Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1969 at the height of the flower-power era in what would be his final interview with the esteemed publication, Jim Morrison foresaw the music landscape evolving far beyond what most people at the time could only imagine as science fiction. “Some brilliant kid will come along and be popular. I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical ... like an extension of the Moog synthesizer—a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra, y'know? There's somebody out there, working in a basement, just inventing a whole new musical form.”
Only a couple of years later after the turn of the decade, growing up in post-war Germany, a nation trying to regain self-esteem and identity but still afraid to express itself, a young Manuel Göttsching formed the group Ash Ra Tempel and released their debut self-titled album in 1971. The release, considered by critics to be a classic of a genre termed Krautrock, featured wandering electric guitars, synthesizers, drums and percussion, a blend of experimental rock that could best be described at the time as psychedelic, cosmic, and atmospheric. The follow-up album in 1972 would feature none other than Timothy Leary adding vocals and securing the link between Jim Morrison's prophecy and the changing musical landscape.
When interviewed at Dancity Festival in Foligno, a two-hour train ride outside of Rome into the hills of Umbria, Göttsching commented on the fact that electronic music of today seems to have not fulfilled its potential. He proffered that with the phenomenon of dance music and club culture, most contemporary electronic producers conform to a format whose primary intent is to make people dance, rather than experimenting with the full range of possibilities that these new computerized instruments allow.
Considering the popularity of electronic music worldwide today, it is easy to forget the humble beginnings of this experimental medium. According to the International Music Summit's annual Business Report, the global dance music industry had almost doubled in value this decade, from around $4 billion per year in 2011 to $7.1 billion in 2016. Electronic music festivals now take place all over the world, with many 20 and 30-somethings planning holidays around attending such events. As such, they are a key tourism driver for many countries: look no further than the explosion of dance music festivals in Eastern Europe as a prime example of the economic incentive that electronic music festivals provide to national economies seeking to attract foreign visitors to pour their hard earned cash into state coffers.
The result of the rampant commercialisation of dance music is that many promoters now follow a tried and tested formula booking big name DJs who are guaranteed to pull in crowds and thus provide a return on the sizable investments required to organize and run festivals. The obvious downside, however, is that most young electronic music fans are no longer being exposed to the full possibilities that electronic music promises.
Dancity, in this sense, is a little different. Despite the misleading name, it is an avant-garde celebration of electronic music as an art form, with a program consisting of both live musical performances from an impressive array of both electronic and non-electronic artists as well as an additional contemporary arts program.
The first live performances of this 11th edition took place inside the San Domenico church, the interior of which has been converted into an auditorium outfitted with 600 seats, the walls still bear some of the original gothic anthologies. First up was Gaussian Curve, the new ambient live band featuring Marco Sterk (a.k.a. Young Marco) laying down loops and samples. He was accompanied by Gigi Masin on keyboard and Jonny Nash on the electric guitar player to create an expansive and psychedelic sound reminiscent of some of Nicolas Jaar and Dave Harrington of Darkside's more contemplative sound. The performance was an apt warm up for Manuel Göttsching, who took the stage following an intimate lecture/interview in the presence of a gathered handful a few hours earlier. With only his computer setup and electric guitar, he was a one-man band, going back and forth between his laptop setup to create on-the-fly loops and then delve into long dreamy solos on his electric guitar in perfect off-rhythm. It was a special performance, not only judging by the sight of grown men queuing up to have old record sleeves signed by the influential figure at its end.
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The rest of Friday night's programming was set in a club associated with the festival a short ride outside of town, which offered a more classic clubbing atmosphere to a younger audience seeking dance floor thrills. While rain forced the cancellation of a programmed outdoor stage, guests were nonetheless treated with blistering techno sets by Optimo, Blawan, and Mike Servito and compelling lives by Romans, (the collaborative project of Tin Man & Gunnar Haslam), Palmbomen II, Dresvn, and Lamusa II. The highlight of the night, however, was a fantastically provocative and sleazy cabaret performance by Bernadino Femminielli: wearing only a BDSM belt, he crooned into a microphone about all things perverse while gyrating into members of the aghast audience. If the vibe at the club was purposefully more trashy and dystopian than the cultural offerings in town, one should not detract significance from this; this was modern club culture represented in its purest way and served to show the contrast between the experimental origins of electronic music and the cultural space it now occupies today.
