It is always tempting ‘ especially for music journalists, fans and those on the business end of music ‘ to place the creative output of a geographical or aesthetic community into a neat little consumable package or ‘scene’ ready for consumption. Dancing to architecture can seem easier when you develop a routine or adapt the moves you already know to ‘solid’ structures that fit a recognizable blueprint. And, while ‘scenes’ or ‘communities’ based around common aesthetic interests and geography might be easy to impose theory upon posthumously, while in motion human interactions and creativity are really more fluid and abstract than even though creative synergy can make itself felt in the ‘objects’ or ‘events’ produced. In gathering information and opinions for this article, it became quickly apparent that Montreal’s ‘experimental electronic’ music output couldn’t be snuggly fit into a handy little niche like ‘glitch’ and that most people resisted being categorized as such.
‘I think it’s more of a scene than a sound. The more interesting musicians in Mtl don’t do just one thing,’ says Martin Dumais, head of Mtl based Haute Couture and Hautec labels and one half of Les Jardiniers. Rather than having one heterogeneous ‘scene’ Mtl’s music community is formed of pockets of interests that sometimes overlap and artists who indulge in multiple approaches to music making and work in a number of different ‘scenes’. Someone who makes ‘dance’ music is just as likely to make ‘art’s or ‘experimental’ music. When talking about ‘scenes’ it can sometimes be helpful to look at the actual locations and events that are at the epicenter of the designated ‘communities’. On the experimental house and techno side things revolve around SAT (a performance/art space), the annual Mutek and (now defunct) FCMM Media Lounge festivals, Bily Kun (bar/performance space) and chic caf’ Laika (DJs). A partial list of groups and artists involved include Akufen, Jetone, Mitchell Akiyama, Deadbeat, DJ Maus, Deadbeat, EpsilonLab, Algorithm, Mike Shannon. Local labels include Force Inc, Hautec, Oral, substractif, Intr_version, CocoSolidCiti and more.
‘Most people in our entourage call it techno or house. Minimal is something you will hear but not ‘micro glitch bionic whatever’,’ explains Dumais. As is probably true of musicians across the globe, local artists would rather leave the name calling to journalists, publicists and fans. Akufen (AKA Marc Leclair) is one of Mtl’s more established producers, his release ‘My Way’ on Force Inc has helped bring the local experimental ‘dance’ music scene to global prominence. ‘The technology I see more as a tool than an issue really. We’re talking about electronic music but more and more I tend to just talk about ‘music’. I don’t want to talk about electronic music, only the tools are electronic.’ Many artists in Mtl feel the same way. For instance, Mitchell Akiyama who runs the Intr_version label and works as an artist in both audio and visual mediums does work that integrates digital and electro-acoustic means and aesthetics. He sees himself equally, if not more, aligned with the experimental post-rock scene, ‘What I do can definitely be considered electronic music but its function, the way it’s made and its purpose is a little bit more organic.’
‘I find it ironic that the term glitch has become a genre within itself,’ says Jon Berry of Force Inc who moved the label’s North American office to Montreal from NYC. Force Inc has released records by Mtl producers Akufen (AKA Marc Leclair) and Jetone (AKA Tim Hecker), and a compilation called ‘Montreal Smoked Meat’. Force Inc releases the influential ‘Clicks and Cuts’ compilations that helped establish the concept of ‘glitch’. ‘What we tried to do with the ‘Clicks and Cuts’ series was encourage people to use unessentialist sounds whether it be the whir of a fan or the sound of someone tapping their plate on the table, you’re incorporating that into so-called genres. And out of that some people seem to think a genre of its own has been made.
Maybe it’s the Quebecer’s way of looking for identity,’ concludes Berry. ‘It seems that many musicians in this city try to find a way to make their sound very unique, a lot of people I know in the community are very bent on coming up with something new or out to try to push some new variable. They’re never seemingly satisfied with staying in one area; they’re really trying to push the notions of whatever they’re working in. I don’t find it very trendy, it’s almost like anti-trend. The reason why I appreciate that working for Force Inc is that the label has always tried to support those tendencies.’
