Vol. 34 Issue 3 Reviews

Sónar in 2009: 16th Barcelona International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art

Barcelona, Spain, 18-20 June 2009.

Reviewed by Joyce Shintani and Metin Kara
Karlsruhe, Germany; Stuttgart, Germany

The 16th edition of Barcelona’s Sónar Festival took place from 18-20 June 2009. The youthful and exuberant festival with its sprawling and exciting diversity of “advanced music and multimedia art” was marked this year, like so many other festivals, by the effects of the global recession. A twenty percent loss of sponsoring resulted in fewer foreign artists and certain other restrictions. In spite of this, some of the new, more economical events were among the most entertaining and promising on the playbill; and with a total number of visitors around 75,000, Sónar 2009 stayed pretty much on a par with previous years (information and quotes in this review are from an interview with indefatigable international press coordinator, Georgia Taglietti, as well as from program notes and press releases).

As in the past, the festival was divided into Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night (for details on the festival’s organization and history, see muse.jhu.edu/journals/computer_music_journal/summary/v030/30.1shintani.html). Sónar by Day had to forfeit several venues and events: there was no co-exhibit at the Santa Monica Art Center; to the dismay of video fans the rich international and historic SónarCinema was reduced to the screening of a single work, the 2009 “Sónar image,” which played to an empty auditorium—a quirky video, to put it kindly (viewable at 2009.sonar.es/en/imatge-2009.php); and in vain readings, literature, or “antiliterature” were to be sought this year. Moreover, the SonarMàtica exhibit “Mecànics,” a DIY exhibition of musical instruments created using robotics and other technology, did not benefit from the customary meticulous curating, with many works not functioning or lacking personnel to inform visitors. And online availability also occasioned festival casualties that aficionados will miss: no more catalogs (too expensive), and no more CD compilations—ripped-and-burned to death, replaced by SonarRadio (2009.sonar.es/en/sonar-radio.php).

But in the place of these shortfalls the festival, well-organized as ever, offered some excellent new media art venues, drawing on Barcelona’s thriving multimedia music and art ambiente. A smoothly functioning, punctual, capacity bus with expert guide Antonia Folguera shuttled visitors to the new venues. On the top of our list was the Hangar, a center for artistic production and research founded by the Catalan Association of Visual Artists (AAVC) in 1997, housed in a restored industrial building. Its 1800 m² offers space for fifteen individual workshops, a media lab, two sets, equipment hire service, technicians, and production advice. Hangar also organizes workshops for training artists (the Arduino workshop coordinated by Alex Posada impressed us), runs an international exchange program, and provides production grants.

Also at the top of our list was the visit to Niu, a nearby multimedia art gallery. It produces, exhibits, and disseminates contemporary audiovisual art, multimedia design, digital art, and independent electronic music. The focus is on “audio and visual” culture arising from the emergence of digital technology in art, design, and communication. Activities include exhibitions (bravo to Julio Lucio for his perfectly functioning “SoundWalk”), services for artists, artists agency, training courses, and an online radio station.

The final new venue was the planetarium in the recently expanded CosmoCaixa Science Museum. The museum, which opened in 2005, has been heralded as the finest science museum in Europe with 50,000 m² of exhibition space. In its planetarium, the team of Evelina Domnitch, Dimitry Gelfand, and Francisco López presented their work “Ten Thousand Peacock Feathers in Foaming Acid C/Isaac Newton, 26,” curated by Arnau Horta. The work was praised as a “unique synaesthetic show, halfway between experimental cinema, VJing, musical performance, and real time science demonstration,” in which the artists “use laser beams to scan and project the surface of the soap film they produce by combining a variety of chemicals in real time. The image that surrounds the viewer recalls the activity and the dynamics of living cells (or, as the title indicates, the complex shapes and colors of peacock feathers).” While the presentation itself was less striking than the advertised text, the venue is inspiring, and future presentations there will have plenty of room for reaching new heights.

