In the Mix

Andy Battaglia at the Mutek festival


Left: Señor Coconut. Right: King Midas Sound. (All photos: Andy Battaglia)

ONE SWILLED WHISKEY ONSTAGE. Another played sounds of beastly breathing. One more reconfigured Kraftwerk for a merengue band. Yet another expressed an interest in “elephants picking up subsonic sounds from a tsunami and escaping over the mountains.”

Such was the range of activity in Montreal last week during Mutek, an international festival of “digital creativity and electronic music.” Here, the term “electronic music” applies to a wide range of matters: from the stuff of sound-art galleries and stroboscopic dance clubs to heady discursions and head-bashing noise to fantastical technologies and furrowed futurism. Sometimes––by will or by strategy––they swirl.

So it went on Saturday, when in the span of one hour I caught both Ben Frost and a character called Señor Coconut. Frost is a musician living in Iceland who drafts improbably dark and dramatic sounds with an occasionally brandished guitar and a table full of processing gear (laptop, synthesizer, black boxes of various kinds). He played, in what was effectively a big concrete bunker, at an exceptionally high volume, such that his abrasive washes of noise and waves of bass took on an almost narrative quality of foreboding. Then, out of nowhere, Frost pulled the action back to focus on material much more sparse: the sound of an animal (probably a bear, definitely a brute) catching its breath after doing something dire. There was nothing expressly “musical” about it, just slow and steady heaving, but the surprisingly sinister interlude sounded as composed as a string quartet.

The mood was different a few blocks away, outside on a plaza at Place des Festivals. This was the site of a free outdoor concert featuring Señor Coconut & His Orchestra, a group that does the noble work of re-setting electronic-music classics as highly orchestral Latin jams. It would seem to be a novelty act. (Daft Punk done as salsa!) And it is—but only in part. As they moved through game versions of landmark club tracks like Telex’s “Moscow Disco” and pop songs like Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” Señor Coconut (a German artist named Uwe Schmidt, on laptop) and his eight-piece band (horns, congas, vibes, upright bass) managed to reconcile the chasm between unabashed kitsch and austere appreciation. And when the program moved into Kraftwerk, things got downright reverential: During extended tributes to “Tour de France” and “Autobahn,” the band cycled and churned through source material whose epochal machinic spirit proved even more irrepressible in throwback fleshy form.

Left: The poster for Mutek. Right: Actress.

Señor Coconut also signaled an interesting confluence of old and new at Mutek this year. As electronic-music culture continues to age, the allure of the past—of the idea of history itself—has crept into realms of numerous kinds.

To wit: One standout performance at Mutek was an odd show by the Caretaker, aka James Kirby, an English artist who makes ghostly aural collages with records from the 1920s and ’30s, among other things. To present his work at the stately eight-hundred-seat proscenium theater in Monument-National, Kirby decided to . . . basically just sit onstage with his computer and a bottle of Glenlivet, which he proceeded to gulp while staring at a screen that flickered with drunken images from late nights out at bars. That was pretty much it. The performance began with a disarmingly personal paean to “chaos and debauchery” projected on-screen, and its lack of action had an effect that proved strangely as haunting as the Caretaker’s sound—especially in a realm still figuring out what it means to “perform” music made with computers. When the Caretaker finally stood up, he’d taken off his black jacket to reveal a shiny silver shirt—perfect flash for what turned into a demented encore version of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” which the Caretaker himself croaked through an effected microphone like a corpse crooner. Memories, indeed.

The Caretaker’s gambit was simultaneously one of the best and worst performances at Mutek, a festival smart enough to entertain the ramifications of both. Other highlights ranged from the markedly physical (dancing to French house genius Pépé Bradock and DJ Koze, the latter of whom spun in a downpour beneath a Calder sculpture in Jean-Drapeau Park) to the fitfully cerebral (a panel discussion on “The Moment of Impact: The Physicality of Sound,” in which artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff talked about elephants’ specialized hearing and Pythagoras’s habit of giving lectures out of view, so students would focus attention on the sound of his voice).

Somewhere in the mix of it all lurked the heart and wires of Mutek. Or maybe it was in the disembodied mood of a rare show by the industrial-music legends Nurse with Wound. Or, more likely, it was in the middle of Actress and King Midas Sound, two by-products of the churning contemporary club genre known as dubstep. The lone-man Actress played a stiff but intriguingly rigorous dance-floor set full of new formalist conceits, while King Midas Sound steered toward the ghosts of old dub reggae and—in its near-religious fetishization of bass—lowered an overwhelming BOOM! With every low-end throb, Mutek seemed to shake at its core.