Vol. 30 Issue 1 Reviews

Sónar 2005: Advanced Music and Multimedia Art

Barcelona, Spain, 16-18 June 2005.

Reviewed by Joyce Shintani
Stuttgart, Germany

In the gamut of European multimedia festivals from Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria to Transmediale in Berlin, Germany, Barcelona’s Sónar is the most resolutely dedicated to music and is also the largest. In 2005, the 12th annual International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art took place 16-18 June and welcomed 90,000 visitors from 40 countries and some 800 accredited journalists. The difficulty of writing about the three-day marathon of sun, electronic music, and (chemically-induced) good vibes that is Sónar is notorious, and one of the reasons is the sheer abundance and crossover diversity that Sónar presents.

From its inception in 1994, Sónar has provided a space for artists, professionals, and the public to meet and exchange points of view. Wikipedia makes a distinction between “electronic music” and “electronic art music” (“Electronic music is a loose term for music created using electronic equipment.” “Electronic ‘art’ music is a regrettably vague term for the formal and primarily academic branch of electronic music that is focused on extending musical capabilities through technology.”), but Sónar embraces both. The theme this year was a “return to the physical in the expression of live music.” The undisputed “soloists” of earlier Sónars, portable computers, have been replaced by guitars, drums, pianos, and voices. With 300 activities including DJ sets, live sets, visual and multimedia art, conferences and discussion forums, a record fair, an editorial fair, merchandising and hardware expositions, live broadcasts, and archives at individual viewing stations, the festival’s programs embrace the multitude of styles and media in electronic music today. And that is another reason it is difficult to write about Sónar. Under a sensorial attack of Las Vegas-like intensity, at some point the visitor longs for, or is offered, sense-numbing substances, placing high demands on the most scrupulous professional discipline.

The festival is divided into two parts, each with its principal venues: Sónar by Day takes place largely in the CCCB/MACBA complex (Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture and Museum of Contemporary Art) and in the Santa Monica Art Center, while Sónar by Night takes place at the vast convention center, Fira Gran Via, on a hilltop above town. Sónar’s secret to success lies in combining mainstream electronic/hip-hop acts of mass audience appeal with experimental underground electronica and electronic art music. The well-organized festival thus attracts crowds as well as cognoscenti, who all mingle in the sun-drenched festival and enjoy a wide variety of Barcelona’s other attractions: endless tapas bars, beaches, and a considerable off-program, all at reasonable prices.

Sónar by Night is the venue for big names, this year including acts like De La Soul, Ellen Allien, Jamie Lidell, Laurent Garnier, Miss Kittin, and the Chemical Brothers. These events have been amply reviewed by the international press, and I leave commentaries to those specialists and aficionados (one link to a more mainstream review of the festival can be found at www.soundgenerator.com/burner/reviews_live.cfm?reviewid=1077).

Sónar by Day provides spaces for the experimental films, multimedia installations, and exhibits that define Sónar’s artistic identity and that will be the focus of this review. I begin with SonarMàtica, where one finds installations and contemporary art comparable to Germany’s documenta, New York’s Guggenheim or Los Angeles’s MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art); or, as one visitor put it, “similar to the Tate Modern, but more cutting edge.” In their fine exhibit “Randonée (A Walk Through Landscaping in the 21st Century),” curators Óscar Abril Ascaso, José Luis de Vicente, Andy Davies, and Advanced Music made out a return of abstraction to the forefront of contemporary creation after years of pop art. Based on this view, they sought to analyze “the extent to which landscape art is currently surviving in new media.” The exhibits were wide-ranging, with entries lacking only from African and Middle Eastern countries. Considering Spain’s vicinity to the African littoral, selections from these geographical areas, with which a dialogue is so desperately needed, would be an appropriate complement in future. Many of the installations have won prizes at other festivals, for example Thomas Köner’s “Suburbs of the Void” (reported in a review of the Transmediale Festival, Berlin, in Computer Music Journal 29/4). Three works particularly caught my attention for their artistic density and the close relationship between audio and visual elements.

In her award winning film Aspect (2004), Emily Richardson (UK) undertakes a quick-motion filming of a forest over a year. Films of this type are familiar; the technique is often used in nature films or to depict completion at construction sites. Unusual in Ms. Richardson’s film is her successful accommodation of visuals to Benedict Drew’s soundtrack of organic sounds. She closely interweaves images and sound with quiet sensitivity, and the resulting work is captivating with its simple natural beauty and poetic soundscape.

