Sonar Notes

Saturday, June 21, 2014

It’s a cool, clear night. Chilly considering the warm weather we’ve been having during the day, lately. Christin’s inside binge-watching Orange is the New Black, a show I don’t care for. I’m sitting out on the terrace, listening to the latest well-textured Oneohtrix Point Never album on our little black Jambox speakers. Which makes for as good of an opportunity as any to write out a few notes about my trip to the Sonar music conference in Barcelona last week. I’m going to keep it brief, but I did want to put a few notes about it on my blog since writing up my travel experiences seems to be the one thing I consistently do, here…

Mark Thompson was responsible for my going. He worked on an app called The Bermuda Tapes, which launched last year. He got to attend SXSW earlier this year after it had been nominated in the music app category (which it, sadly, lost). After that some folks at Sonar apparently discovered the app and invited the team that worked on it out to Barcelona to give a talk. No one else could go. Mark had an extra pass. I’ve been wanting an excuse to go back to Barcelona. One two three. We’re on a flight to Barcelona (by way of Philly). Left NYC Tuesday afternoon, June 10th, flight at 3:30pm. Left Barcelona to come home at 10am on Sunday, June 15th.

We arrived on the day of a taxi strike, as well, so instead of hailing a cab from the airport to the hotel after a long flight we were treated to a loud protest of cabbies clogging the pick-up zone of the airport, singing, waving flags, and setting off firecrackers. While we waited in line forever to get tickets for the damned bus…

Anyway: Barcelona was more-or-less as I left it. I’ve been three times previously — once in 1999 as a part of a summer-long cross-European jaunt with my then-girlfriend Abby and Sean. And then again twice during the summer of 2005 as sub-trips out of Berlin, where I spent a few months. The first of those 2005 trips was also to Sonar. The second one of those trips I flew out to Barcelona to visit my friend Jared and explore the city. (I remember, amongst other things, seeing Star Wars: Episode III at a movie theater with Spanish subtitles and hiking at Monserrat.) Anyway, the main city felt pretty much as it had before. La Rambla has been cleaned up quite a bit — it felt seedy in a bar-hopping-college-kids sort of way rather than in a pickpockets-and-prosititutes sort of way, which is an improvement, I suppose. Also: No birds. I remember the whole boulevard lined with cages of birds for sale. That’s gone. But the feel of the area remains the same. Bari Gotic. Barcelonetta. Eixample from the ever-growing and tourist-overwhelmed Sagrada Familia walking up to Park Güell overlooking the whole town. Quite the same. The bright-hot weather. The cool evenings. The humid smell of the Mediterranean.

So the conference. First, I should explain that for a variety of reasons including jet lag my sleeping schedule was hopelessly botched, so I kind of spent the week wandering around in a half-asleep fog, only occasionally lifted by blasts of the free espresso those of us with the fancy gold passes got for free at the conference. So my experiences are through that blurry lens.

The daytime conference took place entirely at the Fira de Barcelona, a big convention center situated a few hundred meters off of Placa España — where we were staying a place called the Onix Hotel — at the base of Montjuic (the mountain upon which sits, amongst other things, the Olympic Village from 1992). The conference center had a mixture of different sorts of spaces.

Just inside the main entrace was a trade show, of sorts — a large room in which an oddly organic arrangement of booths had been set up for groups to show off their various electronic music-related projects. Some were students or groups representing university programs showing off various NIME-style interactive music inventions, including what appeared to be a kind of DJ-like audio scratcher controlled by turning orange halfs on small plastic juicers. Some were more product demonstrations. The LittleBits people were there, for example, showing off the latest of the collaboration with Korg. There was also a small collection of tables with iPads on them to show off a handful of music-related apps, including the above-mentioned Bermuda tapes, and a guy showing off sound visualization project on an Occulus Rift — which I greatly appreciated, but also felt ultimately underwhelmed by given that looking into a Occulus Rift is kind of like looking into a blurry world as seen through a screen door, and it’s just really, really hard for that to compete with traditional high-resolution displays when displaying data-art sort of stuff that requires appreciating the detail. (Works great for broad stuff like the Game of Thrones “shoot you off the wall” thing at SXSW, though.) A small presentation space had also been set up in this space, off in the corner. The first day I sat in on a presentation, here, about wearables which I kind of half-dozed through (sigh). And the last day, Saturday, all of the app people gave their ten-minute talks — including Mark. So I checked that out and met some of the other creators. Mark befriended one of the guys who worked on Radiohead’s PolyFauna and a guy who just graduated from Pratt and had achieved some recognition for his collaborative alarm clock app. These were great, by the way. It’s always great to hear other people’s experiences being creative. I’ve always been one of those people for whom being creative is hard — including writing on my blog, here. I don’t feel natural or comfortable doing it — I kind of work myself up for it using various tricks and techniques — but it is something which I nevertheless feel strongly compelled to do. So I’m usually game to hear about other people’s processes when creating. And one thing of which there was zero talk of at Sonar, as far as I could tell: Money. It was all creativity first. What can we do? What can we explore? What’s new? What’s interesting? Maybe (probably) I’m just going to the wrong conferences.

