“Somewhat small and sweet and lame”: that’s how someone described to me Den Haag, the coastal city in the western Netherlands that is also famous for being home to the UN’s International Criminal Court.
With this in my head, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found when I arrived for the ninth edition of local festival for adventurous music Rewire. This year’s lineup was a nerd’s dream, including Low, Julia Holter, Nicolás Jaar, and Yves Tumor.
A shedding of purist ideals, which previously shunned certain genres like pop and folk as too mainstream, and an effort to look beyond a straight white-male talent pool to find new idols has made programming at “adventurous (née experimental)” music festivals change dramatically in recent years. Noble and exciting as this shift is, even the independents follow trends, and many of the same themes and artists pop up again and again at these festivals in a given year. What sets Rewire apart from the pack is the overwhelming emphasis on performance.
For the opening show, Jlin presented Autobiography with the dancers of Company Wayne McGregor. The piece is based on choreographer Wayne McGregor’s own genome, the complete set of his body’s cells, and is soundtracked by Jlin who has regularly joined the Company to perform the score live since the piece debuted at Unsound Toronto in 2017. The score takes the experimental footwork Jlin is known for and floods it with atmospheric flourishes. The first solo ‘Avatar’ stood out as the piece’s most robust performance, combining abrasive modern choreography with classical ballet movements. It was a promising start to a weekend.
Jlin was not the only artist to incorporate dance into their set. Paard, the two-room venue that held a lot of the festival’s late night programming, became a bastion for movement-heavy shows. Friday found electro-Acholi duo Otim Alpha from the much-revered Nyege Nyege Tapes label ramping up the crowd as they ran through tracks from 2017’s Gulu City Anthems. These electronic re-imaginings of traditional Larakaraka wedding songs made for high octane polyrhythmic beats that had the packed crowd dancing with wild abandon, at one point a few of the front row dancers were even invited onstage. While it was brutal at times to watch a room full of Dutch people act out their own interpretations of African dance, there was no doubt the duo’s tenacious energy was well-honed and paid off with a strong audience connection.
The following evening at Paard found Cape Town producer Angel-Ho going full-pop star as she sang through her experimental pop album Death Becomes Her backed by two shirtless dancers in matching leather trench coats. Later that night, Bristol’s Giant Swan took the stage to play one of the most dance inspiring sets of the festival. The duo stood across from each other, hunched over tables of hardware. As the beat began to thump, I looked up at the duo from my perch behind a middle-aged man in a Wolf Eyes t-shirt and braced myself for a boring 45 minutes of cookie cutter Berghain techno. But the gritty synths and infectiously aggressive kick drum won me over in just one song. Jumping and shouting as they played, Giant Swan mirrored the audience’s energy as everyone thrashed in full on rave mode. By the end, sweat-drenched and electrolyte-depleted, I understood why one Giant Swan member went shirtless after getting on stage — it wasn’t a gimmick but a preventative measure straight from the playbook of a seasoned rager.
While the performances were stunning, there were a few recurring technical difficulties. Observing a somewhat tense line check before the show, Tirzah’s Saturday night set suffered from what seemed to be sample pads continuously working out of sync. For a few songs, her backing vocals repeated over and over again leaving no space for her to enter in the mix. However, collaborators Mica Levi and Coby Sey who serve as the London-based singer’s backing band managed to find their own rhythm even when sounds were going awry. A few nervous smiles aside, Tirzah herself seemed unfazed and rolled through songs from 2018’s Devotion , occasionally pulling her fingers through a pair of wind chimes. Visual artist-turned-producer Doon Kanda, also known for his work with Arca, struggled with the sound man came across a little more obviously. His recent release Luna played through on CDJs while he paced the stage chatting emphatically with a technician for almost the entire set. At one point, Kanda even jumped into the crowd to hear how things were from the ground. The sound, funnily enough, seemed pristine throughout; the distraction of their back and forth came off almost like performance art.
The technical difficulties, however, definitely did not outweigh the acoustic wins. On Saturday at Lutherse Kerk, the Louis XV-style church-turned-venue, I soaked up the palatial prepared-piano works of American composer Kelly Moran. Her luminous melodies paired perfectly with the space’s acoustics and bright kaleidoscopic visuals projected on a giant ornamental pipe organ above her added to the whimsical vibe. Tape loop founding father William Basinski closed out that night’s Lutherse Kerk programming, taking the stage to a chorus of corner shop beers clattering on the stone floor as people shifted in their seats. “Can everyone do me one favor,” he asked the crowd. “Look around at your feet and if you see a beer bottle pick it up and put it between your legs. I don’t want to hear one beer bottle during the performance.”
The festival’s final piece was Hominin, a commissioned work by British minimal club pioneer Mark Fell that combines music and performance art to “construct and investigate procedural relationships between technical and non-technical elements.” Beginning with a massive curtain of gold foil paper slowly pulled from the ground to full mast, two blonde performers entered the stage in all black and started carefully placing small speakers and lighting trees about; a remote-controlled tennis ball launcher was rolled out to spit balls at the foil creating ASMR inducing crinkles as they landed. The women then retreated behind the wall and re-emerged a short time later through human-sized holes cut in the paper dressed in neon pink and yellow gorilla suits. Dancing amid a flurry of frantic beats and strobes they pointed the tennis ball launcher directly at us and made a few hits. Then everything happened in reverse. The holes they cut were taped up. Gorilla suits carefully placed in a suitcase. Speakers removed from the stage. Balls returned to their receptacle. Foil lowered to the ground. It was a fine balancing act between methodical and chaotic provided 45 minutes of pure entertainment that never became ludicrous. It was one of those performances that make you thankful festivals like these exist to provide the space and funds and visas and demand for artists to create something completely outside the regular tour-show box.
Maya-Roisin Slater is a music and culture journalist based out of Berlin and London. She recently stopped talking about riffs and started talking about frequencies. Find her on Twitter.