An extreme contrast to Ms. Richardson’s view of nature is Yi Zhou’s OneOfTheseDays (China, 2004), a 3D-animation reconstructing the filmmaker’s dream about a civil war in an undefined futuristic city—equally poetic, but chilling (her Web site is found at www.yi-yo.net). Inspired by the construction and demolition taking place in her native Shanghai, the work is a stylized representation of destruction that has similarities with the gun fight in Matrix (chapter 29, “Freeze!”). Both are held in shades of gray and depict cool, anonymous futuristic architecture. Both utilize slow motion and a breath-taking deployment of scattering fragments from destroyed buildings. But where the Matrix scene is short and embedded in action, Yi-Zhou’s vision of destruction is longer and cooler, and, being removed from narrative, is reduced to its aesthetic elements. The floating, ethereal soundscape underlines the work’s dream quality, eliciting cold shivers of awe.

A final work, Tree by Risc (a.k.a. Christian Riekoff, Germany) succeeds at employing music and visuals in equal, minimal quantities. While maintaining a distant connection to the landscape theme of the exhibit, the work falls into the category of software art. The viewer points to a URL on a wall-projected computer screen and presses Enter. In real time, Tree accesses the source code of the Web site and transforms its syntactic structure into the image of a tree with trunk, branches, and ramifications in subtly shaded geometric forms. At the same time, simple MIDI data is generated (producing, at Sónar, crystalline tones based on high/low frequencies with short/long durations), providing a slightly whimsical accompaniment that is a good correspondence to the simple geometric shapes. It is a fun application that gives a satisfying aesthetic result; you can try it yourself online (www.texone.org/tree; this Web-based version lacks the MIDI output).

Also at the CCCB complex was SónarCinema, an extensive collection of experimental cinema and video clips. Ten viewing sessions, each lasting approximately an hour, showcased works featuring historical as well as current formats of audiovisual creation providing persuasive “testimony to the ever increasing common ground between the image and advanced music."

The first highlight was a selection of short films produced by the Groupe de Recherches des Images (GRI), a collaboration of musicians and filmmakers in the sixties under the auspices of Pierre Schaeffer and the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), that explored new television forms. Most of the 700 shorts were never broadcast and “ended up in the state archive because they were conceptually too radical.” These unique audiovisual experiments feature soundtracks by Iannis Xenakis, Bernard Parmegiani, François Bayle, Ivo Malic, and Pierre Schaeffer, which render audible the historic continuity of beats and scratches from the 1960s to the present.

In another session, Chronopolis by Polish artist Piotr Kampler with music by Luc Ferrari was shown, a concrete experiment screened at the Cannes Festival in 1982. Many of the sessions offered electronic music clips or works by video jockeys in a wide variety of styles and quality. A final highlight, Pimp My Bite, was a compilation of works produced using digital video, 3D-animation, Flash, and machinima (films shot in the virtual reality of a game engine) from the Hamburg Bitfilm Festival (www.bitfilm-festival.org). Many of the films were unmitigated social criticism, but the short Kunstbar (Canada, 2002) by The Petrie Lounge provided first-class comic relief. In this imaginative spoof on high art made in primitive South Park style, different drinks are served at the Art Bar, producing varying results: the Van Gogh cocktail causes an ear to drop off, the Hieronymus Bosch drink is a real torture, and so on (this film can be viewed online at www.whitehouseanimationinc.com/kunstbar.htm).

From the CCCB complex it is a 15-min stroll down the bustling Ramblas, Barcelona’s central walking boulevard, to the Santa Monica Center. There, downstairs in the dark, cool basement, diverse projects and live software acts from around the world were presented, including a bizarre performing robot (www.myrobotfriend.com). Upstairs, in the exhibit space, the installation Messa di voce by Golan Levin and Zach Liebermann with Jaap Blonk and Joan La Barbara (USA) was particularly eye-catching (www.tmema.org/messa). It is an audiovisual system consisting of viewer space with camera tracker, microphones, and wall projection for the sounds, produced by the viewers, which have been transformed in real time into interactive visualizations. Using the mics, the viewer can create, then using hands catch and balance “virtual” bubbles or galaxies of color on the wall projection. This is a sophisticated installation that hints at serious themes of meaning and the effect of speech sounds in a playful and delightful way.

