Le Guess Who? 2016: Why music sounds completely different when the world is ending

In the aftermath of the USA’s stunning election result, Chal Ravens heads to Holland alone and discovers that the entire world sounds different. But the 10th edition of Le Guess Who? festival, the raw power of the human voice offers a firm hand in the darkness.

Music always has a context, and when the world changes, so does your sense of hearing. My enthusiasm for a weekend abroad to catch some of my favourite musicians dropped off sharply the morning before I set off, when I woke up to the news of Trump’s victory. In every scene of my solo trip to Le Guess Who?, whether zoning out to Swans’ head-clamping wall of noise or rushing between venues down Utrecht’s foggy streets, I skirted the present like a daydream, repeatedly sucked back into a spin cycle of gloomy thoughts. The entire world seems different, I realise, like a filter has been removed from my vision, and every performance is cast in a different light.

Setting a symbolic tone for the weekend, Lonnie Holley brings his free associating song-poems to the aptly named Cloud Nine space on the top floor of the TivoliVredenburg – an Escher-esque seven-storey puzzle of interlocking auditoriums, stairs, escalators, smoking boxes, light projections and modular furniture, and the ideal cultural venue, seemingly purpose-built for Le Guess Who?. Holley, a sui generis artist who never performs the same song twice, improvises lyrics over rippling organ: “Took me up the escalator to cloud nine / What do you expect from a human on cloud nine?” His presence is a portal as his mind skims through his memories, singing of his grandfathers and mothers, and their grandfathers and mothers; an embodiment of Black American cultural memory. “All ‘art is’ – All Rendered Truth Internal Self,” he says by way of mystic explanation. “Thank you for being so earful.”

This year’s 10th anniversary Le Guess Who? is curated by four acts, Wilco, Suuns, Savages and Julia Holter, none of whom are favourites of mine but apparently share similar tastes; Holter’s line-up is the most appealing, spanning Laraaji, Laurel Halo, Circuit Des Yeux and Josephine Foster. Beak are here, as chosen by Savages, and during their set I decide that the measure of a strong performance this weekend has to be how long I’m spared any mental irruptions about ‘the situation’ out there, how long I can last before my mind starts dredging up endless news articles and graphs and tweets and doomsday scenarios.

Lonnie Holley by Tim Van Veen

The trio do admirably well on this metric given the durational aspect of their rock-not-rock, a fucked-up nihilist motorik that’s less ‘Autobahn’ and more ‘rusting handcart cranking towards the Zone’, or ‘gang of troglodytes tracing leylines across boggy fields’. There’s something mossy and organic about Beak, who represent the the very inverse of rock, the understanding that rock is over; they are brilliant because they know there’s no point trying to resurrect the flimsy showmanship of the old school. So with no frontman and not much in the way of hummable hooks, we get decaying chord progressions and stumbling percussion missing beats, energy always held back, pent up. All this forward motion makes the rare ‘moment’ – a cymbal crash like a thunderclap, guitar set to flame-throwing power chord – stick out more sharply. It’s good enough to distract me from the horror momentarily, but the feeling is firmly implanted.

Gripped by freezing damp – sea-level is a bitch – I walk the few minutes to Rasa, a compact black box venue which, judging from the flyers in the foyer, tends to bring in touring artists from Africa, Africa and South America. Such a cosmopolitan setting is the perfect portal into Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids’ time-sliding universe, where free jazz, gypsy folk, ‘50s exotica and Latin rhythms mingle and multiply across their lengthy, spirit-lifting journeys. If Sun Ra’s cosmic-shaman wardrobe came from outer space, the Pyramids’ get-up is distinctly earthbound and eBay-sourced – as well as a leopard print robe and sequinned cap, Ackamoor sports a plush, Made-in-China pharoah’s headpiece – but that only makes the sextet’s free-associating music more accessible. Sandy Poindexter’s earthy violin and Ackamoor’s soaring alto sax are a heady combination, and my feet barely touch the ground.

I head back to TivoliVredenburg for a burst of Tim Hecker in total darkness, who flattens with volume but has only one setting for his fiddly, maximalist onslaught. ‘The situation’ has made me impatient for something bolder and deeper, and more than ever this feels like futile material.

Beak by Jan Rijk
Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids by Melanie Marsman

The next day requires a trip to the record fair everyone’s talking about, which is said to be the biggest in the world and is an extremely dangerous place for the sort of men (and yeah, it is mostly men) who carry their secondhand finds around in totes that read “VINYL ISN’T DEAD”. I buy four records and remove myself as soon as possible for safety, having looked at about 5% of the stalls. It is ruinous in there. Don’t go.

The first of Saturday’s shows is the one I’m most looking forward to, so it’s crushing to be turned away from a packed-out Janskerk as Chicago musician Haley Fohr brings her Circuit Des Yeux alias to the town’s large central church. Later on I catch her in the guise of Jackie Lynn, an alter ego in a white cowboy hat performing in silhouette form behind a fabric sheath; her voice – low and brooding like the runaway offspring of Nico and Scott Walker – is stunning up close, and the songs, from this year’s self-titled album, take on a soupy, psychedelic feel in the band’s extended jams. That record and Circuit des Yeux’s In Plain Speech come highly recommended, if you’re not familiar.

