Sónar for Sale

Milica Paranosic
July 30, 2011

The Sónar festival of new music and multimedia took place from June 16—18 in Barcelona.

Is Sónar for sale?

No. That was a promo joke. Not a very good one, if you ask me. A game of words that doesn't quite work. What Sónar people really wanted to say when they first announced this piece of news, was that that tickets were on sale. The joke, good or bad, Sónar for sale IS the promo look this year. With their usually very intriguing promo material, this was a disappointment.

On to the festival itself, hoping for a reversal:

Line up of artists doesn't impress me either. Sónar by Night I almost immediately dismiss, because of its no-exception pop content. Sónar by Day offers more variety. Special programs, which are most interesting to me (including works by Steve Reich, Ryuichi Sacamoto and Francisco López) are off limits with my accreditation. Of course, I have seen those artists in New York numerous times. I almost had a Steve Reich overdose last season, so I'm not exactly heart-broken for not seeing him here. But here is a funny twist to the story: I contacted Mr. Reich's agent in Barcelona and requested an interview with Mr. Reich which I was granted.

I was looking forward to it since I couldn’t have gotten any such thing to work out in New York. The idea of an undercover composer 'dressed' in journalist clothes, travelling halfway around the world to interview the big star composer, unreachable in a realistically much easier situation (two fellow composers living and working in New York) was quite attractive. It would've made a nice story. I had a nice list of question and a great camera on hand. But Mr. Reich's visit was cancelled. Health problems, Sónar reported. I hope he's feeling better. The performance went well, or so I have been told.

Sónar by Day this year is smaller then pervious years in every way. As usual, we were given our Addidias press bags, but this year, they were really small! Which would be unimportant, if one could fit a laptop in them. I knew I needed to have bought that iPad already.

There were fewer people both audience and artist-wise, fewer "side" programs; I was hoping for more Robots or Chicks on Speed (see my last year report), if not something newer and better. But none of that. No installations, no fun interactive demos and crazy prototypes of the cool gadgets by creative art and technology students and investigators. The subtitle—Festival of new music and multimedia—never seemed so inappropriate.

The Smaller Pro area (the area for gear and sound equipment) presented a variety of controllers from keyboard ones to pads. Theremin, DJ equipment, big news like: Serato teams up with Ableton, sweepstakes that get your name on the companies mailing lists; namely, stuff we’ve seen and seen, if not have grown bored with. And I really do not need another Ableton bag!

But wait, what is this? Earproof?

Earproof is the name of the Amsterdam based company that makes custom earplugs. Peter Van Galen, the owner, says: "We spend so much money on eye protection and sunscreen, and yet we do almost nothing for our ears. The music is presented to us as an enemy. My company reverses that myth. We CAN enjoy loud music safely."

Well said. I sample a pair, but I realize I really don’t want my loud music muted. I know loud music is bad for me. So is tanning and dirty martinis. But it gives me pleasure.

Peter Van Galen and Milica Paranosic. Photo: Milica Paranosic.

Moving on, to the music part. The three Orchestras attracted my attention:

Barcelona Laptop Orchestra (BLO) has a potential attraction, but the music had no direction or shape and one could not tell that the sound of the laptop orchestra (7 laptops) is any different then the sound if one laptop. I close my eyes, and I can’t tell.

BLO. Photo: Milica Paranosic.

Open Reel Ensemble was quite different. Japanese, again, have gotten their technology right. I close my eyes, and I don't care about the technology behind it. The music is great. I open my eyes, and it's even better. The visuals are stunning. The music and visuals relating.

Open Reel Ensemble. Photo: Sónar.

Sewing Machine Orchestra is the first version of a performance created by Martin Messier. The basic sounds used in this performance consist entirely of the acoustic noises produced by 8 sewing machines, amplified by means of microcontacts and processed by a computer. One must admit that the idea of The Sewing Machine Orchestra is a very original one. Paired with the original idea is the music and performance that is quite convincing if not fantastic. I close my eyes and I cannot tell if it's the sewing machines, laptops, or something else. But it IS music. Everything else is a plus.

Sewing Machine Orchestra. Photo: Martin Messier

On the closing day, I find myself surprised. Not once, but twice.

At 3:30pm in Sónar Village, a band from the US called No Surrender performed. As I get closer to the stage, I realize I recognize the lead singer. I am referring to him as a singer metaphorically as he sings only occasionally and not very well. Other times he utters some rap-like lines, but not very creatively. I think I first met him as a poet about 6 years ago. Later that year, he got into the NYU computer music program. His band, the same band I’m seeing today, played with Vision Into Art (an ensemble I used to co-direct) as a guest some time later. The band consists of two laptops, three vocalists-rappers-entertainers, a chick on keyboard and a guitar player. Weak, uninspiring and uninspired music, yet by the third day of drinking and partying, the audience (mainly in their 20s) almost don't recognize good from bad, as long as it has a beat. Which the chick on the keyboard often misses. Yet here they are. And I wonder how this whole thing works. The propaganda. The buzz. The stardom. The publicity. The budget.

Am I in the wrong shoes here or am at the wrong festival? After three years of seeing-reviewing Sonar, I feel my mission here is done. Next time I’m here, I’ll be performing. Or I won’t be here at all.

But the next artist made both the US and the Sónar look and sound good again. Supercharged Yelawolf, a Hip Hop / Ghettotech / Alternative artist from Alabama had it all. Minimal setup (a laptop DJ with powerful, clean beats and a skillful guy with good ears running it — Gabriel Artime AKA DJ Artime), good voice, fantastic sense of rthythm, meter and tempo, intense lyrics, lots of stamina and performance charm. Musically a cross between Eminem and Rage against the Machine, this well written and rehearsed, powerfully and professionally delivered act was by far my favourite of the day.

Yelawolf. Photo: Milica Paranosic.

So Sónar is not for sale. But my press role here is up for an adoption. Then again, I might surprise myself, as Sónar still occasionally does.