The Wire

In Writing

Présences Électronique 2017

June 2017

Derek Walmsley vists Ina GRM’s Paris festival to find the venerable institution branching out

The huge front window of Le Centquatre-Paris cultural centre in Paris has dozens of small illuminated signs, all blinking the word open. This is a tough, grimy district of Paris, and the State of Emergency in place this April means there are armed soldiers standing on street corners on my walk to the venue. Yet this year’s edition of Ina GRM's regular music festival extends a welcome to all.

Inside the door, I bumble into the the middle of a bustling salsa class right. When I shuffle my way past, I see the main area filled with young dancers busting high-level break and street dancing moves. Sneakers on floor create a storm of squeaks and swoops that rival Pierre Henry's Variations For A Door And A Sigh, and though it smells like sweat, it looks like a calm ballet. Anyone can do their thing at Le Centquatre, which is why local youths come here to dance when it opens and leave after dusk.

Le Centquatre Paris. Photograph by Maxime Dufour

It is not the context you expect for an event run by venerable, state-supported electronic music institution Ina GRM, and it is all the better for it. With a history of musical experimentation that goes back to the Second World War, its achievements are usually discussed in the past tense, and the accumulated layers of historical discourse mean that talk of GRM's innovators sometimes sounds a lofty pantheon of geniuses. But the feel of Presences Electronique festival is completely different. It is open to the public; it's happening this year outside of GRM's own studios, in a modern cultural centre that used to be a municipal undertakers; and the range of music endorsed by Ina GRM extends far beyond the traditional music concrete to any music that employs electronics in any way. Lazy assumptions about high versus low art are immediately challenged by the extensive lines of curious listeners queueing for the free tickets.

The set-up of Presences Electronique echoes the genteel routine of many composition festivals: discrete sittings for each performance, respectful silence during the music, and each day ends shortly after nightfall, leaving everyone plenty of time to get home before midnight. It presents significant compromises if you're used to most modern music festivals – arriving late or leaving early for each performance is awkward, so you can't drift around and see where the sounds take you, and I find myself making sure my smartphone was well charged, so if a performance turns out to be long and dull, I can at least read up on what's coming next. The formality of proceedings extends to barely any explanation or introduction before each performance – they just happen. Alone with your impressions, devoid of context in an acousmatic paradise, it's easy to drift into sleep in the warm, dark downstairs room.

Yet the experience of Ina GRM's audio diffusion speaker set-up – the acousmonium – is exhilarating no matter what music is put through it. The process of putting sounds in motion in a three dimensional setting brings them alive in a way a standard stereo PA system can never match. Jana Winderen's recordings of exotic sea creatures are realised as precise pinpricks floating in free space, more alien to the ears than any synthesizer programming. A short piece by the venerable GRM mainstay François Bayle blows the creations of the majority of contemporary techno producers clean out of the water, with shimmering curves of modulated sound swooping across the auditorium like stealth bombers’ shadows. The programme also includes old pieces being diffused anew by GRM heads, including current Artistic Director François Bonnet aka Kassel Jaeger, at the mixing desk. A rare James Tenney work Fabric For Ché is a shockingly hardcore assault that rivals any pure noise music. A piece by veteran composer Ivo Malec suggests some combination of acid’s full-spectrum body massage and spectral music’s analytical methodology.

François Bayle at the mixing desk. Photograph by Didier Allard

While many electronic music festivals submit to a kind of globalised dilution, where familiar artists appear again and again in ever more anonymous contexts, Presences Electroniques’ focus on music as pure listening, rather than a social lubricant, is refreshing to experience as a punter. With the audience’s senses open and focused, everyone seems to up their game. Kara-Lis Coverdale’s set feels raw and chaotic but is so vividly coloured and full of see-saw dynamics you hardly notice. Thomas Ankersmit’s Serge modular set-up shakes the building and creates a palpable tension in the air.

Much of GRM’s focus in the present day is on technogical developments in music hardware and, particularly, software. This spotlight on pure technological innovation leads to some lifeless performances – Akira Rabelais works some clever filters on speech recordings which feel of mostly professional interest – but it's balanced out by the belly laughs of Cannibal, a trio of Dennis Tyfus, Cameron Jamie and Cary Loren, grossing out a respectful audience with weird loops and vocal experimentation. The beauty of the Presences Electronique festival is that the name, the idea, is open to all. Next time around, maybe they could even get some of those dancers involved.

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