So, the music. Let’s just do a quick run-down, roughly in the order in which I saw them. It’s late. I’m tired.

Day one. Thursday.

Machinedrum. Saw Travis play a set at the big outdoor space at the Fira de Barcelona. With a like drummer. His Vapor City tracks, I guess, which were much more chillwave (yeah, I know) than the stuff of his I heard when doing shows with him back in 2004-2005-ish. But it was good! He got a good response.

James Murphy + 2manydjs. So this was some thing with the McIntosh speaker manufacturer. In a very, very dark room (made even more so when coming in from the bright outdoors) they had set up a mid-sized octagonal dance floor with a tall Jetsons-like speaker cabinet on each side, pumping loud and crystal clear sound. I dipped in to this twice for only a few minutes at a pop (I actually found it to be uncomfortably loud) and loved it. They played fantastic tracks and really showed off the sound system quiet nicely.

Machine Variation: Bernier and Messier. When we first passed by this, it appeared to be just some kind of installation — an erratic amalgam of two-by-fours and metal dropped on the convention hall floor. Like the result of a 1950s experiment where men were given large amounts of LSD and then asked to construct a garage. We came back later and got to witness a live performance which involed Bernier and Messier, I suppose, banging around on this thing with some rough musical purpose. Clanging cacophonous rhythms. Not bad. And I appreciate this kind of stuff, I really do. But I also find that as I’ve gotten older I get frustrated when the concept is novel but the end result doesn’t sound very interesting. I understand that visual performance is an important part of music, but visual performance alone is like a cake that looks awesome but tastes like sawdust. Notable, but unsatisfying. I respect their effort, though.

As a quick aside, this might why I find the idea of making instruments or musical toys for other people to play with so intruiging. I feel like this does allow you to play around with making musical objects that you can interact with in unique way — but without being beholden to the idea that you need to be able to product quality music with them. Meaning, if I make an instrument and give it to you and say, “here — go make a noisy mess with this” you can go make that noisy mess and enjoy it and that’s okay because you’re not performing for me, you’re just enjoying making sounds. This allows the cake in the metaphor above to taste weird in the end, but because the creator and “audience” co-created it, it doesn’t really matter. Not sure if this idea completely makes sense — it’s coming right off the top of my head — but, well, here we are.

DJ Daniel Miller. Yup, the guy who founded Mute Records and discovered Depeche Mode. Good DJ set, if nothing super-memorable. But an interesting sighting, nonetheless.

By the way, during the day those of us with the gold badges had access to a VIP area off to the side of the main stage. It had a bar and some risers with pillows on them to site on. And a labyrinth of port-o-loos. And a lunch counter that served sausage, grilled veggies, and caprese salad the first day and a whole fish, eyeball-and-all, (with grilled veggies) the second. Very nice food for a music event like that.

Trentemøller. Okay. So we wandered into one of the indoor stages to see whatever this was. I didn’t recognize the name, but people were flooding in. After about ten minutes of some kind of butt-awful generic synth-goth nonsense we left. Depeche Mode can pull that kind of shit off. Almost no one else can. What the fuck.

Plastikman. I respect his brand of minimal techno, and this performace was nicely put on. He stood at a booth kind of out in the audience, not far from a tall video-wall obelisk which pulsed imagry in sync with his performance. Great. Richie Hawtin does what he does very well, but I also sometimes feel like it’s a bit too mechanical and soulless. This particular performance was another one where I stood there and though, “I respect this, but I’m not really feeling much otherwise.”

Day two. Friday.

