Numusic Festival, Stavanger
11th September 2010
This year’s Numusic had as its theme the notion, poetically packaged, of ‘Rhythm, The Rhythm’. This might seem absurdly general, but as the festival’s artistic director Martyn Reed explains it, the event’s philosophical (or perhaps sociological) concern is more specifically with the fact that “the concept of rhythm is still to a certain extent, regarded as a fundamentally ‘low’ culture, and in general, not worthy of serious academic study. That ‘dancing’ is a lesser act than ‘listening’. With this in mind this year’s festival set out to explore “the gap between the mind and the body… to establish narratives and build bridges between genres of high and so called ‘Club’ or ‘Rhythmic’ cultures.”
At the centre of this reappraisal of ‘rhythm’ lies Steve Reich, the hugely influential American composer whose three appearances tie together the week or so of the Numusic festival with a tissue of tape loops and eddying orchestral waves. Well, I say ‘appearances’, but for the first Reich performance the composer is absent, so he is here in rhythm form instead. Bookended by two Benjamin Britten pieces it is Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ that is called upon to demonstrate Reed’s merging of ‘disparate cultures’ of the ‘high’ and the ‘rhythmic’, with its clacking, sweeping journey across America, interspersed with snippets of train-going chatter – looped into disconnected eeriness – and the similarly staccatoed recollections of Holocaust survivors on another, entirely more sinister train: that to Auschwitz. Reich’s piece is riveting, but you can’t help but feel that this enactment by the four-piece selected from the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra isn’t perhaps ‘Different Trains’ at its most vital: much of the orchestral meat of the composition is provided via playback as well as the train sounds and announcements, meaning that at times the quartet seem to do little more than provide the odd embellishment, and the voices themselves are hard to decipher over the soundsystem.
But the beat has been set in motion, and I rush away after ‘Different Trains’ to catch Bergen jokers Datarock at Folken. The transition from memories of the Holocaust played over the string-replicated atmosphere of a train as experienced by a dislocated child, to a tracksuit clad foursome inviting you to take a ‘Nightflight to Uranus’ could not be more marked. But when one of Datarock’s first tracks is ‘True Stories’, patched together from Talking Heads song-titles, the essence of Reich’s experimental loops and samples – the concept of sewing music together from experience and baggage – seems alive even here. Plus Datarock more than know how to bring The Rhythm. Much of their newer stuff, whilst still melodically hitting the spot, lacks the D.I.Y charm of their debut output, but when they crack out some of their early hits: ‘Dance With My Daddy’, ‘Fa Fa Fa’ and particularly the wonderfully silly Grease-homage ‘Computer Camp Love’, Folken truly comes alive. The first time I saw Datarock, uninitiated, was some four or five years ago, and they were delightfully shambolic, with a whole horde of friends along just to bust rubbish dance moves. They are more professional now, and not quite as enjoyable for it, but there is no denying they can put on a hell of a show. With the effortlessly entertaining Tarjei Strøm permanently on board, a willingness to whip out their less than impressive stomachs at any opportunity, a catalogue of danceable tracks and the grand finale of ‘I’ve Had The Time Of My Life’ karaoke, Datarock would have to really be off their game to be anything less than loads of fun. They do under an hour though, and generous claims that we are the best audience they have ever had are rather undermined when I later discover that the reason for their short set was that they rushed off to do another show up the coast in Haugesund that very night, where they also informed the crowd they were not only the best ever, but specifically much better than their Stavanger rivals. The cheek of it!
Over at Tou Bergen label mogul Mikal Telle is trying in vain to coax people onto the dancefloor with a slightly fumbling DJ-set that featuring remixes of former associates Annie and Erlend Øye’s Whitest Boy Alive. It’s pleasant stuff, but not quite the adrenalin shot needed, so it is left instead to Trondheim newcomers Ultra Sheriff to ramp things up. And boy are they into ramping. Dressed in matching white spacesuits (or at least what sci-fi movies keep telling us space-suits should look like), the trio are about as epic as Tou’s humble ex-brewery setting allows. With apocalyptic animated visuals playing out on the screens behind them and an obvious penchant for showmanship Ultra Sheriff give the impression that their very mission statement would be ‘ramp it the fuck up!’. “Firestorm, Firestorm/ Blowing everything away!” they bray into vocoders for one early anthem, whilst during the irresistibly catchy ‘Destroy All Humans’ a projected population counter scrolls down until all six billion are dead – it’s like that Flight of The Conchords robot song covered by Pendulum fronted by Arnold Schwarzenegger. And of course you’ll say that sounds terrible, but you just know it would be great really. And it’s probably true that I am far too susceptible to novelty, and I did enjoy watching The Darkness at a festival once; but in refusing to make any concessions to modesty, subtlety or good taste Ultra Sheriff have delivered a live experience that is just brilliant. Crap, maybe, but brilliant crap. Think Starship Troopers: The Musical – and who wouldn’t love to see that.
My Numusic 2010 is capped off by another Bergen stalwart: italo-disco producer Skatebård, in collaboration here with likeminded Italian Marcello Giordani. The duo continue the evocation of space, but this time through supernovas of swirling disco and wispy krautrock nebulae. It’s an often dark take on disco with synth echoes and pulsing bass threading through the intergalactic mist. The self-styled ‘Norwegian Italo Deviance Tour’ never quite feels like anything more than a diversion, however, with the music never quite putting down roots, and the duo flitting on and off stage as if merely there as caretakers for the equipment: it’s hard to get truly absorbed.
Heading off out into the cold it is hard not to be distracted by the rattling of the window-panes in the old brewery – the rhythm taking hold of the very building even when the nuances of the music can no longer be discerned. It is a reminder on departure of how valuable and interesting Numusic and its intentions are: it mixes the aloofly arty and conceptual with the unashamedly populist, traces the development of electronic music from its pioneers to its wildly different modern strands – and is unafraid to throw them together. It’s expensive, sure, but a good education is worth the money. And what Numusic ultimately leaves us with is the reminder that we are not slaves to the rhythm; rather freedom can be found from giving ourselves up to it. The myriad ways that Numusic’s acts are experimenting with rhythm is a testament to that.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010