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Skaņu Mežs Festival

Daile Music House, Riga, Latvia
Photo: Busdriver by Artūrs Pavlovs.

Based at the Daile Music House, a repurposed cinema in Riga’s central district, Skaņu Mežs displays a broad approach to curation. Now in its 16th edition the festival’s most accessible programme yet incorporates everything from contemporary classical to power electronics. 

First on stage is the Latvian pianist Rūdolfs Macats. His solo piece is percussive and unrelenting. Using his elbows to hammer the keys and, at times, tersely strumming the strings inside, Macats’s violent treatment of his instrument erodes away established notions of the piano’s melodic qualities and sets the tone for the sets that follow.

One of this year’s Shape platform artists Caterina Barbieri presents a modular set so loud it has members of the audience sticking fingers in their ears. Harsh noise is common, but so are ethereal synth sweeps, occasionally punctuated by interjections of deep bass. These stark combinations embody the Italian composer’s work with a sense of grave and foreboding intensity.

The feeling spills over into Thurston Moore and Mats Gustafsson’s improvised duet. Both musicians display a diverse textural range and, during the delicate sections, it’s impossible to tell who is responsible for the bell-like flourishes. There is plenty of feedback, of course. At one point, Gustafsson gets behind his pedalboard and starts emitting staccato bass frequencies, which pop the speaker cones and make you worry for the sound system. 

By contrast, William Basinski’s music is much more static. Subtle melodies weave in and out of scope as if they were tectonic plates grinding up against each other. Basinski’s appropriation of muzak finds a natural home in Riga. The city’s public spaces are dominated by what the American composer calls “anesthesia music”. In the Q&A prior to his set, Basinski spoke about capturing and distorting these unwelcome interventions in an effort to “find a loop that suspends time”. 

Strong parallels exist between Basinski and Liz Harris aka Grouper. Both composers make music that is slow and melancholic, but whereas Basinski is in search for the sublime, Harris is engaged with the intimate. Illuminated by a single dim spotlight, Harris alternates between cassette playback, spacial guitars and contemplative piano phrases. The reverb-laced vocals conceal the lyrics, but the sense that a story is unfolding is never far away.

Armed with a mic and sampler, LA’s Busdriver aka Regan Farquhar unleashes a torrent of staggeringly psychedelic hip hop rhythms interspersed with hyperfast lyrics about electricity, sabotage and dangerous art. Vocally reminiscent of Mr. Bungle-era Mike Patton and backed by jazz drummer Darryl Moore, Busdriver gets the crowd moving by fusing elements of bebop, funk and electro. Despite the bare staging, there is theatricality in Farquhar’s delivery and, during one of his improvised segments, he even enters a scat battle with the drums.

It is RP Boo’s set, however, that eventually breaks the dance floor. Spinning deconstructed hits like Bohemian Rhapsody and Funkytown, the footwork pioneer intercuts the source material with syncopated beats and unifies the audience into a single dancing organism. Speaking to the festival director Viestarts Gailītis after the event, I asked him to explain the diverse curation of Skaņu Mežs. “It works best to have a programme that caters to various tastes,” he says. “That way concert attendants learn about other genres [and] aren’t easily bored by uniformity. Next year, we will have more dissonant music”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2018

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