In early December the almost creepy still of Ponta do Sol is disturbed by a relatively small group of international music and sound seekers. The calm that reclines lightly around this tiny, obscure town on Madeira Island is roused through dramatic aural abstractions and barely restrained hedonism, clashing, strangely and harmoniously, under the warm, nourishing winter sun. Madeiradig is a festival unlike any I have attended before. The format is simple: get your ticket, accommodation, flight and internal travel arranged. Then spend the best part of a week alternating between nightly concerts, walks around breathtaking volcanic scenery, luxurious relaxation with new friends and glowing parties atop the cliffs.
Digital in Berlin is the entity behind the event, and due to the number of Germans and Berlin residents present, it feels like a community has been lifted from industrialised mainland Europe, and brought down in the subtropics. As a friend of the country, this is an extremely pleasant situation that resonates with the general obscurity of the event. Centered around the ‘design hotel’ Estalagem Ponta do Sol and the Art Center Casa Das Mudas, the presentation is slick, contemporary, but within this there is an emphasis on fun and play rather than stuffy discursive exchange. With no performance beginning before 9:30pm, there is enough time during the day to explore the island and enjoy the facilities of the hotels – this is as much about the environment as it is about the music. Let’s start somewhere near the beginning…
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It feels deep underground in here, reflecting the disquieting calm of Madeira’s inland topography; visually it’s far removed, looking like a state of the art nuclear bunker, or a conference room inside the Death Star. A small fleet of coaches brought us here, to nearby Calheta, where the performance programme is played out each night of the festival. Arts Centre Casa Das Mudas is an exercise in minimalist design, looking like it’d be at home in Helsinki, its exterior geometrically stark and made up of greys and expanses of diffused light. Between arrival and the commencement of performance, a modest bar provides social lubrication – though only a short time elapses before we shuffle through the black doors to the imposing, but cosy performance space.
In exotic anticipation, two dark figures emerge… Joana Gama and Luís Fernandes coax global communications and soft propulsion through rousing chords, then delays and bare string chimes. It’s icicles melting awkwardly into an accumulating psychological nightmare. Several minutes later skittering table top electronics assert themselves, spiking the dream state briefly, before prettier things return again with a Fennesz tinged shimmer – beautiful, if a little frantic. Drones envelope and bring about a tension that threatens to be eternal, joined by E-bowed piano pads and their little metallic imperfections; an unexpected beat kicks in, changing swiftly to a bassy throb. The restless core gives way to a change of pace, and new amplitude opens the path to an utterly arresting piece, picked out through loose key soundings and following a similar structural framework to Cage’s In A Landscape. There is a deepening of the audience’s attention, bathed in melancholic semi-existence, until the all consuming, heavenly conclusion completes the set with hypnotic grace.
Aaron Dilloway begins with a supremely evocative loop, reversed, lush, not too far from some beautiful underground Chicago house anthem underwater, a record stuck on loop in reverse… but there’s no need to expect any extended period of comfort from this man. It soon mutates into a sandstorm on Mars, tape torture bringing about the desperate, persistent communication of dogs in a still Funchal night. The mood changes violently. An apparition of Satan emerges as Dilloway’s warped performance art takes over, lurching in anguish under the spotlight, somehow looking like glistening stop motion. Wet, intense rippling nods to the more aggressive industrialists; breathing and raw clanks fill a sudden void and the euphoria of the opening section seems a distant, mocking memory, shattered by white hot heat and light. A baby cries loudly in unpleasant humour… noise jokes are the best jokes – it’s never really clear why they are funny; those situations at noise shows where laughter is dark, directed inwards, at the encounterer’s own bemused view of their existence.
Less than an hour later most of the concert attendees are arranged several dozen metres up away from sea level, back home in Ponta do Sol. On the furthest edge of the Estalagem Ponta do Sol hotel complex is an area that seems designed purely for fun and relaxation – a space to house open air parties surrounded on three sides by sheer drops and open Atlantic swells; a building dedicated to the enjoyment of a sauna, Turkish bath, jacuzzi, pools and doing next to nothing as the sun beams overhead, and the little cat roams sweetly. Though not right now. Cats aren’t huge fans of loud techno, such is their fairly timid disposition. We’re up in the first after party hearing music too esoteric for the dance crowd, perhaps too straight up for the 4/4 abstractors. Not at all a criticism – it’s good to see a legacy of what might be called ‘art-techno’ (or something less horribly marketable) continuing with rhythms like a drunk R2D2 playing a steel drum in your first ever computer, a ride cymbal singeing your hair. Then Errorsmith begins a set with an incredibly infectious track that he later reveals is one of his own. Words shared with Germans, Belgians, Dutch, Portuguese and Canadian, a wonderful global cosmopolita, a worldwide celebration of sound, our brains caught on the circus bleep of a wheel, and an energy amassing. Constantly having to remind myself of where I am, what I’m doing… this really is no place for a baby. Errorsmith’s set settles into some more straight structured, but genuinely interesting and weird progressive house music. Glad to know that still exists. The first day has long darkened and becomes the early blue hours of the next.
