Sonic Protest 2017 - Humming with the Zephyr

Sonic Protest 2017 - Humming with the Zephyr

1. Sunny Paris

Henry Miller always described Paris as grey, an adjective confirmed repeatedly during my own Parisian years. Thanks to global warming and a sheer strike of luck (I'm starting to develop this theory that the pleasantness of my stay is directly proportional with mishaps of my trip somewhere), I arrived to an incredibly welcoming, unusually summer-like city.

Despite moving the festival one month early, breaking a dozen-year long tradition, Sonic Protest turned out to be truly ushering in the spring.

In the global clusterfuck following the US election, it was as if the French have finally regained their levity post 11/13, be it for a short while until the potential victory of far-right candidate Marie Le Pen becomes more than a passing joke.

2. Icelandic Punk Rock and SIRI

Rushing through the detritus of the Montreuil flea market, I reach the familiar house on rue Richard Lenoir. A large crowd is conversing outside, between the neighborhood trash cans and a parked boat. If one didn't know any better, they'd think the show was about to start or was already over.

Among the dense crowd, I spot the silhouette of Jean Charles crouching over his array of electronics in front of the stage. He switches between the mishmash of mick-ed up tape recorders, khaos pads and pedals with convulsive grace, illuminated by a single night light in the pitch-black room, his back to the crowd like a rock star's. His set is a loosely knit journey through noise and club music, striking a fragile balance between delicate ambient almost-silence, wall of noise bursts and an occasional thumping beat pulsating under harsh textures, creating an emotional, tormented mix.

It was refreshing to see him get more exposure as Scenes from Salad, his new solo moniker, after over a decade of a highly prolific career both as a performer and as a promoter, whose events are like a love letter to the true DIY curiosity. Jendrek from Le non jazz dubbed them "the real underground events".

Italian duo Aspec(t) provided an example of form over substance, their fascinating noise-making machines producing textures which, while engaging as sonic matter, suffered from a lack of structure and dynamic, rendering the performance rather flat.

The transition from one show to the next was punctuated by short video compilations by Lico, another familiar face from the Sonic Protest family. His selections hit the sweet spot between humorous and cringy, with crude punk videos and potentially viral randomness. Picture a bunch of '80s punk rockers screaming ''Cmon Reijkiavik!" to a seated audience in what looked like a community rec center, followed by a psychedelic animated taco commercial and a lady boxer hitting someone's balls that were hanging from a hole in the ceiling.

I was really looking forward to see the Graham Lambkin/Mark Hardwood performance, which turned out to be the most punk rock of the evening.

After the previous fetishistic display of gear, the staff prepared a large table on stage, empty except for a handful of mikes. The music stopped for a couple of minutes, leaving the crowd confused.

The performers finally arrived, accompanied by a mysterious lady who turned out to be Graham's partner and was later throwing paper planes towards the audience. Mark hooked up his iPhone to the PA, as the other began arranging random objects and sheets of paper onto the table. It was as if they had just emptied out their bags and started making noise with them, a feeling certainly emphasized by Mark's tote tangled in his string of bells all through the performance. After killing all the lights, they even turned a brown bubble envelope with a flashlight inside into their only luminescent source.

This primitive set up gave way to a moving performance, often bordering silence, that celebrated the very core of experimental music by elevating mundane objects to totemic sound entities, while playing a metaphysical game of cat and mouse with SIRI.

The surprise discovery of the evening was the deconstructed post-punk of Merry Crisis and their mix of spastic vocals over muffled synths. Everyone got slightly drunk and the atmosphere was openly festive - it was a great festival opening night.

3. Une dimache tranquille

Sunday shifted focus back to Instants' exhibition space, where Pierre Berthet and Rie Nakajima displayed the most delicate arte povera sound entities. Using organic and man-made debris, their intricate universe of micro-installations such as a vibrating pair of snail shells or water dripping from a plastic glass suspended by an inflated bag-balloon created a unique and complex listening experience.

It was what WATT's continuous clarinet drone was trying to convey but utterly failed - when the highlight of your show is the sound of a plane above the area, you know you're doing something wrong. And I wasn't very taken with Rashad Becker's loud meditative textures either.