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Waking up to clear blue skies on Saturday, we decided to check out the art program on offer—starting with a 40-minute modular synth performance inside a 16th-century church. Meanwhile, in the apartments of the Palazzio Candiotti, several contemporary art installations were exhibited following an open call for submissions, with the theme Control Reversal. Outside in the street, Romanian duo Khidja and Autarkic performed live for a small crowd. In the auditorium, Craig Leon—the American record producer, composer, and arranger instrumental in launching the careers of bands like Ramones and Blondie���orchestrated the Dancity Strings Quartet, and was followed by Demdike Stare, the dark, ambient electronic act formed by Mancunians Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker. Outside in the cloister of the church, another stage was opened to host further performances amongst the inspiring surroundings and featured some excellent band performances by another legendary post-punk Manchester act reminiscent of New Order, A Certain Ratio, and the bone-shaking Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force. While the performances were excellent, the only criticism is that following their departure, the atmosphere was a little frigid for the electronic acts that followed afterwards—namely Dorisburg (Live), Atom TM, GND (Live) and Call Super. Perhaps the bands could have been scheduled earlier in the afternoon to create more of a festive party atmosphere on Saturday night following the more serious and engaging live performances in the auditorium on both nights.
On Sunday, we were invited to brunch at the Arnaldo Caprai Winery Estate in nearby Montefalco, one of Italy´s most important wine producing regions. In the hot afternoon, guests were served a selection of local delicacies. The delightful food was washed down with the famous local Montefalco red and white wine whose vineyards sprawled out in the hills in front us. The fashionable guests in attendance mingled and danced to a fantastic disco set from Italian trio Harmonized Soundsystem.
Around 5 pm, with the afternoon sun cooling a little, the party moved up into the vineyard itself where a small stage had been set up for some more live performances. The Yussef Kamaal band had originally been booked to play here in the middle of the vineyards, a quite surreal and sublime context in which to enjoy live jazz; however, sadly due to a management mishap, the band were unable to appear. The disappointment was hardly noticed, as instead, we listened to a wondrous live jazz instrumental performance from Tommaso Cappellato and another live performance from Maurice Louca, an Egyptian fusing Middle Eastern and Arabic traditional music with contemporary electronic rhythms.
Well wined and dined, watching the sunset above the Umbrian hills, we returned to Foligno and once again to the cloister of the Chiesa San Domenico for the final night of the festival. The atmosphere was noticeably more festive than the previous night, possibly as result of drinking wine all day in the sun, or possibly due to the carnivalesque effect of Señor Coconut, the live band led and orchestrated by Uwe Schmidt (Atom TM) reprising and reinterpreting classics of the '70s and '80s with a Latin flair. And so it was, we came to the close of a magnificent festival, Hunee having the honors to bring the curtains down with an extended DJ set.
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At a time where many festival lineups feel like the same traveling circus—and with few promoters willing to take artistic risks with bookings—it is easy to become disillusioned with the electronic music scene today. Many festival organizers, backed by government and tourist body investment, are promoting the idea of week-long package holidays as a means to attract foreign visitors—and we are also seeing festivals trying to outdo each other with new extreme locations or such things to create hype around their event. It can feel as if the music has become secondary to the event itself. And this is where Dancity festival is so refreshingly uncompromising: from beginning to end, it was a celebration of music, art, and culture, an event where quality was clearly favored over quantity—and for this, the organizers should be lauded.
For the more discerning and curious music fan, one could do worse than coming here for a sumptuous weekend in the Italian countryside. It is certainly one of the finest and more interesting festivals we have had the pleasure of attending, equally due to to the positively charming and infectious warmth of Italians as for the quality of the artistic and musical programming. Although it already attracts returning visitors from Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologna, and other Italian metropoles, with a bit more international PR in the right circles Dancity Festival has potential to be an enduring and eminent cultural event on the European art and music scene.