There’s no place in North America for music and culture quite like Montreal, the Canadian city acts as a juxtaposition of a storied history in its 19th-century French architecture and clear forward-thinking ambition with the city’s dedication to providing some of most cutting edge artistic and cultural activities in the city’s vibrant quartier des spectacles.
The Quarter of Spectacles, for you non-francophones, is a blossoming bastion for art and nightlife in Montreal’s gorgeous Downtown. Here you have a phenomenal contemporary art museum in the MAC (Musee D’art Contemporain de Montreal), a great stage theater in the Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde, the palatial indoor music venue of Metropolis and a s**t ton of great food and stores in between.
There was no better way to explore this part of town than doing so during MUTEK Montreal, a city-wide music and tech festival that builds a bridge between the music fan and the creators and innovators of technology-based music in Canada and from around the globe.
Calling MUTEK, which returned to Montreal for its 17th edition, an electronic music festival is reductive. This is not the place to indulge in a surfeit of illicit substances and mindlessly dance to bangers. MUTEK offers a unique festival experience for electronic music fans with a more sophisticated palette.
Whether a fan of the avant-garde, the new or flat-out different, MUTEK offers the most ahead of the curve electronic music from North America and Europe’s underground scenes. A major factor of MUTEK’s longevity is how they book a slew of great artists who may otherwise not make it to North America to play shows rather than just book the biggest names they can, proof that quality and quantity can go hand in hand.
This multifarious, non-profit outing offers its attendees the chance to enjoy great music and cutting edge performances from a slew of international artists, both established names like Tim Hecker, Jlin and Ash Koosha and burgeoning Canadian talents like the duo Essaie Pas, Von Party and others.
A chance to experience new technology including advancements in VR presentation, take part in panel discussions about the future of music in terms of creativity, technology, and its application, and take in the rich culture of Canada’s bohemian metropolis.
As a first time visitor of Montreal, MUTEK was the perfect entry point to experience the wonderment of the city’s cultural hub.
In partnership with the city and Quebecian government, the sprawling festival had map points across the Quarter and downtown. Included were the MAC, which acted as sort of the center of MUTEK with its two, in-house nighttime stages for the Nocturne program. Métropolis, the music venue had a lot of great, thumping performances that ran later in the evening for the eponymous festival program on Friday and Saturday, and the Parterre du Quartier des Spectacles, an outdoor park which hosted the EXPÉRIENCE outdoor stage.
Also the Salle Pierre-Mercure du Centre Pierre-Péladeau, which was a massive auditorium that hosted the A/Visions program (breathtaking audio/visual performances), the PHI, which had the DIGI_SECTION program with panel discussions and a fun VR exhibition, the Societe des Arts Technologiques, which hosted Boiler Room sets for MUTEK, the CDS with two performances in partnership with FTA (a dance festival which returned to Montreal for its tenth edition) and the Parc Jean-Drapeau hosting Piknic Électronik, a picnic style outdoor stage on Sunday.
Yeah, it’s a lot to wrap your head around, but the festival could be experienced in innumerable ways. In between two days, I took on most of what the festival could offer and I can say that MUTEK is both an electronic music purist’s dream and a perfect microcosm for the fun and adventure of Downtown Montreal.
In the time between performances and panels, you could traverse the Quarter by foot or bike (Montreal is possibly one of the most bicycle-friendly towns I’d ever been to) and enjoy great food in the myriad cafes and restaurants, shop in the many independent boutiques along Saint Catherine street and enjoy the art of the MAC.
At EXPÉRIENCE, I saw both young and old locals coalesce upon the little park and danced away to funky, eclectic (and totally free) DJ sets and live performances before I ran to the SPM for wonderfully abstract audio/visual presentations and performances (Matthew Biederman & Pierre Warnecke’s PerspectionCubed and Dasha Rush & Stanislav Glasov’s Dark Hearts of Spaces were definite highlights), the A/Visions program seem to have the highest demand as per each showcase I attended had a packed audience.
The Nocturne program at MAC was really fun, with two stages and a brilliant trove of contemporary works in between made it one of the more exciting parts of MUTEK, not to mention catching great performances from dark techno/wave duo Essaie Pas, French Cello player/singer/producer Colleen, Political Ritual and many others.
MUTEK also offered me a chance to enjoy the Quarter’s palatial downtown music theater Métropolis, where I got to enjoy big room techno from great back to back sets from Tazz & Giovanni Randisi and Maayan Nidam & Julia König. In partnership with Red Bull Music Academy, MUTEK showcased great sets to be streamed on RBMA’s online radio channel but for those who were in house got to see some of the craziest visuals of the festival.
It was an added treat on Saturday to make to the downstairs stage of MAC for an exclusive demonstration of the new MODEL 1 DJ mixer from techno legend Richie Hawtin. Hawtin, who has been a long time supporter and performer for MUTEK, showed off the mixer he helped design in partnership with PlayDifferently, which is a perfect hybrid between DJ and studio mixer.
A 100% analog device with an array of knobs and buttons I could not begin to wrap my head around, Hawtin ardently expressed the many features of the mixer and offered a glimpse into the minutiae of his DJ meets live performance with it. Following the demonstration, he gave a brief performance showing the MODEL 1 in action, while I would be lying if I said I didn’t want a longer set from the Detroit pioneer but it was still an honor to catch an ephemeral set from him.
Panel discussions are usually something I would commonly associate with conferences and conventions but the DIGI_SECTION panel on Saturday, titled Interstitial Songs: Between Bodies, Strings, Air and Electronics, was a great discussion I’m glad I caught.
German producer, composer, and experimentalist Burnt Friedmann argued the fact that modern music lacks originality due to its perennial nature of being mired in convention and formula while Canadian producer/composer Kara-Lis Coverdale argued the converse, both presenting well-rounded arguments on the subject.
Cellist/composer Julia Kent offered insight into the application of her instrument and how to break away from tradition with it as a solo artist, whether with groundbreaking solo work or contributing with other established artists (she has contributed to groups like Rasputina and Antony and the Johnsons), she transcends the stringed instrument into new compositional territory.
Following the panel discussion, I went downstairs in the PHI for the VR exhibition, which allowed me to experience 360 videos with a smartphone-powered Oculus headset. If you haven’t hopped onto the virtual reality train yet, I highly recommend doing so.
One film I watch via headset was particularly powerful: the first 360 footage from the Earth’s orbit. Thanks to the immersive presentation, watching the Earth and the dark void of space in lieu of a camera was nothing short of breathtaking.
MUTEK was fun at every step for me, from the great music, the chance to try new things and it’s helpful staff guiding this hopeless English speaker through it all, there was no better way to experience Montreal for the first time. A city that proudly flaunts the free-spirit you would commonly associate with your cities like Portland and Seattle, honoring the heritage of its European roots, its dedication to artistic and cultural influence, and offering great public transportation, clean water fountains and free wifi to those who visit the Quarter.
The politeness, culture and activities the Canadian city has to offer all who visit make it a must visit destination in North America. MUTEK celebrates the city’s partnership with the arts and both the future of music internationally and within the Canadian borders.