Montreal's Mutek Festival Pushes Forward Innovation and Experimentation in Electronica
Words and photos by Noé Loyola
In the bustling artistic summer of Montreal resides Mutek, an electronic music festival committed to pushing forward innovation, as well as to increasing the presence of female artists in the field. With performances that were contemplative, lively, and everything in between, the festival set itself apart with its commitment to undeniable quality.
Electronic music festivals come in many shapes. Given the malleability of the genre, a variety of sounds that either produce awe, contemplation, or willingness to dance can be present. Mutek is a festival whose mission is to push creativity in sound, music and audio-visual art, striving to offer a diversity of styles while doing so. Both the playful and experimental have a home in the festival, making it an utterly varied, enthralling experience that has something to offer to anyone interested in digital creativity.
Mutek is a thoughtfully curated event, so much that knowing the artists beforehand is not needed at all when buying your tickets. It is a given that the organizers have carefully selected some of the most talented artists today, be it because they push the boundaries of sound, present a unique style, or know damn well how to make people move to their beats in the dancefloor. Sometimes, a fear of missing out invaded me. However, once I settled for an act and listened to what they had to offer, it evaporated as I listened in comfort.
Mutek encourages attendees not only to enjoy themselves, but to pay close attention to the music on display. In many of the slower paced shows I witnessed, the audience sat down cross legged and listened attentively to the music. And even in performances that seem to be the standard dancing affair, listening closely rewards the listener with never heard before sounds and fascinating production idiosyncrasies.
The festival is structured around its diverse venues, each one hosting wildly different events. Each one offers a very distinct experience and musical direction, allowing festivalgoers to easily pick the one suited to their mood and preferences. The venues are at a close walking distance, taking advantage of the unique urban setting Montreal provides. If one didn't buy a festival pass, it was still possible to buy tickets for individual nights in each venue, allowing people only interested in certain styles or artists to also join in the fun.
Things kicked off with Expérience, an outing in Montreal's Esplanade des Arts: a plaza tucked into the middle of the city, surrounded by skyscrapers and modern architecture. Being the event set to get the festival started from Wednesday to Saturday, its musical offering was geared towards warming the audience up. Mostly showcased were house, techno with an ambient twist, funk, downtempo, and more. The focus was on getting the audience's gears going smoothly, providing beats that were both danceable and relaxing.
Then came Play, tucked away in the basement of the Monument National. Here, the programming focused on the avant-garde and the unexpected. In my visits to Play, I witnessed performance art, music created by live coding, and many other ingenious uses of technologies to generate music. This venue rewarded an open mind, with each presentation shattering my notions on the boundaries of electronic music and the usage of visuals.
Highlights of this venue included Interspecifics, a project that used bacteria and other microscopic entities to gather data and in turn transform it into eerie ambient soundscapes, Push 1 stop & Wiklow, that played an experimental twist of techno in tandem with a projection of oozy, alluring geometric shapes into a transparent screen of fabric, and dj. flugvél og geimskip presenting a completely alien and hilarious marriage of over-the-top psychedelic visuals, intense electronic music, childish singing, and narration of how all of this fits together in a grander intergalactic scheme.
Impressive about these two events is that both are entirely free. It is possible to witness a great offering of music and visuals from Wednesday to Sunday without spending a single dollar. Though the most renowned artists perform in the paying events, the content offered in the free showcases is still excellent, much more than many paying festivals elsewhere could fathom to gather. This goes in tandem with the plethora of cultural events that swarm the streets of Montreal during the summer.
Then came the main event and centerpiece of the festival, Nocturne, the only one to occur every day of the festival. The venue was the Society for Arts and Technology, a wide indoor space with concrete columns that immediately conjure thoughts of an underground rave. The events in this space married the fun and the thoughtful, focused on offering inherently interesting musical experiences. The acts I saw in this venue induced either feelings of awe, wonder, and transcendence, or of utter satisfaction, the kind that makes you happily scream to yourself "YESSSSSSSS, This is so good!"
