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June 21, 2002

++ Sónar Overwhelms

You'd think I would've known that by now. After all, it was my third visit to the Sónar festival, the three-day extravaganza that since 1994 has drawn increasing crowds to Barcelona to hear the finest in electronic music, from the austere to the ebullient. But by late in the afternoon of the first day, I was already berating myself for having missed sets from Andy Votel, Bonobo, Argentina's Frágil Discos, Mego noisemakers Gcttcatt, and one of my favorite sound artists, Janek Schaefer, whose recent set at MUTEK was a model for what a high-density, veiled-intensity sound performance should do. But what could you do about it?

A quick trip to the Féria Discogrofía — the record fair where dozens of labels and publications had set up booths offering hard-to-find goods for sale — had turned into a series of extended conversations with representatives of Staubgold, WMF, and Koehn. And a quick dip into the crates at the Neuton booth had my bag suddenly sagging with singles from Perlon, Klang, and Playhouse — not to mention the Blaze T-shirt I'd been looking for ever since Jan Jelinek sported one at his Beta Lounge set two years ago.

Stopping for a beer (somehow you can drink from noon to dusk at Sónar and never get drunk. Perhaps it's the heat? Whatever the case, I'm not complaining) on the Astroturfed main green, I'd run into an army of acquaintances: label reps from London, DJs from Germany, friends-of-friends from New York. And then there was the simple gawking. Barcelona is one of the most stylish cities in the world, from the laughably Wallpapered to the impressively disheveled (sometimes at the same time); Sónar, like some kind of style lens, focuses all this energy into a potent, glaring beam that cuts straight to your aesthetic center. The women in their asymmetrical mullets and rock-star sunglasses, the men in their muscle shirts and slouchy short pants — only the staunchest anti-fashionista could fail to be moved by the spectacle, if only for its sociological interest. (That's what I told myself when my gaze lingered too long on some heartbreakingly haughty Catalan, anyway: It's only research.)

I finally escaped the rush, that first afternoon, and darted off to the SónarDome — one of six daytime venues, and a new addition since last year — to catch AGF's set for the Orthlorng Musork showcase. It was classic Antye, all static and cool croon, with icy lights spangling the black tent behind her. I ran back to the lawn to grab my camera, and by the time I'd made it back through the swell of people, Antye was demurely closing the lid on her laptop. Stefan Mathieu kicked into a blissful set of shimmering drones, but the photo-op was over, and Janek Schaefer and I retreated to one of Sónar's innumerable shaded patios to talk turntables while Mathieu's wavering harmonics hovered in the air like heat waves.

++ Sónar is a catalogue of distractions. There are infinite experiences of the festival to be had, and your own trajectory is subject to the subtlest whims. This, in itself, is one of the festival's great pleasures. My first year I rigorously mapped out my path from stage to stage, trying in vain to maximize my coverage, but by this year I'd learned to give myself up to the flow. As a result, I discovered artists I never would have heard of, like Cologne three-piece Coloma, who crafted the sweetest combination of Bronski Beat, Black Celebration-era Depeche Mode and delicate minimal techno, their singer a sunnier version of Ian Curtis. Another chance discovery was a DJ named Miles from Baked Goods Distribution, who set the SónarLab — the lawnchair-filled chillout tent — alight with a surprisingly deft set that moved from classic intelligent techno to stomping, garage-inflected dance tracks, raising the crowd from their recliners in the process. His set was a reminder that while artists tend to take top billing, DJs often prove the highlights of a festival, simply by virtue of their ability to tap into the audience's mood and transform it into a kind of collective euphoria.

Euphoric moments abounded. Highlights? Doctor L's closing set in the outdoor SónarVillage on Saturday, fusing dubwise effects with arcs of acoustic guitar and overdriven R&B growling. Wobbly's cut-'n'-paste of ragga, hardcore and techno, confusing the overflow crowd in the unlikely space of the underground SónarHall. Antipop Consortium's absolute ownership of the hangar-like SónarPark, M. Sayyid inciting the crowd with chants of "Barcelona!" Radio Boy's energetic deconstruction of global capitalism on the same stage, despite sampler failures early in his set, as his partner Dani Siciliano tumbled out into the crowd to bestow free CDs upon all. Brooks' DJ set of soulful house bookending the abominable stadium spectacle that was the Pet Shop Boys — if only he'd played a dark basement party, with no glam grandstanding interrupting him, it would've been perfect. And Mr. Scruff's ecstatic mashup of funk and soul on the final night, which had the crowd kicking their heels like it was a hoedown.

