It was advertised as the UK's major electronic music event for the year 2000, with the grand aim to "celebrate the past innovators and distant future of music". In execution, however, it was a modest, some might almost say amateurish affair. Things started off on the wrong foot when I could never connect to the festival's official website. Contacting the venue about booking tickets, the answerphone message gave the private telephone number of some poor woman in Islington. Eventually I managed to speak to a human at the Union Chapel who agreed, slightly unofficially, to hold a couple of tickets on the door for me. There were no tickets waiting at the door, instead we got the back of our hands stamped and were ushered in. That week's issue of Time Out promised that if you presented the magazine at the door, you'd be handed a free CD single. I tried this only to be told that the box containing the CDs had 'gone missing' (although when I enquired again later I was given an Amp label compilation album by way of an apology).
The 'foyer' was given over to a number of dealers tables, selling CDs, videos, fanzines etc dedicated to electronic music, but there were far too many Emerson CDs for my liking and I was beginning to wonder about some of those enigmatic artist names on tonight billing - would this be an evening full of 70s-style prog rock? I prayed not. The venue itself, The Union Chapel, is terrific. As the name suggests, this is a working chapel and as such has good acoustics, glorious stained-glass windows, a high vaulted ceiling and wooden pews for seating. Doors opened at 5pm and the event was due to finish at 11pm.
After a brief announcement apologising for the sound checking still occurring, the MC introduced Steve Baltes of Ash Ra Tempel who was DJing before the first act. Baltes' mix of classic and contemporary was surprisingly effective. Apparently he was spinning in one or two of his own compositions also, but nothing was allowed to dominate.
The first act on the billing was to be Frenchman Cyrille Verdeaux's Clearlight, but due to what sounded like very serious health problems, Holland's Wave World started the proceedings. Accompanied by their own CGI film (projected above their heads onto a makeshift Cinemascope-style screen), Wave World cut an unusual presence on stage. As the lights dimmed and the backing track of deep male voices and bells began, two large figures draped in monks habits slowly approached centre stage from either side. My friend rather sarcastically (but quite accurately) described them at two giant Jawas a la Star Wars. Taking up their seated positions, Wave World began to unfurl their Dutch brand of languid space music.
Part prog rock for its conceptual approach, the one-hour piece floated in and out of ambient, early Jean Michelle Jarre territory, the electronic Krautrock of Tangerine Dream and pleasingly worked in more contemporary dance beats. Audibly and visually the band seemed interested in the musical aspects of natural sounds like running water, wind and so on. This blended perfectly with the organic CGI visuals reminding me at times of Future Sound of London's promos (only less impressive). Live instrumentation passed from the obligatory synthesizers to take in electric flute, Theremin and percussion meaning that if you wanted to take your eyes of the computer generated images above their heads, Wave World provided a decent enough stage show despite comprising just two large men. Both provided infrequent harmonising vocals adding another dimension to their live sound. Although Wave World's set was slow and slightly wandering in parts, the overall effect was an adequate if unexciting way to start the festival.
Alquimia (with Michael Nyman)
Oddly, there was no DJ in between Wave World and Alquimia, which meant the Union Chapel reverberated with the sounds of the modest audience chatting, whilst those on stage shifted equipment around. I used the opportunity to visit the make shift bar in a back room of the labyrinthine building and discovered that, there at least, they were playing music.
Hailing from Mexico, female artist Alquimia was next up and her appearance was equal parts female shaman, Native American and hippy. Her opener was basically her own voice imitating the wind and a variety of percussive instruments, wind chimes and bird song whistles. I have to confess I was having difficulty stifling laughter during this. Perhaps I'd consumed too many gin and tonics by this point, but if her entire set was going in this direction then I was gonna have to retire to the bar for the duration. Fortunately, no such action was required. For that was the low point of Alquimia's half-hour set. What followed was far more convincing.
