A month ago a DJ set by Hieroglyphic Being (aka Jamal Moss) set my world on fire. It was in Berlin, at the CTM festival, and I can't stop going over it in my head, rerunning the maths to find the multiplying factor. It was the first time I'd seen Moss DJ. It started at 3am, following an impeccable set of tessellated Techno by Kassem Mosse. But Jamal Moss's set was a different beast entirely: loose, sloppy and incredibly ugly in some parts, but always giddy, impatient and unpredictable. It ran through pitched up and pitched down tracks, and too many genres and styles to count on one hand. At one point it got into a call and response dialogue between New York disco and Krautrock. The mixing was at times slick, incredible (an air raid siren threaded through three tracks, sewing them together). In other places it was a dirty hack made with a blunt instrument.
The constantly changing pace sent me nuts, for Hieroglyphic Being's disregard for the conventions of what constitutes 'good' DJing. In fact the performance capsized all the cliches that have built up around our idea of what makes a 'good' DJ set, ie that good mixing is a smooth segue between two tracks; that a set should move through styles in a gradual progression; that bpms shouldn't ramp up, plummet and shoot up again in the space of three minutes. Moss moved between sections full of sudden schizophrenic cuts from one track to another, and passages where he would let one groove run unmolested for almost ten minutes. Tracks were pulled after one chorus, played backwards, rewound. They were sped up to 170 bpm, then slammed up next to slow 80 bpm funk.
I laughed my way through it, half the time shaking my head in disbelief, frowning, puzzled. Admittedly, it pushed my buttons, that New York disco stuff always does. But it was done with such confident swagger – with Moss resplendent in Battlefield Earth leather chic – that it worked.
Some friends said they were finding it "very challenging". Why? Because what was expected (even given Hieroglyphic Being's diverse output) was not being adhered to. Descriptions of the mood in clubs and on dancefloors often resort to religious analogies, and this set required you to make a leap of faith, or find yourself at an impasse with regard to the sheer iconoclasm of it. CDJs are frowned on in some circles, but central to Moss's set was the way it foregrounded the sound of these tools – the fake scratching sound of the CDJs, the speed shifting (sometimes without pitch control), and brutal use of the fader.
Whereas Kassem Mosse's set felt like a perfectly calibrated clockwork model (not conventional, but certainly neat and tidy), Hieroglyphic Being's was the boss-eyed Frankenstein's monster you fall in love with precisely for his scars and club foot.
One of the central events at the CTM and Transmediale festivals in Berlin just over a week ago was Manuel Göttsching with Joshua Light Show (whose line up now interestingly includes Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters). The show was introduced by three of the festival organisers. They asked in tense tones that people not move around the seated venue, and also that the audience resisted the urge to film the show on smartphones, as the intention was to attempt to create an immersive experience reminiscent of an original Joshua Light Show performance.
This immediately created a rift between the festival organisers and their audience, not because it was an unfair request, but because CTM and Transmediale had three cameras covering the event (one still photographer, one for the live stream and a secondary video camera). Of these three, the LCD displays of two were in the eyeline of around a third of the audience.
Before I get started though, I'd like to add that this post is not about the ubiquity of the smartphone at live shows, or the proliferation of the amateur documentarist. That's a knee jerk reaction I'm not remotely interested in. The truly uncomfortable part of the show was when two thirds of the way through a member of Joshua Light Show emerged from behind the projector screen onto the stage.
Picture the scene, it's a small-ish, reasonably low stage, in a sit down modern theatre. She's dressed in a black top and sequinned skirt, but wearing a giant cream and metal headset of the sort pilots wear, and is edging awkwardly further towards the spotlight, glittering in the halo from the spotlight focused on Göttsching. Her arms are outstretched, in them is a handheld video camera pointing straight at Göttsching. She draws closer, until she's obscuring the view of him, and circles slowly, like David Attenborough around a rare tree frog.
Göttsching ignores the camera, but the audience doesn't. In those few seconds the atmosphere in the whole room shifts, and there's a tension in the room. A couple choose this moment for a toilet/bar break. Others shift in their seats, whisper across to one another. The spell is broken.
The images she films are then sent back to the team behind the curtain, where they're altered and projected live, in glassy fragments among psychedelic lights and swirling ink flows. The effect is definitely not analogue, but it's also not what's making me antsy. It's her presence as a recorder, not the digital nature of that recording that's making me uncomfortable. I'm already trying to ignore three cameras. This puts it up to four.
