More or less is more

It was an utter coincidence that had me going to the BEMF, Brussels Electronic Music Festival. At the forgettable museum night a couple of weeks back, I happened to notice the poster for the event featuring names like Alva Noto, Pole, Jan Jelinek and Byetone. Of those, Pole was the most familiar and I decided that I would go check it out. To lessen the Brussels overdose I only went on saturday and sunday, which turned out a good desicion. On friday the crowd was a nicely half-and-half blend of club people and the expected Guys Who Go On their Own to Gigs; on sunday, the former cathegory was all but absent.

The event on friday started out with an interesting set by Etienne Jaumet. The guy looked like he could be DJ Tixa’s cousin (those of you who know what I mean, know what it means) and made sounds of an original take on futuristic synth drones and kraut rythms, with analogue synthesizers and a heavily distorted sax. Space psychedelia, more or less.

The following act was the no less epic french group Principles of Geometry, in fact, that is probably the description they strive for.  The setup was rather unusual with synthesizers, laptop and drumset but resulted in a steady wall of sound, somewhat reminiscent of m83. Looking at the video clips, Boards of Canada is a more obvious point of reference, but this wasn’t apparent live. Anyhow, I was rather impressed.

These were both suprising extras, illustrating the point of going to festival-type events more than well, but then followed Jan Jelinek. I have to confess to not being especially familiar with his work, for me he’s is one of those Sort of Important Artists that You Know Exist. The man was playing in this odd, well-lighted lobby in the BOZAR arts center, perched up on a balcony. The crowd was standing, looking up, in a rather cramped space, with a slanting floor, to boot. The audience eventually succumbed to Jelinek’s massive sub-bass sounds and gave up the awkward standing for sitting on the floor. It was a powerful experience, but the details of the music are hard to recall.

Jelinek was followed by ~scape labelmate Stefan Betke, alias Pole, on the balcony, a guy who looks like a pudgy plainclothes Elvis impersonator (and whom I later saw in the bathroom; maybe there was no backstage?). He is responsible for Steingarten (the picture with the castle!), one of my favourite albums, and much of his show’s material was from that LP, albeit modified for the live setting. The set started out with slower, more textural tracks but eventually he whipped up the pace, getting the audience to abandon their seated positions for some rythmical erratic movement and nerdy fidgeting. Both Jelinek and Pole would have benefitted greatly from a nicer space though, and some backing visuals wouldn’t have hurt, either.

The rest of the evening was then a mash of more indistinguishable artists and sounds, but continuing in a minimal infrabass vein over to, in my opinion, fun but rather forgettable minimal house by DJ Tiefschwartz. Nicely, the event continued until morning the following day which made it possible to catch a morning train back home to Antwerp.

* * *

As a musical interlude on saturday, I went and saw Slagsmålsklubben from Sweden at Petrol here in Antwerp. They served a hefty dollop of good-natured swedish blipblop madness, with five guys playing different flavours of synths and keyboards on stage. Phonetic approximation of swedish accent: “Yu sii, wi haf thiis thrii teybels, so thaet yuu kaen sii thaet wii’re aecshually duing somfing!” As a nice touch, all the band members had written their names on their shirts. It is hard not to like a band with album titles like “Sagan om Konungens Årsinkomst” (a pun on the swedish name for Tolkien’s Return of The King) and “Boss for Leader” and songs called “Spring för livet, gottegris” (Run for your life, sweet-tooth) and “Grovhuggen Kepsgubbe” (Rough-hewn Baseball-cap Guy). Trust me, it’s funnier in swedish.

* * *

I was not prepared for the experience of sunday’s raster-noton showcase. I knew alva noto and Byetone, but to confess my ignorance I didn’t know how ambitious these artists are with regards to their visuals. After the annoyance of waiting more than an hour due to some technical difficulties, Carsten Nicolai, aka. alva noto, finally opened the programme with a show for a full Henry Le Bœuf Hall; now thankfully no slanted floor in the lobby but the real thing.

His set consisted of the album xerrox II played live (above; the picture is from some earlier event, not by me), accompanied with visuals which were essentially a field of white particles on black, more particles being added every frame with the old ones fading out. The swirling noise patterns were generated in pace with the music from the same algorithms. The intention of the work is to create emergent imagery from semi-structured noise, and this was very much the effect. If you ever have the possibility to see alva noto live, I warmly recommend that you do not squander the opportunity.

This video is not of xerrox, and the quality doesn’t do full justice to the work, but it serves to give an idea of Nicolai’s work with visualisations.

Here is a link to the raster-noton group radio on last.fm.

Alva noto’s abstract, flowing mass of silvery structured electric noise was followed by Frank Bretschneider’s exceedingly geometric set “Rythm”, also accompanied by visuals in exact pace with the sound. Bretschneider’s work uses more common themes of electronic music than that of Carsten Nicolai, but the show was none the lesser for that. Below is an amateurishly filmed excerpt of a similar performance at some earlier event:

The last show in the hall was by COH, featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle fame (that band is and it’s members form a deep mine of weirdness to spend some hours browsing through on Wikipedia, by the way). COH was layering abstract electronics, while Cosey was playing voice loops, mostly of swearing and shouts. The resulting clash indeed carried traces of early industrial music, perhaps especially Cabaret Voltaire. On the visuals they however lost out to the preceding acts, as the screen only showed Ken Burnsed closeups of (presumably) Cosey’s face in different colors.

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The evening was capped by Olaf Bender, aka. Byetone who turned out to be something of the party animal of the raster-noton stable. His “Death of a Typographer” was transformed to a danceable noisefest, and he was excitably pushing the volume so high that a stage manager came to turn the knobs back down. He wouldn’t have it and whipped out some speaker-killing spikes a while later, whereupon the stage manager guy promptly unplugged him for a few seconds. “Behave yourself, or the gig stops here!” Boring and hilarious at the same time. Byetone also had clever backing visuals, whose central theme was a counter counting the beat cycles in large Futura numbers. The effect was massively hypnotic, with the added expectation on how high the numbers would reach. They eventually got to something like 1080.

Here’s an excerpt, mostly of the track “Plastic Star”. Again, the visual and audio quality is what you expect from YouTube.

The visuals of the raster-noton artists are the most ambitious combining of music and image that I am aware of. Some of the works even employ feedbacks between the visuals and the music, so that the imagery affects the sounds directly. In the context of generative art this stuff is rather cutting-edge. Additionally, Carsten Nicolai does works in a wider art context. His website carstennicolai.com repays careful study, as Edward Tufte might put it.

“telefunken anti” by Carsten Nicolai.

Adding to the  awesomness of the evening was that I’d found some friends, Jap and Hans, students of sound design, by sporting a self-made poster that said I was missing a ride to Antwerpen. After the Byetone show we had some beers at a hostel in Brussels, and then it was by car to Antwerp. I got to sit on some blankets in the back of the two-seater car that had a mysterious connection between the motor and the radio, so that you could hear the revving on certain frequencies. I had a good time – it is not often that you meet people who know about and like bands like Alog, for instance!

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2 Comments

  1. Lasse
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 15:43 | Permalink

    Kul tur! var SMK bra live, på skivan rockar de fett.

  2. jhilden
    Posted April 1, 2009 at 16:23 | Permalink

    SMK rockade för hela slanten live. De sprang runt sina bord med olika syntar som bara attan!


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