observations on Sonic Acts 2 - the specter of Speedy J

Sonic Acts, a festival of experimental electronic and digital arts in Amsterdam, has come a long way since its student days, from showcasing regional artists to integrating the local with global nodes. Including (expensive) North American artists and speakers as well as label showcases have shuffled this festival into the limelight.

The festival catalogue, Unsorted, an A to Z for Sonic Acts X, a nifty little yellow pocket-sized book reminiscent of Autonomedia's Foreign Agents series, includes essays by Lev Manovich, Stephen Wilson, Mark Hansen & Ben Rubin, Mitchell Whitelaw, and myself, as well as by editors Taco Stolk and Arie Altena. Interviews with Casey Reas and Driessens & Verstappen round out the worthwhile volume. A definitive aspect of discussion is the changing role of the (media/sound) artist today and the digital--a theme present across various points of view.

As for the fest, tucked into the lower tourist zone of vertically challenged Amsterdam, it ran smoothly... The most important factor--sound--was well taken care of after, apparently, the Raster-Noton crew balanced the solid Paradiso soundsystem. While the audience still has to pick up on a few tips in regards to listening (and applauding), the overall response was enthusiastic even when slightly confused. Sonic Acts has somewhat outgrown its Paradiso club venue; future editions would do well by investigating alternate spaces for the meditative, listening acts, in order to better address its expanding, networked audience.

A few highlights of this well-organised, friendly festival --

- the panels, which were substantial and intelligent, including Casey Reas, Jon Wozencroft, the IAAA, JODI.org, etc.;
- COH, whose remix of his Mego 12" was sustained and fucking manic, hands down upping the ante on abstraction to movement;
- Venetian Snares.
- Chris Watson, whose Ghost Train piece sucked me into the whirlwind of Mexico's defunct east-west line;
- Hazard, whose climactic bursts of layered intensity shocked the audience's suspect attitude toward quiet music;
- Fennesz, whose integration of Kevin Shields-like guitar and laptop manipulation has come to a seamless meld, although far less digital sounding than his Live in Japan work, still emotively tranquil;
- Skoltz_kolgen, whose audio-visual integrative piece, Fluux:Terminal once again 'stole the show' (and for good reason);
- the Raster-Noton showcase, which was solid and abstractly rhythmic as always..
- (as for Venetian Snares, see the post below)

Audio of the sets can be found here and here.

Although no one got down like Mutek, it was nonetheless an intensive bought of listening (although the dancing was somewhat restrained--perhaps because the main dance moments were incredibly fast, hard, almost arhythmic--Venetian Snares, Speedy J--or too subtle for this vanilla audience to clue into (Raster-Noton)).

A disappointment, which has no reflection on the organisers, was the performance of Speedy J.

Speedy J, specter of the early Plus 8, of the infamous live recording of 1995, G-Spot, of a myriad mid-90s seachanges in genre (Ginger, etc.) that redefined the scope and scape of industrial, techno composition--what happened to you?

Playing a 4 hour live set, Speedy was billed as a special event of historical proportions. Situating his work as always shifting in direction, the curators built up Speedy J's history as counter-directional to the commercial trends of European electronic music (his bombastic, cinematic and industrial mid-90s IDM and breakcore, for example, as counter to trance and so on).

However, his performance was anything but a shift, unless one can understand a shift to the sell-out, worst shlock imaginable, of thumper techno and meaningless ambient. Not even a genre shift: but a very poor attempt at producing anything approaching a mature comprehension of any kind of music. It was bad.

Two hours of the most mundane, dreadful ambient, with out-of-step rhythms, banal pads, dullard percussion and stock sample sounds. From 1-3am, we stood around, waiting for something--anything--to happen. The actual sonic idea expressed would barely have supported a track, nevermind two hours of knob-twiddling self-indulgence (yes, on Ableton Live, with limited and ultimately inconsequential use of preset effects for no apparent reason other than killing time).

A continuous structure of tease-tease-no-release, rise-rise-rise-no-release supposedly buffered Speedy J's "intelligent" approach. However it simply dragged on into incoherent tedium. Not only conceptually, not only temporally, but sonically was it uninteresting.

When the unfunky, repetitive kick finally dropped (after a mild flirtation with IDM structures scarcely resembling his earlier, brilliant work on Public Energy No. 1 (1997, Plus 8/NovaMute)), it lacked all coherence, nevermind intentionality, and sounded last-minute and desperately necessary, as the place in which Speedy J had to move, if to move anywhere at all. At a BPM approaching 130+, the Eurorobot dancestyle hit the floor and everyone moved as if this was the only thing one could do; a kind of amphetamine necessity. It was pitiful.

The "techno"--of which I would have preferred contemporary deep trance, which at least incorporates microtechno and house production techniques in its hybrid forms--was relentless, inducing long amounts of boredom, without change or surprise, utilising nor referencing a single interesting technique nor movement. It was as if Speedy J had programmed the entire set in a Groovebox on the presets, using the most obvious drumkicks and percussion sequences, with no content of the skeletal refrain to speak of. The result... wishy-washy ambient pads, a total lack of play, of call-and-response, of inventive microsampling, no use of voice save for inconsequential vocoder (serving no apparent purpose), basically, the most bedroom, amateur, unimaginative use of the least sounds possible from a stock selection.

Lacking was not only an entire discourse with contemporary techno but the sense that the dude behind the controls had anything to do with the "Speedy J" of previous work. Was it him? Or a clone? Had Speedy J been re-produced as a cyborg to serve the banal techno mafia?

Lacking was all reference to his past work, to the brilliance of Public Energy No. 1 (one of his best albums, specifically "As the Bubble Expands" and "Canola" and the limited "Pannik/Punnik" 12"s), to the sampled forcefulness of "Something for Your Mind" and the live intensity and power of G-Spot. To all of his work on Plus 8, Warp, NovaMute. To all of his early intensity, insight, forcefulness, dazzling engagement with production technique and inventive sound generation. Was he simply unable to translate his work from the analogue to the digital paradigm? (Such an excuse seems highly unlikely given the ease of such procedures with Live). Was he simply not caring, or was this really what he likes these days, a kind of 'oh my god, techno has gone progressive' moment where we all sigh and ask ourselves--'where have the greats gone'? The sonic equivalent to Spinal Tap, basically.

Standing, drinking, smoking, for 3 hours that shocked in disappointment. I've never felt so embarrassed for a once-great producer. I stood there thinking how that three hours could have been used to elucidate and influence Amsterdam with inventive and engaging dance music meddling the genres, utilising advanced techniques with age-old intuitions of rhythm. And I thought of all the acts who fit the bill but never get the exposure... So I wrote a little letter to Speedy J:

Dear Speedy, Speedy Speedy J:

Luckily, or unforgettably, you will get chance and chance again, based on your reputation, to prove yourself either worthy or a write-off in the future of music. Let us hope that you take heed and thought to your work, and return to stun us with something as equally vibrant as Public Energy. It need not be dark: your uplifting optimism carries on. However, perhaps you should spend some of your wealth and fly over to Montreal for Mutek, where the world's beat junkies will spin your head and feet around. (You're not going to get invited to play--you'll have to get a lot better before anyone takes notice of you again).

It's ok, Speedy: Richie's there, and he liked it the past two years. Obviously it caught him by surprise too, on-stage as one among many of the Narod Niki jam: perhaps you need a scene again, a context in which to experiment, not to pass on the most bribed bullshit as somehow 'revolutionary' but to be pushed by those around you. For if you don't take notice, we'll just laugh you off the controls, mate, and take over. And that's a turn of the tables.

posted. Tue - September 28, 2004 @ 12:40 PM           |