The House That Jacques Built
Montreal is a somewhat unique city in North America in the sense that it is a bilingual city in a predominantly French province on a predominantly English continent. Quebec has its own unique culture and French is the official language in Montreal. We have French TV stations, a French version of MTV, a French film and music industry, French radio and media as well as English. The city’s cultural and economic connections with Europe, particularly France, have had as large an influence as local culture and that of our American neighbors. ‘The location of the city is very strategic because the influence comes as much from the American side as the European. And the fact that it’s a multicultural city, we have influences from all over the globe,’ says Akufen.
Montreal is a city of dualities and multiplicity, and this influences the city’s creative dynamic and aesthetic. With both French and English universities with strong experimental music and digital art departments the intellectual and theoretical chin-stroking aspects of audio exploration are well represented and funded. Conversely Montreal’s also a huge disco city. During the 70s the city was part of the Studio 54 circuit (Regine opened a disco here) and still boasts a strong connection to the US and international house and ‘commercial’ dance scenes through labels like Bombay (a house label that is home to locals Fred Everything and Miguel Gra’a along with international housers like Roy Davis Jr) and Turbo (Tiga’s label which is more on the electro and techno tip and releases the Gigolo label in NA).
On the experimental hip hop tip, Ninja Tune’s North American offices are based here. As are world class turntablists Kid Koala and A-Trak. Martin Tetrault mines the outer extremes of turntable experimentalism and all these artists in some form use the ‘cut and paste’ and ‘found sound’ aesthetics attributed to ‘glitch’. On the post-rock spectrum ‘ where the concepts of ‘glitches’, ‘errors’ and ‘natural’ sounds also play a part in the aesthetic – there is the community centered around Godspeed You Black Emperor, the Constellation, Alien8 and Substractif labels, and Casa Del Popolo. Located in the Mile End district of Mtl, Casa Del Popolo hosts everything from evenings of free jazz to bizarro electro and laptop experiments. You’re as likely to see Akiyama, Dave Kristian or part of the CocoSolidCiti crew at the Casa as you are at an event produced by the Mutek crew. And ‘rock’ music ‘ from industrial to trashy metal ‘ also has an influence on many of the locals. Just check out Tim Hecker’s dirty ode to Van Halen on his recent release ‘my love is rotten to the core’ (substractif) which proves that humour is appreciated even in the most ‘arty’ aspects of Mtl’s electronic community.
‘We loved Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey who were always beat-oriented,’ explains Martin Dumais of the roots of the more mature local artists. ‘I think when people figured out you could make experimental music and make people dance at the same time instead of having people sit down in awe or bored out of their skulls. I think that sort of shaped the sound. Montreal’s always been a big dance city. I think that still prevails, even in the more experimental music by older musicians like Akufen. Akufen’s music is partly experimental but if you take out the samples it’s basically Todd Terry. Marc knows how to make a good groove and add layers that make it more interesting than just basic house. I don’t think he’d be ashamed of it.’
Akufen’s agenda bridges the city’s dialectic. ‘I want them to shake their ass and think at the same time, it’s very important you know. You’ve got to stimulate both ends.’ Ghislain Poirier, one of Mtl’s younger musicians who releases with NYC’s 12K, Mtl’s Intr_version labels and is a French language music journalist, agrees. ‘Experimental music and music for dancefloors can go together. You always have to pay attention for purist who want to block bridges and stop us from making new experiments. Music must stay music’ It’s a free thing which floats and we each immortalize it in our own fashion’ The ‘dance’ scene is very important and the experimental scene also and on both sides there are good things and crap”
Concrete Dancefloors and Community Centers
It’d be irresponsible to talk about ‘glitch’ and what it means in Montreal without taking off the gloves to sift through some of the city’s history of dirty, experimental music in the non-digital realms. Mtl has a pretty solid history of experimental music and interest in subverting and converting new and old technologies to aesthetic ends. FIVA (Festivale International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville AKA ‘Victo’) is a festival dedicated to the less digital side of experimentation booking artists like Sonic Youth, I8U, The Necks (Aust.) as well as local artists of note. There is some crossover between Mutek and Victo ‘ for instance Rene Lussier and Bob Ostertag’s ‘Between Science and Garbage’ and Scanner performed at the FCMM’s Media Lounge. ACREQ (l’Association pour la cr’ation et la recherche ‘lectroacoustiques du Qu’bec) has been around for 23 years. In the past couple of years ACREQ has broadened their mandate to include digital experimentation and their yearly Elektra festival books acts like Oval and Granular Synthesis. For artists interested in making music that pushes the boundaries of categorization, Montreal offers a wealth of opportunities. It can be easily argued that the aesthetics of musique concrete have influenced the ‘glitchiness’ of music that comes out of Montreal, or local artists willingness to explore ambient and ‘found’ sounds, as much as any contemporary global movement towards this aesthetic.
