Sónar 2004: 11th International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Arts – Barcelona, Spain.

17 – 19 June


Sónar by Day (12noon – 10pm)

Emptying out the Museum for Contemporary Art in Barcelona and allowing the space to be used for a three day experimental electronic music festival must be one of the few genuine strokes of genius in today’s moribund arts scene. Now in its eleventh year, Sónar attracts punters and performers who are, for the most part, interested not only in getting wasted but also in laying waste to the clichés of sonic culture. At least, that’s the theory. Two things were evident this year: (1) the atmosphere of the festival was noticeably more commercial (with half-pints of beer costing an outrageous €2.50, when a 500ml can of the same brand bought round the corner in a supermarket cost 51c) and (2) there seemed to be less experimentalism happening on many of the stages, with an emphasis on familiar genres. There was also a small but vociferous anti-Sónar campaign organised by the surrounding residents, but if one chooses to live in the centre of Barcelona, then one must surely expect a certain amount of disruption and it’s not as if the day event goes on very late at all. Still, the phrase “Sónar No!” became a mighty popular one.

In the Museum itself there are three open-air and two interior venues, a record store and an extensive art exhibition, which this year was topically on the culture of war. While the sentiment of the war exhibition was exemplary (war=bad) and did contain some amazing pieces (the Mars Attacks-like WWII paintings of Tom Lea particularly stood out), there was no real analysis of the place of war in contemporary culture nor was there any sense of the ways in which culture might be harnessed to militate against the military. The rather anodyne message seemed to be that war is shocking but in some way fascinating. Nevertheless, at least the fiddling was trying to call attention to the fact that Rome was burning.

The music was less successful in appearing relevant. Unfortunately there was much emphasis on live instrumentation and this added to a certain folk-rock atmosphere that should be avoided at all costs by an event billing itself as “advanced”. A rather bland strain of Hispanic and old school hip-hop took up more space than it warranted. While last year the Spanish djs went down an interesting minimal techno route, much of this year’s local flavour seemed unabashedly rock-oriented and populist. It is also a pity that since acts tended to play for around 45 minutes, there was plenty of dead-time as one wandered from venue to venue trying to find something going on. Surely it would be easy enough to plug someone in between acts rather than playing the Kill Bill Vol 2 cd over and over again? It sometimes seemed that the punters had better tunes and ideas than the performers or organisers.

Besides the folk and rock tendencies, the sound du jour was the minimal bass-scape typical of German label, Raster-Noton. Madrid-based Rec Overflow overcame his goatee handicap by using three laptops at once and laying down some deep grooves, while Shitkatapult’s Apparat and Phon.O continued in a similar underwater bass valley. The impromptu conga-line stage invasion during Phon.O’s set was a highlight of joie de vivre. While Das Bierbeben, also on Shitkatapult, sang and shouted in Chicks on Speed-stylee over a straight-up pop 4/4 beat, their appeal quickly palled as did the knowing nihilism of their uber-alles lyrics (“No future, no past”: definitely a dance move and not a life philosophy). Pan Sonic played material from their new “Kesto” quadruple cd, but apart from injecting a few more beats into the mix there were no surprises here. Raster-Noton’s own Carsten Nikolai (aka Alva Noto) delivered the most speaker-testing bass performance with echoes of the future of drum & bass and Sweden’s Henrik Rylander laid on the drones in a less than satisfactory acoustic environment (the Sonarlab’s small sound system is swamped by the adjacent Sonarvillage). The hilariously named Deathprod took the eery soundscape to its logical Norwegian Black Metal extreme. Sofus Forsberg clearly showed why we only need one Björk.

While electro seemed to have little showing, Transparent Sound were clearly enjoying themselves and bigging up the UK electro sound, with Billy Nasty spinning tunes on a harder tip. The minimal tech label, Ghostly International, presented smooth click beats from Geoff White’s (aka Aeroc) laptop with rather a regrettable descent into the Balearic-so-easy. The label’s Matthew Dear, who played Liverpool in May to a crowd of 25 (courtesy of T-Funkshun), was one of the mainline night-time acts which just goes to prove that keeping an eye on the posters around town is definitely worthwhile. Others tipped Die Elektrischen playing Dielectric Records and Richie Hawtin vs. Ricardo Villalobos.

Perhaps the most interesting experimental acts took place in the Sonarama venue down Las Ramblas, with the supremely geeky looking Ubergeek typing phrases and manipulating their web-hits live (a welcome change from most of the pointless visuals seen elsewhere – once you’ve seen one pulsating square, soundwave or urban landscape, you’ve seen them all).  The Japanese/French threesome SSS, played the theremin (Laurent Dailleau), ultrasound (Cecile Babiole) and “biomuse”, Atau Tanaka’s strap-on body movement-to-sound converter. These three, described as a “three sided conversation”, exemplified the slightly silly, possibly pretentious but undeniably sonically fascinating side of Sónar that seemed so lacking elsewhere. Sónar No! Sónar Si!


[these words also appear in Plastic Rhino magazine, No. 1 August 2004, with photos by Mark McNulty and some spelling errors]