The 17th edition of MUTEK, Montreal’s esteemed international festival of digital creativity and electronic music, takes place this week running June 1-5. A veritable institution, this year’s festival continues to showcase the best in both established and up-and-coming Canadian artists alongside top talent from around the world, including many Canadian and North American premieres. We’re also happy to report that the curators have included more female artists than ever this year, and though full gender equity hasn’t been reached this is an important and laudable movement in the right direction.
Throughout the week we’ll be posting reviews of festival highlights, with some interviews and a culminating critical essay to follow. Part of what we love most about Mutek is encountering new artists, so we’ll be sure to showcase those we feel you should know about. Artists this year include Tim Hecker, Mortiz von Oswald, Sarah Davachi, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Paul Jebanasam, Ash Koosha, Lee Gamble, Aïsha Devi, Franceso Tristano, Dasha Rush, Powell, Dawn of Midi, Julia Kent, Function, Laura Luna, and many (many) more.
For the third time now the festival will be headquartered at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC), Montreal’s world-class contemporary art museum, and it is here that the nightly Nocturne events are held. Though at first there was some turbulence, particularly in retrofitting gallery-space into an appropriate venue for electronic music performance, there is much about the MAC that augments the experience. The basement room is better suited for performances – the museum’s own regular performance series is hosted there – and this makes moving between the two spaces easier than earlier years when one had to walk to a separate venue. Festival pass-holders are also permitted to explore the galleries, and this helps emphasize that there is more to “digital creativity” than just music, exposing fans to contemporary artists they might not be exposed to otherwise. The more club-oriented performances will again be hosted nearby at the venerable Metropolis, which usually includes a smaller chill-out room off of the main dance floor. The A/Visions showcases, which present elaborate and cutting-edge multimedia works in a theatre setting, are located at the Centre Pierre-Péladeau’s Salle Pierre Mercure. These events have always been among my favorites, a unique opportunity for immersive and contemplative listening. Mutek is also renowned for their Q&A panels, workshops and other daytime events, which this year include a variety of panel discussions and a daily VR Exhibition at the PHI Centre, daily free Expérience concerts outside in the Quartier des spectacles, and the fifth edition of Composite at Audiodesk, an event series inviting artists and entrepreneurs to share ideas.
The Nocturnes this year all look very well-curated, with diverse yet complementary rosters each night. Nocturne 1 kicks things off hard with performances from Aisha Devi, Lee Gamble & Dave Gaskarth, techno royalty Mortiz von Oswald, and others in the main room, while Nocturne 5 includes what will surely be memorable closing night performances from artists including Julia Kent and Dawn of Midi.
Thursday June 2 @9pm
Tim Hecker headlines the main room, sure to be going deep into material from his latest album, Love Streams, featuring fog and lighting effects designed by MFO. But the entire evening is full of compelling performers sure to have audiences running between the two rooms. Laura Luna, Sarah Davachi, Kara-Lis Coverdale, and Lorenzo Senni will precede Tim Hecker on the main stage, while the basement room will include performances from Jackson, Herman Kolgen, Simon Chioni with Ma” on visuals, and the debut of the trio of Karl Fousek, Devon Hansen, and Roger Tellier-Craig with visuals from Sabrina Ratté. Expect a record from them sometime later this year.
Both the A/Visions showcase will be presenting new work, including several North American and World premiers.
Saturday June 4 @7:30pm
Paul Jebanasam & Tarik Barri present Continuum, a three-part explorations of “the life, power and energy present in the universe.” Jebanasam continues his exploration of sacred music filtered through power ambient as heard previously on acclaimed releases such as Music for the Church of St. John the Baptist. Barri is a Dutch audiovisual architect and developer who has previously produced visuals for artists including Thom Yorke and Monolake. His live visual projections will consist of “self-organizing structures” to provide a visual counterpart to Jebanasam’s rich and tense compositions.
Also performing will be SCANT INTONE & C130, presenting Eye of the Storm, and Dasha Rush & Stanislav Glasov presenting Dark Hearts of Space.
