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Musical festivals. From jazz to experimental electronic music. Mainly about the latter.

Alexey Borisov

Alexey Borisov and KK Null
Alexey Borisov and KK Null

International festival movement takes its origin back in the 50’s. The world just recovered from World War II, general economic growth took place and people received a real possibility to communicate on a creative level, exchange information and share achievements in art and culture in general. Even confrontation of two systems could not considerably defer these processes, which served the interests of, say, cultural elite of different countries. Among musicians, the first to appreciate advantages of festival life were representatives of academic circles, as well as jazzmen, inclined to informal communication and collective jamming. In the 60’s the keynote of festival life was struck by rock musicians and hippie. Then folklorists, avant-gardists and representatives of the academic wing of electronic music, grouped around such organizations as French IRCAM, started holding their own forums. In the 80’s festivals became more specialized, devoted, for example, only to industrial music, free improvisation or heavy-metal.

In the 90’s, the foreground of the world festival process was occupied by electronic music of different styles and trends. It was n many ways conditioned by the breakthrough in the sphere of musical technologies, started in the mid 80’s, which was associated with an extended use of computers and digital processing and, as consequence, appearance of new methods to fix, store and distribute information. On the other hand, fashion for techno and house-music, development of rave culture and new psychedelic aesthetics led to the dominance of electronic music among priorities of young people and later in the entire show business. In their turn, new musical technologies, tested by electronic musicians, penetrated in every last sphere of musical life

Activists of dance club electronic music, encouraged by the favorable situation of the beginning of the 90’s, attempted to hold large-scales rave parties, resembling rock festivals like Woodstock and Glastonbury. One of the most significant was Berlin Love Parade, attended by more than one million people. This open-air festival lasted for a couple of days, when best DJs and electronic projects from different countries entertained the audience with heavy techno and trance music. Such events were held in other European cities, and it was profitable for city authorities and local service industry, which used to fulfil annual plans in several days. Of course, pushers of ecstasy and other light drugs were also interested in such actions. Good profits were earned by producers of soft drinks and so-called energy drinks. However, invasion of the army of a million freaks, representatives of so-called Generation X, piles of garbage left after urban or rural rave parties, as a rule, discouraged local community and regular tourists, very distanced from new forms of youth leisure activities. Organizers of rave parties constantly experienced difficulties and all kind of pressure (as a result, most of such events were held illegally); however, they made a lot of money, partially investing in development of rave industry in general. At some moment, manufacturers of relevant equipment, supported by specialized labels and promoting groups, encouraged carrying out of original seminars and exhibitions with participation of popular DJs and musicians, playing mainly dance electronic music and ambient. As a rule, such events were accompanied by various club actions and stadium-scale rave parties, arranged legally and with a good quality, but, probably, they were more formal and predictable.

In Russia the most well-known rave party is still Gagarin Party, arranged by a group of enthusiasts in the beginning of the 90’s. Promoters from St. Petersburg show a praiseworthy persistence in holding annual large-scale the Eastern Blow festival and carrying out exotic parties in old bastilles. Kazantip, which was relocated from Sea of Azov to Black Sea shore, is still popular.

Representatives of more experimental and less commercial styles in electronic music also started holding their festivals, distinguished by diverse programs, including not only music and sound-art, but also multimedia projects, movies, video and performance art. Certainly, such festivals have a chamber character and are distinguished by a calm atmosphere, more suitable for analysis and discussions, than for psychedelic trips. Moreover, such specialized festivals are often supported by state authorities and attract serious sponsors, for example, producers of software and communication equipment, interested in holding more respectable and less notorious events.

One of the first festivals of this kind was Spanish SONAR, which started in Barcelona in 1993. Of course, its organizers also invited popular DJs and electronic performers, able to bring profits; however, they did not forget about more intellectual styles. Generally, the festival administration always tried to satisfy the most diverse interests and tastes, which finally made SONAR the biggest forum of electronic music. Gradually the event became extremely profitable and massive. The 10th anniversary SONAR in 2003 was attended by 100,000 people, equally interested in experimental electronic music and the dancing part of the event. The list of participants was really impressive. In different years, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, Bjork, Underworld, Suicide, Sonic Youth, Karl Craig, Mathew Herbert, Pan sonic, Jaga Jazzists, Yo La Tengo, top DJs Loran Garnier, Karl Cox, John Aquaviva, Juan Atkins, Ritchie Howtin, DJ Krush, DJ Vadim, Rainer Truby and hundreds of quite distinguished and influential artists played in Barcelona.

