MUTEK.JP 2018: Five key performances

  • The revered electronic music and digital arts festival returns to the world's most technologically advanced metropolis.
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  • Last week, MUTEK touched down in Tokyo for the third time. Sitting at the intersection of art, science, music and technology, the Montreal-born festival has quickly grown its Japanese offering. The 2016 debut went down at the respected Shibuya venues WWW and WWW X. The following year, there was the novel takeover of Tokyo's Miraikan (AKA The National Museum Of Emerging Science And Innovation). For 2018, the four-day festival presented a combination of the two previous events, with the addition of another Shibuya nightclub, Unit. MUTEK.JP's venues were immense and their impact inseparable from the overall experience. WWW, a former arthouse theatre turned music venue, is a subterranean hideout with concrete walls, worlds apart from the neon-lit revelry that characterizes nightlife in the surrounding neighbourhood. The Miraikan, conversely, sits at the southern point of the city, on the reclaimed land by Tokyo Bay. The area is fascinating, with high-rise apartment blocks dominating the skyline and an artificial island built on landfill from waste materials. Then there's all the kitsch—a miniature Statue Of Liberty, a giant Gundam robot and an entire shopping mall full of faux Greco-Roman statuettes and imitation Italian marble. Travelling across Tokyo, from the festival's daytime and evening programme at Miraikan to its nighttime events in Shibuya, was an exercise in navigating conflicting visions of modernity. The performances, too, spanned a breadth of artistic vision, though if there was one criticism of the programme, it's that there were too many acts with stern expressions, all-black wardrobes and abstract visuals. But there were also some outstanding performances that interrogated the intersection between music and technology in a truly thought-provoking way. Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
    Kazuya Nagaya & Ali Demirel Kazuya Nagaya and Ali Demirel's audiovisual performance closed out the first night at WWW. Nagaya is a percussionist and ambient producer who has a long history of using gongs, bronze bells and singing bowls—instruments typically used in Buddhist or Hindu rituals—to evoke in his audience the sort of introspection and self-awareness that is engendered in Zen meditation. When playing live, he pairs these sounds with ambient tracks that he triggers from a laptop. As he played the bowls, the slow dissipation of the vibrations called attention to the binary opposition of sound and silence, but also to the contrast between organic tones and electronic ambience. The minimalistic visuals of the experimental video artist Demirel presented a similar confrontation: footage of water and natural scenery interrupted occasionally by the subtle shift of a camera angle to remind the audience of human interference.
    Machina & Shohei Fujimoto Here's an unlikely pairing: Machina, a K-Pop singer turned electronic musician who infuses modular synths with live vocals, and Shohei Fujimoto, a conceptual installation artist who focuses on the scientific objectivity of code and algorithms. The two come from very different backgrounds but have a chemistry that thrived in the intersectional environment of MUTEK.JP. Machina's meticulous approach to music production, founded on the tenets of hard work and intense training that characterized her former life as a popstar, clearly resonated among the more technologically minded members of the audience. Her musicality also synced perfectly with Fujimoto's abstract visuals, which provided a striking backdrop without ever overpowering Machina's performance.
    X-102 (Jeff Mills & Mike Banks) Playing live together for the first time in years, Jeff Mills and Mike Banks performed a ferocious rendition of their 1992 landmark album, Discovers The Rings Of Saturn. They were barely visible behind a translucent screen at the front of the stage, onto which images of Saturn, its moons and rings were crudely projected with little fanfare. The visuals mirrored the raw dynamism of the music, as Mills and Banks burned their way through classics such as "Titan," "Pan" and "Mimas." Every so often, the visuals cut fleetingly to live closeups of the Detroit pair—Mills striking a drum machine with characteristic precision, Banks more than matching his vigour on the keys. Each time, a cheer went up from the audience, their energy steadily building throughout the 75-minute set. When the performance ended, it received rapturous applause.
    Hatsune Miku "Still Be Here" is a multimedia project created by a cross-disciplinary and cross-border team that situates the blue-haired holographic Vocaloid idol Hatsune Miku in a radically new context, one in which she, and her creators, meditate on the nature of virtual idols in a critical and self-reflective way. Touching on everything from post-humanism to Marshall McLuhan and "angelism," the performance blended narration with music from Laurel Halo, who transforms Miku's saccharine J-Pop into something entirely more fractured and destabilizing. While the music played, Miku danced a melancholic, somber ballet. Often contemplative and legitimately moving, the digital avatar ironically ended up providing one of the most affecting displays of humanity at the festival.
    Aïsha Devi & Emile Barret Although musically a million miles from Kazuya Nagaya, Aïsha Devi is another artist who has reconceptualized electronic music through spirituality with great success. At Miraikan on Sunday, she performed a barrage of tunes from her latest album, DNA Feelings, that oscillated between euphoria and dysphoria. Her vocals were soothing and sweet one moment, agitated and distressed the next. Ambient melodies filled the cavernous room before dissonant rave stabs and thumping drums shattered the harmony. It wasn't an easy performance to endure for the full hour—the booming soundsystem only amplified the discomfort—but it was nonetheless unforgettable.