This past spring, New York felt denser than usual with music, multimedia festivals and activities. As a co-founder and a producer of Beyond the Machine, The Juilliard School’s Electronic Music Festival, and conceiver of another (shhhhhhhhhh, it’s top secret), I was more then curious to find out what these festivals are all about. What makes some festivals a huge success and others barely noticed? So, to satisfy my need for new music and to investigate the secrets behind successful festivals, my explorations took me to Barcelona, and the much talked about Sónar festival (as if the dense NYC music scene wasn’t enough!).
Bogulta at Sónar 2008
I wanted to find out two things: what the festival’s concept is, or unifying theme, if it has one, and what is the multimedia aspect of it. It seems that multimedia for performances that stem form music increasingly means bi-media, music and visuals, which is in turn typically a layer of music in the foreground and an accompanying layer of projections, in the background. Tagged International Festival of Avant-garde Music and Multimedia Art, Sónar celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. A big production, it ran for three days as Sónar de Dia, and three nights as Sónar de Noche, starting at noon and ending around 6am. Sónar 2008 had over 150 performances, many overlapping, shown in eight venues. Sónar 2008 was located in two major areas of the city, with Sónar de Dia in the city’s center and Sónar de Noche in a neighborhood at the outskirts of the city. Excellent! I was excited!
Sónar 2008 graphic design and promotional materials are attention grabbing and somewhat disturbing. The mascots of the festival are hybrid creatures composed of human heads with the faces made up so heavily that they look distorted and quite un-human. The heads are planted on different animal’s bodies, such as a white-faced, white-haired pig-girl, the head of a boy with long, rust-colored hair on a rooster body, and the head of a boy with black hair and blue lipstick on a fish. Sónar’s striking and very informative website features these creatures caged, through a set of short films; provocative material that seems to suggest the avant-grade and multimedia concept that the festival’s names indicates. Great! I was intrigued!
A Sónar 2008 Mascot
Musical styles featured at the festival I can best describe as “ambitious pop”, a term I made up to designate a variety of styles with their roots in pop culture but with extended boundaries. It means music that wants to be MORE then JUST POP. Examples include DJ, dub, world, raga, hip-hop, death metal, electronica, electro-noise, and anti-pop. I am interested in an approach that’s quite the opposite. I am interested in “extended” classical music, music that wants to be MORE then JUST: classical, which sounds outdated; experimental, which sounds dated; new, which sounds redundant; and contemporary, which only makes sense TODAY. I was perhaps hoping to find some answers, leads for my own music search, and so I entered the world of Sónar with open mind and ears.
The event included talks and panels, a record fair, DJ booths, and sponsor stands offering promotions and souvenirs. Panels and talks were held at the same time, so one could freely wander from space to space for different content. The artists' performances varied, from well-known bands such as Madness and Yazoo, to big names of today’s popular music, such as M.I.A. (who unfortunately cancelled) and Camille, and to local bands and DJs. Also included were little-known artists form Spain and abroad, including the UK, France, Denmark, Netherlands, USA, and Japan. Live bands alternated with DJ sets.
Sónar 2008: Cinema Beyond Cinema represented the multimedia aspect of the festival, with exhibits and installations during the Sónar de Dia area. Interesting and innovative projects were shown, including Alvaro Cassinelli’s Boxed Ego, Nova Jiang’s Stage Fright, and Edwin Van Der Heide’s laser-and-sound performance. These events, however, were disconnected from the rest of the festival's less popular and less well-known side events. Perhaps the installations would have had greater success in a separate festival, with more attention from a slightly different audience. Music performances, for the most part, didn’t have any multimedia aspects to them (if one ignores the obvious, ubiquitous live feed of the performance). The whole thing felt like one big summer party, in a beautiful town, with nice weather, crowded bars (well equipped with cheap beverages, as Budweiser was one of the sponsors), and easy access to music. A summer party may as well have been the festival’s theme, or the concept, since the selections seemed to have been random.
Sónar summer party
The Yellow Swans from Portland, Oregon, with Gabriel Mindel Saloman on guitar, and Pete Swanson on vocals was a pleasant surprise. An electro-noise improvising duo, they used an array of gear to produce feedback and process their sounds. They played a thirty-minute set of a single track that was unapologetically aggressive and at points super-loud. Their concepts were consistent, clean and executed in a well-proportioned arc, from barely audible noises to gut-shaking, multi-layered textures and discrete rhythmic patterns. The younger, beat-seeking crowd, which seemed to be like the majority of Sónar attendees, left the set early, somewhat disappointed, but were sure to find an option more suited to their taste just a few meters away. A slightly older, more patient, and perhaps more curious audience stayed, and were transcended into the convincing world of The Yellow Swans.
The Yellow Swans
The most fascinating eye-openers for me were three Japanese performers: Bogulta, D.J. Scotch Egg and, especially, Ove Naxx. Each was a solo act and their own one-man band. They played, sang, danced, projected visuals and used technology to trigger and control sound. Their performances were organic, seamless, flawless, spontaneous and convincing. They were very advanced and not at all pretentious. If I looked to Afro-American culture for hints of a new mega-music trend (jazz and hip-hop did the trick to convince me), should I now shift my focus? Where will the true new music be, the one that comes as a true fusion of everything around us, the music equivalent to our crazy contemporary world? Where will the way our senses are challenged, intrigued and satisfied, come from? And if technology is “that new big thing” that opens all those doors to us, who is going to intertwine it into a performance that transcends theory, science and the bits and bytes that went into making it? When will we use technology with ease and little fuss, and be satisfied with the results it delivers? For me the three Japanese performers were a summary of what Sónar 2008 represented, a fusion of all the trends.
A few days later, still in Barcelona, I attended a different kind of a multimedia event, a San Juan Beach party that celebrated the summer solstice. It was a multifaceted celebration of music, dance and fireworks that provided a lively percussion sound track at night. It was audience involving. It was contemporary with the roots in tradition. It was street art that included “trained” musicians, with samba bands, singers, and dancers. It was huge. It lasted all night. I couldn’t help but compare the San Juan Beach party to Sónar 2008. I couldn’t help but want them to merge. SOMEONE should think of that!
In the end, did I get what I asked for out of my Barcelona experience? Did I get straight answers to defined questions? Perhaps not. But who needs answers if you get, instead, surprise, excitement, a change of focus, new ideas (!), new inspiration, new MySpace (and a few REAL) friends. Would I go back? Si. Claro.
Sónar photos by Milica Paranosic
Photo of Milica Paranosic by Joel Chadabe