MUTEK is what one DJ friend of mine called the Cannes of electronic music. It’s not hard to grasp the analogy. In addition to its carefully curated emphasis on innovation, experimentation, and audiovisual immersion, the other core factor that makes MUTEK so unique in the world is its marked emphasis on live performances (rather than remixing), which has established the festival as a tireless pursuer of all that is fresh and current in the domain.
In short, this is not just any DJ dance fest. While the music may well get you moving, MUTEK is first and foremost a forum for the true artists of the industry to let loose their creative currents on an adoring community come from near and far to bask in the halos of inspiration.
This year, the festival was rebranded as EM15 after fusing with Elektra, whose greater penchant for academic explorations and audiovisual artworks (rather than music per se) exerted a forceful pull on the character of the hybrid event. Having attended the opening night, all A/Visions, 3 out of 5 Nocturnes, all Metropolis nights and a few Expérience showcases (not to mention the excellent Connecting Cities Symposium which I covered here), I remarked fewer musical standout acts compared to prior years. A number of highly noteworthy exceptions come to mind though – and many of them, I’m proud to report, are from Montreal.
Big ticket, big fun
But first, on the international side of things, this year’s crown goes to Berlin-based Chilean DJ/producer Ricardo Villalobos, who played the closing set at Metropolis Saturday night from around 2 through to 6am. This was classic Villalobos, ever creative and lively, with his deep and worldly minimal techno pumping straight from the heart to stoke the passion in the hall to a fever pitch.
And on Thursday night at Metropolis as well, Canadian techno stalwart Richie Hawtin curated ENTER., with a handpicked lineup in both rooms and a mind-blowing 3D visual performance which sucked your eyes in towards the stage (appropriate for the name of the night). His closing set of bright and drop-heavy minimal techno was fairly standard Hawtin fare, but it seemed exactly what the crowds came to see.
At the A/Visions (audiovisual) concerts at the Impérial, there were some memorable performances this year and all were high calibre, though none left their stamp as deeply as last year’s Nils Frahm or Pantha du Prince at the Maison symphonique. Berlin sound designer, professor and Ableton Live co-developer Robert Henke‘s deceptively simple and beautiful Lumière unified patterns of stark white lasers against a black background with bass-heavy beats that moved in perfect tune with the visuals.
Todor Todoroff and Laura Colmenares Guerra of Belgium performed the gorgeously cinematic and moving Evanescens, which married Todoroff’s densely atmospheric cello compositions with matching footage in the background to create a highly cohesive and affecting work. And Japanese-French duo Nonotak gave us a taste of raves in outer space as they pumped out celestial and glitch-ridden beats from within a triangular prism caressed by sharp white lights projected on both ends.
There was lots of great conceptual experimentation which sat more on the academic/Elektra side of the spectrum, and which I delve into more deeply here.
Local names to know
Of the most memorable this year, however, many call Montreal their home. Alicia Hush, who recently moved back from Toronto, tore up the dancefloor at Metropolis’ Savoy room Friday night with her deep and dirty thumping tech and infectious live energy. (She plays at the SAT rooftop terrasse this Saturday for a daytime showcase with touring German artists, as well as phenomenally talented local up-and-comer dull. – disclosure: he’s the friend with the Cannes analogy – and Ontario transplant Ana+one).
Montreal-based producer and DJ Ohm Hourani, a regular at Salon Daomé who has played at Sharm-el-Sheikh and Beirut’s famed B018, presented his latest project I-ON at the Expérience showcase Thursday, which weaves musical samples from traditions across the world (an ancient Moroccan Oud recording, Latin jazz, an Om chant) into his characteristically deep and smooth minimalist grooves. Sadly I was not able to attend, but have heard from fine sources that it was a stellar performance, and viewed clips which suggested the same (I’ve also seen him perform many times). Hourani also opened for British megastar Lee Burridge at Stereo Friday night, attesting to his steady ascent in the Montreal scene.
And Sunday night at the MAC, the downstairs Salle Beverly Webster Rolph was transformed into the perfect venue for a closing night party. The “Soirée des expats” featured a stunning roster of great Montreal DJs and producers currently based in Berlin, and who were back in town for a special performance at EM15. The dance floor was filled with festival-goers exhausted on the final day of EM15, yet first to last, these local boys knew how to make them move: The Mole, Guillaume & the Coutu Dumonts (playing with the still-in-town Cristobal Urbina) and Mike Shannon were truly top of their game, and served as a live exhibit of the growing creative linkages and affinities between the electronic music scenes in the two cities.
Closing out the local mentions: Magnanime‘s performance at the Expérience stage Friday showcased another promising talent on the rise, with her bouncing and intelligent tech-house beats providing a perfect segue into the evening’s festivities. And if unofficial EM15 afterparties count, then a must-mention goes out to the always-unforgettable Hear – another Daomé regular, onetime resident at The Basement in Beirut, and MUTEK performer last year – who is also leaving us for Berlin shortly (though he’ll doubtless be back through town).
Elektra + MUTEK = ?
The MAC’s hosting of EM15 signalled a significant milestone in the life of both Elektra and MUTEK, and their gaining of establishment cred. Yet the setting change from the SAT to the museum also exerted an undeniable influence on the shows presented, with almost all veering markedly towards the art-house and experimental, and towards more audiovisual artworks than those that could be properly deemed music.
Nicolas Jaar‘s sleepily eccentric performance Sunday night was a case in point. While as beautiful and sophisticated as we’ve come to expect from the American-Chilean prodigy, his moody and excruciatingly drawn-out compositions were likely not the reason his show sold out in record time. On Sunday, in fact, the room was half empty, a peculiarity probably owing to festival exhaustion, and the failure of his (admittedly fascinating) performance to provide the energy required to keep the crowds going.
The night hinted at the overall problem of advertisement and expectations at this year’s festival. Those who came expecting danceable MUTEK magic – further muddled by EM15’s détournement of MUTEK language in marketing the museum nights as (the usually musical) Nocturnes – were likely quite disappointed to find people phasing out to sound art or ambient soundscapes.
The pertinence of repeating the joint endeavour of EM15 is open for debate, though it’s hard not to feel that a part of MUTEK got lost in the fusion. The line between the two festivals can be blurry and somewhat subjective at times, but each has their own distinct character, and the MAC, while perhaps ideal for Elektra, seemed a more awkward fit for its partner. Sorely missed was the intimacy and relaxed vibe of the SAT and the ability to swing between there and Metropolis on one ticket. Metropolis nights are a messier and more anonymous affair, as the discerning and mature core of the MUTEK community gets drowned out in the casual partygoers who flood the massive venue.
The Savoy room at Metropolis was the consolation prize, and the site of some of the best performances (by locals especially). But it couldn’t make up for the absence of the SAT from the regular programming, which seemed an inexplicable departure from the setting of some of the most special MUTEK moments over the years, and the headquarters and cradle of the festival’s heart and soul. The SAT, with its immersive dome, rooftop terrasse and inviting industrial aesthetic, is made for MUTEK, and MUTEK is made for the SAT.
Here’s hoping that next year, MUTEK returns home.
Shawn Katz is Editor of Rover. His upcoming book on the Printemps érable will be released with Fernwood Publishing (date to be determined). Follow Shawn on Twitter @shawn_katz.