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Friday, June 27, 2003

++ A Sonar Moment

++ There was a moment, standing in front of the speakers, when it all became clear to me. Embarrassingly, I can't recall now who was playing — it was nighttime, I was surrounded by thousands of people, and the overhead beams, driven by insistent motors, strafed through the crowd like searchlights across the prison yard. (And yet no one was running to escape, this much is certain.) The sound unfurled and hauled us all in, twitching fish caught in a net of bass. I scrambled for my notebook — something I did all too seldom this year, admittedly — and scrawled in a barely legible, subwoofer-shaken hand:

"This is a kind of religion for me."

Every year, it happens like this; the months of planning fall away, quibbles with the programming disappear, the rush of the festival — where do I go next, whom do I see now, who is text-messaging me, how can I possibly meet this publicist and that journalist and see Aphex DJ, and sleep, and eat, all at the same time — mercifully dissolves in a blur of sound waves, and there's nothing left but the music and the surging crowd, and myself at the center of it, certain once more of why I came here.

++ Here, of course, is Sonar, the annual festival of electronic music that every June, for three days, transforms Barcelona into one of the most exciting — and exhausting — places on earth. From its origins in a smallish local club, Sonar has grown into a temporary autonomous zone that for three days occupies the galleries and courtyards of the MACBA (Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art) and CCCB (Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture) and their surroundings. For three nights it turns an even more ample locale — after years as an indoor/outdoor complex alongside the Mediterranean, for three years now Sonar de Noche has taken place in the somewhat antiseptic confines of the Fira Gran Via 2, a hangar-like exposition center located in the distant neighborhood of Montjuic — into an overwhelming spectacle of beats and bodies.

Visitors come from all over the world, and in droves — the sold-out nighttime events this year held 22,000 people, while the daytime installments held from 11,000 to 15,000 — to see a lineup mixing the biggest stars of popular club culture (Carl Cox, Jeff Mills, Underworld) with some of the brightest lights of "advanced music": Tujiko Noriko, Phoenecia, Pita, Jazzkammer, Jamie Lidell, Akufen. Every year, it seems, there are increasing complaints from some critics and festival-goers regarding Sonar's supposed commercialization, and certainly, a disconcerting amount of real estate is given over to corporate logos and demonstrations, from Sony's PlayStation consoles to the Motorola sales booth (staffed, in the Spanish way, by doe-eyed young nubiles) to the Eastpak logos flanking the SonarVillage stage. (That Anticon, relentless DIY practitioners of underground, "backpacker" hip-hop, performed between the two Eastpak banners seems a rather delicious irony.)

But it's hard to criticize the lineup, which this year as in previous installments highlighted plenty of noise, installation art, indie electronica, and experimental techno along with the main-room poundings of Cox and Co. Indeed, even the hierarchy of billings on the posters plastered around town spoke to Sonar's ideological bent, deliberately reshuffling the order to highlight emerging talents, dark horses, and wild cards. Björk and Underworld, certainly two of the festival's biggest bookings coups ever, led off the list, but the next dozen names proved surprising: Matthew Herbert Big Band, Oxide & Neutrino, Soft Pink Truth, Schneider TM, Laurent Garnier, Gilles Peterson, Trevor Jackson, David Grubbs, Richie Hawtin, Carl Cox, DJ Krush, and Aphex Twin — in that order.

++ As always, Sonar included an impressive roundup of installations (Paul Sermon's "Telematic Dreaming," Carsten Nicolai's "Bausatz Noto Infinity"), films (Q-bert's Wave Twisters, Jeff Mills' Metropolis, Dumb Type's Or), and net.art, as well as a special exhibit devoted to Sonar's 10-year history. And as always, I missed this portion of the festival completely, caught up as I was in seeing sets, shopping in the record fair (purchased: Ellen Alien's Berlinette, a warehoused copy of Tresor II: Berlin/Detroit, a Techno Alliance, unavailable for almost a decade, and a vinyl bootleg of the Japanese version of the Ghost Dog soundtrack) and meeting up with friends and colleagues. (Oh, and did I mention drinking clara, the Spanish mixture of beer and lemonade? Breakfast of champions.) A suggestion for the organizers: leave the installations and exhibitions running for a few days before and after the festival, because only the truly intrepid — or those souls drawn to the darkened, air-conditioned pleasures of the cinema — manage to make time for the non-performance side of Sonar.

