Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Field and Fantastic Mr. Fox at Transnatural Festival 2012 by Kevin Chow

The opening weekend of the Transnatural festival at Nemo featured The Field and Fantastic Mr. Fox, two electronic musicians with very different approaches to live performance.  Within a larger idiom of dance, both artists were concerned with mobilizing the minds and bodies of the audience.  The Field’s performance on Friday night was a looping, meditative experience that incorporated both live instrumentation and pre-recorded samples, while on Saturday night Fantastic Mr. Fox played a set of stuttering house and techno tracks that included many of his own R&B-infused productions.  Overall, the weekend’s musical entertainment provided moments of extreme payoff, and I am still attempting to understand how both artists were able to achieve such gratifying results using very different sets of tools.

With moments of slow build-up and release, The Field’s performance was an intensely rewarding experience of moving gradually from one idea to the next.  A song would begin with the introduction of a single loop.  Then, the drummer and bass guitarist would then build on top of the groove for several minutes, slowly increasing the tension.  The song would expand with the addition of manipulated loops or articulated phrases.  After what felt like an eternity of build-up, the song would begin to sound like a wall of sound, grounded solely upon the forward inertia of the original pulse.  In these moments, the Field managed to create a dream-like sense of bliss, not unlike the sound of shoegaze or noise rock groups like My Bloody Valentine.  To puncture the moment of high drama, the band would contract the song, achieved through alignment of an arrhythmic looped phrase with the drummer’s live playing (and in one case, a fleeting moment of silence).  The gradual transition into the next song would proceed with a series of subtractions, followed by the introduction of the next loop, which might at first sound at odds with the previous loop.  The steady alignment of these elements, along with the subtle interplay between sampled and live elements, resulted in an intensely engaging experience of being completely absorbed into the gradual processes of waxing and waning.  Erasing all senses of time, the 75-minute set felt like three hours of focused contemplation.

Whereas the rush of The Field’s performance hinged upon the slow evolution of one groove into the next, the strength of Fantastic Mr. Fox’s set lied in its deliberate disjointedness.  A rich collage of beats and textures, the performance consisted of cut and pasted tracks that overlapped and intersected in interesting ways.  A four-to-the-floor track would collide with one of the artist’s own angular productions in a way that demanded a physical response.  The deep sound of the bass, combined with the compressed squelch of the highs, created a tactile experience that succeeded on the dance floor in an unexpected way.  The music, which might come off as overly mathematical and metronomic, achieves a remarkably sensual quality.  The only vocal samples used during the set had been processed and fragmented to such a degree that they were completely incoherent, which felt counterintuitive given the current obsession with the nostalgic diva vocals of 90s-era Detroit and Chicago style house shared by many of Fantastic Mr. Fox’s contemporaries in the UK.  The de-emphasizing of vocals shifted the focus of each track onto its rhythmic and textural elements, which intensified the physicality of the dance experience.  Consistent with this decision, Fantastic Mr. Fox also included some tracks sampling Brazilian drum music, which possessed an interesting metallic timbre.  My only regret from this performance was the duration of some of the regions of overlap.  There were a couple moments of enjoyment that felt too abrupt.  He would construct an interesting layering of beats like a teetering edifice, only to tear it down as soon as it found a stable footing.  The set felt a bit heavy with the denial of gratification, but perhaps this was an intentional decision to create a certain edge, which made the moments of resolution that much more potent or memorable.

            In the larger context of the Transnatural Fesitval, which showcases art and design innovations that are related to energy applications and smart materials, the choice to feature The Field and Fantastic Mr. Fox seems even more appropriate.  Fantastic Mr. Fox’s manipulation of sound found a direct physical analogy in the recycled and sustainable plastics on exhibit, which allowed visitors to feel the interesting textures and surfaces forged from composite materials.  The propulsive feel of The Field’s set seemed to embody the forward-looking, innovative spirit of the festival, which sought to erase pre-existing boundaries between art and technology, between aesthetic expression and engineering pragmatism.  On the dance floor, these considerations were irrelevant in the immediate context of music as a celebratory act.  However, as an artistic endeavor worthy of contemplation, dance music, perhaps more than other genres of electronic music, represents the creative desire to render mathematical abstraction into a palpable reality.  These two artists, through drastically different methods, highlighted the exciting possibilities available through the act of translating electronic information into a collective physical experience.

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