The experimental part of the festival, held in Museum of Contemporary Arts (MACBA), also commands respect. In several halls of the complex and on open stages a faerie panorama of the most actual directions of electronic music is deployed, accompanied by all kind of arts, movies and workshops, exhibitions of various companies and trade of different products. Naturally, this event is widely promoted in mass media of different countries and has a huge information database. At the same time, organizational and financial structures of such a festival are very complex and complicated, however, it works smoothly and cleverly, which is explained by ten-year long experience of SONAR.

It’s but natural, that not everybody liked such a range. Experimentalists and underground representatives accuse SONAR organizers of excessive commercialization, some visitors are discontent with big crowds and public and technical problems, which inevitably occur during such large-scale events. Additionally, too ambitious program of the festival does not allow a complete tracking of all its events. However, these relative drawbacks do not derogate numerous merits of this forum, unique in modern festival practices.

Xenoglossia (CD, Insofar Vapor Bulk, 2003)
“Xenoglossia” (CD, Insofar Vapor Bulk, 2003)

Certain contrast to the Barcelona mega-festival is represented by Finnish AVANTO. This chamber festival, held in Helsinki for four years, is specialized exclusively on electronic avant-garde. Between concerts, held in the theater of Kaisma Musemu of Contemporary Arts and in Gloria club, a unique collection of modern experimental movies and video is successfully demonstrated to the audience. On the average, the festival is attended by 300-500 people, and the performers of AVANTO (which means “ice-hole” in Finnish) have an excellent opportunity to communicate not only between each other, but also with the audience. Among AVANTO participants one can meet the names of such idols of modern experimental music as Mersbow, ZGA, Otomo Yoshihide, KK. Null, Radian, Pita, F.R.U.I.T.S., Ruins, Circle, Christian Fennesz, Pan sonic, Mira Calix, Farmersmanual, Pekka Airaksinen, CM von Hauswolf, Leif Ellgren, Franz Pomassl and many other musicians from different countries. Of course, such an event is supported by a reasonable promotional campaign, release of CD-collections and booklets, and also receives a limited financing from some governmental organizations. This, in its turn, makes the organizing committee form the festival program more thoroughly and carefully, taking into account an actual amount of sponsor funds.

Interesting festival experience has been gained by Austrian organizers, who were the first in Europe to carry out specialized electronic evens with a certain conceptual content. One of the most significant events of this kind was PHONOTAKTIK, distinguished by an unusual strategy of its conduction. The festival changes its location from time to time, including the city and even the country. In 2002, for example, the festival was first held in New York and then in Vienna. The festival is somewhat inclined to conspiracy and is often connected with various socio-cultural strategies, which brings additional spice to the event and creates some intrigue. Another Austrian project, initiated by Laton label, is called PROTOTYPE – this festival is held irregularly and is linked to intestnig and unusual locations, like a power station or a military base. Another Austrian label, Sabotage, also carries out provocative festivals and actions in informal places (not only in Austria, but also abroad, including Moscow and St. Petersburg), with their concepts based on peculiar anti-bourgeoisie satire and criticism of contemporary consumer society.

It needs to mention Berlin festival TRANSMEDIALE, which in its week-long program provides much time to electronic projects from Eastern Europe. Swedish cultural organization Fylkingen, which exists exclusively by governmental donations, extends its festival for the whole year.

In reality, various festivals take place in many countries. Among relatively new events, I’d like to mention TROLLOFON in Norway, DISSONANZE in Italy, FREQUENCIES in Germany and MUTEK in Canada. Of course, an active festival life is going on in the UK, France, USA, Japan, Australia and even in New Zealand. All these festivals are not held in the form of contests or competitions, but as an open audition, whose participants are selected by organizing committees according to actuality of this or that artist and his relevancy to a certain concept.

There are several well-known European organizations, carrying out specialized contests (with considerable prize funds) among representatives of experimental electronic music and authors of various multimedia projects. One of the oldest musical contests of this kind is the French contest, organized by International Institute of Electric and Acoustic Music in Bourja. By filling a questionnaire and sending a record of his composition, any person can become a participant of this event. Accordingly, winners in different categories are awarded with prizes, invited for training in the Institute and participate in CD collections and concerts.

Another contest of such kind is called Ars Electronica, and its headquarters are located in Linz (Austria). The jury of well-known and respected specialists selects in absentia winners in different categories – music, computer animation, movies, multimedia, etc. In this case, the winners are also awarded with money prizes and are granted an opportunity to participate in the final concert or present their projects to the public.

And what is going in Russia? Do we have anything similar and is it possible to organize such events in this country? For example, Eastern European and Baltic countries are already attempting to organize international forums of electronic music, doing it persistently and purposefully. Among recent events of such kind it needs to mention the first “HUH festival” in Tallinn, held in October 2003. Its organizers plan to hold it several times a year, sticking to poly-stylistics and diversity of forms.