Sónar by Day, with its four non-stop concert stages grouped in and around the CCCB/MACBA complex (Barcelona Center for Contemporary Culture and Museum of Contemporary Art), really brought it home. As every year, there seems to be something for every taste in popular electronica. Some works emphasize more visual aspects, others solely musical. Some employ live musicians, others solely recorded sounds. Minimalist concerts ranged from cool to poetically evocative, such as Ben Frost’s excellent “post-minimal” set (E-guitar + audio/visuals), in which he constructed immense arches of sound, of dimensions evoking natural phenomena like icebergs. We saw something above water and sensed a gigantic gestalt beneath. With his huge auditive shapes, Mr. Frost succeeded at communicating great inchoate feelings to the audience (parts of his set with further links are viewable at www.ethermachines.com/?m=200906). Other concerts hit levels of sensory saturation sufficient to trigger epileptic fits. The palette of artists ranged from Old School to new talents. We were particularly stirred by the polished sets of “old masters” Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad and Jeff Mills (Mr. Shocklee has a great calendar of pertinent up-coming events on his Web site www.shocklee.com/).

The day set of Jeff Mills, one of Detroit Techno’s greatest founding impulses, met all the criteria of a concert in the “Master Artist” category. His ability to use a short breakbeat, a snippet of text, or a fleeting two seconds of a piece to form a chain of mental association displayed the talent of a musical storyteller par excellence. Flashing eyes, furrowed brow, Mr. Mills at four turntables and a Pioneer mixer lays down a beat loop and seamlessly, perfectly, lays track after track on top of it. He lets the texts create his narrative. Vinyl is flashing, but scratching is at a minimum—a rare spice used as an accent. After four minutes, a second beat rhythm is laid down with the first rap text on top. He adds a woofer bass note with scratches on top that almost drown out the loop and the rap track. The beats flow out over a sea of smiling faces with closed eyes in the glaring, smoky sun. As the tracks become shorter, Mr. Mills’ concentration sharpens, with never a glitch in beat transitions. One track seems to arise naturally from the previous one, each new one eliciting acknowledging applause. The music is never too loud, texts remain comprehensible, and in the speed and precision of their associative power the artist continues his narrative, not afraid of a G.P. for emphasis. A pastiche in the best sense of the word, the entirety works on musical quotation, re-contextualizing the “texts of old” for our ears new today. Fine features and filigree fingers, deftly, precisely, and himself silent (only the whisper of a smile after 50 minutes), Mr. Mills finds and cues up the next breakbeat. With imperturbable concentration he builds the beats per minute, signaling the impending highpoint: after 60 minutes, he’s at 144 BPM, then falls back to 115 and lays down a virtuoso scratch episode. A connoisseur’s set. In the second hour, the tracks hovering around 120 BPM are longer, more danceable and mellow. Mr. Mills continually respects phrase structure and thereby creates a matrix of context into which he places his musical comments. The crowd hears it and feels it and becomes a whole, multi-piece, pulsating, human mosaic. Two times he smiles now, high bones above his hollow cheeks. No bling, clad in classic, serious black, with only a watch and simple wedding band next to the silver glint of his ear phones. Three more smiles, more hiatus, beats per minute rise again from 102 to 144. The set is over. We smile now.

While no particularly striking artistic trends or aesthetic tendencies were discernable in Sónar by Day, the acts in general seemed polished, professional. Compared to Sónar by Night, the day venues are quieter and more intimate, a fact that artists realize and take advantage of. In a day set, an artist can more carefully craft the message and is able to enter into a dialog with the audience, as in a club atmosphere.

By contrast, Sónar by Night is a cavernous venue in the vast convention center, Fira Gran Via, some miles from the central downtown venue. It, too, benefited from improved transportation possibilities, although unfortunately, it also suffered from some major technical problems. The first of two evenings was kicked off by Grace Jones—singer, performer, ex-model, Andy Warhol muse, and gay cult star. Her act featured fabulous science fiction costumes with spacey head gear and vertiginous high-heel strutting. In “Slave to the Rhythm” with its refrain, “Keep it up,” Ms. Jones sang and hula-hooped in her tight black corset with beautifully pulsating glutei maximi (at age 61) for a full five minutes. Yes, she kept it up. Admittedly, at her age this is a remarkable display, but nonetheless something of a letdown for neophytes accustomed to harder fare. This did not seem to disturb her coterie of devotees who were delighted in spite of the extremely tardy start of her set (you may see this number by searching for “Grace Jones Sónar 2009” on YouTube).

À propos of youth accustomed to harder fare: The drug situation at Sónar by Night seemed to go overboard, leading to some unpleasant excesses (Spain, like The Netherlands, has a very tolerant drug policy). It does makes a difference in the character of an audience whether one is offered a substance by a friendly neighbor, or shoved down by raucous trippers and pushers, and the number of our bruises this year multiplied.

