Some festivals feel more like social events than musical ones. But at this past weekend's inaugural San Francisco edition of Mutek, the international electronic music festival, the see-and-be-seen factor didn't really apply — partly because most of its events took place in near-total darkness. Mutek felt more like a true art experience than a music festival with some art tacked onto it. The event kicked off May 3 at the California Academy of Sciences, where DJs playing ambient music seamlessly complemented the surrounding exhibits, and continued through May 6 with dance parties, sit-down theater shows and interactive installations.
Mutek paired forward-thinking artists with unusual locations: the basement of the historic Mint building, for example, with audiovisual installations in the rooms where the federal government once stored gold and other currency. Herbst Theatre, the stately classical music venue, became the site of futuristic performances with bass so loud it became a physical sensation. The many interactive elements throughout the festival, at venues like the Midway, where viewers immersed themselves in rooms flooded with colorful neon light patterns, gave Mutek a sense of playfulness and kept it from feeling self-serious.
Then, of course, there were the dance parties. Mutek's booking featured many rare and international artists, many of whom seldom play on the West Coast. The headliners weren't ones one might recognize from the charts; they were more of the "musician's musican" variety, with dancehall duo Equiknoxx; Detroit techno producers Galaxy 2 Galaxy, Aux 88 and Derrick May; and ambient producer Tim Hecker.
Overall, Mutek did an admirable job giving people a place to party while challenging them intellectually. Read our highlights after the photo slideshow.
Aux 88 Turned Mezzanine All the Way Up
Tom Tom and DJ K-1 of Aux 88 looked like ambassadors from a retro vision of the future on stage at the Mezzanine on Saturday night in their neon orange jumpsuits with light-up name tags. Immediately, the crowd pulsed along to their '90s Detroit techno and electro-funk; their take on techno called to mind the earliest of hip-hop productions with their disco roots, and the jovial show felt like one huge block party.
Some of the other Mutek concerts had an ultra-serious tone. Not Aux 88's performance: their infectious break beats and talk-box rapping lit up the dance floor and put smiles on people's faces. They proved that techno can be soulful rather than robotic.
8ulentina and Davia Spain Made the Midway a Runway
Davia Spain looked regal in her thigh-high books as she strutted between stacks of speakers, braids whipping behind her, as 8ulentina concentrated on their CDJs with laser focus. 8ulentina — a producer and co-founder of Oakland's popular, genre-bending party Club Chai — played a visceral, percussion-driven techno set with the weightiness of clanging doors and falling hammers.
The only track with prominent vocals 8ulentina mixed in was "Keylime OG" by Rico Nasty, a hyped-up, punk-rap fighting anthem; flourishes of reggaeton found their way into 8ulentina's set too, weaving their industrial aesthetic into an international tapestry of beats.
A rack of garments that 8ulentina designed and sewed was next to the DJ booth. Spain tried on the various trousers and halter tops — which had a femme workwear vibe — posing, pouting and twerking on the speakers. The performance ended with Spain getting on the mic, closing out 8ulentina's set with a haunting, layered track of reverb-laden vocals.
Galaxy 2 Galaxy Took Jazz to Outer Space at Bimbo's 365 Club
A four-on-the-floor club beat might seem like an unusual canvas for jazz improvisation, but it works surprisingly well; I had never seen a crowd dance using all four limbs at a jazz show prior to watching Galaxy 2 Galaxy perform at the Mutek kick-off at Bimbo's 365 Club on May 3.
Galaxy 2 Galaxy had the foresight to invent what they call "hi-tech jazz" in 1993, merging Detroit techno with live instrumentation. At Bimbo's, producer "Mad" Mike Banks expertly set the pace on his synth and then floated away like an apparition, leaving space for the large ensemble to do its thing. Bassist William Pope grooved with a huge smile on his face, his fingers seemingly moving a hundred miles a minute. Saxophonist DeSean Jones likely caused more than a few show-goers to speculate about his superhuman lung capacity.
At times, Galaxy 2 Galaxy's performance felt like an organic jazz jam session, but when Banks and the DJ Skurge, who was behind the turntables, returned to the stage periodically, the show turned back into a rave. The potent musical alchemy on stage was an unmistakable reminder of the black roots of both jazz and techno — and how African-American musicians have been on the cutting edge of both for decades.
Michela Pelusio Made Magic With Spinning Rope
The audience was immersed in total darkness when Michela Pelusio took the stage at Herbst Theatre on Friday night. She looked like a sorceress, standing before a cauldron-like metal object on the ground that emitted a ray of light stretching all the way up to the ceiling.
That mysterious object was Pelusio's own invention: the SpaceTime Helix, an audiovisual instrument that projects light while spinning a piece of fabric connected to the ceiling. The swish of the spinning rope is amplified, distorted and couched in eerie electronics to create a sort of kinetic soundtrack. The rope spins above the strobe light that causes it to appear to multiply and change color, creating 3D shapes in the air that look like DNA.
Af first, the audience at Herbst was stupefied by this optical illusion. But about halfway into the performance, Pelusio came up to the rope and started touching it, changing its shape by applying pressure with her hands. It was hypnotizing, deceptively simple and definitely weird — a treat to see at Herbst Theatre, a venue usually reserved for classical music.
Tim Hecker Entraced the Audience in the Dark
As a counterpoint to all of Mutek's dance parties, Tim Hecker's Saturday night set at Gray Area was an introspective, meditative journey. The theater was pitch dark, the air thick with sweat from previous festivities. Hecker took the stage and, though you couldn't see him — or anyone, for that matter — I intuited that the bodies in the room were alert and raptly paying attention.
Hecker built layers of discordant elements — what sounded like screeching guitar, echoing percussion and atmospheric synths — into an ambient composition that was heavy like fog, drenched in dread and foreboding.