The first meamingful festival of electronic music, where I participated as a member of Night Avenue, was held in Vilnius in 1988. Besides Night Avenue, there were Mikhail Chekalin, Mikhail Mikhaylyuk (member of Valery Chkalov’s Squad duo), Science Fiction – a side-project of NEW COMPOSERS, Igor Len’ (NICOLAS COPERNICUS, DK, CENTER), as well as well-known jazz experimentalists Vladimir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin. Now in Lithuania, they carry out the international festival JAUNA MUZIKA, which is not widely known, but supervised by the local union of composers, hence having appropriate support and prospects in the republic.

In the end of the 80’s, Moscow festival ALTERNATIVE started, providing some place in its vast program to electronic music. A well-known Moscow critic and promoter Dmitry Ukhov, the administrator of ALTERNATIVE, still carries out this forum at the highest level. ELECTRIC FUTURE festival was permanently held in the second half of the 90’s (organizers: Vladimir Ratskevich, Alexey Borisov and Dmitry Ukhov) with the participation of mainly Russian electronic musicians. Some events were organized by Moscow Termen Center (headed by Andrey Smirnov) and Cultural Center DOM (art director – Nikolay Dmitriyev). Probably the biggest international festival, where experimental electronic music can be heard, is SKIF, the festival devoted to Sergey Kuryokhin, organized by his widow Nastya. By the way, a certain progress in festival life can be seen now in St. Petersburg. Such festivals as FREE FLIGHT (Another Culture Association), SACRED ICE (Bulldozer magazine) and events of Laboratory of Experimental Sound (headed by Nikolay Sudnik) should fill the vacuum. Another center of electronic culture in Russian is Izhevsk, where the annual electronic festival is held by Kama Records.

However, all aforementioned actions are obviously inferior to the organizational level and programs of AVATON, PHONOTAKTIK or TRANSMEDIALE, say nothing of such a monster as SONAR. At the same time, it is easier for the province to organize interesting events than for the capitals. For a small city an international festival of electronic music becomes a global event, while in Moscow an event with small audience (300-500 people), but with an interesting international program, does not look very attractive for private sponsors and companies, not saying of governmental structures with budgets, not allowing to hold small specialized forums. Some assistance can be provided by embassies and international funds, like Ford Foundation or German Goethe Institute, whose resources are still not enough to cover all organizational costs completely.

Nonetheless, there are real possibilities of holding an annual electronic forum in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Even if it is impossible to obtain financing from municipal or republican budgets, in some cases we can count on private or corporate financing, support from funds and embassies, personal initiatives of musicians themselves, who wish to visit Russia looking for exotics and new impressions. Considerable assistance can be provided by various air and railway companies, as well as agencies, involved in so-called “intellectual tourism”. Appropriate scientific organizations, universities, colleges and education centers, interested in promotion of their activities, can also participate in organization of international specialized festivals.

Perhaps, some problems may occur at the stage of information support of such events. For example, in Moscow there is no magazine, specializing in electronic or experimental music. There are no specialized radio or TV programs, which could adequately present this or that festival. Organizers can certainly use Internet, as well as some insignificant place in mass media, interested in promotion of noncommercial and not very massive cultural events.

On the other hand, Russia has gained a rich experience in holding various international festivals, conferences, seminars and other forums. It would be great to apply this experience in the sphere of electronic music. Communication and cooperation with foreign colleagues, contacts between veterans and young musicians, fruitful exchange of information, review of technical innovations and achievements – all this could enhance the creative growth of our musicians and transformation of Russian electronic music, experimental music in particular, into an independent, interesting and, most important, influential component of the world audio environment.

Current status of the musical scene allows anyone to perform any kind of music. Computer technologies and relatively cheap software practically make various creative processes accessible and massive. Such notions as musical education, notation literacy or skillfulness of a musician have passed and become irrelevant – absolutely different criteria come on the foreground. Music in its traditional sense has actually ceased to exist or passed into the retro category. It is natural, that in this situation the amount of information flow grows drastically. One should navigate in the vast audio ocean. Quantity is not automatically grows into quality, which also brings certain difficulties for a regular consumer, who attempts to make a sensible choice. In this connection, significance of international festivals is increased. Professionals and specialists finally obtain a good chance to analyze the situation, review the processes and single out the best offered by current musical industry. Experimental electronics (the term is still not generally accepted and gives way to numerous discussions) in this case stands in the avant-garde of creative processes and determines in many ways the status and development of the musical market. In this context, Russia has a real chance to become again a trendsetter or, which is more important, to find its place in the vanguard of the world musical thought. At least, for some time.

december 2003






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