As for an overview of further musical offerings of Sónar by Night, this year there was an emphasis on dubstep music. For those not acquainted with it, dubstep is a genre of electronic dance music rooted in London’s early 2000s UK garage scene, distinguished by a two-step rhythm similar to garage and grime with emphasis on bass and dark sounds. Its value as a metaphor for the dark, overwhelming events of our times is evident in the note I jotted: “Very deep beats beyond our control subsume us. We battle to get a handle on the brutal and unrefined sound in order to survive.” But full disclosure: Our reviewing team consists of the present writer, schooled in conservatory electronic music, and Mr. Kara, an aficionado of rap, black, reggaeton, and open to all sorts of dub. Since neither of us has expertise in the dubstep genre, we refrain from attempting a detailed critique. We will, however, go so far as to remark that both reviewers missed diversity in the acts presented at Sónar by Night in 2009. We also note that our opinions differ widely from other reviewers. We were generally let down by the “big names” on the program—even Jeff Mills’ evening set fell short; our Night favorite was beat-boxer Beardyman, whom some reviewers found unpleasantly exaggerated. We found many of the Night sets adequate, but not exciting, and we were relieved when at evening’s end DJs simply played music that delivered unpretentious dancing fun. And we danced.

The entire music program can be found on the Sónar Web site (2009.sonar.es/pdf/hand_programme.pdf). Detailed descriptions and more photos can be found at the online music magazines RA—Resident Advisor (www.residentadvisor.net/feature.aspx?1068), Clash Music (www.clashmusic.com/live-review/sonar-2009-the-clash-review), and Gigwise (www.gigwise.com/photos/51319/Grace-Jones-Little-Boots-Orbital-@-Sonar-2009).

Sónar is the sum of its parts, and other events more than compensated for any nighttime frustrations. The usual Sónar Professional seemed larger than in past years, possibly due to the continued miniaturization of equipment that makes transportation to a trade fair easier. The concomitant SONAREXTRA exhibit “1980s Hoodlums: In Film, Press, and the Street,” curated by Amanda and Mery Cuesta at the CCCB was a remarkable in-depth exhibit that not only revealed Barcelona’s seldom-seen “gangsta” culture, but also pointed out connections between that culture and other aesthetic trends of the era (these exhibits, all the SonarMàtica works, as well as others, are depicted with further background information at 2009.sonar.es/pdf/SonarMatica2009_en.pdf). And, in 2009 SónarKids had its debut. Designed for children to learn by enjoying music and art, SonarKids had a myriad of activities: live performances (with sound adapted to children’s hearing), DJ and beat-boxing classes, a hip-hop dance masterclass, and workshops on illustration, MIDI frameworks, felt dolls and objects, building with Lego, and so on. “SonarKids is conceived for a generation of parents who want to share a way of spending their free time with their children.” With over 5,000 visitors in its first year, it was an unqualified success. A further companion event was the third annual conference of Digital Music 2.0, a trade conference organized by the Catalan Institute of Cultural Industries. A “yardstick conference at international level on the business of music in digital environments,” this year’s edition had a dual focus: to offer firsthand work with marketing experts from digital music companies and to become a nexus for agents from the live and recorded music business sectors.

In addition to this rich tapestry of activities in Barcelona, since 2002 Sónar has held smaller events, “SónarSound,” throughout the season in cities from New York to Buenos Aires, from London to Rome, from Hamburg to Tokyo—24 events in all. In Fall 2009, these satellite events were crowned by participation in the event “Hypersounds” in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, a season of concerts, performances, installations, and panels by artists who have produced outstanding work in the field of research into sound and featuring the many creative possibilities of sound and its various spatial, emotional, and aesthetic interactions (www.hypersounds.es). Taken together, all these activities earned for Sónar in 2009 the Prize of the City of Barcelona for International Projection. The prize was awarded by the Barcelona City Council after a unanimous vote by the jury and highlighted the fact that “Sónar is an international benchmark for electronic music.”

Our review of Sónar 2009 hasn’t covered all its facets, but time and space are finite. We end with “something old, something new.” An “advanced” festival that in 16 years has proven its mettle, established itself, and earned a well-deserved award as “ambassador for Barcelona” will open out with a new one-off event: in commemoration of the Holy Compostellan Year, the 2010 edition of Sónar takes place simultaneously in two cities, Barcelona and A Coruña—Sónar Galicia, “a journey to the end of the world along the Way of St. James.” And all that was Sónar in 2009.