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Contemporary Experiments Collide With Pioneers at CTM 2016

At this year’s CTM, a Monday panel discussion united the most idiosyncratic artists who performed during the opening weekend that preceded it. Alan Bishop of freaky noise-folk band Sun City Girls sat alongside Egyptian cosmic-electronica maverick Maurice Louca, Tunisian conceptual performer Deena Abdelwahed and a handful of Middle Eastern artists who spelled insanity during the weekend concerts. When the audience was given the opportunity to pose their own questions, a voice took aim at Bishop and asked if there was any hope for younger generations and whether he was optimistic about the future.

Bishop didn’t hesitate to answer no in the irreverent key you would hear him rant as Uncle Jim on  “Superstars Of Greenwich Meantime”. The audience burst into laughter, as it was the ultimate sarcastic punchline to a discussion he commenced by stating that most of the musicians he collaborates with these days are probably younger than he is. In fact, collaboration between new musicians and those who influenced them was the cornerstone of this year’s CTM, which together with the arts-oriented Transmediale program is the biggest and most famous experimental music festivals in the ICAS network (alongside Krakow’s Unsound).

Throughout the week, unlikely collaborative efforts transcended space and genre under the banner theme “New Geographies.” Highlights included the joint performance between Sunn O))) drone metal staple Stephen O’Malley and Romanian spectralist composers Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram. O’Malley’s heavy guitar dubbed abstract sounds on songs with cosmic titles that evoked galaxies colliding. It was the intersection of O’Malley’s abstract approach and the high-culture, modernist sound developed by Romanian spectralists in the mid-20th century, when the avant-garde was illegal and thus very covert in Romania. It seems likely that O’Malley was one of the Western diggers who discovered obscure Romanian spectralists in the 1980s and ‘90s because he’s cited Dumitrescu as a major influence, collaborated with him several times in the past and released the composer’s most recent records on his own Ideologic Organ label.

A similar encounter occurred on the opening night of CTM 2016 when Maurice Louca’s band transfixed the crowd at Werkstatt der Kulturen, echoing the craft of classically trained krautrock pioneers in pairing a live rhythmic section to cosmic synth lines. Louca himself seemed in a trance as he tamed his electronic gear to drums that described Arabic tempo while a sound-energy flow resonated throughout each body in the room. The next night, Louca contributed to the Dwarfs Of East Agouza trio with Alan Bishop and Sam Shalabi, and the performance was pretty sick on countless levels. Imagine Sun City Girls’ Torch Of The Mystics era with everything that’s timeless and everything that’s new to it, upgraded via Louca’s synthesizers and Bishop speaking eastern incantations.

On the craftier side, CTM hosted the Native Instruments MusicMakers Hacklab, which brought together emerging experimental musicians and some of the coolest kids in the tech-driven DIY dimension. It aligned with the “new geographies” theme in that it included musicians of various origins, including locations that seem unlikely to foster much electronic avant-gardism, like Iran, Armenia and Georgia. Standout guest tutor Wukir Suryadi of the Indonesian Morphine-signed band Senyawa shared invaluable psych-noise insights about creating unusual instruments and using inspiration from non-Western sounds to evoke a soundtrack to rituals of the future. On  Sunday, Suryadi performed as part of a group that featured Hacklab participants, which constituted another take on the idea of collaborations that bridge outernational noise legends with new musicians.

The choice of artists united by CTM’s curative effort acted as a cloud-structure connected by a smart and unseen nervous system of its own. To me, the underlying weaving seemed at times to have something to do with the Internet, an integral or ultimate instigator in erasing borders per the “new geographies” theme. In All Hail Mother Internet, Abdelwahed portrayed the arrogant and charming host of an imaginary radio broadcast and the listeners who called in to talk to her. She satirized the callers’ Western values, and by the end she addressed the internet directly in a monologue that meditated on individuality in the context of cultural gap between East and West.


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Other collaborations made the Internet seem like a place on Earth.  Visionist projected luring, mechanical sound waves to coincide with an excellent A/V by Kevin Bray, melting organic structures into continuously morphing cyber-fluid. SHAPE 2015 elect Aïsha Devi teamed with Tianzhuo Chen and aimed sacred frequencies at a collective third eye portal in what can be non-metaphorically described as ritual music. And Saturday night’s program at YAAM demonstrated a futuristic take on the bass-loving sound system of the former reggae venue. But of all the virtual explorations of geographies at CTM 2016, the most climactic was Hatsune Miku’s.

Two nights in a row, interminable queues assembled in front of the symmetrical entries to HKW’s immense amphitheater to see a performer who doesn’t phsycially exist. Hatsune Miku is rather an avatar of a teenage superstar designed in part by an army of citizen producers who also write the music she sings with a vocaloid voice. Her show at CTM, Still Be Here, united experimental electronic musician Laurel Halo with visual and digital artists like LaTurbo Avedon as curators.

It was a truly reflexive opus of something non-existent ruminating on her own existence against the cynicism of her real-life creators. On the projection screen, disturbing inserts of an investigation documentary created a media disruption that confronted the saddest and most human version of Hatsune Miku’s hologram. It brought up the whole vanity of idol culture and the fame mirage, hinted at the cyberpunk situation where holograms would show more emotional capacity than humans and ultimately touched on the human condition as defined by its alter.

This year’s CTM was, maybe more than in the past years, a product to reflect the formula of its curators. It was a ten-day crash course in cultural awareness, to which music acted as a highly  dense conduction matter. It pushed space limits both with its far reach and its full venues and channeled music from then and now. And in the end, it managed to cover not just an illusory map, but a whole sound transcript of the territory.

Published February 12, 2016.