A truly accurate review of Sonar would have to catalogue not only what I saw, but what I missed, and why, because absence and the limits of endurance are key, if unstated, themes of the festival. (Missed: Epy, because I needed to eat before seeing Björk; Miss Kittin, because I couldn't puncture the wall of bodies lining the entrance to the SonarLab tent; Jazzkammer, because I was at the MUTEK showcase for Akufen; Darshan Jesrani, because I was sucked into Jeff Mills' four-to-the-floor vortex; Ricardo Villalobos, because I was freaking out to the ridiculousness of the Meteorites' live set. By far the most disappointing moment of the festival for me, though, was missing Jamie Lidell's live set, featuring unannounced cameo appearances from Matthew Herbert and Arto Lindsay. That one was my own damn fault: I was tired, I was hot, and a beer on the lawn sounded much nicer than a hot, crowded room. When Naut Humon emerged into the sunlight shaking his head in awe at what he called "the best performance of the whole festival," I knew I'd made a mistake.)

But if the only performance I'd seen had been Thursday night's performance of the Matthew Herbert Big Band — which, presented at 7:30 and 10:00 p.m., replaced the traditional Thursday night extravaganza — my 6,000-mile trip would have been worth it. In the immaculate, acoustically perfect Auditori Nacional, Herbert and his big band (four saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, plus a drummer, a bassist, and Phil Parnell on grand piano) were joined by Dani Siciliano, Jamie Lidell, and Arto Lindsay to recreate the Goodbye Swingtime album live. And what a show it was. Herbert, like Atom Heart in his Señor Coconut guise, is using his Big Band to reinvent the possibilities for live electronic music performance, and where on the album his role consists largely of re-editing tracks recorded in the studio, live he assigned himself the task of real-time sampling (as he does in performances as Radio Boy and with his trio) and manipulating his bandmates on the fly, capturing instrumental strands with strategically placed microphones and morphing them electronically into ghost sounds and mirror images, cyborg jazz at its purest.

The show was far more than a faithful recreation of the record, and it was more even than a technically proficient, emotionally charged recital of Herbert's and his arranger's contemporary reworking of the big band canon. Every song contained a surprise, from Herbert's announcement that Arto Lindsay had flown thousands of miles to join us to Jamie Lidell's strange, impassioned delivery, to Dani Siciliano's reappearance, after an early song delivered in evening dress and heels, barefoot and casually glamorous in black pants and tank top. For one song, to emphasize the political component of the tune (never far off, in Herbert's work), Herbert began by tearing in half a copy of ABC — one of Barcelona's most conservative newspapers — and then, as he set the sample in motion, the members of his band whipped out their own copies and began shredding them, rhythmically and methodically, whenever their own instruments were at rest.

The politics on stage were no less fascinating: while Herbert's arranger held center stage as conductor, Herbert had set up his gear in the front of the stage, to the conductor's left, and whenever Herbert had a pause in his own part, he would face the band, dancing as only a born conductor would dance, hands bisecting the air in front of him, saluting but also imploring his band — to play deeper, tighter, more soulfully. (He needn't have worried; they hardly could have been better, especially in the echo-free interior of the Auditori.)

Toward the end of the second set, Herbert leaned into the microphone to tell the audience, "If you've got a camera with you, feel free to follow along with this next song — if you can do it in time." Given that cameras were expressly prohibited from the event (and nevertheless in ample supply), Herbert's invitation was a playfully anarchistic snub at the Powers that Be, but what followed was far more powerful. As the lights dimmed and the saxophone section held up four cameras and triggered the shutters in quick succession, the hall exploded in a barrage of flash bulbs. For the remaining five or six minutes of the song, the auditorium's interior felt more like a disco or a rave, as light erupted from every corner of the audience. Later even Herbert, visibly moved, expressed surprise at the impromptu display of audience participation.

The band played not only most of the songs from Goodbye Swingtime but also the accordion-led "Café de Flore," one of Herbert's sweetest tunes as Doctor Rockit, as well as a big-band arrangement of "Foreign Bodies," as an encore, that had the entire audience dancing in its seats. Finally, after a second standing ovation that shook the room, Herbert reappeared to thank us, explain that they were out of material and energy both, and humbly leave the stage.

++ The rest of the festival, as ever, is something of a blur, but the highlights nevertheless cut through the haze. Björk's set, complete with string section, Zeena Parkins on harp, and Matmos on electronics, powerfully rendered songs old and new alike to a backdrop of skyrocketing pyrotechnics, although for the majority of the crowd, stranded far from the stage in the massive SonarClub venue, the only spectacle was to be found in the overhead video displays of the stage show.

The same night, I found Richie Hawtin backstage, frantically transferring files on his PowerBook; the airline, it turned out, had lost his luggage, including all his records and his Final Scratch hardware, and he was porting all his audio files into a beta upgrade of the software for which he had a spare hardware adapter. Not two hours later, his set — in front of some 10,000 people — seemed particularly intense, caught somewhere between his typically storming main-room sessions and the deeply introverted bass-and-filters workout he'd presented at MUTEK. An extraordinarily confident DJ, Hawtin has learned to ride a mix to the point of implosion, allowing polyrhythms to cycle to the rickety edge of synchronization before determinedly re-declaring the principal beat. Later I learned that his set had been fraught with an added tension: after all the preparatory drama, his computer had crashed right before he took the stage, and he was forced to play only with records that fans and colleagues had presented him here in Barcelona (coupled with his usual array of effects and 909). Realizing this, I'm even more struck by Hawtin's confidence as a performer; I can't think of many other DJs that would have the guts to take the stage with a bag full of virgin vinyl.

