal electronic music.
Outside the conventional concert settings, the same force of experimentation and artistry was equally present in the darkened interiors of the Société des arts technologiques (SAT) and Metropolis at the nightly Nocturnes.
Vancouver’s classically-trained Frivolous sparked an early dance party at Thursday’s Nocturne 2 at Metropolis with his eclectic brand of bouncing tech-house tinged with swagger, swing and jazz; the same night, Ontario-born Deadbeat, who spent years producing in Montreal and Berlin, had the SAT’s crowds jump and sweat to his gritty percussive techno.
At Friday’s Nocturne 3, Londoner Jon Hopkins seemed to lighten the very air at Metropolis with an energetic excursion through his progressive and cinematic techno realms, and on Saturday the room was all smiles and sways with Barcelona’s sunny John Talabot playing their smooth and synthy vocal house.
The SAT’s Saturday lineup featured American West Coasters Tokimonsta and Nosaj Thing heading up a night heavy on the hip-hop sources and breakbeat, while at Metropolis Berlin deep house master Âme delivered a stirring rendition of his signature emotive sound.
Then Dictaphone held hypnotic sway over the crowds with their densely atmospheric electronic jazz on Sunday night’s closing Nocturne 5 at the SAT. The Berliners followed up a forceful act by seasoned Montrealer Pheek, who along with local producer HEAR in this year’s festival – the latter played a Saturday free show at the 2-22 that packed the Windows Lounge with dancing fans at 6pm – embodied the best of our own deep and ponderous techno sound, with its heavy dose of influence from the throbbing and sensuous aesthetic of Berlin minimalism.
MUTEK’s dreams of Montreal
All in all, this admittedly partial and subjective distillation of MUTEK 2013 highlights is significant mostly in revealing electronic music’s increasing colonization of other genres. With its ever-proliferating array of hybridized forms pulling from sources as diverse as hip-hop, reggae, jazz, funk, swing, soul and infinite others – either unmentioned or more challenging to locate – electronic music seems to forever be occupying an ever larger space in contemporary culture, expanding its tentacles every year further into the former domains of conventional genres.
Already Montreal is a key hotspot for global design, contemporary dance, the new circus arts, and of course digital arts. If electronic music is indeed the music of the 21st century, then Montreal may be positioned to become one of the global hubs of this century’s creative wave – at least, if we seize the occasion. We know that the indomitably assertive and creative spirit of this city’s people is its rarest potential that’s just now being tapped. But in an environment where our local movers and dreamers too often lack the force of their fullest ambitions, MUTEK stands far above the rest as a fearless and unapologetic pioneer of what Montreal is and can finally become.
In this vision of a Montreal that’s come into its own, ours is a place whose global reknown rests on its easy edginess and creative exuberance, its laid-back embrace of experimentation – and of course, its irreverent and irreppressible lust for life that last night shook the hall of the OSM. MUTEK’s courage is in believing in the dream of Montreal, and in our capacity to collectively carve ourselves a place among the world’s greats.
At least until Montreal becomes the next Berlin or Barcelona, there are days of MUTEK – and on Sundays in the summer, of Piknic – that make it all too easy to think we have nothing to envy of anyone at all.