jeudi, mai 29, 2008

mutek_2008_Day1 : Daytime workshops and panels


I got up rather early, put myself together, and then headed out the door to the main mutek site, SAT (Société des arts téchnologiques), to pick up my weekend pass. The breakfast service was apparently just finishing in my hotel, which is just as well, since it appeared to be a collection of stale croissants and bad coffee.

The trip to the SAT took far less time than I had expected, so I actually arrived there before they had opened the box office. They were nice enough to give me my tickets, although I would have to come back later to get my photo-pass. I wandered around the neighborhood, discovering the Complexe Desjardins, which is just one part of the mammoth underground network of shopping malls in downtown Montréal, as well as the various sex shops and strip joints on the nearby rue Ste.-Catherine. Classy!

Among other things, I got these excellent photos of storefronts on rue Ste.-Catherine. Note that “dépanneur” is something like a convenience store.

Workshop 1: Introducting the Tenori-On

While waiting for the workshop to start, I played with one of the Tenori-Ons on display in the café-bar area, and it certainly seems like a fun and potentially powerful tool. I like the hands-on interface, using a 16x16 square of buttons to control almost everything.

The workshop itself was pretty interesting. The speaker gave a historical overview of electronic instruments, including a few devices that I hadn’t heard of. After that, he went into a more nuts-and-bolts introduction of the instrument itself, showing how to use its various compositional modes and then how to make it work with Ableton Live and MaxMSP through the magic of MIDI signals.

Although I would probably need more time with this instrument to develop a deeper assessment of the object, it certainly is the kind of geek-porn that music nerds love, and it appears to offer a lot of creative opportunities that other devices don’t. Also, the fact that all you need to know to use its basic functionalities is the ability to recognize spatial patterns makes it really attractive for those without formal musical training.

I’m not going into detail about the function and use of the Tenori-On, since Yamaha already has a really sexy website that features everything you need to know. Apparently, the instrument will only be available by mail order for the foreseeable future. Huh.


Guess which restaurant is in the Complexe Desjardins, just two blocks from the main hub of mutek? St. Hubert.

Guess what St. Hubert serves? Poutine (and lots of chicken)

Guess what goes well with poutine? Beer.

Guess what else was available right next to my table? An electriclal outlet.

This last one might not seem so exciting, but I had exhausted all of the power in my laptop’s batteries during the morning session by surreptitiously recording the entire workshop through the internal microphone of my laptop while I was taking notes. The results were mediocre and tinny, but good enough to serve as an archive for later reference. The program I used for the recording (Audacity) worked fine, although I had problems during the afternoon session.

Anyway, I parked myself at St. Hubert in the “resto-bar” section, near an outlet, and re-charged my laptop while eating a delicious poutine with chicken in it. No doubt there is better poutine to be had in town, but that totally hit the spot.

Panel 2: The Ecology of Festivals: Beyond Filling Venues

This panel featured a collection of people tied to music festivals—mostly electronic music festivals—who were trying to talk about some of the more intangible / qualitative goals of music festivals, like public awareness, legitimacy, social organizing, etc.

The panel itself started off well enough, with an introduction by each speaker about their organization, why their organization started in the first place, and how their present work corresponds to those original goals. Some of the most interesting stuff in this part of the discussion centered around the sorts of entanglements that these groups found themselves in with public funding bodies, institutions, politics and so on. Mat Schulz, from the Unsound Festival based in Krakow, Poland, talked about taking advantage of the E.U.’s political interests in Belarus to accumulate funding for a “satellite” music festival in Minsk. Leo de Boisgisson, based in Beijing, talked about the unique history of youth culture and music in late-20th-century China and told a story about being forced to organize events in collaboration with state cultural apparatchiks and even the army.

But the panel soon shifted into a sort of self-congratulatory pity-party / love-in, organized around their heroic efforts to champion “experimental” electronic music to a largely unappreciative / undereducated public. The underlying assumption among most of the panelists is that “bad” popular music like “mainstream” EDM or pop is popular because people aren’t aware of the aesthetic goldmine that is “experimental” electronic music; if they only had the opportunity to experience it—say, through a music festival—the proverbial scales would fall from their eyes they would be freed from stupefying grip of mass culture.

