"We can really play with particles now," said JP Rémillard, better known as Montreal-based producer Pheek, on a Saturday afternoon workshop during Mutek about the new Traktor Kontrol D2 from Native Instruments. Pheek was referring to the track stems the D2 now allows users to handle, but he could have just as easily been summarizing the whole of Mutek Montreal.
In many ways, Mutek, May 27-31, is the antidote to big summer music festivals where scale and volume rule. At Mutek, the particles are in focus while grandiosity is shunned. This is not a rave; it's barely a festival, but rather a conference during the day with some exposition through musical performances at a few key locations each night, all centrally located in downtown Montreal.
The daily free outdoor evening concert at the Parterre du Quartier des Spectacles is Mutek's equalizer—open to the public and visible to those walking through the somewhat newly-built arts neighborhood of the city. The shows always had a small crowd dancing in front, though many in the audience felt free to sit on the grass, observing rather than participating in the performances from artists Mathew Jonson, Moon Buggy, and Project Pablo. Saturday evening featured Tijuana-based live electronic band Nortec Collective, replete with accordion, horn, and full-size tuba (no euphoniums here). It would have seemed practically garish in comparison to the abundance of studies in microtech on the same stage were Nortec not so warmly embraced by the crowd, including many families with small children.
Teens and pre-teens (with their parents) could also be found at the weekend daytime panels inside the Musée d'Art Contemporain or Centre Phi arts facility, absorbing the intellectual musings of artists and critics who delved into topics such as "Using Synthesizers in Live Performances" and "A Century of Zombie Sound," the latter of which was paired with a SubPac-enhanced film screening.
At night, attentions subtly shifted from analytical to the demonstrational as performances enveloped attentive listeners with rapturous live shows from the likes of Steffi on Friday and Atom™ & Tobias. (who were phenomenal) on Saturday at the club Metropolis or high concept art pieces that allowed for sitting down, including one much-discussed show called "Music for Lamps." Lasers, LED screens, and 20 minute builds were de rigueur as is befits a festival that bills itself as a festival of "digital creativity and electronic music." While artists like John Tejada Andy Stott, and Cobblestone Jazz may have brought in a few devoted fans of their own, the majority of people were there for the full experience, the concept of a "headliner" seeming practically alien.
The wonder of Mutek is really that it exists at all. Many remarked during the five-day long event that an event like this could only happen in Montreal where there is such deep infrastructural support of the arts and a cultural commitment to celebrating the off-beat (the festival's hub is in the city's contemporary art museum, after all). Though there are Mutek editions in Mexico City, Barcelona, and Bogota, Montreal remains the primary locale and the festival seems at home here amid the myriad of other festivals the city hosts during its short summer.
Like most festivals, the weather is the uncontrollable X factor, and this year it somewhat behaved with warm if muggy temps in the first few days, a downpour or two of rain on Saturday and an unseasonably cool Sunday. While in years past Mutek has partnered with weekly summer fest Piknic Electronik for a joint outdoor party on Sunday afternoon, the two amicably parted ways this year (despite rumors that Mutek was dissatisfied with Piknic's more populist crowd), and held politely competing events on what turned out to be an unappealing cloudy day to be outside. While there are some who likely had an easy time deciding between My Favorite Robot and Art Department (sans Kenny) at Piknic and Kode9 and Daniel Bell at Mutek, it's a shame anyone had to make that choice.
Those who went to Parc Jean Drapeau on the island where Piknic holds its two-stage fest were treated to a more convivial environment than the rest of Mutek. People danced to DJ sets (instead of watching live productions), played pétanque, and drank beer. It's not that Mutek isn't fun, but Piknic is about having fun, and there's nothing wrong with that.
In some ways, Mutek runs the risk that many festivals do, where success has led its promoters to perhaps think there's a limitless supply of fans who have an endless appetite for their product, often not realizing the product is the music and that belongs to the artists. Unlike ADE, which coordinates with venues across Amsterdam during its week to create a city-wide festival experience for attendees, Mutek ends up competing with other Montreal venues by default. Crowds at Stereo, Datcha, and long-running monthly party The Goods were thin, as locals diffused (or stayed away) and visitors were left to fend for themselves if they veered off from the primary Mutek offerings. It would behoove everyone to be more cooperative across the electronic music world, but in Montreal it seems like it should more possible than elsewhere.
Ultimately though, Mutek doesn't try to engage too much beyond its own world. The term "academic" flies around freely at the conference, and rightly so. Much like the ivory towers of academia, Mutek's deep and analytical conversations along with deep and detailed performances seem to exist in a bubble. The programming is intellectually-based, living outside or in defiance of many realities of capitalism. Unlike other conferences where panels are almost always intended to share tips and tools for how to "make it big," save for an early-week panel presented by FACTOR, the public funding organization for Canadian music, there is little during Mutek that grapples with matters of commerce. The focus is squarely on art. It's idealistic, if a little insular, but also quite a delightful respite from the rest of the festival calendar.
Zel McCarthy is THUMP's editor-in-chief and very academic on Twitter.