FM Belfast. Oh, goodness. I’ve enjoyed the albums by these guys the past year or so. They’re a gaggle of goofball Icelanders with a fuck-ton of energy and charisma banging out synthy dance pop tracks. They had the audience eating right of their hands, as well: Jumping around, frekaing out. And in the middle of the hot day, as well. Really fun. A highlight of the event. Don’t know what else to say.

Imposition. This I enjoyed, as well. A dark room with an array of two-by-fours painted white, sitting up on their small ends. In a grid. Being projected upon in synchrony with live music being performed. A little tough to describe the effect, but it worked on me. The music hit a nice middle point between being glitchy and more traditionally melodic. Unfortunately the space was not air conditioned and there were no seats, just concrete floor to sit indian-style on. But worth the experience.

Oneohtrix Point Never. Also great. Very absract. Performed in a more traditional concert hall at the venue along with a live(?) video performance. I don’t exactly know how to describe Oneohtrix Point Never. It’s not ambient. It’s not exactly experimental in the sense that I usually use the word. Meaning, it’s very definitively constructed and intentional. Just very unusual. Abstract. Hard to pin down. For me, at least. I may just lack the language or not be aware of the genre he’s participating in. But I’ve enjoyed his albums ever since Trey Smith recommended him to me last year while I was out in New Orleans. Cool to see live. The only two problems: 1) Again, with the sleep issues I had all week I dozed a bit in the middle (dark, dark room + abstract sound = zz..). 2) One problem with having a single event with both wacky DJ dance-party stuff happening in the bright sun with flowing beer and shut-the-fuck-up-and-listen performances in concert hall settings is that drunk people having an awesome time chatting with friends and being loud will wander into the “please be quiet” space and they will not be quiet. Which is almost not even their fault. Just awkward event design. But I had to tell two guys sitting behind us chattering in Russian to please be quiet. After teaching college classes, it’s so much easier to tell 20-somethings what to do.

Röyksopp and Robyn. Sonar had a nighttime event that took place away from the main city on Friday and Saturday night. We didn’t go on Saturday, opting instead to do some stuff in the city, but we did go out for a bit on Friday. The nighttime events were at Fira Gran Via, another large convention center in a very, very new part of the city. I don’t think this area had been built when I had last been in Barcelona — it was nothing but new, shiny metal-and-glass buildings. The Fira Gran Via has a curvy kind of molten shape to it. We cabbed out there and got fast-tracked in (thanks to the gold badges, once more) into our own special VIP zone from where we could watch Röyksopp and Robyn. The whole set was a couple of hours long — we stayed for about an hour. And it seemed like a Robyn set. Not exactly sure how Röyksopp figured into the mix. But it was great. I mean, pretty mainstream as large live music events go: masses of people in a large concert hall, laser lights, video walls, Robyn wailing the classics (“Call Your Girlfriend” was especially memorable). Good, clean (well..) fun. After tiring of Robyn, Mark and I grabbed a couple of beer and then used the special gold-pass-only walkway over the vanue that quickly got us from stage to stage. We didn’t really stick around to watch any other music in particular, but we did enjoy checking out the venue. On the far end they had bumper cars set up and a large, carnival-esque, neon-lit food zone set up. Otherwise, just stages. The far stage was outside, so we hung around for another beer or two and enjoyed the weather.

Christ. I’ve been writing on this for over two hours. Let’s wrap.

What else happened? The first night Mark and I walked down La Rambla and through Bacelonetta to the beach and grabbed some bites to eat at a little cafe on the water. And the last night instead of going to the Sonar nighttime event we ate at a tapas-sushi-fusion place I found called Doble ZerOO. We sat outside in a little plaza in the Bari Gotic part of town that was full of little kids running around, yelling, playing soccer, etc. Felt surprisingly neighborhood-like for being smack in the center of old Barcelona. Decent sushi. Nice to sit outside and have some beers.

Oh, and the World Cup kicked off while we were in Barcelona. Finding places to watch was actually a bit of a challenge, so for the Spain/Netherlands game we would up in an American-style (sort of) barbecue place in the weird bullfighting arena-turned-shopping mall right across the street from the hotel. Spain got abused. No one seemed particularly upset.

We twice, then, went to an English-style pub near La Rambla to watch games. I forget the name. We enjoyed the place, but the English hooligans were definitely out in force, so we had to deal with a lot of that. Thus I didn’t mind when England also lost. And some guy drunkenly called me “Hodor.”