These Friday and Saturday night showcases are designed to keep you up dancing until breakfast. If Swiss DJ Sonja Moonear’s closing set of funky tech house wasn’t enough to temp you, than the Canadian premier of Francesco Tristano (previously of InFine’s Aufgang) should seal the deal. He’s helped pioneer the fusion of classical piano virtuosity with driving techno beats. Not to be missed.
Friday 3 June @10pm
Okay, so really both Métropolis showcases are not to be missed, and luckily the festival offers a pass to both events for only $75 Canadian. Night 1 includes Orphyx with visuals from Jackie Levitt, Lakker, and Dasha Rush with visuals from Diagraf. But I’m especially looking forward to the closing set from Sandwell District founder Dave Sumner, better known as Function. A rare chance to see a completely live Function set in North America, Sumner will bring some of the gritty dark techno of his sets at Berlin’s famous Berghain to Montreal’s best electronic music festival.
Sunday 5 June @2pm
There’s actually only one Piknic Électonic during the festival, and Mutek Sundays wouldn’t be the same without it. Enjoy the beautiful surroundings on this man-made island originally created for Montreal’s Expo 67 and outdoor dancing until 9pm under the Calder monumental sculpture. Live and DJ sets from an international crew of artists including Alicia Hush, Damian Romero, Josh Wink, Koki, Nerone, and Stefny Winter.
MUTEK BY DAY
Mutek is more than just late nights, of course, and features a wide array of mostly free events including Q&As, panel discussions, workshops, and a VR Exhibition.
The Expérience series of free daily concerts in the heart of Montreal’s central Quartier des spectacles present an opportunity for Mutek regulars and newcomers alike to “experience” new artists.
Friday June 3 @5pm
Partere du Quartier des spectacles
Booma Collective, Burundi Index, and Claire will all present live sets, while the night will be closed out with DJ sets from Ex-Terrestrial and Lee Gamble.
Panel: Modular Waves
Saturday June 4 @2pm
Karl Fusek will moderate this panel featuring discussions of modular synthesizers with artists Christina Sealey (Orphyx) and Sarah Davachi, whose festival performances are must-sees, as well as musician and technician Richard Smith, who apprenticed with legendary synth designers Donald Buchla and has extensive experience restoring high-end studio electronic systems.
I spoke with moderator Karl Fousek to ask about his plans for the discussion.
What can we expect from this panel?
There’s three central threads that I’m interested in following. One is simply just asking about the role these instruments play in the creative lives of the panelist. How they use them, how they approach them, the differences in live performance approaches and studio approaches and so on. The second is to ask about modular synthesizers themselves as instruments with their own logic. How can modulars themselves open up creative possibilities? How does instrument design, interface and synthesis philosophy, contribute to these possibilities? Finally, I’m interested in how we engage with the history of electronic music through theses instruments. Be it by using vintage synths themselves or newer interfaces inspired by old designs, how can engaging with synth history be creative and meaningful and not just fetishism and nostalgia?
Why do you think modular synths have become so popular and widely used in so many different contexts?
I think there’s a very wide range of reasons why modular synths have become so popular. Everything from computer fatigue, to the tactile responsiveness of control voltage, to collector and consumer impulses, to relative affordability and portability, to the ease with which one can put together a custom, personalized instrument, to the sound of analog circuitry.
What drew you to modular synths?
Personally, I was drawn to modulars because they let me easily put together very personal music making systems. They let me get away from a lot of the assumptions about electronic music making that more “fixed architecture” tools often seem to have built in to their design. That and I love the sound of analog filters and oscillators (although I’m no purist).
It seems to me that the nature of modular synths, and analogue synths in general, puts an inherent emphasis on process and the moment, and less on the end result or realizing specific, precise results (as with a more ‘traditional’ instrument). Do you agree? Do you think this says something about the evolving nature of electronic music more broadly?
I do not agree that modulars put an inherent emphasis on process and the moment and less on end products or precise results. I think these are mostly compositional choices and choices in performance practice, which I’m not sure have much to do with the specific instruments used. In my experience modulars are very precise instruments. The more interesting question for me is what kind unique musical forms to modulars themselves enable. What is the internal logic and character of their precision. I’m not sure what any of this has to say more broadly about electronic music. It’s maybe one corner of a dense web of contemporary practice.
Check out the entire program at Mutek.org, and keep an eye on this site for reviews and more in coming weeks.