Montreal’s a good example of a city with a creative community that has benefited from globalism and also a certain dogged belief in the value of supporting its own artists. The increasing critical and practical success of local artists and labels has much to do with balancing out global ambitions and connections to a larger international community ‘ taking care of the macrocosm as well as the microcosm. And in some ways ‘ the emphasis on the ‘small’ details as well as the larger compositional picture ‘ this can be felt in the music. These beliefs have helped to create an infrastructure of labels and festivals that have brought Montreal and Montreal based artists a certain amount of international attention. Montreal’s certainly not a hub of the music industry, our festivals focus on the artistic side of music and digital technologies along with some shaking of ‘bonbons’. The rise of Montreal’s creative community has much to do with local investment in community by both individuals and the government, a DIY aesthetic and local artists’ willingness to share contacts and resources with both other locals and on an international level.
The effect of international festivals based in Montreal on both the production and dissemination of local artists and labels cannot be underestimated. Alain Mangeau who curates Mutek alongside Eric Mattson says, ‘I think it probably points to the fact that Mutek created a context for something to happen and that context kind of provided a convergence point for some artists to get their act together to start with.’ He sees international festivals which support local artists and bring together international artists with converging aesthetics as a form of positive globalism that strengthens local creative communities and international exchange. Mutek recently expanded their mandate to include international events in Germany and, in the future, Chile. ‘I do believe that for an art form as marginal as say the electronic music we promote, globalization is a way out instead of dealing only with a very small niche market here. Mutek for instance addresses publics across continents so there is that sense of hope that is linked to the easiness of communications today.’
As to whether Montreal has a ‘sound’, Mangeau thinks it’s a bit too soon to say. ‘I think within a few years we are going to see something that will be associated with a certain sound from Montreal but I’m far from certain that it’s going to be glitch. On the contrary, I think it’s going to be much closer to an evolved form of tech house because of the sensibility there is in Montreal. Everything’s pointing in that direction and someone like Akufen is probably showing the way, and not just in Mtl but in a more global way.’ Though there are certainly some ‘scenes’ that tend towards hermeticism, current local tendencies seem to indicate that there’ll be increasing collaborations and cross-pollination between both digital and acoustic mediums and aesthetics in Montreal. Local post-rock musicians are increasingly experimenting with laptops and laptop artists are look to get their fingers dirty and indulge in a little sonic pollution. Akiyama says, ‘I get the feeling that the whole lone producer/DJ thing won’t hold up because it seems like everyone I know has started to collaborate or at least preach the values of collaboration.’
Berry thinks there’s an international trend afoot as well as a local one. ‘I think everyone in electronic music is looking for the next change, the next big thing. Who knows what will happen, the reality is there’s a lot of great music that hasn’t even been tapped into yet. I think a big part of how those elements come into place will be through the aspect of melody, looking at it as songs rather than tracks. Everyone’s talking about humanity and bitching about the laptop live show, realistically maybe everyone’s looking for something to identify with.’ Identity, as any Quebecer who grew up on local politics and cultural debate knows, is constantly evolving as the past interacts with the present to create a potential future. Not surprisingly the ‘identity’ of Montreal’s electronic music community is as polymorphic as the diverse range of people and cultures that compose the city itself.