The patter of rain against the window brings in day two at Decibel. Early afternoon coffee is the ‘tall’ to order for the conference sessions in Pravda studios. Robert Henke (Monolake) greets with a smile as he takes the podium for the first lecture “The Age of Abundance.” It is a rare opportunity inside one of the minds behind Ableton, as he thinks on the future of electronic music eleven years after the founding of the company. His talk revolves around the evolution of computer technology to the present of full realization of the infinite sonic possibilities. The pit fall he sees in this is the difficulty it can create in making decisions. Using his own Monodeck as an example he explains how the ability to do anything is limited by a hardware device, yet at the same time, limitations offer a simplicity, which allows for musical decisions. Henke will have two performances during the festival to put his philosophies into practice.
The conference continues with a workshop from Windows DJ Dave Pezzner “From the Studio to the Stage”. It serves as a continuation of the thought from Lusine’s workshop, this time focusing on adapting songs from a different DAW for use in Ableton Live for performance. Pezzner uses his own workflow from FL Studio to exemplify. Next Drumcell (Moe Espinoza) leads a session on Native Instruments Traktor Scratch Pro. He uses the Kontrol X1 and Maschine to show ways of taking the DJ platform further by exploiting a multitude of functionalities through controller integrations for his live set.
To this point, a clear line can be drawn between the various workshops, tying them directly into Henke’s lecture. Each have presented their own set of possibilities toward pushing electronic music into the world of live performance, which according to Henke is the new frontier for digital music. With a variety of platform choices, each with near infinite levels of control, finding the right balance of control and limitations to make the musical decisions required on stage proves to be the challenge. This is the hidden undercurrent of the festival, each artist bringing to the stage their own personal journey through those choices. The choices are as varied as the results, put together to give a fair picture of the state of electronic music today.
Evening rolls around and seating is rearranged in Pravda Studios to accommodate the ten year anniversary showcase for Lawrence English’s Room40 Label. The rowed seating creates an almost academic atmosphere for the experimental labels offering. The stage is filled with amplifiers, cassettes, effects boxes and a table crowded with laptops and controllers. Seattle’s own Rafael Anton Irisarri takes the stage first with a modesty becoming of the sound he brings. Beginning with a single low guitar note processed into a drone, upon which he builds layers of tones and overtones, pushed through his laptop into an ambient sound-scape.
Lawrence English takes the stage next and promptly suggests the audience abandon their chairs for spots near the front of the stage where they can lie on the floor. In a matter of seconds the seemingly academic setting is transformed to something closer to a meditation hall. Integral in English’s rig is a harmonium much like a guru would use to lead a kirtan. English’s has been constantly returned through the altitude changes while touring. He notes of piece which he composed the year before with the harmonium, “what was beautiful last year would sound like ugly dissonance today.” Fortunately he has other music prepared for today which exemplifies his own work in the realm of ambient noise for the audience now lying horizontal in near complete darkness. Using a small nano control with Ableton he builds up what sounds to the ear like the shore of some cosmic beach.
Towards the tail end of the set, as English’s manipulated ‘white noise’ is combined with the harmonium, Grouper takes to the stage and begins working in her chain of cassette players to provide a smooth transition to her own set. It begins with knob twiddling as she builds up a bed of sound sourced from her pile of pre-recorded cassettes. She then picks up a guitar to act as a blanket, warming the chill vocals which lie comfortably in between.
As Ben Frost takes the stage to perform what one member of the audience calls, a soundtrack perfect for murder, across the street a line has started forming for the “Flying Lotus and Friends” showcase at Neumos. Inside Truckasauras has filled the stage with with an assortment of analog and digital gear to lay down their breed of hardcore 8-bit. The four piece unit has the energy of fun loving party throwers, but at the same time bridge electronic and traditional performance with a layer of musicality. They are very much electronic musicians but they are also clearly a band. It’s easy to understand why they are a local favorite.
Samiyam hits the stage next fresh off a tour down under and a bit hoarse as he introduces himself before going into his set. Using a Roland 404 on batteries he performs his cross between a live performance and DJ set. Thrown in the mix are some classics from M.O.P. and Dilla, in addition to new Samiyam treats. He’s a hip-hop head at an electronic music festival, but he works his sound in, perfectly illustrating how the two no longer need be understood as separate entities.
Mary Anne Hobbes has flown into Seattle for the evening (though she will have to make a flight in the morning to play a San Francisco date before returning to the festival for her own show), and one of the primary reasons is to be able to catch the next act. Milwaukee native Brainfeeder Lorn steps behind his Maschine next to lay down what can only be described as one of the heaviest sounds on the scene. Filled in with deep basslines, spectrum defying drums and clashing synths, the set fills the room with an aggressive exuberance that the crowd goes wild for.
Eskmo hits next with a stunning set that previews his self titled Ninja Tune release out the first week of October. Lorn’s aggression is replaced by swaying melodies and Eskmo’s own manipulated vocals. While not the first to bring vocals into an electronic set, Eskmo does have a certain touch, at one time synthetic and another intimate, all over a sound which fits perfectly into the Brainfeeder lineup.
As Eskmo draws his set to a close, the crowd is ready for the headliner and Decibel veteran Flying Lotus to take the stage. Surprisingly though, as he fiinally approaches, it is who he has brought with him that garners the most attention. Wearing a red and white varsity jacket with a roaring tiger embroidered on the back, patches from the 80’s cartoon, three feathers sticking out of his ear and the tail from Davy Crocket hat hanging from his pants is Thundercat. He steps in front of the bass cabinet and plugs in his bass which also has the Thundercat emblem on the back, while his brother Ronald Bruner Jr. crosses to the other side of the stage to man the drum kit, looking like the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire on a fitness plan. Lotus stands between the two of them with his laptop propped up and his controller at his fingers to launch into a landmark trio set.
As expected the first thing that hits you is bass. As Lotus works soundbites from his new album in Ableton, he leaves the majority of their instrumentation in the mix including drum and bass which are then doubled by the live instruments. It makes for what one would think to be a cluttered mix, but as the songs build a new type of groove is found uncharacteristic of electronic music. The organic funk of the instrumentation serves to highlight the manipulated funk of Lotus’ production fusing into yet another sound to add to Lotus’ credits. There’s a connection between the musicians on stage which calls back to the classic jazz trio, trading riffs and precise improvisational timing. All of the musicians on stage come from jazz lineages, and what they have come together to produce on the stage is an upgrade of that aesthetic for the digital age. They ride in trio mode for about a half an hour, track after track perfectly mixed like a DJ set. Lotus then takes some time to solo with his standard fair before hitting back with the band through two threats from security to pull the plug.
As the Neumos staff usher the audience out, more than a few are inspecting their ears. The decibel levels have gone way past the red. Backstage as Lotus goes into his dressing room he keeps repeating “I’m deaf.” Bruner echos the sentiment sharing that he can’t hear out of his left ear. Yet both outside and backstage is all smiles. FlyLo and his friends have brought a sonic convergence well worthy of Decibel.