Driving through the narrow streets of Gijón, flanked by the tall, weathered façade of this old and beautiful little town, I reminisced about my first visit exactly one year ago.
I’ve developed a strange affection for the place—the region is renowned for its local cuisine, and the people there are warm and embrace your lack of Spanish with an amicable humor. Coming from busy, swarming London, Gijón’s historic charm and quaint anonymity make it an appealing getaway. The main reason for my visit to this unassuming town, however, was the L.E.V. Festival, an annual exploration of audio and visual art that tirelessly seeks to present forward-thinking avant-garde projects to the public. Now in its 11th year, the festival’s programming will often challenge both your ears and eyes and promises to be, at the very least, a thought provoking experience.
Highlights from last year included performances from Paul Jebanasam, Herman Kolgen, and performative dance act Hiroaki Umeda. After such an impressive edition I was eager to see what was in store for 2017.
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The majority of the performances occur at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial—a research and exhibition center for science, technology, and "advanced visual industries." The academic disposition of venues such as the seated theater in some ways encourages audiences to pay a more focused attention to what’s happening on stage— sitting on the balcony above, I only ever noticed a maximum of two or three phone screens among the 1,400-strong audience at any given time. Occasionally people were swiftly hushed when applause erupted mid-performance, while at others this self-regulating etiquette allowed for avid cheers of appreciation, such as in Hauschka’s three-piano spectacle on the Saturday.
There’s a lot to be said for the crowd at L.E.V. Patient, willing, and passionate, it may be an experimental artist’s dream to play to such a consistently captive and knowledgeable audience. Performances in the theater go on until around midnight, from which everyone transitions into the nearby Nave—a long, high-ceilinged hall with a simple layout and supreme acoustics. It’s a welcome migration—by the end of three-to-four hours of intense listening sessions, people get itchy feet and the ears get fatigued. This isn’t to say the quality in performances necessarily drops though. Importantly, what the festival understands here is the process of narrative and transition. What I really like about L.E.V. is the fact that there’s only one act playing at any given time, and through the utilization of multiple venues, they succeed in creating engaging experiences that stretch for as long as 10 hours at a time. It’s not often that we consider the importance or philosophy of travel, but perhaps it’s these liminal spaces moving between performances and venues that bring everything together.
Nave accommodates the appetite of a largely club-friendly crowd while maintaining some correlation to the earlier seated performances. Typically the organizers put on more dance-leaning acts that play on until around five or six in the morning. The lineup this year featured noticeable names from the techno circuit—Samuel Kerridge, John Beltran, Container, amongst others.
John Beltran turned out a beautiful live set full of soft, uplifting techno sequences, littered with sparkling ambient breakdowns. Oscar Sol’s accompanying visuals featured glossy fractals that folded and multiplied along with the music’s gentle transitions. At times they reminded me of Yayoi Kusama’s famous installations.
Some criticized Factory Floor’s live set for its lack of progression, but I reveled in their flawless execution and seamless, linear architecture. Where Beltran’s set was warm and tender, Factory Floor’s set was the emotional antithesis, which was driving and a lot less forgiving. Their use of a classic sound palette—grinding acid loops and basslines, distorted hats, driving kicks—stirred up the dancefloor with ease, and the live drumming from Gabriel Gurnsey really added something to the show. Forward-looking vintage UK techno, expertly crafted.
What’s particularly refreshing about L.E.V. is its aversion to homogeneity. The contrast of acts and the narratives they build with them is evidence of this. While Nave is more of an after-hours dance, there will always be a plethora of club-ready styles that you can hear there. Some engaging performances were had from the likes of Lorenzo Senni—he showcased his recent debut hit on WARP, "Win in the Flat World" (from the Persona EP), which set the place on fire. Senni’s sound was engulfing and epic, similar to the likes of fellow label stalwart Clark. His set was excessively euphoric, featuring indulgent build-ups and ravey, anthemic synth hooks, but with such a powerful and honest performance, it didn’t matter.
Stand-out shows from the theater included previously mentioned Hauschka. While the visual component could have been more cohesive to the music, Hauschka’s use of three on-stage pianos was entertaining to watch. Piano keys played seemingly of their own accord as riffs were layered and sequenced on top of one another, building grooves and cross rhythms that rose in tension and complexity. The grand piano he operated on was tempered with various objects that were swapped and changed throughout the performance, while also being looped into delays and various other hardware. Hauschka’s music was uncompromisingly mechanical and sparsely harmonized, with a distinctively Reichian flavor; though at one point the ensemble burst into proto-Latin grooves and Salsa-type octave melodies that danced across the top.
Completing L.E.V.’s instrumental line-up was a performance from Julia Kent. Playing in the Botanical garden on an overcast, drizzly Sunday afternoon, the Canadian cellist created melancholic textures, layering simple melodies and utilizing reverb and delay. The stage, which overlooked a large pond and was enclosed by surrounding foliage, was a refreshing change of scenery. Kent reached the climax of her performance with rocky riffs using techniques such as col legno, producing harder, more percussive timbres. Even in the rain, the botanical garden was beautiful to take a walk through—it’s an essential visit during the festival.