Akufen was also beset by technical difficulties; his laptops crashed two-thirds into his set, but not before he roused the crowd with a deeply percussive spray of microsampling and slippery funk. After 10 minutes of aching silence, MUTEK DJ Vince Lemieux rescued the flagging tent with a trademark set of minimal techno and microhouse, opening with Ricardo Villalobos' sublime track "Easy Lee" (forthcoming from Playhouse this fall) and filing fine-boned rhythms into stark relief against a backdrop of airy emptiness. Tim Hecker and Deadbeat led the afternoon to an easy close, first with sanded ambiance and then deep, ricocheting dub that seemed just what was needed after three straight days of nonstop beats under the hotter-than-usual Barcelona sun.

Reprising his appearance at MUTEK last week, T. Raumschmiere performed an even more aggravated set in front of thousands at the nighttime open-air venue, clambering upon his gear and bashing at his MidiMan controller as he churned out punky Cologne chug and even, as a closer, five minutes of punishing drum and bass. On my way out of the complex, I stumbled into So Solid Crew's Oxide & Neutrino, which proved a welcome surprise. I'd dismissed Sonar's booking as too-little-too-late; after all, this was the first time the festival has incorporated UK garage, and Oxide & Neutrino seemed sadly second-rate choices next to current up-and-comers like Ms Dynamite, Sticky, Wiley, and Dizzee Rascal. But the two MCs and their two DJs put on a good show, alternating between toasting over others' tracks (DJ Zinc's "Whoa" stands out in my memory) and rapping their own hits, although "They Don't Know" seemed strangely flat, minus the rest of the crew's vocalists. But with 10 minutes to go, just as the set promised to explode, one of the duo announced to the crowd, "We've got 10 minutes left!" If it was intended to goad the crowd into an adulatory climax, it had the opposite effect; watching the clock as they were, the MCs increasingly lost steam, their toasting and big-ups sounding more and more like filler, and by the time the last beat dropped, it was a relief to be done with them.

The final night's lineup was strangely anticlimactic, especially in a year where the number of nighttime mega-expositions had been reduced to two. The main room was, as ever, a testament to the strength of mainstream techno for Spanish crowds: after Underworld came Jeff Mills (who sounded great, I must admit), Scan X, and Carl Cox. SonarPark promised DJ Hell, but I knew I'd see him the next night at Gigolo's annual afterparty at Moog. The outdoor SonarPub offered Kosmos and Gilles Peterson, but they played long before I ever made my way out to Montjuic — and in any case seemed too lounge-oriented to excite me in such a cavernous space. But Metro Area's Darshan Jesrani brought up the crowd with a set of mutant disco, priming them for the utter perversity of Drew Daniel's Soft Pink Truth project. It was hard to believe that my friends and I had presented him in front of a crowd of 100 people in San Francisco only a few months earlier; now, he stood in front of 5,000 or 7,000 people, pounding out perverse funk while video clips of gay pornography — excised of all the pornographic parts — looped on giant screens overhead. For his final track, he took up a plastic battle-axe and roared over a track of cut-up black metal as the crowd raised devils' horns in the air and screamed its approval.

Despite the full moon, the last hours of the night remained strangely calm, at least by Spanish standards; stranger still was the failure of the sun to break through the fog, and Laurent Garnier led his audience into a dulled grey morning that almost hesitated to announce its presence. Still, Garnier prevailed in keeping dancers moving until well past daylight, peaking with "The Man With the Red Face" and closing his set with a surprise appearance from Bugge Wesseltoft on keyboards. After a few minutes of silence, one of Sonar's organizers coaxed the soundman into an encore, and the dance floor inflamed itself once more, briefly, before the thousands of exhausted revelers finally filed out of the hall, leaving it as silent and littered as a vacant battlefield, strewn with trampled water bottles, plastic beer cups, and cigarette butts. The streets back in Barcelona were already alive with workers, tourists, gruff cabbies, motorbikes, pickpockets, elderly strollers, and the like; over at MACBA, they were already disassembling the stages and rolling up the artificial grass. For the temporary autonomous zone of Sonar, time was up. As thousands of revelers went to bed, missed flights, or stumbled off in search of one last beer, it began to rain for the first time in God knows how long, as though the city were taking the shower that we all so desperately needed.


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