All this week, I’ll be talking about the artists and events at Montreal’s MUTEK audiovisual festival. There’s nowhere better to begin than at the launch evening of their a/visions series.

Natural landscapes are recurrent themes in electronic music and the metaphors we use to describe them – glaciers and jetstreams. But the Black Forest of Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS, the audiovisual “experience” from the Cologne electronic legend, is an unusually potent descriptor. It’s not so much the real Black Forest’s twigs or leaves or babbling brooks that defines GAS; it’s its density. From its elaborate twirling visual forestry to the saturated sound, GAS is ambient without ever being static, and as deeply enevloping of its visitors as its subject matter.

For his part, Voigt himself was a motionless shadow through much of the piece. Occasionally, the slightest motion of his forearm suggested he was tweaking something subtly in his Ableton Live set. Otherwise he seemed only a reference of the diminuitive human scale against a sometimes blinding projection behind him.

Listening to Voigt’s music requires active effort, like holding your breath underwater. (Underwater bodies turned out to be the theme of the piece that would follow.) The bass below becomes a kind of sonic ground, though occasionally it materializes into a recognizable pulsing beat, like a distant tribal drum call. The inscrutable density of the Dark Forest is embodied mainly in a wash of sound, sometimes obscured by a relentless hiss of noise with which it is mixed. The combination seems like should overwhelm, but somehow details become clear, bouncing off the walls of Montreal’s Monument National theater. Turn your head slightly, and like sounds in the underbrush, the murky becomes clear. With the occasional digital crackle popping out of the underbrush and the shimmer of sounds that float above the mud, the effect is magical.

Oddly, though, to me it was really the visual experience that made GAS so dazzling. Built on Voigt’s own photographs, thickly layered outlines of twigs and leaves twhirled on top of one another in abstract kaleidoscopes. Particularly at the piece’s opening, they became as thick as Voigt’s soundscapes, but would pull apart in regular patterns to form crystalline structures and skeletal architectures. The fusion of this visual effect with the sound allows details of the soundscape to emerge, like shining a light onto the forest. Close your eyes, and the sound loses a whole dimension.

The visuals were derived from Voigt’s own photos, but the credit to the live visualist was missing. A woman appeared onstage, evidently the designer and performer, but no one seemed to know her identity – a real injustice to her work. I’m working to find out who she was. Updated: In fact, it was Petra Hollenbach. Incredibly, I believe she may have been the only headline artist in all of a/visions to be a woman. That makes the fact that MUTEK seemed not to know who she was and credited the piece exclusively to Mr. Voigt – even given his reputation – even more unfortunate. That’s not to suggest that MUTEK was being intentionally or even unintentionally sexist, but the simple reality was that, whatever the intention, women seemed generally invisible and nameless at the festival.

The whole evening is tightly controlled, though so much so that it sometimes seems repetitive – certain stretches of this forest are traversed in circles. For all its minimalism, though, the piece is spectacular first. Perhaps that explains why the piece explodes into an eye-numbing strobe at its conclusion. Most effective was the simple addition of a scrim at the front of the stage. The brilliant color-on-black combination turned the proscenium stage space into a three-dimensional illusion.

Getting out of the woods seems to be the piece’s one stumbling block; it seemed unable to find a structural definition that would bring the piece to a conclusion, leaving some of the final scenes feeling redundant. The appearance of the name “GAS” at the end, and an oddly-abrupt fade out of the audio, also seemed odd after such an eloquently refined performance. But to me, the sheer sonic and visual textural spectacle was irresistible. It’s hard to think of a better way to start MUTEK than with a complete, imagined world.

Wolfgang Voigt at Kompakt (of which he’s co-founder)


I’m working on finding out if we can get officially-released video documentation, but in the meantime, the original album classic is now available with a nice color book:


  • Hans

    I think the woman must be Petra Hollenbach ->

  • Having seen somewhat similar things by other performers at this year's Spark Festival I'd really appreciate it if you could get some video! I'm a profoundly non-visual person but some of the things I witnessed made me wish I had the knack for integrating such amazing visuals.

    I find the music to be quite rewarding to concentrate upon, but then I would, wouldn't I?

  • Yeah, I realize in retrospect I should have gotten a camera pass for a/visions – it seemed off the table, but I should have tried. Then again, filming would have been tricky, so I'll try to go via KOMPAKT and see what they're willing to make public. (I'd need them anyway.)

    The artist is in fact Petra Hollenbach. Now I just can't find out anything else about her. So maybe I can determine via KOMPAKT what the roles were.

  • rick

    also really enjoyed the gas visuals, was surprised to see petra come up at the end of the performance and have no credits. and am also curious to know more about her work.

    seems like almost no vjs got credit at mutek..

    we also noticed the lack of females, the only other ones in the entire festival (!) was the singer from jahcoozi and the 2 dancers from auto-fiction..

  • nathan m

    there were other women performing at mutek. not a 50/50 split but it isn't really news that electronic music is sort of a boys club.

    i8u (france jobin) performed with visualist chika at nocturne 2. the free event play had quite a few women over the three nights. dominique skoltz was showing work as part of extra_muros… i am sure that i missed some.

  • baghead

    GAS was a snoozer in it's Chicago debut ..a poor sound system didn't help Wolfgang out but come on, be honest …what he did in 90 minutes could have been cut in half and you wouldn't have missed a thing …not only that the sounds were pretty much all just sampled and processed or so it seemed for the cellos, clarinets and horns – as for the performance?? stand in a dark corner to the light of a laptop screen and move a few faders every ten minutes?? and then at the end just dial 'em all to zero …over and out – wtf ?? sorry …at least the event was free

  • I think the sound system and brilliant (literally) projection made all the difference. The sounds were nuanced, and for me a lot of the difference was having this fusion with the visuals. Had they been overly dark, you wouldn't have gotten it — ironically, the "dark" forest really needed to be bright so you got all the subtleties of the projections.

  • rhowaldt

    @baghead: i think for some people ambient music is just a snoozer because they get bored at a certain point. and i'm not sure judging from Peter's account of this event that the artist's personel performance mattered that much for this show. it seemed to be a lot more about the visuals.
    also, don't forget that this was a very personal opinion of that show (which is quite logical) and maybe it wasn't at all cool or engaging to you or me that the guy only slightly moved his forearm twice during the entire show, but if you are watching a show like that and you enjoy it, it could be something that fits your perception, so to speak, and you could enjoy it immensely while others think it was lame.

    i wasn't there at all so i wouldn't know, really.

  • check out my 38 min live set from MUTEK 2008
    recorded live with wii mote, p5 data glove ableton live and FLstudio
    direct link in my blog
    see you at MUTEK in 2010


  • baghead

    Well I didn't say it was bad, only that it was too long for what it offered….saying that listening to GAS "requires active effort, like holding your breath underwater" is very apropos …i.e that somewhere around the 5 minute mark of each segment (which averaged 9-10 minutes each) you start to get pretty desperate to pop up and gasp a bit for something else ….only to get dunked again ….if you want to try to hold your breath for 8 minutes here's a parody of GAS I did when I got home and knocked out in 10-15 minutes on Ableton Live

  • baghead

    well let's try again here's a link that works, I hope

  • baghead

    this is getting embarassing …duhhhhhhhh – try