Drones In The Sun


Every year and for a few days only, the Portuguese island of Madeira becomes a hub for experimental and digital arts in the form of music, film and audio-visual performances. Now in its 10th edition, MADEIRADiG has gone from strength to strength and has seen some of the most important experimental artists come and play in Madeira, in particular musicians such as Philip Jeck, Stephan Mathieu, Oren Ambarchi, Mark Fell, Biosphere, Alva Noto, Taylor Deupree and Ben Frost to name but a few. Located a few hundred miles east of Morocco in the Atlantic Ocean, the mountainous volcanic island of Madeira benefits from beautiful blue skies and mid-twenties temperature at this time of the year and is a wonderful place to get away from the cold weather and frenzy of the festive season that slowly but unmistakably engulfs the rest of Europe in December.

Seven years ago, the festival moved from Madeira’s capital Funchal to the village of Ponta Do Sol whose 100-year-old Art Deco ghost cinema and the incredible Estalagem hotel located on the top of a very steep cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and serving as a base for people throughout the festival give the place a surreal atmosphere. Despite its excellent line-up and incredible surroundings, MADEIRADiG never attracts more than 200 people and it seems the organisers are quite happy to keep it that way so the atmosphere remains very informal and relaxed, but more importantly people get to know each other over four or five days which contributes to give a very friendly and communal feel to the festival. Musicians are also encouraged by the organisers to spend as much time as possible on the island so they can meet the audience and be part of the whole festival experience. Every night after the concerts, DJs and alternative acts play at the incredible after-parties happening on the open terrace of the festival’s hotel suspended between sea and sky, so artists and audience alike can dance together until the sun rises.

MADEIRADiG is also very special because of the unusual small number of musicians playing over the four days that lasts the festival – just two performances programmed each night. In times where information overload and a never ending growth of the cultural landscape have become inevitable diseases for anyone interested in digital arts and music, it’s very refreshing to come across festival organisers who privilege quality over quantity and serve it to you in its most exclusive and refined form. A special mention should be given to MADEIRADiG’s curator Michael Rosen who also runs the wonderful art guide Digital In Berlin. Rosen and his partner Rafael are truly passionate about finding the right artists for the festival, so each edition feels very special and next year’s shouldn’t be any different if I believe what they told me about some of the acts they had in mind for 2014.

This year’s edition ran from 6-9 December and had on the programme Tarik Barri and Lea Fabrikant, Marcus Fjellström, Grouper, Pharmakon, William Basinski, Emptyset, Most People Have Been Trained To Be Bored and Pierce Warnecke. It should be added to this list Berlin-based singer/songwriter Clara Hill who gave a beautiful and intimate performance at one the four after-parties held during the festival. Like in previous years and in a sort of daily ritual, every evening small shuttle buses drove the audience from the festival’s base in Ponta Do Sol to the neo-Brutalist Centro Das Artas Das Mudas designed by Award-winning architect Paulo David in 2004, a wonderful art venue overlooking the Ocean from the top of a cliff. The rather small auditorium was full to capacity every night and through its cleverly designed acoustics and incredible amplification system it certainly contributed to make each performance a complete aural delight. Some artists like Grouper or Most People Have Been Trained To Be Bored played rather quietly, others like Emptyset or Pharmakon very loudly and physically but every single time the sound system revealed the music’s minute details in glorious perfection, so the artists’ intentions were perfectly conveyed and the audience could fall into the music and engage with it effortlessly.

The first day of the festival was all about audio-visual performances and looked at two completely different ways to approach them.  First to play that evening, Berlin-based Tarik Barri performed from the side of the stage so the audience could entirely focused on the live visuals projected on the huge screen at the back end the stage. In the last 5 or 6 years, Barri has developed a software that allows him to compose in real-time audio-visual pieces within tri-dimensional structures projected on screen, so sound and image truly work as a singular entity. Playing solo in the first section of his set, Barri explored the poetics of interstellar travels as he literally navigated through sound-objects and explored the space surrounding them. In the time that lasted his performance, it felt like being suspended within the core-matrix of elemental music and observing reified sounds orbiting around each other in slow motion. As you approached them, they grew in intensity and kinetic energy before receding in the infinite expanse of Tarik Barri virtual and synthetic world. After a very short break, he came back on stage accompanied by Lea Fabrikant for something completely different altogether, a mix of theatrical performance and video sampling where close-ups shots of Fabrikant’s face where looped, cloned and manipulated on screen like visual echoes of her voice layered in dense shifting harmonies, thus disconnecting sounds and images from their original context to displace them within delightful lysergic holograms. Despite the synthetic nature of his work, Tarik Barri’s audio-visuals creations were strongly rooted within emotional and human realms and worked as a sort of portal to virtual realities.

Very interestingly, the second performance of the evening was radically different from Barri’s set but nonetheless breathtaking in its own right. Swedish composer Marcus Fjellström performed from the side of the stage to once again make the live projections on screen the main focus of the performance and worked with machines and computers to play his music alongside images. This time the set was a carefully staged audio-visual work positioned within the aesthetic field of silent movies, epic dramas and illustrations . Contrary to Tarik Barri’s performance which was completely rooted in live improvisation, Fjellström’s narrative was obviously composed in advance and followed a pre-planned script. For the audience it almost worked as if we were taking part to an extraordinary experimental film whose pieces of story were told through pictures and diagrams accompanied by music drawing influences from serial compositions, musique concrète, expansive orchestral ensembles and abstract electronic music, all combined in a singular narrative object of epic scope.

Click image for slide show

On day two, the focus of the evening was completely different and in my mind centered around the notion of vulnerability and embodiment within the context of a performance. Liz Harris opened the evening very delicately, playing in almost darkness against a backdrop of abstract visuals slowly pulsating in unison with her music. She played four or five songs on an electric piano-sounding keyboard while field recording captured on cassettes played at the threshold of perception covered with a veil of tape hiss and crackle, often inducing a sense of reticence to her work and inviting the audience to listen more closely and attentively. Hushed vocals, laden in delay and reverb, were hovering over the music like disembodied echoes of narrative reflected on the fragile sound work carefully constructed in the half shadows of Harris’s spectral stage presence. In the second section of her set, she used short vocal loops lifted from the very last song played in the first part of the performance and used it as an anchor to build a sonic landscape of elusive beauty expanding in slow undulations eaten away by the wow and flutter of the tapes until it dissolved in the ether of its own disappearance. Liz Harris gave the impression of being more ghostly than human that night, the stage being barely lit one couldn’t really see her directly, only her shadowy silhouette working on table full of machines. But probably because of the vulnerability and the reticence of both her music and her stage presence, she gave a performance of incredible humbleness and did it with a rare sense of understatement.

In complete contrast to Liz Harris’ set, NYC-based Margaret Chardiet, under her Pharmakon moniker, made the audience’s ears bleed and bodies shake for all of her performance given the sheer volume and intensity of her music. At times it felt like getting kicked in the face and punched in the stomach at the same time. A few people left the room, other were stupefied and horrified but stayed, more were enthralled and bewitched by the physical and overwhelming presence of Chardiet on stage. In Ancient Greek religion a Pharmakon was a sorcerer who would perform ritualistic sacrifice of a human victim often chosen within the slaves or the criminal as a way to bring purification to a community – a form of societal catharsis perhaps. It’s not difficult to imagine why she chose such a stage name as her performance really worked as a modern symbolic ritual sacrifice. Her music had echoes of Pan Sonic in its most extremes contours and was often ear-piercing because of intense feedback sounds and distorted vocals that were screamed more than sung. Despite the apparent violence and anger, Chardiet came across as incredibly vulnerable in the way she embodied the persona of the metaphoric Pharmakon. If her goal was to provoke the audience, I think she was more than successful and she did it somehow very courageously, with all her soul – it was both an aggression, an open provocation but most of all an invitation to experience Otherness.

On day three, perhaps the most anticipated day of the festival, William Basinsiki and Emptyset approached the questions of space, resonance and presence from two very different angles. Opening the evening, the always exceptional Basinski gave the audience its dose of hypnagogic out of body experience and played for most of the performance his piece for prepared piano and tape loops ‘Nocturnes’ released in May 2013.  Standing in front of a couple of reel-to-reel tape decks, a laptop and a mixing board, William Basinski remained almost motionless for most of his set, carefully adjusting the tonal balance of the music until it filled the room like a gas, in his own words his aim was to resonate the space of the auditorium to turn it into a “mothership”. The on-screen projections (a circular video loop of the moon suspended in clouded dark skies) made his shadowed silhouette cut an almost messianic figure as he worked the tape machines with meditative attention. The devotional atmosphere of his performance was beautifully echoed by the transcendental resonances of the piano loops seemingly vanishing into the void of the present moment. In their imperfect circularity, the loops were slowly and surreally revealing their decayed and desolated splendour, projecting phantom sounds and elusive shadows on the surface of silence. As one focused on the main piano sounds, secondary loops started to coalesce at the threshold of perception thus adding a perceptual depth and a strong sense of reticence to his music. In a second section, Basinski played very minimal motifs from his tape decks (only a few delineated piano notes played as loops) and he deconstructed them into abstract fragments to conjure a space of haunting beauty. As the performance drew to an end, the room became like a huge resonating chamber where the music could finally reveal its presence through a veil of awaken melancholia and hope, a breathtaking moment to say the least.

After a short break, Bristol-based Paul Purgas and James Ginzburg played an astonishing set against a backdrop of distorted analogue TV signals and video feedbacks perfectly echoing the abrasiveness of the music they make as Emptyset. In recent years, the duo has been known to use sound to explore architectural spaces as for instance in their remarkable album ‘Medium’ released in 2012 or their sound installation in a subterranean space in London last year. Each of their concert is an exercise in manifesting a particular space through the physicality of sound mainly sourced within the sine waves spectrum. I saw them playing almost exactly a year ago at the Semibreve festival and compared to that concert their overall sound had become more abrasive, often folding upon itself through muscular feedback-induced loops. The rigidity of the 4/4 grid had somehow completely disappeared as they explored acyclical and asymmetrical loop structures to give the illusion of breaking up the linearity of time as a way to stretch it until the present moment appeared like an phantomatic point of singularity. Over the course of their set, kick drums of earth shattering impact created huge cracks within the fabric of space filled with sheets of hiss, noise and feedback ebbing and flowing in fast tidal movements. Emptyset’s performance was loud, raw and physical but somehow in complete agreement with William Basinski’s artistic philosophy – like him before they made space resonating with sound until time collapsed and crystallised in the present moment.

On the final day of the festival, Portuguese musician Gustavo Costa under the rather wonderful moniker Most People Have Been Trained To Be Bored opened the evening in very understated fashion. He worked within a framework of pure improvisation using a drum set and a variety of small objects whose sound was amplified with contact microphones while he also played pre-recorded samples to accompany him. The performance was slow and hypnotic, Costa always taking his time to consider the mutating ghostly echoes of the rhythmical soundscape he was building with a rare sense of focus. It was probably the only performance of the festival where visuals were more subdued, only a blurred and red backdrop of evanescent shapes used as a way to give depth and dimension to his haunting presence more so than a visual narrative in itself. He played as much as he listened to the music and coaxed unexpected timbres, textures and poly-rhythms out of his instruments. His set was almost ritualistic in its atmosphere and overall colour but at the same time explored vivid and expansive territories in a way that none of the more electronic acts had been able to approach during the whole festival.

Four days spent on the wonderful island of Madeira had been like a suspension of time and space, and because of that everybody had had a unique opportunity to let things slow down a bit while spending time in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in a place completely remote from the rest of the world, far away from the busy-ness of crowded cities. The music itself had worked every night as a narrative arc suspended between metaphoric extremes: the resonating spaces of William Basinski and Emptyset oscillating between timeless stillness and violent sound attacks manifesting the present moment in its potential eternity, the hyper-humanity and vulnerability on stage of both Grouper and Pharmakon approaching the audience either from subterranean shadows or in plain white light, or the audio-visuals performances of Tarrik Barri/Lea Fabrikant and Marcus Fjellström all looking at alternative ways of projecting sound and image within a singular space. The curation of the festival had been minimal to say the least but because of this less-is-more approach the experience of MADEIRADiG had been really extraordinary, because of this suspension, because of this information “underload” the audience had been free to explore each evening in between narrative extremes at a slower pace than ‘normal’ life, free to let go of expectations and work their way within those artistic cardinal points. Spending those four days in Madeira had been like being abstracted from the world and experiencing reality from a new angle and coming back to everyday life with imperfect but beautiful memories, naturally going through a slow erosion process.
Maybe it was just an example of perfect serendipity but the very last performance of the festival addressed this very question. The audio-visual set by Berlin-based American artist Pierce Warnecke metaphorically captured the very transience of memories, how they become like a decaying phantom image of the reality and fail to keep intact the present moment and the present place in which we once lived but later never really remembered as they truly were. Warnecke had been exploring the island prior to his performance to capture field recordings and films of the local area’s vegetation and soil, and in the few days preceding his set he had arranged this raw material into a composition aptly named ‘Mem_ry Fr_gm_nts’ as a way to symbolise the decaying of our memories. His audio-visual installation started with an apt introduction to the piece to follow, a quote by Jorge Luis Borges projected on the stage’s black screen saying “Reality is precise; memory isn’t”. Throughout the next 30 minutes Warnecke manipulated the fabric of time and space either expanding them through pensive and ominous drones generated from his field recordings or compressing them while using stroboscopic close-up images of the local area synchronised with glitched-out noise bursts. The narrative of the piece, decomposed through the prism of processing, soon coalesced into remnants of the places he had filmed over the last few days and his representation of the island became metaphorically held in suspension between the reality of the local area and the imperfect memory of its evocation. Pierce Warnecke’s extraordinary piece, oscillating between organic imperfections and abstract deconstructions, most of all embodied the impossibility for all of us to symbolically come back to the exact same place twice as we can only access decaying fragments of memories through the changing filter of emotions, often in fleeting parts more than in solid blocks of narrative.

As the festival drew to a close, the last and final after-party brought together audience and artists alike for a night of drinking and dancing under the stars on the top of a cliff overlooking the Ocean. The following day people left the island with the feeling of having spent four days suspended between time and space, going back to their busy cities with only imperfect recollections of the extraordinary moments spent there, most of them planning to return next year.


Festival –  www.madeiradig.com

Tarik Barri – www.tarikbarri.nl
Lea Fabrikant – www.leafabrikant.com
Marcus Fjellström – www.kafkagarden.com
Grouper – www.sites.google.com/site/yellowelectric
Pharmakon – www.soundcloud.com/sacredbones/pharmakon-crawling-on-bruised
William Basinski – www.mmlxii.com
Emptyset – www.subtextrecordings.net
Most People Have Been Trained To Be Bored – www.gustavocosta.pt
Pierce Warnecke – www.piercewarnecke.com

Photos credits:

Roland Owsnitzki and James Welburn


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