VIA multimedia music festival returns to the Burgh
VIA, the world-renowned multimedia music festival, once again returned to Pittsburgh last week, filling every nook and cranny of the city with music, experimental art, and other events from Oct. 1–5. The festival, which has been a staple of the Pittsburgh cultural calendar since 2010, expanded to include a simultaneous event in Chicago this year, demonstrating the success VIA has had in its hometown.
Venues across the city hosted events, so it was virtually impossible to hit every event, unless you are one of the many Carnegie Mellon students who seem to have a time-turner. We at Pillbox threw our lot in with the following events, and found out a couple of things, such as crowds of hipsters are incredibly boring and there’s no bloodlust like video game bloodlust. We also heard some music — some of it good, some of it not so good — and have decided to share our experiences so those of you who couldn’t attend the festival can do so vicariously through our carefully crafted words.
Real Estate — Wednesday
In the world of indie surf pop, VIA headliner Real Estate is one of the rising stars. Performing their headlining set on the festival’s opening night on Wednesday at the Altar Bar, the band proved their growing skills as a live act.
Each release since 2009’s self-titled Real Estate has built upon their growing momentum. On the heels of their most recent album, Atlas, Real Estate has grown into an independent headliner, taking top slots at the Pitchfork Music Festival and, it goes without saying, the VIA Festival, among others. The effect of the group’s growing popularity could be felt in the room — newer songs such as “Talking Backwards” and “It’s Real” were some of the few moments when the largely stoic crowd began to lose themselves. But that’s okay, because Real Estate isn’t a band that inspires passion, but relaxation.
To attend a Real Estate show is to go under hypnosis; the soft and bright guitars float gently above the rolling sea of grooving bass and steady, controlled drums. Singer Martin Courtney’s vocals, cloaked in a warm blanket of reverb, sound like distant echoes of thoughts shouting from the back of your brain.
Songs like the meandering “Green Aisles” and the wistful, lazy jaunt “Beach Comber” felt like a pleasant dream performed live. In fact, the rowdiest the crowd got all night was after the band left the stage. The entire room erupted in impassioned cheers for the band to return, violently eager for the mellow vibes to be brought back.
If there’s one thing to be said about Real Estate’s fan base, it’s that they’re a pretty homogenous bunch. Walking into their show, a visitor couldn’t help but shield their eyes from the oppressive sameness of a room full of people in their mid- to late 20s. The men wore beards and vintage zip-up hoodies, and the women’s earrings dangled against their necks, their glasses had frames that stretched above their eyebrows.
Having come from the same five-mile radius as the band members, Real Estate has always been a group close to my heart. Ever since hearing the name whispered around Ridgewood, N.J. coffeehouses, each new height of success they reach serves as a little reminder that even if you think you come from nowhere, that doesn’t mean you can’t be someone. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Real Estate sounds like how it feels to grow up in New Jersey. And that’s what made the show a little personal. For an hour and fifteen minutes, it was nice to feel like I was back home in Jersey — except without all the fear and loathing that comes with living there.
Liturgy, Deafheaven — Thursday
Let me preface this by saying that I have nothing against the metal genre — as a young guitar player, I marveled at the intricate song structures and lightning-fast finger work of virtuosos such as Metallica’s Kirk Hammet and Slayer’s Kerry King. Is Rob Zombie’s Greatest Hits CD in my car? Yes it is. Does it get played? Only at maximum volume.
That all being said, Thursday night’s performances at the Rex Theater from black metal bands Liturgy and Deafheaven just didn’t do much for me. The bands (seemingly) performed well, but the sounds of each individual instrument just blended into a disorienting cacophony. There was no way to distinguish what each player (except the drummer) was playing, so I found myself unable to establish a connection with the music.
Liturgy’s songs all sounded like a great crescendo that never opened up into anything — the music never felt like it was allowed to run free. You know how at the end of a concert, a band will start making noise on their instruments and they’ll hold it and hold it, and the tension will rise, until they finally all stop at the same time? Well Liturgy sounded like that moment, just stretched for an entire set.
Deafheaven, known for their brand of melodic deathmetal which has helped garner them a decent amount of attention and critical respect in musical circles far-removed from typical metal heads, gave a bit more to chew on. Their use of visuals was particularly striking; psychedelic illustrations and animations flashed on a series of disjointed screens behind them, often moving in near-perfect time to the music. Lead singer George Clarke was energetic and engaged with the crowd well. There were also some very peaceful moments during songs when the rest of the band would drop out and guitarist Kerry McCoy would play some very beautiful and melodic guitar interludes bathed in lush reverb. But these moments were always followed by a sudden assault of screaming and distortion, like biting your tongue while chewing on a piece of sweet candy.
All would’ve been well and good if the atmosphere had been a more physical one. But Deafheaven and Liturgy are deathmetal for the Pitchfork-reading, Brooklyn-pilgrimaging crowd. This was perhaps the only place one would be able to see tattooed biker girls wearing KISS Army denim jackets adorned with pentagrams standing next to pencil-thin hipsters wearing stiff collared shirts and precisely-trimmed beards — and almost none of them were moving. Given a recent hand injury, I was expecting to have to stand in the back, away from the flailing limbs and outpouring energy common at performances of aggressive music. Instead, I was in the thick of the crowd, and the circulation cut off from having my hand tucked into my armpit caused the only pain.