Venturing back to Janskerk an hour later I catch Áine O‘Dwyer, whose performance confirms two minor themes of the weekend: mutating voices and microtonality. Like an invisible banshee haunting the pipes of the church’s organ, O‘Dwyer pummels us with gothic drama from her concealed lair above the altar, the crimson uplighting painting a scene straight from the mind of Dario Argento. Pulling trembling bass drones, microtonal shifts and Raster-Noton-esque high frequencies from the pipes, she adds her own noises, human and inhuman: processed vocals, unamplified wails that ricochet off the stones to create stunning natural reverb, and the rustling and knocking of unseen wooden and glass objects. Sometimes a hand pokes out from the crow’s nest to drop a manuscript sheet to the ground, twisting in the updraft as it falls. It’s pure theatre.

Voices dominate the rest of the evening, from Julia Holter’s mesmeric performance in the Groete Zaal (the Tivoli’s original space, before the grand extension). I had no idea she was quite this good, and feel stupid for having wandered away from her work after Tragedy; last year’s Have You In My Wilderness isn’t in my usual lane, but on stage Holter is a force of nature, her voice confident and easy, channeling the classic singer-storytellers of the ‘70s through an avant-garde ethos: saxophones crushed to white noise, bowed bass creating tidal waves of sub-bass.

Áine O’Dwyer by Tim Van Veen
Jerusalem In My Heart by Melanie Marsman

A more austere exploration of the voice’s potential to move and signify comes from Lera Auerbach and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, whose microtonal melodies inspired by mystical Kabbalah bend the air and destabilise the room. Late at night I catch Laraaji and his dreamy zither; the meditative mood would have been better in the morning, but I’m keen for the soporific effect anyway.

The next day is grim-grey fog, and a strange daytime set in the cold light of Leeuwenbergh, a converted church in the old centre. Josephine Foster gives a daringly sparse performance, pairing her otherworldy voice – another of the weekend’s vocal stars – with scruffily fingerpicked electric guitar, imperfectly tuned. The scattershot playing that makes her recordings so rich is difficult to decipher, but she settles into a rhythm and allows me, for a moment, a vision of rural America very different to the one that’s been making headlines. My brain is making connections even where there aren’t any now. At Oliver Coates’ brainy fusion of cello and electronics, performed in front of Lawrence Lek’s RPG visuals, I’m drawn to his red baseball cap – surely a wily detournement of the year’s worst fashion accessory?

But being alone can be surprisingly rewarding in such situations, no matter how much you might want a sounding board or co-commiserator by your side. Fresh connections can be made, new shit will inevitably come to light, given the space to percolate. Walking through cold drizzle on the last day, I realised it was Remembrance Sunday, and I thought about every memorial service I’d been to as a teenager and how distant the threat of fascism seemed; thanks to our grandparents, just a page from the history books. The Netherlands was occupied for almost the entirety of the second world war. The Dutch government had fled after the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam, and the same fate was threatened for Utrecht, a beautiful medieval town built around curving canals and home to the Rietveld Schröder House, a one-of-a-kind De Stijl house built in 1924, now UNESCO-protected. The town survived, but at a great cost to the Dutch people. Back at home, I read that the Netherlands actually mark Remembrance Day on May 4, the day before their Liberation Day. Not everything is a sign.

Still, the final two acts of the festival really do feel like a hand through the clouds. Jerusalem In My Heart’s intense evocation of a far-off homeland, translated through noise-prone electronics, processed vocals and Arabic lyrics and instruments, is a mangle for the saturated brain. Lebanese-born, Montreal-based Radwan Moumneh is a shadowy performer, operating beneath the glare of Charles-André Coderre’s 16mm projections of flickering hamsas and small boys running under fierce sunshine. Channelling the heavy volume of his Constellation labelmates, Moumneh is a maelstrom of elation, fury and sadness, trembling and wailing as he thumps his forehead with the palm of his hand. For this audience, European and almost entirely white, there is much to translate, but the impact is immediate.

And more life-affirming still is the closing performance by Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express, the subjects of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun documentary and a truly cross-cultural musical project – one that overrides any sense of ‘worthiness’ by being, in layman’s terms, absolutely banging. Greenwood is present but operates in the background, providing guitar, bass and sporadic beats from a laptop, while Israeli composer and singer Ben Tzur conducts an ensemble drawn from around India, including a brass section from Rajasthan and the foundation-shaking voices of two Sufi qawwal singers. Almost immediately they create an ecstatic dance party – the volume is insane and the drumming carries the crowd away. In Urdu and Hebrew they sing poetry to god, and though I don’t believe in any gods, I am overwhelmed by the reminder – surely it should be obvious? – that we can all participate in that joy.

It’s one of the few moments this weekend when the music tips me into that ecstatic sphere. And really, if art is anything – yes, I’m doing a turn-to-camera moment for my final thought – if art is anything, it must be some recognition of common feeling, common humanity: we’re all alive right now! I’m relieved and energised to be confirm something so simple, and leave Utrecht feeling like we might just be able to stay sane with more experiences like this. Music isn’t just desirable – a festival ticket, a shelf of vinyl. It’s necessary, invaluable. It’s how we know who we are. The way we hear the world will change as it turns, but once a connection is made it’s hard to break.

Rajasthan Express by Jelmer De Haas

Chal Ravens is on Twitter



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