All this week, I’ll be talking about the artists and events at Montreal’s MUTEK audiovisual festival. There’s nowhere better to begin than at the launch evening of their a/visions series.
Natural landscapes are recurrent themes in electronic music and the metaphors we use to describe them – glaciers and jetstreams. But the Black Forest of Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS, the audiovisual “experience” from the Cologne electronic legend, is an unusually potent descriptor. It’s not so much the real Black Forest’s twigs or leaves or babbling brooks that defines GAS; it’s its density. From its elaborate twirling visual forestry to the saturated sound, GAS is ambient without ever being static, and as deeply enevloping of its visitors as its subject matter.
For his part, Voigt himself was a motionless shadow through much of the piece. Occasionally, the slightest motion of his forearm suggested he was tweaking something subtly in his Ableton Live set. Otherwise he seemed only a reference of the diminuitive human scale against a sometimes blinding projection behind him.
Listening to Voigt’s music requires active effort, like holding your breath underwater. (Underwater bodies turned out to be the theme of the piece that would follow.) The bass below becomes a kind of sonic ground, though occasionally it materializes into a recognizable pulsing beat, like a distant tribal drum call. The inscrutable density of the Dark Forest is embodied mainly in a wash of sound, sometimes obscured by a relentless hiss of noise with which it is mixed. The combination seems like should overwhelm, but somehow details become clear, bouncing off the walls of Montreal’s Monument National theater. Turn your head slightly, and like sounds in the underbrush, the murky becomes clear. With the occasional digital crackle popping out of the underbrush and the shimmer of sounds that float above the mud, the effect is magical.
Oddly, though, to me it was really the visual experience that made GAS so dazzling. Built on Voigt’s own photographs, thickly layered outlines of twigs and leaves twhirled on top of one another in abstract kaleidoscopes. Particularly at the piece’s opening, they became as thick as Voigt’s soundscapes, but would pull apart in regular patterns to form crystalline structures and skeletal architectures. The fusion of this visual effect with the sound allows details of the soundscape to emerge, like shining a light onto the forest. Close your eyes, and the sound loses a whole dimension.
The visuals were derived from Voigt’s own photos, but the credit to the live visualist was missing. A woman appeared onstage, evidently the designer and performer, but no one seemed to know her identity – a real injustice to her work. I’m working to find out who she was. Updated: In fact, it was Petra Hollenbach. Incredibly, I believe she may have been the only headline artist in all of a/visions to be a woman. That makes the fact that MUTEK seemed not to know who she was and credited the piece exclusively to Mr. Voigt – even given his reputation – even more unfortunate. That’s not to suggest that MUTEK was being intentionally or even unintentionally sexist, but the simple reality was that, whatever the intention, women seemed generally invisible and nameless at the festival.
The whole evening is tightly controlled, though so much so that it sometimes seems repetitive – certain stretches of this forest are traversed in circles. For all its minimalism, though, the piece is spectacular first. Perhaps that explains why the piece explodes into an eye-numbing strobe at its conclusion. Most effective was the simple addition of a scrim at the front of the stage. The brilliant color-on-black combination turned the proscenium stage space into a three-dimensional illusion.
Getting out of the woods seems to be the piece’s one stumbling block; it seemed unable to find a structural definition that would bring the piece to a conclusion, leaving some of the final scenes feeling redundant. The appearance of the name “GAS” at the end, and an oddly-abrupt fade out of the audio, also seemed odd after such an eloquently refined performance. But to me, the sheer sonic and visual textural spectacle was irresistible. It’s hard to think of a better way to start MUTEK than with a complete, imagined world.
Wolfgang Voigt at Kompakt (of which he’s co-founder)
I’m working on finding out if we can get officially-released video documentation, but in the meantime, the original album classic is now available with a nice color book: