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Experiments in Paradise

img  Antoine Richard

Situated 700km off the coast of Morocco, Madeira is a paradisical island (at least it feels like it coming from Berlin in December) which hosts one of the best reasonably-sized festivals I attended. Believe me, the climate of the island alone is not responsible for such a judgemental statement. Nine performances in four days took place in the Casa Das Mudas, a stylish venue on top of a cliff in Calheta. Most of them were outstanding.

The first evening celebrates 30 years of Touch, the famous British label. Jana Winderen is the first artist to appear. A couple of days before, she did some field recording on the green humid island and made a two-minute piece out of it. Clear, precise and immersive as always, the result combines the sound of several natural settings. It's the equivalent of watching a 3D movie, only difference is you don't need glasses to run your own film. The second work she played, 'Water Signal' is based on material she collected around New York and has been performed a couple of months ago at the Guggenheim Museum. It deals with "the noise problems of New York from an underwater perspective". She feeds ecological debates with aesthetic elements but more important is that the 'music' is able to let us forget about debates: because you're all ears, much more perceptive, on the lookout like an animal. Jana Winderen is used to boldly go where no man has gone before, ice crevasses, ocean depths, far away from humanity's settlements. "I want to encourage the listener to use their imagination and direct them less..." she said in a recent interview. One should be grateful that someone uncouples us from human constructs for a moment; so we can get in touch with our core being and fully engage with the world in a more primal way. Thomas Ankersmit's world is quite different but as immersive. Tonight it's all about the wonders of the Serge modular synth. Very controlled, the solo improvisation makes you physically feel the behaviour of frequency waves and the distance between harmonics. It begins with a couple of tones, still as water ripples. Then come whirs and buzzes. He let things grow, patiently assembling electric signal patterns. Soon bass tones shape a firmer ground, inflate and—woosh! give way to lots of harmonics swirling in the air. I imagine it's like being in the non-moving central zone of a twister. Turning your head will make you nearly dizzy because the slightest movement brings a totally different aural configuration. Sound has never felt so granular and tangible and all around you. Quite a hair-raising and overwhelming experience. Eventually calm returns, a much more straightforward kind of calm than the one Biosphere's performance brings upon you. As an opener, Geir Jenssen plays and repeats one simple steady beat over and over, the sort of encouraging beat you can often hear in 'N-Plants' (but when you know about the anticipating quality of that album, the encouragement becomes relative). Acoustically the rhythm sounds loud, flat and cold despite the warm bass. After twenty unshakeable minutes it slowly disappears, leaving long stretched synthesized soundscapes alone for another half-hour. Nothing but anguish and desolation. There's a projection of visuals behind Jenssen's back: a lo-res footage of streets at night (parked cars in empty streets, a bus driving in a big avenue) mixed up with static shots of various machines and control panels—disparate elements that bring an oneiric sense of inadequacy, of a deceptive normality. Not exactly thrilling.

You feel much less Weltschmerz listening to English duo Sculpture. Dan Hayhurst is responsible for the music: a big cartoonish mess of sampling, bubbling sounds, lo-fi electronics, reel-to-reel tapes and dubby bass. Imagine Andrew Pekler in a I-don't-give-a-shit mood yet eager to have as much fun as possible. Reuben Sutherland, also famous for having made music videos and big commercials, takes care of the visuals: he revisits the good old idea of the zootrope and adapts it to the turntable in a very DIY fashion. A microscope points at the rotating surface where he superimposes predesigned rounded pieces of paper in place of vinyls. The resulting stop motion is crazy. The unfocused and psychedelic quality of it along with the chaotic speed of the music dissolves your brain and flips your retinas. All in all a dazzling gig and a good preparation for the next one, even more brain-damaging. Pete Swanson's recipe does not sound complicated: take a layer of heavy bitcrushed bass, like the rawest bass line from Vatican Shadow's dirtiest tape; put some dynamics, the ebb and flow type; add another layer of harsh noise with a subtle yet effective groove in it. Sprinkle vintage, mostly high-pitched, ravey techno sounds looping in the middle of the roaring rumble. Let pain and pleasure amalgamate. Forget all about words, don't even try to think, Pete is drilling into your skull (his own words), you have no choice but to lose your grip on yourself. There's the music and your body and nothing else. It is loud as hell and who knows, maybe half the audience would be headbanging throughout the whole thing if there were no seats. Brutal revelation.

Portugal-based ZNGR Electroacoustic Ensemble is a trio bringing together acoustic instruments (a violin and a guitar) and electronic equipment (laptop and mixing desk). Standing at another table in front of them, French musician and turntablist eRikm has got lots of tools at hand: CD turntable, sampler, filters, effect generators and various pads. They make sequences of bleeps, clicks and buzzes punctuated by the intervention of the live processed instruments. It all sounds like something Berio might have written in the fifties but I think it's mostly improvised. Altogether they reveal a quiet yet not untroubled microcosm, always changing yet never growing or getting anywhere, never really loud yet never really soft. Although much respect is due to artists not trying to impress or shock the audience for recognition, they fail to grasp our attention in that particular post-prandial moment. Indulging in a nap is the last thing that comes to mind during Oren Ambarchi's performance. Unsurprisingly he is not playing a sweet solo version of 'Salt', his accessible and beautiful "hit" on the recent 'Audience of One'. Sitting at the far back of the stage with the guitar on his knees, he builds walls of sound of biblical proportions and proves to be the absolute master of guitar drones and feedback. As you can see, effects processors, knobs and pedals are a big part of the job too. It is a dark, minimal and almost serene meditation. The rest is silence.

Portuguese duo Palmer Eldritch makes music with blankets of distant and floating synth which seem to map imaginary countries. It could be compared to the sonic worlds of Tim Hecker or Natural Snow Buildings but the daydreaming atmosphere is often broken by electronic alarm signals or a deep pounding bass going straight to the stomach. The visuals by, shifting stains of primary colours and a recurring circular shape, leave a blurry sensation. A rough voyage to the stars. After such a cosmic affair, Mark Fell could sound like cold music for analytical brains. He makes rhythm patterns with repeated chords and fast beats—not unlike a mathematical game in a way. But it's much more than that. Patterns are short-lived though and this can be very frustrating in the IDM world: no way you can get into a rhythm which is interrupted after ten seconds. At times music is sparser, silences emerge, which could be the result of randomness in the overlapping of cross-beats. But no, it's not, there's a structure and it does work, as you can feel it during the second half of the act: it literally takes off in a frenzy and Mark Fell's background in 80s and 90s rave music come out in the flesh. Conceptually exciting and physically gripping, this quite short performance comes as a great conclusion to a festival that couldn't get any better.

Here are a few pictures of the artists on site:

By Antoine Richard

Photo Credit: Madeiradig 2012 / Digital in Berlin

Homepage: Jana Winderen
Homepage: Thomas Ankersmit
Homepage: Biosphere
Homepage: Sculpture
Homepage: Pete Swanson
Homepage: ZNGR Electroacoustic Ensemble
Homepage: eRikm
Homepage: Oren Ambarchi
Homepage: Mark Fell