Ekko Festival 2010 pt.I

Casiokids @ Ekkofestival
USF Verftet, Bergen, Norway 15th October 2010

Another year, another expansion: this is an echo that just keeps getting louder. Two weekends play host to Ekko’s festivities in 2010, and although the headliners perhaps aren’t as hefty as last time around the line-up further cements this little festival’s status as a unique, up-to-the-minute and, effortlessly trendy shindig. From prodigious local talents and Oslo electronica mainstays, to some of 2010’s biggest underground movers-and-shakers from genre-defining labels such as Warp, Kompakt and DFA; this year’s Ekko might require the average punter to do a bit more digging, but there’s a seam of gleaming gold to be uncovered by those that do.

Friday:

One of the many ways in which Ekko establishes both its distinctiveness and its links to the hub of the local scene is in its annual commissioning of a specially prepared composition that drags a Bergen act out of their comfort zone and gives them the blank canvas to try something with no creative boundaries. Last year saw Real Ones performing a fully instrumental piece which, whilst it wasn’t hugely musically compelling, was perfectly pleasant and added to the feeling of Ekko being a special event – plus you’ve gotta credit them for trying something a bit different. This year’s special commission went to Casiokids, a ramshackle group who have deservedly whipped up a considerable buzz with a string of killer singles (collected into an irrepressible album), and a glut of madcap live shows. Given the performative focus of their concerts and the soundbite nature of their success, their collaboration here with choreographer Henriette Slorer and dancer Sigrid Hirsch Kopperdal to explore the impact of the shuffle function on music is actually more appropriate than it might at first seem, but you’ll understand nonetheless my pre-show puzzlement over just what ‘Shuffle’ would actually entail…

We are asked on entrance if we have an mp3 players, and I hesitantly offer up my iPod, but any fears about its fate are swiftly forgotten. There’s a lot to see upon entering the relatively small room that is to house Casiokids’ performance, but the venue setup merely adds to the enigma. The stage itself takes the form of a catwalk, jutting out into the crowd. But any expectations of a sleek fashion show are undermined by dozens of shabby objects hanging from the ceiling, suspended by white ropes that snake behind a backlit curtain. There’s a skirt. A chair. An umbrella (it is Bergen after all). A Winnie-the-Pooh inflatable beachball. Clearly the objects’ significance lies in their randomness. As the glow of the lights varies pulselike in intensity, and I begin to wonder when the whole thing will start (or if this is even it), a head appears from a small trapdoor concealed in the catwalk, and this mute countenance rises from the floor to reveal the white-clad body of one of the dancers. With calculated dinosaur jerks and effortlessly controlled writhing she accompanies the music that swells from behind the curtain. After a while another dancer emerges, and the two begin a curious series of interactions that are perhaps intended to investigate the effect of shuffled songs on the music listener’s emotional state. Every so often one of the suspended objects is lowered on its string, and, when approached with animal curiosity and touched by the dancer, the music is interrupted by blasts of half-remembered songs from the assembled iPods. The lead dancer tugs each item from its clasp and thrusts it onto her partner, who reacts to the acquisition with a flurry of customised dance-moves and an expression of fear, anxiety, surprise or submission. So far shuffling has provoked a selection of largely negative emotional responses, so we can read as much as we want into that fact that when they back curtain rises to reveal Casiokids themselves (who have up until this point appeared only as flickering silhouttes), the two dancers react with overflowing pleasure and delight. As the duo dress up in the hanging garments to add splashes of colour to their neutral Apple-advert body-suits and crack out cheery choreographed boogies, the focus turns to the band.

Musically ‘Shuffle’ has much in common with the material on Topp Stemning Pa Lokal Bar, although here it takes on a more wistful and meandering shape; their lo-fi synths playing out homemade proggy space-disco textures that swell and bubble, Ketil Kinden Endresen’s distinctive falsetto taking on a dreamlike quality, imbuing the vocal sections with a wide-eyed longing. They may be sonically experimenting more than we are used to, but Casiokids also prove throughout ‘Shuffle’ that they have an impeccable ear for melody: catchy synth lines abound and the piece grows increasingly confident as it progresses. It’s less immediate fare, sure, but to write Casiokids off as a chirpy pop act would be hasty in the extreme. With ‘Shuffle’ over they take a bow to the strains of ‘Born Under Punches’. Casiokids aren’t the new Talking Heads, but in showing a willingness to examine music’s relationship with performance, to deconstruct its emotional effect, and to confidently play around with their sound, they are going in the right direction. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure that ‘Shuffle’ harboured any ‘deep’ meaning, or even addressed any important questions adequately, but it was damn fine entertainment.

This year’s Ekko theme is ‘mixtape’, and the special installation that runs throughout the festival and beyond is Lasse Marhaug’s ‘Kassett’; a vast collection of Norwegian tapes that plays on the recent nostalgia for the format to celebrate both the lost age of the cassette and also a distinctive era of Norwegian music. It is fascinating on both accounts: seeing the tracklists and artwork for numerous late eighties and early nineties Norwegian bands is educational, occasionally hilarious, and provokes waves of submerged childhood memories. The friendly Australian volunteer (who has come all the way from Stockholm to experience the festival – proof of its cache) points out his personal favourites – a funny track name, a lurid cover, or a thundering sound – and indeed it’s hard not to be won over to the cassette cause when wandering through Marhaug’s labour of love. The buttons that allow you to switch at an instant between tapes serve only as a reminder, though, of how they were never this easy to use in real life.

In truth, though, ‘Kassett’ is perhaps even more modern than ‘Shuffle’ was. Everybody has an iPod these days; only those at the forefront of fashion are reclaiming the cassette tape – and at the forefront of fashion is where Ekko has firmly positioned itself.

First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010

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