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Then… sunshine greets us the next day and somehow the misty passage through the mountains in the explorable distance seems closer, more inviting. Leaving the refined lines of the hotel behind us, we ascend through the steepening gradients of the residential streets, winding towards the clouds that wait silently above. An hour later, behind the church, a rainbow throws its fractured beam past us into the gorge, leading us enthusiastically round the levada path and away from the town disappearing behind us. After hours of spirit coaxing intimacy with caves, rocks, waterfalls and lush flora, meetings with butterflies and the scent of eucalyptus trees, we emerge into a mountain village, glowing in the last dying rays of the sun.
In a borderline synaesthetic experience Lawrence English opens the second night by laying sea sounds across the walls of a room filled with smoke. A single beam from a lighthouse and an ominous detuned tamboura-sounding drone announces itself shyly, eventually obliterated by a reedy, organ-like fist of bass. Rubbery metal screeches and an explosion of fire – it’s furious; a cyclone speeds to terrifying height and speed, flashes out of existence, leaving a heart rate monitor beeping quietly to itself whilst it waits for… something… to die in the following subaquatic murmurings and a muddle of bass frequencies colliding with bludgeoning lightning strikes. And trees falling down the sides of a bulging gorge. Despite the difficult sonic forefront, melody almost always glistens above the noise, and soon aggression gives way to a period of pretty, major musical information, ending on something soft, like a pair of tights.
Ripped and burned, following the nightly intermission where fifteen minutes provides space to voice initial reflection and drink another poncha, a responsive AV depiction of crafts landing on unknown planets brings the preceding environments shuddering into unknown worlds. Suga’s Transflora visuals hint, fleetingly, at familiar textures of plants and trees, before they fizzle into violent abstraction; icy, alien insects breaking out of metallic chrysalids. The violence mimics the same tight multi-sensory punctuation found in Gantz Graf or an Ikeda work, though it crumbles on the wall rather than intersecting it. After quite an ordeal, cracks appear, filled with extended patches of ambience, geothermal rumblings and silence. Then aggression slams respite, large widescreen projected alien veins breaking open, and breaking open sanity. There’s a blend of acid-ruined Rorschach images, reset into film-grained continents surrounded by darkness. I see Boba Fett, on fire, spinning through protracted spider webs. The way the organic source material has been molested into dystopian art music, audibly echoing D’Atachi’s holy ferric mess, is truly unsettling, a promise of bleak futures. At times it’s utterly savage, and desolate, marginally forgiving the audience in the late introduction of psychedelic colour washes, shifting psilocybin-style.
Back on the coach, feeling subtly stunned, and to the after show for a performance from Columbian looping bass enchanter Lucrecia Dalt. There’s this strange tension I always found to exist in early Seefeel, where the music just won’t break out of paranoia or fear of overstating itself. Dalt’s pieces often start here, building through a quite film-like atmosphere into subtly realised, dark pop tracks. Something rather noir sits in an ethereal place above the sultry human persona tapping pedals and thick gauge strings below; a not-trip-hop Dark Island era Pram. Smoky vocals join the loops that grow in slow complexity, sounding woody and solemn, and a relatively sparse but effective use of a synthesiser enriches the metered sound world with space; it is arresting, weirdly threatening and dreamlike. Followed up by a night by the fire in the hotel bar (even down here in the Atlantic the winter months bring a nightly chill), drinking glasses of deep crimson generosity whilst an open piano is being alternately stroked and strangled, this night concludes with renewed strangeness, but is cosy.
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A sightly unexpected opening to Julianna Barwick’s performance fills the air with icy string textures, at odds with the enrapturing warmth of the vocal loops that define her. Not sticking around for an unwelcome duration, they soon blossom into a building choir of one, childlike. Barwick’s incredibly clear, refined tone rings out so so sweetly. It’s fresh, not in a way that suggests innovation (though it does stand apart from obvious comparison points, like Grouper) but actually fresh, like lush spring grass blowing in a breeze, white washing dancing on a line, or a glass of cool, clean water in which is hung a blue vista. Her set winds together overlapping moods with pauses for calm reflection in silence, a lull occasionally broken when certain notes break into a suggestion of restrained anguish. It’s a craft that sounds honed over decades, yet new and almost fragile amongst the weightier acts on the programme. Accompanying her tones are constantly evolving oil colour visuals that swirl like gas around planets, or strange psychedelic eggs being poached in white open space – the sights and sounds create a pleasing sensation of having one’s brain pulled around. Obscure forms gather and disseminate: a crocodile swallowing a marble; a rotted ape in profile. A cat being tortured; a gerbil’s head in a tiny Russian winter hat, suspended in mouthwash.
