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October 19, 2001

++ Report Du Montreal: Sounds Of Gameboy Synth, Dot Matrix Printers, Violence

++ Montreal increasingly emerges as one of North America's most vital centers for art, music and digital media. I'm here as a jurist for the Festival International Nouveau Cinema Nouveau Médias (FCMM). Now in its 30th year, the festival originally provided the launching pad for the experimental music festival MUTEK, and the New Media programming here, curated by MUTEK's Alain Mongeau, offers a wide array of innovative musical performance and multimedia work. What follows are snapshots from the festival in progress.

++ Friday, October 12, 11 p.m. San Francisco's Dimensional Holophonic Sound (DHS) and the Netherlands' Eboman kick off the festival with an audiovisual extravaganza of tortured breakbeats and hyperactive video mixing. DHS interlink their audio samples — rough 'n' tumble breakbeats, old hardcore rave stabs and snippets of movie dialogue — with visuals sampled from Kung Fu movies, car chases and the like. Their controlled chaos is nothing, however, compared to the mayhem of Eboman, who outfits himself with an array of sensory controllers, including a data glove that performs real-time digital signal processing according to his movements.

For Eboman's set, the breaks beat harder, the effects sound like the surface of sound itself is collapsing, and car wrecks and implosions abound. For the grand finale, DHS and Eboman take the stage for a collaborative improv, mixing their respective sample repertoires. As an added bonus, J. Saul Kane (Depth Charge, Octagon Man) has booked a last-minute flight to Montreal and fleshes out the sound (as if the sonic pileup needed fleshing out!) with expert cutting and scratching. Somehow, though, the evening never quite gels — the dancers hold themselves behind an imaginary line, giving the impression of a stadium-style trench between the crowd and the stage. I've been honored with DJ duties for the evening, opening with an hour of noise, dropping brief breakstep sets between performers, and throwing down an extended deep house set from 1:30 to 3 a.m. It's not all it's cracked up to be, though — after dropping the first record of my final set, I look up and see that the room has all but cleared out in the wake of the A/V soundclash, prompting me to wonder if I should re-christen myself DJ Bombscare.

++ Saturday, October 13, 9 p.m. Tonight's the first night of the parallel series at Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montreal (MACM), where more gallery-oriented (some might say more sophisticated) performances take place. There's not always a clear line between the highbrow evening sessions and the lowbrow dance parties — indeed, many artists presenting at MACM later recycle pieces of their work for VJ sets at the late-night Media Lounge. Tonight's an exception, however. Christoph Kummerer's Gameboy Pocketnoise is distinctly underwhelming — he's reconfigured his Gameboy unit to turn it into a rudimentary synthesizer, but most of the sound manipulation — sculpting dense, throbbing drones — is done using the Behringer mixing desk and a delay pedal. As one of my co-jurists whispers to me as soon as the performance ends, "Why a Gameboy?" Exactly.

Montreal duo [The User], however, surpass all expectations with Symphony #2 for Dot Matrix Printers. In front of the audience sit 15 dot matrix printers and 15 monitors. The two members of [The User] cross the stage wearing suits and ties and ceremoniously turn on each monitor. High drama, this. A cascade of ASCII characters begin to tumble down the screens, [The User] retreat, and the symphony begins. It is exactly what it sounds like, a musical composition in which the only "instruments" are printers, mic'd to amplify the whirring of carriages and the banging of type. They've been working on the piece for five years, and it shows: it is meticulously composed, eking every possible tone out of the mechanical devices (they've even prepared their machines in the manner of John Cage, so that pieces of the units bang into the microphones, generating a further range of sound). There are multiple movements, at times invoking Baroque composition, dancefloor techno and even dub reggae.

A few minutes into the 20- or 30-minute composition, three identical screens above the stage flash into life, projecting views from multiple Webcams inserted inside the apparatuses. We are treated to the banging of the machinery, the fluttering of a lone sheet of paper, and the dizzying back-and-forth of a whizzing carriage — providing an oddly empathetic perspective to the plight of these poor, slaving machines, locked as they are into an unwilled, lifelong ballet in which rest is not an option. The piece closes with a back-and forth sawing of the carriages, amplified and run through effects to draw out the hidden harmonics, and it sounds exactly like the finale of a classical symphony, grand and unmistakably brilliant.

++ Saturday, October 13, 11 p.m. San Francisco wunderkind Kid606 plays the heaviest set I've ever heard from him, reveling in an explosion of breakbeats and schizophrenic cultural references. This stuff must go over like gangbusters in Japan; I imagine his frenetic interpolations triggering the same kind of epileptic seizures that the Pokemon cartoon show's helter-skelter strobe effects did a few years back.

The crowd tonight has none of the reserve of Friday, swirling into a dance that can only be described as half-hoedown, half-mosh; every so often I see a full glass of beer fly into the air and rain down upon the surging crowd. A theme is emerging: in contrast to the minimalism that's reigned supreme for so long in experimental electronic music, ass-out maximalism has firmly taken root. Truth be told, the Kid's set is about twice as long as it should be; one can only take so much of Gabba-speed, bombastic blendering of Yello, Le Tigre, the Buggles and (shudder) A-Ha.