Thursday's Nocturne was a highlight focused on immersive soundscapes. Electric Indigo played a dark, moody and enveloping techno set in an equally dark room. Then came Christian Carrière, who enveloped the audience in surround sound drones and textures using a no-input mixer. Caterina Barbieri showed her prowess in modular synthesis to create arpeggios and loops that induced a dream-like state. Then, Lawrence English, a man doing fascinating research on sound, invited us to lay down on the floor to feel a loud and gargantuan ambient landscape that felt more immense than planet Earth's tallest mountains. Finally, cv313 provided an ambient techno set for those that wanted to stay up late and dance in a contemplative mood.
What became clear with this and the following events of the festival was that the sequencing of acts was thoughtfully planned. Each venue followed a loose theme each night, allowing attendees to be carried by a larger narrative as each show complimented the last one. For example, Saturday night put Lanark Artefax’s epic and abstract audiovisual experience at the forefront, then making a graceful transition from the cerebral to the danceable with each presentation, giving the night a healthy sense of pace and energy.
Starring on Friday and Saturday was Metropolis, hosted in MTELUS. Being the largest venue of the festival, Metropolis focused on one thing: dancing. Upon first entering the venue, I was impressed by its imposing size and the tall surfaces that displayed hypnotic visuals. Here, I witnessed Aleksi Peräläs' bright take on techno that uses his own microtonal tuning system, Edna King’s powerful ambient and industrial techno, and Honey Dijon's classic house set that had everyone dancing until early morning.
MTELUS' second floor housed a small room named Savoy, which hosted acts that were a little bit outside the norm. The vibe was similar to that of the Nocturne, but the smaller size of the venue gave the performances there the aura of an intimate underground gathering. Highlights include Klara Lewis' ominous and textured dark ambiances and DEBIT's hazy mix of club music and ambient.
Finally, Monument National's theater hosted A/Visions, a showcase of audiovisual works that went beyond projecting images on a screen. In the showcase, Tundra guided us through an emotional journey with visuals and 3D laser projections perfectly synced to thoughtfully calculated beats. Martin Messier & YRO used levers to direct the live screening of microscopic burnt matter, which was accompanied by impressive ambient textures, seeming like an exploration of outer space landscapes. Closer Falaises presented a bewildering white light show that was driven by gorgeous drone soundscapes.
Even though I mainly talked about music in the other events, A/Visions was not the only one to showcase impressive visuals. At Mutek, visual accompaniment is treated with as much importance as the music itself. A wide selection of VJs are part of the festival's roster, working together with musicians to bring experiences that delight the senses. Machine Woman's futuristic set was enhanced by Milena Pafundi's abstract monochrome visuals and the room's lack of light. Sunday's closing Nocturne was also memorable, as several DJs played in the SAT's dome room while trippy visuals where projected into the roof.
Mutek also wishes to push forward other messages alongside the artistic innovations. In its 19th edition, Mutek has an increased interest in representing women in the realm of electronic music. The world of DJing is male dominated, but the festival is trying to prove that things need not be that way. More than half of the artists in this edition were women, which the organizers claim not only is a statement, but makes things more interesting for everyone.
This was further enhanced by Keychange :: Amplify, a symposium geared towards the discussion of these topics. Academics, members of the music industry, and the artists themselves were invited to participate as presenters of several panels and workshops on feminism, moving inside the music industry, and music creation. This initiative sought to connect artists and other professionals, and to provide practical knowledge for every attendee to gather the tools needed to foster changes in the field.
To promote this culture of inclusion and respect among festival goers, Mutek invited local organization PLURI to the event. Wearing patches that read PARTY SUPPORT, volunteers of the organization wandered the festival. Attendees were invited to approach them if they had any questions, concerns, or were feeling uncomfortable due to any situation. A policy of zero tolerance towards discrimination and harassment was set in place to provide a safe space for everyone.
As a music nerd obsessed with discovering new sounds and experiences, leaving Mutek afflicted me with severe post festival blues. The only coping mechanism possible was stacking my library of pending listens with the albums of the artists I saw perform, as well as those I didn’t. Even though it will be impossible to hear those sounds again in such a powerful and quality sound system until next year, the mind expanding musical discoveries I encountered will remain with me forever.
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