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SONAR 2006

13th Barcelona International Festival of Advanced Music and Mutimedia Art
15 — 17 June 2006
Event website: http://www.sonar.es

Reviewed by Yvonne Spielmann
Institute of Media Research
Braunschweig University of Art, Germany


Over the years the SONAR festival of electronic and computer sounds and visuals at Barcelona has gained an internationally high reputation for setting new standards in advanced audiovisual and intermedia arts as well as for presenting a diversity of established and younger DJ and live music performances, interactive installations and cutting edge developments in audio tools. Because of the seniority of the festival, it is well-organized, the staff highly knowledgeable and extremely supportive, and locations clearly marked and easy to find in the huge festival complex.

Stages, performance, and exhibition spaces are professionally equipped and, despite the volume level, do not interfere with each other. The outdoor spaces smoothly transform into casual listening, dancing, meeting, and relaxing areas where watching the traffic of festival participants and audiences becomes an interesting fashion show, equal to the experience of attending the performances of the audio artists.

The day and night sections of the festival, including conference and exhibition segments, are always scheduled within a reasonable time frame – shows start on time. Inside the huge main complex of the Centre D'Art Santa Monica the short passages allow quick changes from one event to another (transportation to the night events is provided by the festival). The atmosphere of the festival is southern, relaxed, cool, and devoted to high and world class audiovisual acts from late afternoon to the early morning hours.

Viewed together, SONAR is a vivid place of communication, exchange, and promotion for new and experimental trends in electronic, sonic, and visual art performances. Presentations of electronic tools and new digital music instruments by Toshio Iwai are paralleled by stage performances with the styles and forms of rock, electro-pop, hip-hop, dub, jazz and showcases of labels.

Work presentations in the exhibition section included the demonstration of interactive music technologies by the Spanish/Austrian group "Reactable". The work asks the user/viewer to place audio objects on the surface of a soundtable from where the data of the differently colored objects will be read according to their spatial position and will interact with the data of other objects on the table. Together they create not only sound patterns but build rhythmical and musical scores. The more the table is crowded with objects the more sounds evolve and play music.

The wide spectrum of artists and the multiplicity of shows range from the audiovisual concerts of the celebrated group "Earth, Wind & Fire", to internationally well-known techno and house (such as Miss Kittin and Laurent Garnier & Bugge Wesseltoft) to experimental sampling and blending of sounds and music elements (for example, Herbert and Barbara Preisinger).
There are two major foci promoted: one, contemporary black music and the other, Japan's electronic scene. While the black music section showed strong participation of reggae, funk, and jazz in a rather broad variety, of sometimes questionable quality (CHIC feat Nile Rodgers), black music came to a deepening expression with the almost legendary Jamaican dub poet and musician Linton Kwesi Johnson. His live act showed, particularly to younger audiences, how world-class music and political protest against US politics easily merge in dance rhythm. An exemplary piece of sub-culture, 100% more appealing, intelligent and enjoyable than the ambitious and rather strained looking, Fat Freddy's Drop from New Zealand.

The theme of electronic music from Japan spanned a wide range of media. Once again the Japanese avant-garde of electronic and computer development demonstrated to the rest of the world the purpose of building new tools/computers to accomodate the needs of those in art and music. Furthermore, the Japanese in accordance with some other leading avant-garde musicians of contemporary media, state again, that the audio sector is much more developed than the visual. Moreover, where audio artists work audio-visually it becomes evident that there is a kind of hierarchy involved when audio thinking and sonic structures drive the visual aspects and not the opposite way.

On the opening night of the SONAR festival, Japanese pianist and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and German audio/visual artist Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto) performed together live on stage their recent collaborative composition and installation piece "Insen". While Sakamoto, who has a worldwide reputation as a composer of film music as well as a solo pianist, is interested in merging Western and Eastern musical styles and forms, Nicolai in analytical ways scrutinizes visual and audio structures and the interchangeability and transformation of one into the other and vice versa. Both are interested in reflecting the processes of their creative interaction with the sounds. The collaboration of "Insen" is based on sonic materials where an initial piece by Sakamoto is reworked and transformed by Nicolai through computer processing.

In the live performance and interaction on stage, Sakamoto actually plays the piano while Nicolai interferes with, overlays, and complements the actual piano sounds though pre-recorded sounds of the digital reworking of Sakamonto's music. What develops is an open and processual convergence of two media that sometimes converge and sometimes seem to compete with each other. The minimal style of the whole performance reminds one of piano variations by Erik Satie (the artists themselves give the reference) and is further highlighted by the visual score of Nicolai's part. The different tracks are associated with different rhythmic patterns on a large scale LED projection so that audiences can also visually experience the abstraction and reduction they hear in the perceptually synaesthetic environment.

Another equally interesting and far-reaching concept is presented by audio-visual artist Toshi Iwai (who in earlier works had also collaborated with Sakamoto in using the piano as a visual medium). Iwai demonstrated a new musical instrument that he developed in collaboration with Yu Nishibori at Yamaha. Both performed with two prototype machines. These represent a new generation of sound technology that is a hand held flat screen computer with a translucent pixel structure on both sides that allows the performer to see and hear the creative processes at the same time they are generated. The instrument "Tenori-on" consists of a 16 x 16 matrix of LED switches that are complemented by a menu set of buttons to select instrument and tone and which are placed on the surrounding frame of this inner screen. With these applications, the musical instrument enables the user to play individual sounds but also create their own symphony. The interesting aspect again lies in the media convergence, that playing an instrument becomes a visual process which at the same time develops an aesthetic quality of its own. Because sound and vision are created by the same source and are internally interconnected, the audiovisuality of the performance is much more approriate to the digital technology that lies at the core than in most usual DJ performances.

A festival like SONAR, however, provides that place and space for a professional audience to become acquainted with such new tools and their fresh aesthetic impulses and the skillful and entertaining presentation by Toshio Iwai that hopefully will affect the larger fields of audio-visual performance.

Two other Japanese audio artists also worked with both audio and visual media. Taeji Sawai is interested in sampling and in the transformation of visual information into pixel structures and graphic patterns which are controlled and commanded by audio signals. In his audiovisual performances he works with computer programs to use the visual in the audio setting. Sawai also interacts with sensors to detect the motion of light (where he performs with light sources) in a closed circuit, where the computer analyses and transforms the light information into sounds/voltage that affect the light sensors which insert this information into the computer and so forth. The overriding idea is to generate and distort information within one operation so that analysis and effect of sounds collide in audiovisual performances that are structurally connected to noise.

Differently, Ryoji Ikeda plays pre-recorded sounds and visuals of minimalist style and reduced graphic pattern that resemble and reflect the signal and processual mode of the computer. The 3D graphics involved appear to be mostly black and white. They are reduced in pattern to simple, almost basic forms, which through their mobility and variation support and visually translate the structuring principles of the music score. The audiovisual pieces by Ikeda are constructed in multiple layers from the perspective of electrical noise and expand and grow into a complex sound and image volume. Ikeda is interested in working with geometrical patterns created, by and through noise, and to find correspondences of sound and vision on the level of abstraction.

The Japanese section would not have been complete without DJ Krush, a world-class master of mixing Asian and Western styles with the turntables. He subtly introduces jazz elements, break-beats and also traditional Japanese scores in defamiliarizing ways and filtered with and through the electronic rhythm. Another example of cross-culture performance is given by the collaborative DJ sets of Ricardo Villalobos from Catalania and Richie Hawtin from Canada (both based in Berlin where they also perform as a duo). They actually share the same sets in fascinating succession from hip to cool.



Updated 1st July 2006

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