VIA brings electronic beats to Pittsburgh
Last week, from Oct. 5 to Oct. 8, the second-annual VIA Music and New Media Festival brought together visual artists and musicians from both around town and around the world to Pittsburgh. Although VIA only began last year, it has already garnered major attention: The music website Resident Advisor named VIA one of the top 10 music festivals in the world in October. WRCT, one of VIA’s media partners, covered the festival throughout the week.
Driving bass, striking projections, and sounds of synthesizers filled the brillobox on Wednesday night for the opener of the 2011 VIA Festival.
Performances by Pure Hype, Trans Am, and Brenmar drew quite a crowd, and despite being the only 21-and-up show at this year’s festival, it was the first show to sell out. This was certainly evident that night, with a packed house in Lawrenceville.
The night kicked off with a performance by Pittsburgh’s own Pure Hype. Projecting images of vintage technology and clips from old films, Pure Hype combined a rich visual experience with driven electronic music. Its performance grabbed everyone’s attention and was an exciting start to the evening.
Trans Am took the stage next, performing the entirety of its fourth album, Futureworld, which featured its distinctive use of the vocoder, a synthesizer that produces sounds from an analysis of speech input. The lights then turned toward the white canopy over the stage, illuminating the performance like a photographer’s umbrella. Thunder Horse Video, an art collective and production company, provided not only the stage setting but also the visual accompaniment to both Trans Am and Brenmar.
To end the evening, Brenmar, a Chicago-based DJ and producer, performed his set, fusing mainstream R&B and hip-hop with other musical styles. His set filled the dance floor with people moving and grooving to the sound of Brenmar’s mix.
While the evening was comprised of three groups of varying musical styles, VIA certainly did not disappoint, leaving guests eager for VIA’s main events.
Thursday’s events began in Kresge Theatre in CFA with a lecture by David Borden, minimalist composer and founder of the synthesizer ensemble Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company. Bordern mostly discussed his experiences working with Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer, and the evolution of the Moog as an instrument. The speech lasted a little over an hour, with Borden fondly recounting the various musicians he has worked with over the last several decades.
After the lecture, the FRKWYS ensemble, a self-proclaimed “electronic jam band” including David Borden, Laurel Halo, Dan Lopatin, James Ferraro, and Samuel Godin, performed for the audience, marking their international live premiere. After Borden’s lecture, which included music samples from landmark electronic composers, it was hard to imagine that the quintet would play anything as vivacious or organic as the hour-long set it performed. The music that FRKWYS 7 created was rife with analog sounds and filled with repetitive, yet engaging soundscapes in which listeners could lose themselves.
The events for the night continued at the Rex Theater, where concert-goers had the opportunity to come and go as they pleased and enjoy audio-visual performances by a variety of artists such as Wolf Eyes, Four Tet, Battles, Daniel Iglasia, and Abstract Birds. While the venue was nearly empty when Walls, an electronic-based musical duo, and Matt Wellins, a visual artist, began the night’s performances, the room was packed by the time Battles closed the show at 2 a.m. While each artist could be labeled as “electronic,” each act was easily distinguishable, whether it be Wolf Eyes’ industrial aural assault or Battles’ frenetic cyborg rock.
Despite the stellar performances by each musician (except perhaps for Four Tet, whose set still lacks fully integrated transitions), the audience seemed somewhat detached from the night’s performance. While there was a substantial number of people on the dance floor, there was also a significant number of people talking over the music, especially during the first three sets. In addition, the bar area was nearly full the entire night, and there were always a couple of groups of people outside talking and smoking cigarettes.
While this could be perceived to be a negative reflection of the night’s events, it can also be considered to be an ever-present aspect of festivals. Drugs and community are just as ingrained in the festival culture as the performances themselves. Given the impressive talent VIA procured and the large turnout, Thursday should undoubtedly be considered a success not only for VIA’s promoters but for the wider music community in Pittsburgh.
Those who arrived late on Friday may have begun their VIA experience on a strange note: two gentlemen with greasy hair and uncouth mouths blaring obscenities and expressing their love for America.
Extreme Animals is, according to VIA, “a rare cross-over between art and music culture,” but a concertgoer provided a more fitting analysis: “hipster nonsense.” Nevertheless, the audience chuckled along as the duo played noise versions of ’90s gems like Darude’s “Sandstorm” and Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone” to visuals that VIA described as a “bewildering maelstrom of contemporary American pathos,” but seemed pretty absurdist.
The highlight of the night was undoubtedly Light Asylum, a Brooklyn-based duo: its live sound was a welcome departure from its flat, monotonous studio recordings. Lead singer Shannon Funchess’ croon would seem awkwardly misplaced in any other setting, but here on stage at VIA it felt like a Depeche Mode concert: dark and evil, yet simultaneously airy and spacious. It seemed like the audience agreed: there, in the haze of the fog machines, in a sea of flannel and tight jeans, everyone felt like a kid of the ’80s.
Pink Skulls, a Philadelphia electronic outfit with a live component, wasn’t exactly inspiring: one band member sat cross-legged on the floor with a flight case of unknown contents, while the lead singer, in all his indifference, repeatedly stated over the microphone, “that wasn’t the best version of that song we’d ever played.” Araabmusik’s set would have been delightfully eclectic had it not been so loud — instead, it came across as brash and unnerving.
The night had its uplifting ups and its not-so-remarkable downs; it was better to leave early that night and instead save one’s energy for Saturday.
VIA continued on Saturday with performances at the Broad Street Mall in East Liberty. Early on, the crowd was fairly small as the electronic production duo Ford & Lopatin began its set. Ford & Lopatin put on a good show, playing pretty relaxed electronic music accompanied by awesome visuals by Spencer Longo. As the night continued on and the sun went down, the crowds grew — by the time Austra, a Canadian new wave band, went on, the venue was nearly full.
While all of the artists were enjoyable, Austra stole the show on Saturday. Lead singer Katie Stelmanis looked like an angel standing in the middle of the stage, effortlessly singing fan favorites. Her back-up singers were particularly entertaining; it was impossible not to enjoy the show watching them. The crowd clearly enjoyed every second of it — everyone was dancing and singing along. Goat Helper, a visual artist based in Pittsburgh, put on the visuals for Austra. It was hard to look away from Stelmanis and the band, but it was well worth it to pay attention to the visual art.
The main event closed out with Underground Resistance. According to the VIA website, Underground Resistance “is probably the most militantly political outcropping of modern urban American techno.” This definitely proved to be true during its set. While plenty of people were into the set, others seemed to be getting a little tired — four days of VIA takes some serious endurance, after all.
Sutekh, a minimal electronic DJ from the San Francisco Bay Area, kicked off the after-party around 1 a.m. His set was fantastically danceable and the crowd seemed happy to head inside for some dancing after Underground Resistance’s set. Following Sutekh was Donato Dozzy, an Italian vinyl junkie. Dozzy took control of the crowd for over three hours, never missing a beat. At times it seemed that the crowd was running on the music alone, since no one had any energy left after three continuous nights of music; however, everyone kept dancing well into the morning, soaking in the success that was the VIA Music and New Media Festival.