Unrestrained, her voice definitely shared some qualities with that of Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerard, the music based around mellow ambient (digital) strings was pleasant and relaxing. Noted film composer Michael Nyman joined Alquimia on stage for two songs, which were based around Nyman's electric piano and Alquimia's voice. Her vocal dexterity was undoubted but, for me at least, like opera singers, the technical nature of her performance seemed stronger than the actual musical content. Nyman's piano work featured his trademark ostinato styling but failed to excite or captivate in the manner I'm sure Alquimia intended. The brief, five-song set concluded to strong applause and whistles from the crowd, many of whom obviously welcomed the opportunity to see this Mexican live.
White Noise (with Alex Paterson)
Once again, there was no DJ set between acts and by this time things were very obviously running way behind schedule. So far, all had been fine if not exactly exciting. Not knowing David Vorhaus, aka White Noise, I had no idea what to expect from his set. That Alex Paterson of The Orb fame was accompanying him tonight gave me hope for some engaging, perhaps odd beats. Unfortunately, my hope was misplaced. This was supremely self-indulgent twaddle to the point of tedium. Vorhaus himself even warned the audience not to "expect it to be too polished" since he'd only gotten together with Paterson, and two computer software operators three days before this gig. Heaven knows why, since the White Noise/Alex Paterson team up had been advertised at least as far back as August.
Watching White Noise was like sneaking in on a group of friends having a Sunday mess around in dad's garage. Although this was obviously intended as something of a live jam, the lack of preparation or rehearsal beforehand meant that this dismal one-hour set wandered without direction and, more annoyingly, was presented in a largely amateurish manner. (Vorhaus seemingly having little respect for his audience - or is it that he just lacks any real talent whatsoever?) The backing was provided by two people operating a piece of percussion software created by Vorhaus called Maniac. Paterson (positioned on high with his decks in an imposing stone pulpit) provided mixed backing loops that delivered most of what little direction or theme existed. Vorhaus, meanwhile, used a guitar synthesizer and Theremin and spent much of his time on stage either fiddling with the settings on his table top control panel or trying to get the attention of the rest of the band so he could give them cues as to when to stop and start. All these presentation issues wouldn't have meant a thing if the output was impressive but the results couldn't have been further removed from the word. Simply dreadful.
Michael Rother and Deiter Moebius
By this stage the event was in danger of collapsing. The dreadful MC sounded like he was providing the PA at a church fete ("We'd very much like to visit the bar, which sells a delightful array of liquid refreshments"). The audience numbers had slowly dwindled to probably half the original number and the event was running an hour behind schedule. This was supposed to finish at 11pm. Headliners Rother and Moebius didn't even get on stage until 11.15pm. It was only through the kindness of their hosts (perhaps feeling sorry for the struggling organisers) that the festival was permitted to overrun at all, but then only until midnight. This meant, completely unfairly, that the top act could only play for 45 minutes and were not permitted an encore.
Taking the night quickly into the realms of the unbelievable, it became apparent during their set-up that Michael Rother's main keyboard and a small box (sequencer/sampler?) were refusing to work at all. Nevertheless, displaying an incredible amount of resolve, they carried on regardless. Only problem was, half of their truncated set sounded like the backing track only as Rother was largely confined to fiddling with his laptop. Obviously, the music suffered as a result and the set was far from as impressive as their last live UK appearance in January. Forty five minutes later they stepped off stage probably keen to forget the whole debacle. Ironically, the entire performance had been recorded by two camcorder cameramen who circled the two Germans throughout their set. Not sure who was behind the live recording (if it had been commissioned by Rother and Moebius for example) but I'm sure they'd prefer it if the tapes were unceremoniously destroyed. It was a disappointing ending to a disappointing festival.
Things had started well enough and the Union Chapel location provided the ideal backdrop to the day but the faults must surely lie squarely on the shoulders of the organisers. It was a shame, what should have been a significant electronic music festival in this year's calendar finished up like a disastrous farce, memorable for all the wrong reasons. With the exception of White Noise, my heart goes out to the performers who put in their best efforts despite the increasing chaos around them, and to Michael Rother and Deiter Moebius in particular I think the organisers owe a substantial and very humble apology to put it mildly.