Boutique festivals are blooming in Europe. For every stadium-sequestering headliner event, there’s a cluster of more nuanced gatherings springing up—fests that focus less on bombast and more on refined tastes. There’s Poland’s Unsound, for instance, which has become one of the hippest fests around of late thanks to its left-field, cooler-than-thou electronic lineups, or Amsterdam’s Dekmantel, a discerning dance fan’s idea of heaven.
But Portugal’s Semibreve festival offers something unique. Five years young in 2015, it takes place in the historic environs of northern Portugal’s Braga, a city located 40 minutes from the better-known Porto. Amid the many churches and cobbled streets of the town, Semibreve—meaning "whole note," or four crotchets in technical parlance—puts on a cutting-edge, experimental and avant-garde line-up with a heavy tilt towards electronics. The bills are never less than compelling, previous years featuring Mouse on Mars, Fennesz and Jon Hopkins, but in this writer’s view at least, this is the year Semibreve went next-level. Here are four of the festival’s most memorable moments.
At an age where most are well into retirement, Roedelius is still a musical force to be reckoned with.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius is the genius that played in two of the most influential kosmische bands of Germany’s early '70s, Cluster and Harmonia. He has a labyrinthine discography that would make most supposedly prolific artists weep into their Kraftwerk collections—an electronic maestro that paved the way for today’s dance music, using drum machines out of necessity but sculpting hypnotic loops and modular phrases thanks to his singular approach. A sprightly octogenarian, he played in the grand surrounds of Theatro Circo on the first night of the fest, where many of the festival live shows are staged.
Roedelius was accompanied by three Portuguese electronic musicians—Andre Gonçalves, José Alberto Gomes and Rui Dias—and what they accomplished is mesmerizing. Sitting in the plush seats of the theater beneath a sparkling chandelier, we witnessed the innovator himself introduce the performance, saying they will start with a tribute to Beethoven and Mozart. As thumb pianos gently tinkled out a familiar Beethoven melody, Roedelius sat at a grand piano in front of a screen projecting recondite images from visual artist Maria Mónica; he followed the melody on the piano, but then things abstracted, his notes drifting off, and we’re a boat loosed from its moorings floating out into an icy lake of burbling, echoing electronics as he moves over to another seat and the tools of his trade. One long piece: It was captivating, vacillating between psychedelic flights of fancy and noisy blurps and crackles, to frosty, deeply moody widescreen moments of machine-enabled reflection.
Stick the duo behind a few machines, and Gerald Donald's Dopplereffekt never fails to amaze.
We’re disappointed to hear that one of the headliners, Tim Hecker, has had to cancel his appearance over the weekend, but it doesn’t really matter when you have a rare live show from Gerald Donald and his Dopplereffekt project. The Detroit man, now based in the Bavarian Alps—so he informs us at dinner when we break bread with the artists and festival organizers before the show—was part of Drexciya, and also Der Zyklus, Japanese Telecom, Elecktroids and many other incarnations. He’s not just one of the greatest acts in electro, but of music made with machines, period. So it’s a real privilege to watch him take the stage with production partner Michaela To-Nhan Bertel, the latter wearing a spooky mask. Facing each other, standing in front of their synths, they perform a set of Dopplereffekt cuts that were for the most part completely involving—their brooding, dark synthscapes, Kraftwerkian melodies, cascading arpeggios and warm bass bumps activated our pleasure centers against a backdrop of film depicting them dressed as scientists in a mock silent movie, alternating with odd, very '80s-looking computer animation of nuclear reactors and rocket components.
Powell: Believe the hype.
There’s a swell of hype building around him at the minute—but after witnessing a live set from XL-signed Diagonal Records boss Powell at Semibreve’s late-night club event at the newly-built venue GNRation, we believe every word. Oscar Powell has made a mighty racket lately by soldering components of post-punk, techno and disco together in an inimitable mash, and dressed in his customary white tee and bathed in red light, he leads the packed, intimate room on a merry dance—whooping, hollering, smoking his weight in cigarettes. Tough beats are piled up with an early-'80s hip-hop flavor, giving way to mangled Italo and video-game bleeps via steely, crunching techno with lots of weird sounds. It’s both experimental and a barrel of fun—surely a hard balance to strike. Though he’s a darling of the techno underground, at times his beats are reminiscent of Ed Banger’s best, before morphing into something Surgeon might play.
Klara Lewis's set was, perhaps, the best of the fest.
We expected that show to be impressive, but we were still not prepared for Klara Lewis and her face-melting brand of experimental electronics. The Swedish artist, who made waves with her debut album, Ett, on the well-regarded Editions Mego, may have been pigeonholed as an avant-garde experimentalist—and it’s true, her stuff is way out — but it’s also accessible, and would surely flip the wig of any dedicated electronic explorer. Her show in Theatro Circo is devastatingly intense, physical, even a little frightening in places—and utterly vital. Crafting her own visuals, all abstract explosions of color, line and fragmented waveforms, surges of serrated mechanical noise burst from the stage at times; at others, she slows the pace with entropic techno, thudding four-fours, and chords from the dancefloor at the end of the universe. Making her weird noises from found sounds, but manipulating them to the nth degree, she was probably the highlight of the whole Semibreve festival —an event that’s rapidly becoming one of Europe’s must-have festival tickets.
All photos: Adriano Ferreira Borges