VIA Music Conference — Friday
Friday saw the VIA Music Conference, hosted in the CFA Studio for Creative Inquiry, arrive on Carnegie Mellon’s campus. The entire day was stacked with lectures and demonstrations of electronic equipment, such as Ableton Live. The day concluded with an audio visual performance by Richard Devine and Hector Llanquin.
Michael Johnsen opened the performance with a set of his electronic music. Johnsen got his start working in films before leaving to build his own electronics. A large, friendly-looking man in Ben Franklin spectacles, he sat on the stage surrounded by a mess of wires and gadgets that resembled the floor of a budding computer engineer’s bedroom.
The sounds that emitted from his performance were interesting — a mix of watery bass and clicks, whistles, and scratches. There didn’t seem to be any discernible pattern, but Johnsen’s deliberate movements certainly suggested otherwise. At times the sounds were engaging, but often the cacophony sounded like a chainsaw revving in a slaughterhouse where all the animals know exactly what’s in store for them.
In my opinion, the main event did not fare much better.
Llanquin’s visuals were certainly striking — his surrealist landscapes of geometric shapes and patterns were very well rendered, and successfully created a sense that one was floating through another world. The Chilean artist has worked with multiple formats, including movies and video games, and this varied influence was certainly apparent.
Devine prefaced his audio performance with an admission that he had encountered a host of technical difficulties, including some broken equipment, prior to the performance. “If something catches on fire, well, that’s the end of the performance,” he joked.
Devine’s sounds weren’t much different from Johnsen’s in terms of aesthetic. Industrial and angry screeches emitted from the speakers with an eardrum busting ferocity. It was hard to feel anything but discomfort listening to them, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the music was really the result of Satan possessing an old Windows 95 machine.
Union Trust Building — Saturday
VIA culminated at the Union Trust Building on Saturday night, Oct. 4. The event’s theme was audiovisual experiences in the modern world, with an art exhibit on the first floor showcasing various technologies, and the club below, featuring acts performing accompanied by visual displays. The performances ranged from local independent acts to a welcome host of LGBTQ rappers.
The audiovisual experience began with the art gallery on the first floor, where two video games, showcased on large projection screens, were available to play. The first game, called Dog Park, allowed four players — each playing a roughly 3-D animated dog in a park — to simply kill the other dogs. The players’ virtual avatars joyously ripped each other apart, the blood and the gore of the display contrasting with the low-resolution graphics ripped straight from a Wii game, numbers popping out of the dogs’ heads as they feasted on each other. Players of the game seemed remarkably invested, whooping when they managed to knock down another dog and maul its defenseless form. Thinking back to all the hundreds of faceless human avatars I’ve killed in games like Halo or Call of Duty, I became fairly unsettled by the display and turned my attention to the other game on display—a charming four-player indie-looking game with simple cartoonish graphics where the objective was to cooperate to use an onscreen avatar (imagine Catdog, except with human torsos at either end) to wrap themselves around a red ball. Both teams of two used their own avatars, and the video game did a good job of displaying the medium’s power as a social accelerator. Completely random strangers were laughing and cooperating as they had to work together to maneuver their avatar around the ball while fending off the other team. It seemed that the exhibit served to showcase both the negative and positive potential of the gaming medium.
Other art exhibits were also on the ground floor of the Union Trust Building — all fitting within the theme of digital art. One such exhibit was an audiovisual movie consisting of YouTube clips. The clips were all extremely surreal, the “weird part” of YouTube for those unfortunate enough to be familiar with the term. Intriguing at first, each individual clip went on for far too long and the exhibit got rather old after a while. Another rather interesting exhibit worked within the new field of augmented reality. Visitors aimed an iPad camera at certain VIA posters arranged around the room and saw a 3-D graphic pop up. The graphics were very low resolution and looked ripped from a video game circa 2001, but the exhibit succeeded in its goal to show an indication of what could be. The graphics moved and had a variety of effects, and perhaps more amazing, they even changed their profile if looked at from different angles, behaving like real objects. With new technologies such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift all slowly becoming realities, the augmented reality that the exhibit’s makers put on display may not be that far away.
The main attractions of the festival were, of course, the musical acts in the basement. A host of independent artists performed on two stages, with an array of screens displaying accompanying visuals. The visual displays rarely had anything to do with the acts and didn’t really contribute to the experience. In fact, the additional light from the display worked against the enjoyment of the concerts, as it was already too bright in the basement even without the gigantic displays.
In any case, the acts themselves varied in quality. The array of LGBTQ rap performances unfortunately fell flat. Between muddy mixing, poor flow, and beats that weren’t particularly enjoyable (or danceable in any way), the performances were sub-par.
Other artists, however, did a commendable job.Independent act Blue Hawaii, for example, was particularly enjoyable. Lead singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s beautiful voice and impressive mixing and looping, worked to create a well-rounded set even though the underlying beats were rather boring. There were stretches when the set dragged, but to Blue Hawaii’s credit, they did a good job of mixing up the flow and the sound of their performance. The energy of the crowd itself was rather sporadic. For every person tangibly contributing to the energy of the field, there were many more just standing around, which sort of dampened the experience.
Overall, the event was fairly enjoyable. Some of the art exhibits, the virtual reality exhibit in particular, were cool to experience. The acts themselves were hit and miss, but if the festival comes around again, Pittsburgh citizens should consider going just for the sheer volume and diversity of acts.