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Cabaret Contemporain give techno that human warmth in ‘Transistor’

Thursday 16th, February 2017 / 11:25
By Max Foley

Avant-garde French ensemble create improvised electronic with classical instruments.
Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Junction GRAND

CALGARY — It’s 2017, and the distinction between analog and electronic is harder to make than ever. Top 40’s dropping pop-rock bands in favour of DJs cookie-cutting our favorite electronic tropes. Psychedelic ‘70s rock acts are back in vogue and swapping out conventional instruments for synths and drum machines. Whatever side you’re on, wherever you fit in, everyone’s feeling the squeeze to innovate, and to differentiate themselves.

Part of the fun of this Darwinian struggle is the absolute avalanche of weirdness that it has triggered. For every act that makes it to the Top 40, there’s a blizzard of uncompromising talent to be explored by those daring and discerning enough to branch out. Enter Cabaret Contemporain, an eight-person orchestra–cum–techno collective, consisting of traditionally trained musicians from the Conservatoire de Paris.

The Cabaret consists of one pianist, one guitarist, one drummer, two double-bassists, a sound engineer, and two producers. However, double-bassist Ronan Courty describes a surprisingly “utopic, leaderless” dynamic between them all, gesturing animatedly with a beer in one hand and a rolled cigarette in the other.

“We’re basically just a group of friends. We have someone who’s always talking, one who knows when to shut up, one who does stupid shit when he’s been drinking… We have that sense of balance,” he explains, crackling through a Skype connection from Paris.

“We play music we’ve made together. We all contribute to one another’s segments in a way that complements everyone else.”

Using analog instruments to create avant-garde electronic music was pioneered by the likes of Kraftwerk, and in recent years implemented by Moderat, Tycho, Jaga Jazzist and Portico, to name but a few. Ronan cites these as inspirations, alongside names as varied as Dawn of MIDI, Nat King Cole, Jon Hopkins and Jeff Mills.

“At first, we pretty much outright copied our favourites – Hopkins, Mills. But we would go shopping in hardware and curio stores for things to add to our instruments, to make them sound like the building blocks of electronic music.”

“But at the same time, we wanted to emphasize how desperately human we are. There are things that we do that machines can’t, and vice versa. We were looking to give human warmth, through imperfection, to music that can sometimes sound quite cold and robotic.”

Organic, electronic anarchy

Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Junction GRAND

Rifling through the group’s discography evokes a beautiful, organized chaos, a harmony of their aforementioned idols’ sounds – an expedition at one’s fingertips that comes highly recommended.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Cabaret’s stylistic repertoire, however, is their process. Courty describes coming together as individuals who had previously collaborated in various configurations, slated for traditional careers in jazz and composition, before blasting off in a completely unexplored direction. The Cabaret sought to trade in their contemporary training for more “danceable” music.

“For me, [this new project] was liberating. When we met, we were slated for more typical careers in our fields. I was going to be a jazz double-bassist, which wasn’t nearly as exciting as this new thing we were exploring. It was completely different in that everything was improvised.”

Courty pauses for a second, energetically mimicking a traditional double-bass groove. “I don’t think I’ve played double-bass the way it’s meant to be played in years.”

Improvisation is a quintessential part of the Cabaret’s process. The group’s affinity for all things electronic led to them exploring how they could reconcile their contemporary training with the integral components of a DJ set – a tall order considering how at odds the two worlds are. Consistently pushing for more and more improvisation, then, feeds into the Cabaret’s newest undertaking: what they’ve taken to calling Transistor.

Tailor-made, handcrafted techno

Photo: Courtesy of Theatre Junction GRAND

Transistor is a little different. In the past, even live, our songs have had a beginning, middle and end. There was more structure. But with Transistor, we’re no longer exactly sure what songs we’re playing in what order. The music never stops, effectively.” Courty explains. It sounds like a logistical nightmare, but the way he articulates it inspires confidence and trust in their vision.

“We keep the terms of each song loose, so we can adapt and evolve in accordance with the crowd’s energy. We have songs that can be played for three minutes or 20. And it’s a real guessing game – sometimes people tell us they couldn’t hear the guitar. But they don’t realize that the guitar doesn’t sound quite like a guitar!”

Effectively, much like your favorite DJ, Cabaret Contemporain caters to their audience based on just about every factor you can imagine. It’s all but guaranteed that over the span of their four-day stint at Theatre Junction, you won’t see or hear the same thing twice. Amongst mentions of new original works and remixes, Courty sweetens the deal.

“We’re always reinventing ourselves, and the base material’s always wildly different. So odds are that Calgary will be hearing music that we’ve never played for anyone, anywhere.”

If the Cabaret is just a taste of the possibilities that exist when it comes to analog-digital interplay, then it’s safe to say the future of music as a whole is guaranteed to be interesting.

Cabaret Contemporain perform Transistor in Calgary from February 22nd-25th at Theatre Junction GRAND.

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