The highlight of his set is, without a doubt, his 10-plus minute remix of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," roiling with tech-step breakbeats and enough noise to rouse a machine-shop worker from deep slumber. On the screens above his head (this is a running theme of the festival, an experiment that vacillates between being entertaining, superfluous and flat-out pointless) he highlights the sample trickery he's performing: "Can't copy me" is looped over and over, a subtle stab at Missy's boast, and in an instant it's further transformed into the imperative: "Copy me, copy me, copy me, copy me," over and over for 30 seconds or more. It's by far the most sophisticated, self-conscious move I've ever seen Kid606 pull off. Believe me, the Kid is growing up, and getting trickier with every record.

++ Monday, October 15, 9 p.m. Tonight the seats in the museum are roped off, but the stubborn audience clambers unconcerned over the ropes and awaits the event. Alain Mongeau, introducing the show, gently scolds us with the news that tonight's performance is a quadraphonic experience designed to be physically navigated, and thus chagrined, we climb back over the ropes and assume our shame-shouldered positions in the middle of the floor.

Rotterdam's Edwin van der Heide opens the evening with a thicket of whirrs and clicks, seemingly without structure. At first I'm unmoved, but as I begin to move about the room, I catch on: this is a performance as much about space as it is about sound, and I begin to imagine myself walking through a forest thick with pixelated underbrush.

After van der Heide's judiciously brief solo (one of very few such performances here, it must be said), Sensorband take possession of the room. Sensorband are a trio composed of Atau Tanaka, Zbigniew Karkowski and van der Heide; for tonight's performance Atau is networked from Paris while the latter two are here in Montreal; the collaboration is made possible via the trio's own Net_Osc software, an application they've built in Cycling '74's MAX environment.

Above the performers' heads, the three screens broadcast wave after wave of black and white squares, but the real action is on the screen at the back of the auditorium, where we're able to watch the desktop proceedings, all the virtual sliders and faders and the custom build patches as the performers manipulate them. We're even treated to the trio's Instant Messenger conversation, as Atau struggles to successfully log in to the networked performance. Titters go up from some members of the audience, but I'm delighted: one of the consequences of digital art has been to expand — or indeed, obliterate — the traditional limits of the "frame" of the artwork, and here the IM dialogue becomes an integral part of the process. Many of the self-professed audio geeks in the room keep their eyes trained on that screen for the whole performance, dissecting the trio's every modulation, but for my part, as Sensorband's throbbing bass tones colonize every cubic centimeter of the room, I prefer to close my eyes and walk slowly around the room, feeling myself immersed in a new kind of physical space.

This is without a doubt the music of sound, where cycling rhythms are the product not of drum machines or arpeggios, but the simple collision of oscillating waves. Towards the very end, I can feel the frequencies in every organ of my body, and I lie down upon the vibrating wooden platform, turning my body into a kind of speaker cabinet. This is much better than any vibrating bed ever was; my face undulates, literally, with sound waves, and when the performance ends I can feel the tickling reverberate for minutes.

++ Karkowski closes the night with the most brutal sound performance I've ever witnessed; a co-jurist goes so far as to describe it as "Fascistic." It begins without any indication of the levels it will reach, an absorbing rumble that picks up where Sensorband's three-dimensional sound left off. But Karkowski soon begins working the mid-range, drawing out tones that nestle together in shivering resonances, and little by little they climb higher and higher. He's working according to the specific resonant frequencies of the room, and as a result, the tones seem to emanate from within your own skull; it's impossible to determine where you end and the sound begins. Ultimately, however, it's just too much. An endurance test — you find yourself tensing up to shield yourself from the pounding waves.

A number of people flee the room, and I don't blame them, although I'm determined to stick it out for the duration. The entire room is alive with demon sound: the metal fittings beneath the stage are clanking as if rattled by poltergeists; pieces of the ceiling occasionally come unstuck and plummet into the crowd. Suddenly, there's a God-awful smell, something like an electrical fire (and of course in the post-9/11 world, I can't help but think of Ground Zero, even though I've never been there): one of the subwoofers has literally fried itself. (The soundman, abruptly shutting it down to prevent a fire, is not pleased.)

Finally, I can't take any more, and I clamp my fingers against my ears, sealing them off as best I can. Suddenly everything goes quiet, but as I grow bold and gradually open my ear canals, it becomes deafening again, and I retreat. This is sound as violence; I understand suddenly how sound is used as an instrument of torture. (Karkowski no longer needs arts funding, I think; he can get his grants straight from a department of defense.) I think of Chris Burden, the Los Angeles artist who famously shot himself in the arm as one of his performances; Karkowski, with a manic glint in his eye, seems like he's turned Burden's experiment outward, and we all bear the scars.

When I leave the museum and walk up to the Media Lounge, where a silver-spandex-suited Felix Kubin will grind out a stomping set of Vegas-inspired organ glam — a much-needed burst of levity — I feel vaguely ill to my stomach, a physical side-effect of the sound assault, and I regret having left my ears open as long as I had. Truly, I've experienced the endgame of sound art, and I'm not sure I like what I've seen. The sadist Karkowski walks by a little while later, chatting amiably with a colleague, and I resist the urge to punch him.


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