Clearly, what I’m recounting here is a familiar form of cultural/class elitism, using the management of aesthetic taste as a sort of social hygiene. I only need to change a few terms to make this indistinguishable from the Massen/Kulturkritik of Adorno and other commentators participating in the Frankfurt School. The panelists never went as far as to articulate their desires and disappointments in these terms, but instead mobilized vocabularies of curatorial practice and pedagogy, gesturing toward an under-defined “commercial” music industry as the source of the feeling of urgency around this project of public edification.

There are ethical complexities around using a pedagogical model for public/social organizing, not least among them being the fact that a pedagogical relation assumes an individual or group who knows more (or knows better), and another individual or group who needs to learn (for their own good—read: sometimes against their will). What seems like a benign desire to “raise awareness” or expand horizons can slide into a sort of condescending elitism that is rarely well-received or effective. This is substantially different from a model of community-building, profit-making, preservation of tradition, or pleasure/fun (all of which have their advantages and disadvantages).

What is ironic/depressing about this is that most of these panelists bemoaned, in the same breath, the of marginalization of Electronic Dance Music at the hands of The Academy (i.e., academic institutions). “Academic” music-making (especially post-tonal compositions) have used labels and poetics of the avant-garde and modernism to justify the exclusion of most popular musics while explaining their own relative lack of mass appeal. Indeed, the lack of mass popularity became a mark of distinction through often explicit elitism: if the public (read: working class) doesn’t like it, it must be Art. So it was disappointing for me to see the re-appearance of these discourses within the EDM community, using “experimental” in the place of “avant-garde” to divide us into cultural haves and have-nots.

Part of what facilitated this blind spot around practices of elitism, I think, was a concomitant blind spot around the interpenetration of “academic” and “commercial” spheres in the world of EDM. Jan Rohlf (representing Transmediale), for example, opened his comments on his organization in Berlin by stating that there is a music scene in Berlin that sat uncomfortably between the “academic” and “commercial” spheres. When answering a later question about collaboration with institutions, Rohlf expressed resistance to the idea, raising the spectre of cultural misappropriation by exploitative outsiders. This resonated with an entirely-unquestioned idea about what (and who) lies outside of EDM communities: the academics can never understand, the corporations can never have good intentions. This supposition of completely separate (and antagonistic) worlds fails to account for the increasing number of EDM fans and participants who have entered into academic institutions to make sense of their own lives within EDM scenes (like me). Similarly, those people in the EDM scenes who have moved into large-scale promotion and above-ground media production—in the interest of developing a scene to which they belong—are entirely left out of this account. Furthermore, to fail to recognize that many EDM artists are art-school- or university-trained (although perhaps not in music) is simply disingenuous, as is the presumption that electronic music, dance music, and electronic dance music were every completely separate from sites of commerce and capital.

[To be fair to Rohlf, he was also the person on the panel who came closest to expressing a desire for music festivals that build communities of care and intimacy.]

So, as you can tell, this annoyed me a bit. I was too self-conscious about my facial disfigurement to really ask a question (having half your face paralyzed makes speaking uncomfortable and continually embarrassing), and I was disappointed to see everyone on the panel and in the audience in such unquestioning agreement: “We, exempt from the stigma of intellectualism and commercialism, need to defend/promulgate our tastes against mass culture, and we deserve support for our projects (preferably in the form of grants or ticket sales).”

Anyway, with this depressive moment over, I headed out of the panel, said hi to a frew folks from the Chicago scene who had recently arrived, and then headed back to my hotel to work on my notes. Alas, My audio application, Audacity, had crashed halfway through the second panel, and when I re-started it, the program started recording the latter half of the panel on top of the previous recording. At the end of the panel, when I tried to at least save the last half of the panel, Audacity somehow deleted everything and left me with nothing. Fantastic. Ah well, at least I took meticulous notes.

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