Is Sónar the King of Creative, Integrative Music and Tech Festivals?

Article by: Matt Haze|@DJMattHaze

Fri July 03, 2015 | 00:00 AM

More than 118,000 visitors from 104 countries descended upon Barcelona, Spain, from June 18th-20th, to devour the myriad creative offerings of Sónar 2015. As with many a tourist in a tapas shop, they left full, yet hungry for more.

Sónar is a one-of-a-kind experience: a massive, anomaly-ridden conglomeration of party and process, learning and levity, the tactile and the transformative. It's a rave and a tech conference. An overwhelming smorgasbord of sensory stimulation and a calm, detailed examination of the singularity of creative endeavor.

To be clear, Sónar is actually three festivals in one : Sónar by Day, an indoor/outdoor showcasing of live music and DJs, Sónar by Night, a labyrinth of gargantuan halls abuzz with the vibrations of electronic and urban music superstars and filled with their rapt revelers.

Festival organizers posit that the addition of the +D component allows Sónar to define itself as “a 360º event involving all points in the creative process: training, inspiration, experimentation, prototyping, fundraising and positioning in user communities.” The third Sónar+D, aka “the International Congress of Creativity, Technology and Business,” was its most comprehensive and successful edition to date, with 3,900 accredited professionals from over 60 countries.

Sonar 2015 Matt Haze Sonar D

Photo by: Hannah Joan Smith

One would be hard-pressed to name another event featuring a multi-disciplinary music hackathon, field-specific, on-demand, expert, private consultations, Arduino and prototyping workshops plus all the default trappings of a massive-yet-meticulously-curated electronic music festival.

The congress of creativity, technology and business is a meeting point for artists and potential enablers (research and innovation centers, universities and investors). Digital platforms, communities of makers and hackers, talks and workshops by prominent figures in digital culture and a flurry of excited networking activity set the precedent in the third year of Sónar+D.

The opening keynote address, given by Kickstarter Co-founder and CEO, Yancey Strickley, offered a hopeful vision of where art and industry may coalesce in the future – through the lens of his $1B+ valued crowdfunding platform, naturally. He shared some of his company's core values: its commitment to “never sell” and the proclamation of its unofficial screed of “fuck the monoculture,” which caught a rise from the outside-the-boxers in the packed room. It was a rallying cry for artistic enterprise, to be sure, but in context, this remark becomes an unintentional nod to Sónar's canny position, stepping outside the fray of prepackaged EDM festivals that have overtaken the Western youth culture landscape.

Sonar 2015 Matt Haze Sonar D 2

Photo by: Hannah Joan Smith

Down in the demo booth area, many patrons gravitated towards the Kickstarter display, where a few dozen of the most innovative success stories from the site were available for testing while some were demonstrated by their creators. Included in that number was the Four Track, an original album packaged in a playable, circuit-board vocal instrument created by maker/performer Moldover, “the Father of Controllerism” as well as a Sónar+D presenter.

As much as the marginalized and esoteric voices found space to stretch their legs at Sónar+D, so too did some notable flag-bearers of creative industry. A venerated triumvirate of dance music's far-flung realms, Carl Craig, Luciano and Kerri Chandler, all took to the stage together for a panel discussion/live infomercial on Native Instrument's potentially game-changing new audio format, Stems. Other notable sessions showcased big hitters from SXSW, Pinterest, Vimeo, Arduino, Resident Advisor, Berklee School of Music and Google Creative Lab.

All that impressive content withstanding, the clear and obvious draw above all else here is the array of mind-bending musical performances.

Firstly, a notable collaboration with Red Bull Music Academy brought to the table a smattering of its boastworthy alumni; Zebra Katz and Teengirl Fantasy are two that come to mind immediately who absolutely brought the weirdo ruckus to Sónar by Day. Nick Hook, Fernando LaGreca and Swindle impressed with their DJ swagger while live performances by Redinho and J.E.T.S. (Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar) knocked people back on their heels with effervescent funk. Thursday daytime headliner Hot Chip rode the crowd to completion with apparent ease, keeping the AstroTurf field of spectators full and engaged until the very last chord.

Sonar 2015 Fkatwigs Fernando Schlaepfer

Not to be outdone, Sónar by Night delivered even heavier artillery for its crowds. Die Antwoord's Dada-Pop-cum-Afrikaans-psychedelic-party-rap easily drew the weekend's biggest audience for its headline appearance while FKA Twigs proved she could hold her own, enrapturing everyone present. Twigs and her all-male percussive backing band squeezed maximum sensual R&B effervescence from spacey, minimal polyrhythms all while rocking an Aaliyah-worthy, mostly see-through ivory tracksuit. Other top-tier headliners, Hot Chip (who generously played two shows over the weekend), Skrillex, The Chemical Brothers, Flying Lotus, and Duran Duran did not disappoint.

Special mention is also due to some of the less-heralded acts for top notch delivery: Hudson Mohawke, Annie Mac, Black Coffee and Salva, who occupied a challenging role as the warmup for Die Antwoord, all held it down with gusto. The otherworldly and unexpected bumper car setup added to the comic, less-serious tone of the Night venue.

Arguably a lynchpin of Sónar Day's programming was the multimedia stage shows that integrated moving images with dance, live instrumental performance, controllerism, sound and audience participation. These works created new stage languages, as exemplified by Holly Herndon, Koreless & Emmanuel Biard, Squarepusher, Joanie Lemercier & James Ginzburg, Arca & Jesse Kanda and Atom TM & Robin Fox, among others.

Sonar 2015 Squarepusher Ariel Martini

Photo by: Ariel Martini

Herndon and her performance group invited audience interaction, providing an on-screen visual prompt for audience members to SMS questions and/or confessions to her during the show. She responded with good humor and to great effect, eventually bringing the entire overflowing auditorium to its feet despite the allure of comfortable theater seats after baking three days in the Barcelona summer sun.

Even further down the rabbithole, a gripping, dramatic and at turns bizarre performance by The Bug alongside MC's Flowdan and an unknown female MC closed out Day Three in the Hall with an example of heavily dubbed-out grime at its dark, cinematic best. Continuing the grime chatter were Mumdance and JME & Skepta, all of whom brought the rough and rugged vibe, despite being slotted in the hopelessly sterile and overly-lit Dome.

Sónar exhibited an overwhelmingly broad span of audiovisual output and cerebral-hedonistic intake in its over 150 performances, ranging from the most esoteric and experimental, to throwback analog electronics, to the pulse of the incoming generation. Though the festival has iterations in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Santiago, Chile, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Bogota, Colombia, and Reykjavik, Iceland this year alone, Sónar is still far-flung from the American expectations of what a festival is, but provides a harbinger of what a more integrated creative landscape could look like down the line – and that is an exciting, unpredictably odd future.