July 14-15, 2000
Cat's Cradle
Carrboro, NC

review by Carlos M. Pozo

The third Transmissions festival took place in Carrboro, North Carolina this past July 14 and 15. Carrboro is actually a block down from Chapel Hill, which is a basic college town, and the Cat's Cradle is a basic rock club, full of rough and dirty rock and roll atmosphere. No air conditioning, of course, so even though I managed to avoid 100+ degree temperatures in Houston, 87 degrees inside a humid smoky club didn't seem much better. Seeing the likes of Christian Fennesz hunched over a laptop in a locale more apt to sweaty guitar bashing made for an interesting experience. In fact, "Interesting" is probably the best I can come up with to sum up the weekend's events.

Transmissions oo3

The venue was divided into a main large open space for performances, with wood railings and benches along the side, and a back room containing a bar and video games. This back room also featured a raised platform where a merchandise table was set up, as well as a sofa, a pool table and some video installations. There were quite a few people who seemed to be there strictly for the back room and the beer, - which I couldn't figure out - tickets were $30. Did they pay that much to stand by the pool table guzzling brews all night?

Audience reactions were hard to gauge - every act received equal levels of polite applause. Even the applause that induced Fahey's encore was strangely subdued. Polite, non-committal and cool - that was perhaps the mood of the crowd. The best moment of "audience interaction" came Saturday, when after Vote Robot's quietly hypnotic set someone in the audience yelled "not bad for a couple of Canadians" to which the skinnier, tenser of the VR duo shot back instantly "eat shit!". There was also a tremendous amount of traffic in and out of the club throughout all the performances.

A glance at the full list of performers might lead one to think this festival aimed to bring together a group of (mainly) European computer-based musicians with American guitar or instrumental based performers. Looking at the scheduled line-up, however, you could not help but notice that the event was divided into Friday as the "laptop night", and Saturday as the "guitar night". While I like to think I'm a well-balanced aficionado of all music, I do have to admit that I'm extremely partial to the laptop brigades. Like most Americans, I was raised on a steady diet of heavy geetar rock, yet in the last 5 years I can't think of too many guitar-led bands that I've followed as intensely as I have the exploits of three of the performers on Friday night's schedule - Christian Fennesz, Peter Rehberg and Marcus Schmickler. These gentlemen are three of the best-known proponents of a post-everything Austrian and German aesthetic that has come to be known as the "Mego Sound", after the Vienna label which Peter Rehberg co-founded, and for which Fennesz records. Adding a bit of American flavor to the laptop night were Kim Cascone, whose recent recording for German labels Ritornell and Raster Music put him on a parallel sound-field with the Mego folks, and three representatives from New York's up-and-coming Lucky Kitchen label.

The Friday night computer onslaught kicked off with Zuerichten, a North Carolina trio of two laptops and a DJ whose meandering, pointless set, punctuated by a generic "media-overload" video projection backdrop never caught my attention. Zuerichten set the stage for the main failings of the laptop-based artists - the abundance of options available to the performer, manning a tool that can literally reproduce anything ever recorded at the click of a mouse, lead almost inevitably to a short-attention span demonstration of endlessly changing clusters of samples. If the performers can be allowed to display their attention deficit disorder on stage, the audience can perhaps be forgiven for drifting to the back room's array of video games.

Kim Cascone's set, immediately following Zuerichten's, was the most cohesive of all the laptop brigade, and sounded most like a "composed piece", and made use of sounds recycled from his recent "blueCube( )" and "cathodeFlower" CDs. Accompanied by a slowly evolving video backdrop Kim produced an improvised, yet carefully ordered serious of beautiful, inhumanly perfect sounds that seemed to chill the humid smoky air, at least temporarily. Perhaps because Kim was working from a limited set of sound sources, the audience seemed to appreciate his set more than those of Schmickler, Pita, or Suetsu.

Next up where the three Lucky Kitchen label fellas, who set up their gear together and then performed separately. First up was Suetsu (Daniel Raffel), who began with some straight up country music snippets that he proceeded to mangle on his laptop. The use of horrible contemporary over-produced country tunes seemed like a good-humored "fuck you" to the locals, though I didn't see anybody laughing.

Hrvatski (Keith Whitman) turned in a fine set of droning electronics from his laptop and some other gear - though the other gear, a breath controller and a melodica, could have been just for show, like the acoustic guitar that he leaned against his table. Unlike his recorded output, there wasn't an "amen break" to be found anywhere in his performance. The closest thing on his "Oiseaux 96-98" CD to what he did onstage is perhaps the extended ending of Cirrus Minor, the Floyd cover that closes that disc. Zammuto (Nick) went all conceptual on us by bringing a metal file cabinet onto center stage. A spotlight was fixed on the cabinet and a pre-recorded piece was played, full of "live" sounding beats over some samples. The moment when a drum built an intricate groove around the reading of the congressional record was a fantastically ridiculous and funky moment. The piece might have gone on a bit too long, but the image of an audience staring at a file cabinet performing on stage was highly amusing. Throughout the performance, and adding to the absurdity, Daniel and Keith sat onstage with arms folded staring at the back of the cabinet.