4. A Banlieu Aventure

Paris has this strange concentric urban structure, making everything outside the iconic peripheral circling the city technically "not in Paris anymore". Given the rather distance, there's a wide constellation of autonomous tiny suburbs around the Paris intra muros, reacheable by metro, also known as the "petite couronne". However, Parisians still tag those places as far, as if going over the perif was synonymous with something like crossing the Amazon. Furthermore, by having their own township, these suburban area have access to a different sort of funding, giving way to a sprawling cultural life of theaters, art centers and concert venues. The atmosphere in those places is a mix of brutalist developments and village-like old little houses, complete with the quiet, sleeper town vibe. Vanves is one of those places you'd never go to unless you were specifically looking for a show in the area.

Navigating those cultural enclaves without a GPS is always a challenge, even without my horrendous orientation skills. By the 7th person giving me directions, I finally made it to the tiny venue dubbed "Theatre/Cine", a charming '60s building animated by the bubbly festival crowd. With a small bar in the foyer and a makeshift exhibition area at the entrance to the main space, the inside of the performance area had been stripped down to a black cube with a low stage in the middle.

French opener :SUCH: presented the sort of tape ambient collage perhaps every experimental musician has made at one point of their career. Despite his formulaic approach, it was rather refreshing to hear a an approach to texture seeking the more subtle, earplug-free path.

Johann Maze displayed an impressive piece of drummer virtuosity, with a contraption turning him into a percussion orchestra-man. I preferred the shorter, dissonant final piece to the cacophonous block of prepared continuous kick drumming that just sounded like he was trying to imitate a train, horns included.

Phew, the much-anticipated Japanese no-wave vocalist finally took to the small stage, wrapped in a cocoon of cut out fuzzy mohair. She turned on her oscillators, whispering cryptic incantations from behind a curtain of black, bobbed hair. What ensued was a tight rope walk among large, thunderous drones and glitchy, buzzing electronics, immersing the audience into a dream-like state. Her apocalyptic lullabies were the perfect soundtrack for the deserted sleeper suburb on a Tuesday night.

5. Moroccan Hashish

I've never been to a show at 104 outside of Presences; going down to the space that used to host a large cardboard maze, I pass through a courtyard towards the final venue. It takes me an actual moment to recognize the familiar Salle 400, with the seats removed and a large festival-style stage taking up the entire left side.

Heimat, the acclaimed Metz duo, are warming up the audience with their dark blend of synth pop. Despite Armelle's energetic performance and mesmerizing bundle of red hair, I preferred her in the now-defunct The Dreams, whose brief existence I was lucky to catch on a gloomy June evening in the tunnel space of La Java.

Soon after the show, the crowd already took their places for This Is Not This Heat, the newly formed live project performing the legendary RIO's band catalogue, with original members Hayward and Bullen, over a decade after Gareth Williams' passing. They were taking a long time to emerge on stage and I was seeing the audience getting restless. When they finally appeared on stage, I couldn't really get into it from the photographer's nosebleed row - there was too much light coming from the stage, the people a little too crammed. While it was fascinating to watch the extended band at work, their sinuous, snake-charmer psychedelia required a more intimate, darker setting. It was the perfect soundtrack for dancing with abandon in the smell of the hashish in the 10eme. Some 30 minutes in, both the band and audience seemed to have found their pace, with swaying turning into full on dancing. Recognizing those teenage years refrains made everyone quite emotional. There was a general warm, fuzzy feeling of happiness around in the gigantic black room.

6. Cries and Whispers

On Thursday, many concert-goers were once again confronted with the prospect of a mysterious banlieue. For once, I was ridiculously close to the venue, crashing with some very generous friends in Gentilly. I was definitely looking forward to the Ghedalia Tazartes / Low Jack premiere collaboration. While not familiar with the rest of the evening's line up, I went in with an open mind.

Behind a disc and microphones curtain, playing with a large parasol, a lady dressed in vaguely Japanese fashion was making tiny noises and gestures, looking like a fleshed out vision of a turn of the century Matisse oriental stamp.

Annie Gillis has been cultivating this mysterious, reclusive persona since the '80s, refusing to give interviews or give much information about her music. There was a certain sensitivity to her use of texture and overall delicacy about her set, however, the emphasis on the visual rendered it more precious than engaging.

