New Forms Festival celebrates the music of the machines

Armed with laptops and tablets rather than old-school instruments, performers at the New Forms Festival find freedom in technology

Painful though this might be to admit—at least for those of us who grew up worshipping the electric guitar—the computer is now, unquestionably, the dominant instrument in contemporary music. For proof, just look at the charts, packed with numbers written and recorded on digital workstations. Check out the millions who throng to concerts by deadmau5 and Skrillex. And in a slightly more rarefied context, investigate the lineup for next week’s New Forms Festival.

Look hard enough, and you’ll find a guitar or two. But six-strings will be outnumbered at least 10 to one by laptops and tablets, because this is a festival of cutting-edge performance, and old-school instruments just don’t cut it anymore.

In fact, a perennial sub-theme of the festival—which features a variety of art installations and screenings along with wildly adventurous music—is that much of the creative energy that once went into painting, filmmaking, theatre, and other artistic endeavours has been diverted into electronic music-making. The computer makes conceptual strategies relatively easy to realize—at least in comparison with the daunting physical task of learning a more conventional instrument.

It doesn’t hurt, though, if you’re rooted in that world and the digital realm. That’s what Edo Van Breemen has found: growing up with the piano, he says, has given him a deeply ingrained sense of musical structure. But the computer programs Ableton and Logic have allowed him to realize his musical dreams in new and surprising ways—especially in Resorts, the “meditative dance” duo he shares with his Brasstronaut bandmate, clarinettist Sam Davidson.

“We’ll often record a loop of Sam doing harmonics, resonant harmonics, with his clarinet, and then we’ll reverse that and create kind of microloops out of that,” the Vancouver-based musician explains from New York City, where he’s checking out the club and concert scene. “So you get these very weird extremes of what an instrument can produce, timbrewise.

“I like finding the area between weird and catchy, because ultimately I want to make music that has some kind of sonic-hook quality to it,” Van Breemen adds. “Not necessarily a melody but, like, when you listen to really popular dance or electronic music, there’s always some kind of sound in there that you’ve never heard before. I guess I’m trying to look for those sounds when I make my own Resorts music.”

Resorts’ electroacoustic approach is echoed in the music of another Vancouver duo, Chambers, although Michael Red and Gabriel Saloman’s primary influences are Jamaican rather than European. Their updated approach to dub involves Red capturing and digitally mutating Saloman’s analogue sources, which range from electric guitar to old-fashioned Dictaphone cassettes. Once upon a time, what they do would have required hours of arduous labour in the studio, and it would have been next to impossible to reproduce in concert. Now, all Red needs is what his musical partner describes as “a small suitcase of laptops and other electronic components”.

“The ability to go deep into a track while we’re creating it is pretty stunning,” Saloman stresses, in a three-way Skype call with Red. “It’s not sitting with a huge roll of tape and a pair of scissors, trying to assemble something that might take hours and hours and hours to get right. We can do this on the fly. So, yeah, it’s incredible.

“With this project,” he adds, “it’s really about trusting intuition—taking the practices that Michael and I have already developed and seeing what they do when they’re actually woven in together.”

Teebs, the musical moniker of Los Angeles resident Mtendere Chichewa Mandowa, is another intuitive undertaking. Mandowa’s grainy computer-based soundscapes are the audio equivalent of his almost fractally vibrant, collage-based paintings—and, remarkably, he only got into art after suffering a skateboarding injury serious enough to lay him up for weeks.

“I couldn’t physically be running around,” Mandowa explains from a SoCal sidewalk, in a conversation punctuated by the sound of squealing tires. “The computer was there and I thought, ‘Ah, I’ll mess around with it,’ and then started to realize ‘Wow, you can really dig out a feeling from this thing.’ If you have the patience to figure out how to use it, you can definitely find your own voice.”

The 25-year-old producer often starts a track with a sample, then piles layer upon layer in a playful process. “You’ll go out and record, say, this car accident that almost happened in front of me,” he says. “If I take that home and I want to do something with lyrics about cars, maybe some kind of concept, I’ll think, ‘Okay, what sounds like cars, and how can I make this a car song? I don’t know… What am I doing in my car?’ So I just play around with it in my head—but it’s always different, if that makes any sense.”

Rhythm and experimentation are common to all three of these electronic acts, and to most of the artists booked for New Forms this year. Focus on the first, and the four-day festival will offer up a number of opportunities to dance. Concentrate on the second, however, and it will also offer a survey of the electronic scene that rivals Montreal’s internationally acclaimed MUTEK festival.

“We’re looking at what hybrids and changes are happening in electronic music,” says New Forms executive director Malcolm Levy, reached by telephone at his office. “What artists are doing things differently? But we’re also presenting artists we consider seminal from the past. Daniel Bell has been involved in Detroit techno and electronic music for almost 30 years, while Actress is one of the most up-and-coming and interesting electronic-music acts in the world right now.

“But in both instances,” he continues, “what I find really interesting is that they’re representative of a larger discussion. They’re representative of what I would call a criticality around electronic music that I think we take very, very seriously. Across the board, when we’re looking at the artists that we’re bringing, we’re constantly asking, ‘Why? Why are those artists interesting? What are they bringing to the table?’ ”

There are no simple answers to those questions, but a sense of play seems to be a constant—and an awareness that, creatively used, technology is an agent of liberation rather than an oppressive threat.

“What you have is this really interesting cross-pollination happening, and whether you’re an electronic-music producer or a visual artist, you’re part of a much larger milieu within contemporary art and culture,” says Levy. “And that, I think, that’s what we’re interested in exposing as a whole.”

The New Forms Festival takes place at various Vancouver venues from next Thursday to Sunday (September 13 to 16). For a full schedule and overview, visit the New Forms Festival website.

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