Marcus Schmickler's set was nothing like the Wabi Sabi or Sator Rotas CDs (both on A-Musik) I own. His set was noisier and closer to what recent Pita CDs sound like. Endlessly shifting blocks of sound dropping in and out of a mix that was obviously improvised in it's formlessness. A bit more focused than Zuerichten, but not by much. Marcus was also the only one of the laptop-pilots who actually moved while performing (well actually Fennesz stood up twice, but that doesn't really count) - he moved sideways and back and forth in small jerky spasms - like a teenager absorbed in his pinball game.

Pita (Peter Rehberg) started out with free-form sound shaping, which I was expecting, and built up into rhythmic patterns that ended up sounding almost house-like, which I wasn't expecting. A video backdrop of shifting black dots provided some appropriate visual accompaniment, as the dots floated in disorder and slowly aligned into careful grids before collapsing into disorder, again and again.

Kevin Drumm's set emerged quietly in total darkness out of barely audible contact mic'd scrapes. People's heads turned as they asked themselves "oh, is the music starting again?" The lights never shone on Drumm as he played, so I can't say on which side of the laptop/no-laptop fence he sat. Regardless, Drumm's mix of earthy scrapes, and surging feedback-like drones was one of the most unselfconscious and ecstatic musical moments of the weekend.

Kevin Drumm - John Fahey

Saturday's guitar-centric night featured Idyll Swords, a trio of folkie string pickers who set the stage for John Fahey, the night's, and perhaps the whole festival's sole "star" performer. Before the man took the stage, though, we were treated to a solo set by David Grubbs, who presented some new songs from a forth-coming album, and a mix of older material. Onstage, sitting with an acoustic guitar strapped across his shoulder, Grubbs looked very much like the average sensitive folk singer. The song he opened with was perhaps the best he played all night, graced by a melody that was nearly Nick Drake-like in its wistfulness. Grubbs stepped outside the folkie realm when he whipped out a mini-disc to accompany his guitar playing, for a very effective mix of acoustic strumming and heavy abstract electronic drones. Eventually though, as the set evolved, and as his lyrics became more audible, the folky charm outgrew it's welcome, and I began to lose patience as each tired melody, chord and lyric took it's predictable turn.

In the schedule, Fahey was penciled in for half an hour, but proceeded to play for well over an hour, including an encore. He came unprepared, without a guitar, yet could do no wrong, as the beautiful melancholy lines issuing from his borrowed guitar easily burrowed into the hearts of the usually detached audience. Fahey also proved to be the most communicative of all the night's performers, speaking at length before and after each piece in his trademark singsong cadence. What did he speak about? Well he felt he had to describe what he was doing as he tuned up, causing the audience to burst out into slightly forced, uproarious laughter. Fahey has star-power - you could feel the audience being drawn towards the stage as his set progressed. It was as he prepared for his second "song" that he said something very interesting, and something that some people interpreted as a dig at the laptop folk. He adjusted his delay pedal (his only pedal) until it achieved a ridiculously long delay time - all he needed to do is pluck one string and a wall of reverberating, endlessly echoed sound would cascade through the room. I'll paraphrase what he said: "wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a machine that did all the work for me? All I would have to do is this -" [plucks string] "and then just sit and watch the results." Was he making fun of delay pedals? Was he making fun of laptops?

Fennesz Fennesz got switched from Friday to Saturday, making him the only laptop-pilot that evening. Fennesz, ostensibly a guitar player who mangles his sounds digitally, might have taken this opportunity to blend in with that night's guitar slingers, but instead he proceeded to unleash the most sonically brutal assault of the night. I once read a list of Fennesz's top 10 favorite records, and he listed "live performance by Merzbow" as one of his favorites. While there was that bit of harshness to his sound, the name on his top 10 list I was reminded of most was My Bloody Valentine - who ended each show on their last (apparently now legendary) tour with a sustained barrage of loud noise explicitly intended to clear the room. This differs from Merzbow's noise in that anyone who would attend a Masami Akita performance knows exactly what he or she is getting into. MBV's act of audience baiting was replicated in Fennesz's final 10 minutes, as the noise shrieked on until one had no choice but to protect one's ears or retreat to the back room. Some viewed this finale as cathartic and visceral, while I remain puzzled by Fennesz's move - it seemed too obvious and maybe even more pretentious than a David Grubbs lyric. Either way, it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Overall, as I said, an interesting set of performances. Kim Cascone was pleased by the audience reaction he received, and I can remember seeing a good number of curious listeners approach Kim with questions about his performance and ideas. Certain other portions of the audience gave off a weird vibe, a vibe confirmed by recent postings to various mailing lists, that they'd been cheated, that their need to "rock" had gone unfulfilled. I recall one specific gentleman, a fierce looking dude (hardly representative of the meek crowd) with a shaved head and handlebar mustache, with a pro-wrestler look about him, who staggered through Friday night's show, beer in hand, asking, "now whar's all that music comin' from?" to different people. One person responded - during Pita's set - "there's a tape rolling and the guy's probably playing space invaders up there."

transmissions oo3 page with photos and videos of the performances:

transmissions oo4 page:

photos: Dan Partridge