It was finally time for the Posh Isolation stars Damien Dubrovnik, the danes that drew in a significantly younger crowd of millenials looking straight out of Grimes video. The slender silhouette of the Scandinavian beau gosse, bathed in red light and spitting distorted vocals over doomy modular synths was certainly charismatic, although the music bore a certain adolescent gravitas that would appeal to the level-two techno fan who just discovered noise music. My feeling was shared by a disheveled older noisephile who was trying to engage in conversation outside, shouting something like ''this is more pathetic than heavy metal''.

The highlight of the evening and perhaps the entire festival was the commissioned Ghedalia Tazartes / Low Jack performance. These sort of attempts usually have me quite skeptical, despite the programmers' clearly seeing a link between the seemingly incompatible performers. I've seen Ghedalia perform several times over the years already, in various contexts and his presence is always quite impressive. Given that he's already formed Reines D'Angleterre with cult dance noise duo Opera Mort, the pairing of his vocal explorations with electronics was not necessarily a novelty. However, bringing his act together with a more strictly club-oriented performer was definitely intriguing.

Ghédalia Tazartès took his usual place behind the microphone, while Low Jack was hidden by a large table covered with electronics. Clinking two Quay Branly-grade old bells from his extensive curiosity collection, Ghédalia Tazartès imposed a dark, mystical tone, as if he the main shaman of a primitive ritual. As he began to unleash his gutural voice, Low Jack's interventions were timid yet present, punctuating Ghédalia's incantations or envelopping them in a deep set of baselines that made the stage vibrate in a way only a techno person knows how.

It was a rare example of true artistic dialogue, deeply moving. Congratulating them after the set, I was not surprised to discover they nurturing a mutual admiration; "oh, we've known each other before, even had a couple of beers", said Ghédalia, whose off stage persona is surprisingly warm and friendly.

7. The Mother of Invention

Unlike previous years, the first weekend nights took a more conceptual turn, being dedicated to the art brut practices and the relationship between music and handicap, as part of their more community-oriented initiatives. This resulted in two days of conferences and panels, followed by concerts. The topics ranged from exploring the therapeutic quality of music among the mentally-challenged, to a focus on autism and the forays of non-musicians into the sonic domain.

It is particularly difficult to judge the artistic merits of such humanitarian exploits. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary to see the support towards these communities, offering mentally-challenged persons a unique chance to express themselves and help overcome their difficulties. Coming from a culture where domestic violence, racism, discrimination and the normalization of the constant oppression of the weak and different, this comes as a dose of aspiration normality. Just this past week Bucharest faced an anti-LGBT march and a famous contemporary artist uploading a teaser video for his book where he was beating up a homeless person.

It was quite moving to see groups such as The Choolers Division, comprised of two musicians and two mentally challenged rappers, or Alexis Forrestier, the infamous art brut sculptor, share his wondrous stories about bombs and moon people, accompanied by musician Andre Robillard.

One must also consider the fine line between the supportive and the exploitative with such practices, although, seeing the performers rejoice on stage tips the balance towards the first.
The sheer synthy silliness of Dutch amateur and Ariel Pink opener Harry Merry was a much-welcomed moment of levity.

One of the most joyous moments of the festival was certainly the Canadian underground legendary amateur group The Nihilist Spasm Band.

Dubbed the first-ever noise group, the band formed in 1965 more as a joke and an excuse to create soundtracks for Greg Curnoe's experimental films. Their show was a true performance, with vocalist/pot player Bill Exley reading an extensive introduction in French. Despite the thinning of the crowd, the grandpa-group were as jolly as ever, presenting their signature blend of weird texts and general cacophony, all in good humor.

8. So Many Kids

Sunday marked the end of the festival for me at the now traditional interactive sound art exhibition at La Generale. Scottish artist Sarah Kenchington presented a lively performance of her large installation to a crowd of almost equally numerous parents and children.

I was quite sad not to be joining in the fun of week two; this 15 day structure of the festival seems custom tailored for Parisians. Ultimately, it is a French and French-oriented affair, although I do believe the anglophone world could benefit from their unique formula.

What sets Sonic Protest apart in the myriad of festivals is both its pace and its curatorial choices - this is one of the few music festivals which, except for the occasional experimental techno act, didn't succumb to the pressure of integrating more club-oriented acts into their line ups or putting on actual parties. They strike a good balance of noise and electronic music, with a healthy amount of world music and sheer oddities.

We might have had a darker, noisier, less fun and games Sonic Protest than previous years, but I am certainly glad I was able to be a part of it once again. But, you know, maybe keep the yearly tradition of booking an African band next time around.


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