This is the first time that Göttsching and JLS have performed together in Berlin, and the show has been two years in the planning. There's a large portion of the audience that wants to film the show and stick it on YouTube, or just people who want to get a photo with their smartphones, because this is an Event. Joshua Light Show, for those 15-20 minutes, are the ultimate spectator, in a crass display of how our modern recording habits disengage us and can ruin an atmosphere.
The filming also brought up another more philosophical issue, about the cultural currency of AV performance. It's often the case that even with reasonably 'big name' visuals, the musical aspect of a performance is the seller, and those creating visuals are subordinated on the bill. This can usually be explained by the bigger audience for music, and hence, the bigger name gets higher on the bill. But on these terms Göttsching and Joshua Light Show is a rare performance – a conjunction between an audio and a visual arts festival, with Göttsching and Joshua Light Show equal on the bill. In coming out from behind the screen Joshua Light Show are asserting their right to be on the stage (even if it didn't work, it was a legitimate part of the performance). It's uncomfortable. Joshua Light Show clearly feel they have the right to be out in front of Göttsching, but the reaction of the audience suggests otherwise.
What Joshua light Show are doing feels inappropriate because at an AV show, the V part of the equation is not allowed to mess with the music. The performer is centre stage, and the visuals are an accompaniment. But visuals can make or break a show (they definitely elevated Roly Porter's performance earlier on in the festival), but they're often treated with mild suspicion, as if really arresting visuals are some sort of distraction, or a bogus enhancer of the music. After Roly Porter, friends commented on the fact that they weren't sure if they enjoyed it, because they were worried they'd been sucked into the visuals and weren't able to asses the performance properly.
In Berlin this week that gap was boldly pointed out to me, and the fact that the digital processes jarred with the aim of the show only added to the discomfort. The way we experience music live is all about sight as well as sound. Great music is not diluted by visuals, and visuals do not cover up for part-baked audio. The two should work together. It's just a shame that The Joshua Light show misjudged their front of stage intrusion at CTM.
(Despite the requests, one audience member did manage to film sections of the show. Watch a section below.)
At this year’s Mutek, the series of A/V performances (as well as Amon Tobin’s bombastic stage spectacle) were notable for treating visuals with an extra gravity that isn’t often extended to VJs and A/V artists. Across the festival schedule, visuals were brought to the fore and rendered in pin sharp graphics.
Here's a clip of Purform, whose set was most collaborative, with the audio visual elements merged into a coherent package, where neither medium is the prime mover. It's this duo that got me to thinking about the effect of hi res visuals on the audio in an A/V show. Here, the monochromatic visuals were rendered across a three screen array.
The effect of these super hi-res visuals is a sort of synthesthetic illusion, whereby the audio is exaggerated because of the visuals. There's a phenomenon like this in consumer technology: people watching a higher resolution screen think that they are hearing better quality audio than those watching a lower resolution screen, even when the audio is identical. The same phenomena seemed to be happening in the context of the A/V shows too, particularly at Amon Tobin.
Tobin's stage set up was one of the centre pieces of the festival: 3D projection mapping onto a stage set constructed from giant white stacked cubes. The visuals run the gamut from abstract lights and animated graphics to Transformer-like robots and enormous spaceships in starry skies. The extravagance of this spectacle appeared to give the booming of the bass an extra dimension, and at the very least the sound for Tobin was noticeably better than for other artists in the same venue.
The AntiVJ/Murcof collaboration benefited from a similar synesthetic illusion: flexing, angular, monochrome noodles, designed to react according to the frequencies Murcof was pushing, stretched their vibrating coils into the foreground of the broad screen, gave the bass an extra dimension, feeling like it got deeper into my head. It reminded me of the the Lustmord show at Unsound Festival in Krakow last year (also performed at Unsound New York), where curling smoke trails spiralled into blackness.
Whether the brain's mixing up of good sound and good visuals is a real effect in A/V performances or not, generally speaking visual artists at Mutek were treated as legitimate acts alongside their musical collaborators. This doesn't happen often - one reason suggested to me has been that great audio visual shows are suspicious: the more paranoid among us immediately ask what the visuals are distracting us from in the music, like the card trick that distracts you from the fact you've had your wallet nicked. Are the bright lights just a diversion from what's going on somewhere else in our senses, or are we just too used to music being performed with little or nothing in the way of visuals to be comfortable with it being done really well?