In possibly the most contrasting of all the evening lineups, Tomaga smash their way through the magical wonder hanging in the wake of Barwick’s set. The erroneousness of that demon, the loud PA pop of a cable or effects box not behaving itself, is swiftly forgotten as heavy drone mantras coalesce and bring about darkly exotic atmospheres, carving a dimly lit sonic background, slowly joined by propulsion and narrative. The drive of the kick drum comes in and transforms environment to procession – ritualistic and ancient. Helped along by visuals of vague, undetermined symbolism, inviting all to imagine their own framework of worship. It feels unsuitable to be sat in these folding auditorium chairs and not spinning around an enormous fire pit, naked. As heavier rhythms are ushered in, it’s like a lumbering skew on Acid Mothers Temple, slowed and sludgy. A new energy commands the room, and it feels like the intensity can, and should never stop increasing.
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It’s Monday. Traditional soups and bolo do caco are a late lunch, and the sea is familiar and wild. More local wanderings reveal a closer union with the grey cliff faces, slower pace and Ponta do Sol as home. There is a secrecy to the evening that has been waiting to emerge, and the lizards on the rocks announce its presence in skittering movements. Armed with a field recorder, the atmosphere is captured and coded, an archived memory of the twilight preceding the last night.
A lone violin sends dry squeals, accompanying a partially visible figure, lit from behind, delivering a slanted silhouette onto a white sheet. Tony Conrad’s bowing grows into a thick majestic chord, cradled in a strange Celtic atmosphere. He has the swooping movements of an unruly jester, dancing in the face of his imminent execution. Without any kind of perception, the sound seems to morph into darkness and something more fearsome, then slides into a warping gong of percussion struck on an electric string. Then there’s a growing mass of ancient energy. The mind offers visions of a small, green wooden door with an arched top, paint chipping off. It’s dusk and on a warm, quiet street. Several small lizards return from the recent past, poised on an around it, making tiny movements that only happen when you look slightly away. Conrad’s creating odd beating effects and a purring return to majesty. Patient, expertly crafted, discordance of some eternal traffic jam. What is most notable about the performance is that its challenging and testing, surely going over the allotted time slot – something close to an ordeal in a number of ways, none of which I can describe. And then…
How many times have you walked into an events space and been confronted by a stage full of plants? Christina Ertl is presenting her Plants Empire work, a processing of biological information into sound. After the warmth of bass makes itself at home, buzzy drone beetles begin crawling on the eardrums and the visuals are a grotesque and beautiful spectacle, a servitude of harnessed bio-electricity. The thought of Triffids, and their sentience, gives it a horror-like tone. I’m terrified of Triffids. My curious brain finds it frustrating not knowing precisely what the relationship is between these plants and what is heard, but its only a minor gripe. By this point the drones are undulating, sliding over each other at notable volume. The only way to hear this is horizontally, so I allow myself to melt down the wall and slide underneath the seat of the man who has been sat to my side. Fortunately he doesn’t notice, and it is only I who is aware of our now intimate connection; his eyes are closed and he has been motionless for twenty minutes. Something with a rhythm painted out of static electricity precedes a rising intensity, an abstract portrait of the life that surges invisibly inside beings, a constant exchange of elusive and harmonious energies.
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Which is exactly what this event is. Madeiradig is a festival of strange contrasts. A natural environment that is dramatic and beautiful, calmness existing in wide expanses between the intensity of jagged rocks; yet music that is largely dark and intense. The almost haphazard arrangement of contemporary architecture and associative practices in the time-worn landscape remains baffling. Ponta do Sol is an incredibly unique place and the perfect setting for what unfolds every year, yet the personality of the place is uncertain, and singular. But not just these things. With the final party, the big one, in full swing, there’s a clear message not to take the seriousness without a pinch of salt. And preferably a wedge of lime, and tequila. There’s something poignant in ending on such a ridiculously lavish, colourful and energised high. It serves to remind us that beyond our most strained musical and social relationships there’s always another side, one which requires no effort, and no stress.
Photo: Art Center Casa Das Mudas by Roland Owsnitzki