MUTEK Montréal 2019: Old and New

Three standouts from an event that melds tech, music and visual art

Flying just under the major festival radar, Montreal’s MUTEK boasts a weeklong schedule of avant-garde programming at the intersection of technology, music and audiovisual art. It’s an event that defies the summer festival standard. To celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, MUTEK delivered an appropriately extraordinary line-up of both world-renowned and emerging artists. This is MUTEK’s strength: mixing the established with the vanguard and transforming a traditional event into something unexpected. Here are a few standouts which highlight the mix of old and new.

Courtesy of Myriam Ménard

Tim Hecker + Konoyo Ensemble

Throughout his nearly two-decade long career, Montreal-based musician Tim Hecker has eluded genre categorization, situating his music at the  juxtaposition of traditional instrumentation and digital experimentation. Hecker’s most recent collaboration with the Japanese gagaku orchestra Konoyo Ensemble and fellow Canadian electro-acoustic producer Kara Lis-Coverdale takes this practice to a temporal extreme. It merges Japan’s earliest form of classical music with bleeding-edge electronic composition to explore uncharted sonic territories.

Despite being from opposite ends of both compositional and technological histories, the two styles are hauntingly similar. They mirror each other in abstracting beyond the constraints of linear structure, steadily shifting between expansive harmony and captivating silence. In concert, Hecker + Konoyo Ensemble build a hypnotic musical experience that feels more like ritual than performance, beckoning their audience toward the sublime.

Courtesy of Bruno Destombes

YONA featuring Ash Koosha

Conversations about artificial intelligence have historically been tinted with terror—from fictional cyborg assassins to the much more real threat of job elimination by AI-driven automation. London-based Iranian producer Ash Koosha flips that script with YONA, the world’s first artificially intelligent pop star. Originally developed by Koosha as a software to help him write music, YONA is now an independent entity embodied by an incredibly stylish 3D avatar (designed by digital artist Isabella Winthrop) that performs on live stages, takes interviews, and posts her journey on Instagram.

YONA uses software that generates her lyrics and melodies based on standard pop love songs, creating an uncanny valley version of familiar music that pushes the limits of human-centric production. YONA is certainly a work in progress; her songs tend toward the discordant and sometimes even incoherent, but somehow these “flaws” translate into stranger-than-fiction poetry, making this AI pop icon more human than we sometimes are. Looking out into the distance YONA sings, “Wait until you see me, wait until we meet,” and one can’t help but wonder if she’s looking into a future in which she can transcend fully into reality.

Courtesy of Bruno Destombes

CBM8032AV Project by Robert Henke

Perhaps best known for his part in creating the industry-revolutionizing music production and performance software Ableton, German audiovisual installation artist Robert Henke is undoubtedly a pioneer of computational electronica. Using the strength of his engineering background, Henke has consistently redefined the boundaries of making sound, developing new softwares and digital instruments tailored specifically for his music and performance. Henke is antagonizing his futurist tradition with his CBM8032AV Project, in which he dives backward in time to study the musical possibilities of the Commodore PET, the first personal computer sold to the public. Designed without any intention for audio production or graphic design, time has rendered the technology of the Commodore PET obsolete. Still, Henke has decided to take on its limitations as a challenge to compose an audiovisual performance—one that was previously considered impossible.

It’s actually this technological simplicity that gives Henke creative control of the machine. “There’s maybe 100, 200 or 500 processes running on this laptop right now, on several cores. It’s totally impossible to understand what’s going on,” Henke explains, “But on these machines from 1980, the whole circuit diagram fits on 10 sheets of paper… I can tell you what every single line of this computer does at any point in time, and in doing so I can do things with this machine that are pushing its capabilities to the limit.” Despite the fact that the machine only produces 80 8-bit characters and no speaker, Henke and project co-author Anna Tskhovrebov have mastered the machine to design intricate ASCII visuals generated by music and produced by a hardware hack developed specifically for the performance. Aesthetically, Henke celebrates the Commodore’s now-iconic green on black screen, calling it “something futuristic from yesterday.” We got a glimpse via Skype of the project, which is set to premiere this October at Unsound Festival Kraków.

Hero image courtesy of MUTEK Montréal