Consider those provisional highlights — who knows what miracles were occurring on the stages I couldn't make. (Let there be no mistake, there were lowlights: the Pet Shop Boys post-cryogenic fiasco was by far the worst, but some eagerly anticipated acts fell surprisingly flat. I was unmoved by Cinematic Orchestra's outdoor performance, and Arto Lindsay's cool Brasiliana suffered from murky acoustics. The greatest affront, though, was not to the audience but to an artist: Safety Scissors' laptop disappeared from backstage only minutes before his performance — a stupid, cowardly act by one individual and an enormous letdown for us all.)

++ Perhaps what's so surprising about that last occurrence is how isolated it was. Sónar, for the size and intensity of its crowds, is almost shockingly peaceful. In three years there I've seen not a single violent outburst — try pulling that off with a crowd of 30-odd thousand people in the United States — and very few drug casualties. Indeed, when an off-his-head Brit jumped on stage to serenade a bemused Doctor L, the security guards kept a close watch, but kept their distance, and the twit eventually clambered back down without incident. In the U.S., he would have been missing teeth within minutes.

That's part of the laissez-faire quality that defines Sónar. The Wire's Ben Borthwick pointed out that while most UK festivals are set out in the country, amid tents and mud, as if in some attempt to recapture a prelapsarian pastoral essence, Sónar creates a temporary autonomous zone within the urban center itself, a space of aesthetic and social experimentation behind the barricades. Make no mistake, Sónar isn't without its decadence. For a hint of it, look no further than this year's theme/mascot/spokesmodel, Diego Armando Maradona. On the one hand, the once-great Argentine soccer star makes for the perfect synergy with the World Cup, whose energy ran like an insistent techno hi-hat through the three days of the festival — Brits stumbling into the afternoon bleary-eyed after catching early-morning matches down the pub, and firecrackers tearing through the city as Spain bested Ireland.

But Maradona's cocaine-fueled exuberances — which led him to be banned from entering Japan on multiple occasions — certainly give a nudge and a wink to club culture's hedonism, and to the role of controlled substances in creative communities. Like it or not, drugs are a part of dance music (as they have been for rock, hip-hop, country, and every other popular music form), and the dawn often illuminated a slightly messy scene of clench-jawed ravers floating wide-eyed down the exit ramp. But the prevalence of hash was also a testament to a more benign picture of recreational substances. Hash is ubiquitous in Barcelona, smoked in cafés, on beaches, and in the street. It was impossible, coming from the United States — where the war on drugs has proved to be, in many analysts' assessments — fruitless and counterproductive -- not to be impressed with a social democratic model that placed more emphasis on personal responsibility, less on state policing.

++ More than anything, Sónar is a rhythm. Indeed, at times, it's a victim of its own flow — I'm convinced that at any given time, there are as many people milling between stages, caught up in the sweep of the crowd, as there are at any single venue. At times the human tide contributes to a sense that the music itself is peripheral, interchangeable, that the spectacle is in the mass itself. The traffic jams and bottlenecks can make getting into must-see gigs, like François K's set in the SónarLab, almost impossible, a struggle of elbows and shoulders, lost flip-flops and spilled beers. But without rhythm, no music, and so without the rhythm of the crowd, no Sónar.

After three years, I've learned to gauge my own private arc. The first day brings the mad, headlong rush of reunions and anticipated sets. The second day my defenses go up and, in striving to resist the pull of the crowd, I sink to the bottom, annoyed and fretful. The third day I give myself up to the ego-less, center-less flux of bodies and space, footfalls and beats. And by the time the sun rises on Sunday morning, I emerge from the swirling, charged with a nameless current that remains in my system, quietly circulating until the following year, when it's time to plug in all over again.


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