By Adam Piotrowicz
Founded around the turn of the new millennium by Alain Mongeau and Patti Schmidt in Montréal, Canada, the original mission behind MUTEK was to create an event devoted to presenting the intricate synergies of new electronic music styles with the emerging technologies that are used to create them. The festival has since expanded its operations to multiple cities, including Tokyo, San Francisco, Dubai, and Mexico City, solidifying its role as a major cultural pillar for digital arts and technology across the globe.
2019 marks MUTEK’s 20th anniversary celebration and the festival’s special Montréal edition this year was host to 90+ performances and 30+ installation pieces by a well-curated selection of artists from around the world. Like its artist curation, the schedule was carefully arranged, thoughtfully grouping together performances based on stylistic overlap, but keeping it exciting with an eclectic roster of artists at each hosting venue over the course of the five-day event. Commuting between shows was made easy by Montréal’s integrated cycling routes, which festivalgoers frequently utilized to quickly bike between back-to-back performances.
Below are our favourite highlights from the week’s events:
Tuesday, August 20 – The inaugural performance of MUTEK’s 20th edition featured a performance at the new PY1 venue by dedicated electronic futurist Robert Heneke’s Monolake project, supported by live visuals by Quebec multidisciplinary artist Diagraf. Monolake’s set was a thumping, forward-thinking set of techno-paced club music explorations that at once imposed primal dancefloor motion on the audience while tickling patrons’ more cerebral intentions with Heneke’s signature approach to complex sound design. People were dancing, laying down on the floor, zoning out and honing into the music, enhanced by the digital visual bath projected on the PY1 pyramid’s inner walls – a great opening to an entire week of captivating performances.
Wednesday, August 21 – Wednesday night’s highlight slot went to Tim Hecker & The Konoyo Ensemble, part of the X/Visions event hosted at Théâtre Maisonneuve. Hecker shared the stage with composer Motonori Miura, who conducted gagaku musicians from the Japanese royal court, accompanied by cellist Mariel Roberts and Canadian musician/composer Kara-Lis Coverdale. The live instrumental performers’ actions were processed digitally to create unique electroacoustic textures. There was presence flowing in every frequency band throughout the performance, and the music’s emotional weight at times recalled Penderecki’s “Threnody”, channeled into bio-synthetic drones that felt windy & monolithic. Emotional, melodic, dissonant, and utterly face-ripping at times, it was one of the loudest and most spectacular performances at MUTEK Montréal this year.
Matmos was the standout of Nocturne 2, held at Studios des 7 Doigts. Recording discarded plastics on stage as “found sound” instruments, the Baltimore-based electronic duo opened with some percussive, crowd-dispersing infra-sonics (they opened their set with the track “Thermoplastic Riot Shield” from their Plastic Anniversary LP from earlier this year). Touching upon themes of oppressive police-state energies, material fetishism, body modification, and environmental pollution during their hour-long set. Plastic crumbles & squelches were weaponized into sub-basses & crackling percussive elements, assembled into live sound collages, at times locking into a dance groove before falling apart into playful abstraction. The pair’s energy invoked that of ‘iconic Americana’ musical pranksters such as Devo, Negativland, and even Frank Zappa, who also used musical humour to raise awareness about social justice issues.
Thursday, August 22 – St. Petersburg-based duo 404.zero took the A/Visions spotlight on Thursday evening with a dazzling performance of their unique audiovisual spatial environments. Using the software TouchDesigner and an array of electronic controllers, the duo created granular clouds of digital haze over the course of their hour-long set, their generated sounds & images blending together as a singular, vexing cyborg organism. Visually, it recalled digital topography maps, writhing & breathing in sync with the sounds like a living organism. It was like witnessing a synthetic ecosystem behaving intelligently & erratically; flora & fauna as observed from an orbital distance in all its grandiose.