There were two performances from the theater that particularly stood out for me this year. The first, an extremely slick live A/V from Paris-based Alex Augier, featured him in the middle of four translucent panels. In the center Augier controlled a modular synthesizer, which spluttered simple glitched-out synth stabs and intermittent ambient drone-scapes. A touch macabre, the music built with an ominous, repetitive potency, as the four panels ignited with visual fluctuations which were dictated by the audio signal.
The second was Martin Messier’s FIELD—a unanimous favorite amongst the crowd. His work is often described as choreographed, using the stage space and the physicality of his equipment to contribute to the overall performance. Two metal panels were set up side-by-side as Messier plugged in various cables. Each gesture was emphasized, as static electric signals were disrupted by his operational interferences. As the room plunged into darkness, it was remarkable to watch the revealing wires flash in the neon-white light. A panel of lights flickered aggressively towards him, moving laterally, casting synchronized silhouettes across the back wall that would slide and jitter behind. This was the definition of a well-executed art-concept, which masterfully consolidated the audio and visual content with the performative body and spatial physicality.
What was equally, if not more impressive than the musical performances were the installations. Messier’s lighting project BOÎTE NOIRE (black box), involved the projection of a beam of light through a smoke-filled box. The thin veil of smoke provided a canvas with which to shape the light projection onto, giving it this rare and palpable materiality. Light suddenly became this mutable substance that at one moment floated like a thin sheet of satin, and at others crystallized into rigid, mountainous fissures. This visual concept was enhanced massively by the sound element, which consisted of incredibly well programmed mechanical gestures and noise distortions.
"You really felt that L.E.V. was part of the town (and vice versa), not just forcefully superimposed on top of it."
To recall the idea of "travel," tracking down the various installations dotted around was part of the whole experience, as it involved venturing into the town and exploring its labyrinthine streets. It also gave a real feeling of integration that not many other festivals (if at all) manage to achieve. You really felt that L.E.V. was part of the town (and vice versa), not just forcefully superimposed on top of it.
Olivier Ratsi’s Onion installation was housed in the Collegiate of San Juan Batista, which last year hosted a live set from Oscar Mulero. Two large screens positioned at right-angles, allowed for an unusually immersive visual experience, accompanied by 5.1 surround sound. Pulsating synth waves accentuated the formation of the visual space as wireframes hurtled into the distance. Overlays of these frames produced interesting, impossible spaces (in a similar vein to M.C. Escher and the Penrose designs), that were arguably even more absorbing due to their simplicity.
During the party at Nave on the Saturday, I ventured into a separate room across the courtyard. Inside was an installation from Montreal-based artist MAOTIK. Aeryon was the result of a month’s residency at Laboral, in which video footage and local recordings captured across Asturias using a surveillance drone were processed via a generative visual system. The installation interprets the urban cartography into geometric structures, influenced by geographic information of the terrain, and influenced by other factors such as GPS information. The beauty of this installation was that it was a matter of perspective as to whether you experienced the piece to its fullest. Those who tried various vantage points would eventually find that the whole thing comes to life when sat down at either end of the screens. Suddenly you became subsumed into a virtual reality that felt as if you were viscerally part of it. Gridded landscapes glided towards you as various colors and textures fizzed and warped to the sonic disruptions that could be heard around.
"....the festival prizes innovation and exploration over other superficial principles—along with its unique context and synthesis of disciplines, it’s a quality the will forever place L.E.V. in a league of its own."
The weekend finished off with the annual closing party at the town’s local venue, Lanna. As discovered last year, Lanna is one of Europe’s secret spots that boasts crystal clear sound within a really intimate atmosphere. There was already a lengthening queue even before the doors had opened, and although it was a satisfying weekend of experimental performances, somehow the prospect of finishing with a club night was comforting.
The place had experienced a serious redesign since last year, headed by local Asturias artists Oscar Mulero and Hector Sandoval (Exium/Tensal/Komatssu). The overhaul made it infinitely more functional and effective as a clubbing space, while also getting a much needed interior makeover.
Komatssu rolled out an absolutely flawless warm-up set that traversed electro, breakbeat, and techno. The tracks were deep and detailed, drawing on an Autechre-Aphex-Convexion soundworld that was simultaneously meditative yet very danceable. Come 2 am, special guest Rob Hall escalated into harder territory, navigating pounding '90s techno and acid, with healthy doses of ravey breaks and basslines. An early morning airport transfer prevented me from seeing the night out to its natural end, but the good few hours I’d spent in the club were replete with quality and a great energy from the crowd.
Bearing in mind that the festival went all-out last year to celebrate their landmark 10th anniversary, it’s understandable that this edition of L.E.V. may have seemed a somewhat lacking in comparison. Namely, I couldn’t help but feel that the visual aspect to a lot of the performances was a little unfulfilling, with many of them not showing the same cohesion and sophistication that many of the A/V shows displayed the previous year.
Having said that, there were still some incredible experiences to be had during the festival. It would seem short-sighted to reduce these weekends to side-by-side comparisons, as every event is unique and L.E.V., in particular, continues its existence as a progressive entity, evolving every year with each successive iteration. It’s the festival’s open-minded mentality of experimentation and non-attachment that I think impresses me the most about it.
What’s perhaps most crucial, is that the festival prizes innovation and exploration over other superficial principles—along with its unique context and synthesis of disciplines, it’s a quality the will forever place L.E.V. in a league of its own.