Red Bull Music Festival is a traveling curated series that made its first-ever stop in Toronto in October. With worldwide tour dates including Berlin, Tokyo, and Montreal, the showcase has a reputation for challenging listener expectations, and lending local artists a platform to reinterpret the boundaries of their craft. Among the numerous experimental presentations throughout the week, the interdisciplinary performance by Alice Glass and an orchestral reconstruction of DVSN’s songbook asserted how valuable it is for artists to indulge the opportunity to experiment, and why binding an evolving musician to their past projects prevents them from thriving.
Alice Glass kicked off the week-long series of showcases with her performance of “The Doll House” at the Fermenting Cellar. She collaborated with Italian-Canadian director Floria Sigismondi to deliver a visually striking production that marked her most distinct departure from any of her previous work. “My original idea for the show was to do something playing off the misconceptions that women are disposable,” she says. “Floria helped find a way to express this idea by involving dancers that she then had all dressed alike and similar to me.”
The dissolution of Crystal Castles made the familiar maximalism in Glass’ solo production an easy target for comparisons. It alludes to her past, yet lacks certain traits that distinguished the electroclash duo—but this is more than fine. Accompanied by militaristic dancers choreographed by Mistaya Hemingway, Glass used motion mimicry and clever body-work to command the audience’s attention. As a result, her lyrical content had a profoundly mesmerizing impact on listeners. She re-contextualized her work to reveal the deeply personal perspective that amplifies the independence of her sonic identity, and justified any distinctions from her work within Crystal Castles. “Not everyone has to like everything I do, but I’m not trying to be AC/DC over here where every fucking thing I do sounds and looks the same,” she says of the project.
Nostalgia and comfort play a massive role in the listening experience, which explains why listeners tend to try and keep artists like Alice Glass in a box. They’re holding onto the first impression that stumbling across their records initially made on them. Glass’ performance at Red Bull Music Festival was, in equal parts, a rejection of these expectations as it was an exploratory venture into her own creative potential beyond her music. It cemented her place in the industry as an evolving, interdisciplinary artist who is exploring her own lived experience through music, rather than reiterating formulas that successfully humoured an audience in the past. “People like to be reminded of familiar feelings—memories from the past, whether good or not, that people remain attached to,” says Glass. “I like that too, but I also like to challenge people and push boundaries with my music and performances. That can make people feel uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too. But everything is moving too fast on this little planet right now for people to have any illusions that things can stay the same.”
The collaboration between the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and OVO’s DVSN demonstrated a similar departure from audience expectations at the Roy Thomson Hall. Orchestrater Christopher Mayo, who helped produce the Carly Rae Jepsen symphony experience in 2017, worked with Daniel Daley and Nineteen85 to illuminate the coy cinematic textures that are written into the R&B duo’s production. “A lot of their music is filmic in scale, and he wanted to highlight that aspect,” he says. “A lot of his ideas were about how to push it into that epic direction.”
DVSN transformed the Roy Thomson Hall into an immersive stage for their discography. The legendary acoustics of the space—in combination with the grandeur of live string, wind, and brass sections—elevated DVSN’s music to a level that prompts listeners to reconsider how they compartmentalize their sound. It is rare to see modern R&B seated next to classical instruments, but this calls for a larger statement on what rules are in place when fusing styles of music—if any. The unlikely pairing of genres made for a sold-out event that became the most highly-anticipated showcase over the course of Red Bull Music Festival in Toronto.
Rather than adapting the musical material to traditional instruments, the performance delivered a dynamic interplay between the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the synthesized material the duo normally performs with. With a lush gospel choir providing backing vocals, it was not only a classical reinterpretation of modern music, but audibly confronted the stereotypes that associate a lack of sophistication with contemporary genres. “It wasn’t just about an orchestra doing an impersonation of the sounds on the tracks,” says Mayo. “Sometimes it was about finding the different roles that the music can play in relation to the music that was already there.”
Red Bull Music Festival’s Toronto installation gave artists like Alice Glass and DVSN the valuable opportunity to experiment with the forms their craft can take. The series of conceptual performances revealed how the city’s local artists harbour creative potential that goes beyond the music that we got to know them by. As Glass and DVSN built on their existing material and adapted it to new contexts, the artists indulged personal reinvention to profound effect.
Consistency is lauded as a key ingredient to relevance in the music industry, despite how unnatural this is for an artist to live up to. Often, how a listener comes to know an artist is what they expect they’ll deliver on subsequent releases. Artists are individuals who act on their impulse to create. What’s occasionally forgotten is that this creative impulse in an artist can take many forms, and shift its shape over time. Recognizing the value of this sentiment, Red Bull Music Festival delivered a series of intimate performances that prompted audiences to harness the expectations they impose on their favourite artists, in order to make room for what’s yet to come.
Corinne is on Twitter.