The Resident Advisor-hosted Play 1 event, held on the UQAM campus grounds, was host to a variety of more subtle electronic performances. Hunched over a tabletop strewn with patch cables, drum machines & other sound processing devices, watching Jan Jelinek perform felt akin to observing a master craftsman manipulating the inner mechanisms of an intricate musical clock. His recent Zwischen record uses the sampling of interviews by various twentieth-century cultural figures, including Lady GaGa, John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Slavoj Zizek, as a central compositional tool – the latters’ breaths, grunts, and other sounds between spoken words weaved into a biomorphic voice collage – all of which was replicated seamlessly on stage by Jelinek’s careful knob-twiddling inflections. Rounding off the evening was a special performance by veteran analog dance queen Gudrun Gut, whose playfully-angled mechanical tones recalled the 2018 edition’s performance by Errorsmith. Ugly & pretty, obtuse & stylish, all at once, she won over the audience with captivating energy & great rapport throughout her set.
Friday, August 23 – Drew McDowall & Florence To’s collaborative performance of Coil’s classic piece Time Machines was a slowly unwinding spectacle that reached gargantuan proportions by its conclusion. Using an arrangement of synthesizers, McDowall’s slow & steady sonic ascent was matched in cumulative intensity by To’s gradually expanding visual graphics, which morphed from simplistic lines to endlessly sprawling fields of oscillating lines throughout the duo’s set. The performance successfully translated the mystic psychedelic energy of the original 1998 recording to the stage at MUTEK Montréal.
rkss’ memorable debut at Motion 2 was another highlight of Friday night, their post-ironic, millennial nihilist energy likely angering ‘heads’ present in the audience, while other patrons absolutely got down to the humorous Y2K-angst-meets-grating-industrial-noise collage that characterized their set. With desecrated versions of Venga Boys and other early-00s pop anthems as the centrepiece, rkss’ set was a pleasant response to any and all seriousness and/or pretentious intentions at MUTEK 2019 – a colourful reminder not to take anything too seriously.
Saturday, August 24 – The razor-sharp, abstract machine music of Rashad Becker and Ena took centre stage at Motion 2, a seamlessly-writhing sonic ecosystem of homemade sounds engineered to affective perfection. At times invoking endless swarms of buzzing metallic insects from an Arthur C. Clarke novel, at others recalling the stylings of Bali gamelan music, Becker & Ena’s collaborative sound-world was an exciting, extra-planetary invocation of assumed musical conventions.
Hi-tech club beats delivered with Mortal Kombat-esque momentum at a steady 160 beats-per-minute are the name of the game for Jerrilyn Patton, a.k.a. Jlin. The Gary, Indiana footwork progenitor’s set at MTELUS was a frenetic blend of pulsating, angular & driving bass rhythms that drew influence from a plethora of contemporary hard-hitting dance music – the big-room synth & drum sound design of Eprom or Joker, delivered with the polyrhythmic finesse of her formative Chicago influences (Jlin was mentored by juke/footwork stalwarts RP Boo, DJ Roc & DJ Diamond early in her beat-making days) – pleasing IDM nerds & tech-ravers alike. Amid a crowded evening of techno & house performers, Jlin’s set stood out as a forward-thinking & imaginative approach to dance music.
Sunday August 25 – An extremely physical performance by saxophonist Bendik Giske that went above & beyond their chosen instrument’s intended functionality rounded off Sunday’s finale. Giske’s performance demanded the attention of the room, fusing an extremely technical, odd-metered saxophone performance with the natural rhythms of the human body. Layered with an array of contact microphones on their instrument & body, Giske created auxiliary rhythmic & melodic layers around their saxophone playing through various non-musical actions – breathing, tapping the saxophone, the removal of articles of clothing – all captured as incidental musical elements in what was a truly bionic electronic performance; a unique & memorable conclusion to a magical week of sound & vision.
*live notes & photo curation by Alexandra DumaisMontreal, MUTEK