Another part of the festivities, Antiliteratur, the “Art and Literature Festival,” was plagued by wrongly posted times for its sessions and, regrettably, I missed them all. At Sónar, missing some events is unavoidable, but discovery is also part of the experience. My happiest discovery was Phil K (www.philk.dj) at the demonstration of the DVJ-X1 DVD/CD turntable, Pioneer’s answer to the iconic turntable. Familiar DJ techniques—scratches, loops, instant cues, fades—are now possible for one-person simultaneous disc and video jockeying (DVJ), enabling on-the-fly mixing from separate audio and visual sources.

Phil Krokidis, a veteran Melbourne DJ/producer of Greek descent, demonstrated not only the new hardware but also his own considerable talent. An autodidact who, by his own account, as a youth “couldn’t play an instrument but could mix,” Phil has recently worked with the Pioneer Research and Development team to develop the new DVJ-X1. Although he is new to visuals, he says he now “watches movies like he used to listen to records,” and the results show that Phil K not only has huge ears, but also fantastic eyes. He employs video art or simple clips he shoots on his travels, images that conjure up and comment on urban culture (New York street scenes), politics (George Bush, Arab sheiks, and guns), or the role of women (animations). Although the club context calls for high intensity video streams, Phil’s selection and controlled use of a few key images at timed intervals creates meaning within the constant flow of color—a message within the massage. To achieve this he begins, in typical DJ manner, by laying down a visual loop. Under it, layer by layer, he slowly constructs a sound structure, which may also include sampled concrete sounds. At specific points along the way he inserts the images that form his commentary, and the audience follows, rocking. The visual/sound-narrative grows, and when the swell reaches its highpoint, Phil K places the musical climax. No conductor or classic virtuoso could do so with better timing. The crowd cheers and rises to its feet, but Phil K ends the structure and lays down a new loop on the level just reached and takes off again. VDJ and crowd interact, building intensity over a 50-min set, and only with reluctance did they clear the scene for the next act. The formal strength in composition of Phil K’s work is manifest. The figures, spoken words, and clips, both drawn from samples as well as finished works, interplay at various levels and create their own syntax. Phil K’s art is intuitive and touches on deep emotions. Pulsing with an urban energy recalling Jean-Michel Basquiat, he mirrors glimpses of a fragmented society and submits them to the organizing principle of music. His way of making art in the club context is a contribution to the best of what electronica offers today.

Before summing up the Sónar Festival, let us recall some of the elements that make electronica different from other kinds of popular music, beginning with its name. The artists—DJs, vocalists, and instrumentalists—are all working with a powerful generation of electronic instruments that affords them liberty in many areas. Evolving high-quality synthesis and microprocessors continue to generate new media. Equipped with such mobile creative potential, electronica artists have opened up their ears to exploit the new technological possibilities at their disposition. They sample, then "play with"—manipulate, vary, permute—not only the sounds they generate, or buy on a historic record, new CD, or download, but also from the world around them. This great variety of sources brings freshness into their work and the work of VJs. Electronics also allows freedom on the economic side. Own-your-own electronic distribution and small independent labels eliminate certain market constraints. Released from contracts with music majors that dictate shareholder-value productions, and, knowing that their constituency is listening for new sounds, electronica artists are willing to take risks and have thereby created a field with high creative dynamism. And in yet another way electronica artists are open: often without formal music training, DJs are not hampered by ears full of aesthetic expectations or composition rules. Driven only by their curiosity and excitement for the world of technology and sounds, young DJs have trekked through electronic music’s beginnings with John Chowning, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Schaeffer, through jazz and chance and John Cage, and through a maze of rap, dance, and world music styles in the 1980s and 1990s. Moving across boundaries of education, geography, medium, style, genre, or time is as natural for them as breathing; they’re on a collective creative high.

After the sensory glut of three days of Sónar, what trends for the future does the juxtaposition of experimental music with hot acts reveal? The elements listed above combined with the instant global connectedness of the Internet emphasized at festivals like Sónar has led to cross-fertilization and an explosion of creativity, in stark contrast to shrinking classical concerts or the implosion of the music industry. Within the creative burst of electronica, two developments were obvious at Sónar. First, as the organizers have pointed out, there is a return to the physical: electronic music has learned performance. Increasing real-time capacity, women performance artists, and vicinity to the dance floor have firmly established the performing body in electronica. Second, as audiences have grown and software has become more robust, DJs have perfected their improvisatory talents in order to interact with audiences. A tradition that survived in jazz and rap is returning to electronic music: the improvising artist. These trends give DJ-ing electronica a vital, electric quality lost from the museums that concert halls have become. High technological standards, burgeoning creativity, and a lively, growing public—this year at Sónar, electronica cast an appreciative glance at its electronic roots and went raving off in myriad future forms.