Nuits Sonores has established itself as one of the premier festivals in France, giving way to multiple days of not only well-culled music, but also a platform for lectures, participatory “labs,” and installations around Lyon. This May marked Nuits Sonores’ 14th venture. What started as a primarily electronic music platform has shifted over the years to include a wider scope of musical genres, as well as an expanding regard for aesthetic presentation and visual content. Nuits Sonores takes over the new side of Lyon and creates a little musical city for a weekend. The idea is a special one, and when you pair the food, spring weather, and Lyon’s general joie-de-vivre, you have a very enticing combination.
First impressions had been made before we arrived in Lyon. On paper, the programming for this years event was at least curiosity-brewing, and for some, squeal-inducing. The lineup wasn't as focused as it used to be, and you might have found yourself wondering if there’s is any connection between the various stages besides the thread of quality. But certain surprises are what give Nuits Sonores its draw: two people could quite feasibly end up having entirely opposite experiences. For those drawn in by the big stage experience, there was Rødhåd, Maceo Plex, Mind Against, S3A, and Dixon. For the punters who savvy a more live experience, there was Tony Allen, Peaches, Pantha Du Prince, and The King Khan & BBQ Show. And for someone wanting a completely fresh experience, there was a bevy of lineups showcasing local and French bands all through the afternoons.
The festival takes place in the newer parts of Lyon, both within the city and along the river Saône. New Lyon is separate and wholly less distinctive than the older parts—and for the less adventuresome, it is the only part of Lyon one would need to visit to experience Nuits Sonores. The stages are spread across this area, ranging from the three warehouse-like concrete “Halles,” to La Sucrière daytime complex and ex-sugar factory, to the various nightclub spots exploited on Tuesday night’s FOMO-inducing 15-venue spread. In the spirit of cross-cultural exploration, a bit of a side festival called Cool Korea! introduced festival-goers to a spread of South Korean music, cinema, and food (with particular focus on Seoul). Each day a lineup of DJs and pop, electronica, psychedelic, and punk bands created a transportive showcase at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. What seemed to be the spiritual core of Nuits Sonores was Le Sucre, a small club on the roof, fitted with a roof bar giving way to a sprawling pastoral view on one side of the hills and river of old Lyon, and on the other side, glowing cranes and development plots of the new.
This geographic schism became synonymous with Nuits Sonores’ lack of a specific identity. Moreover, it felt caught between two worlds: while this isn’t necessarily a worry of your average festival-goer (and perhaps it’s even a perk), it felt as if the event was straddling between a small and focused festival and being a large and broadly curated one. Nuits Sonores is not as electronic-oriented as, say, Dekmantel, but it’s not quite as all-encompassing as Primavera Sound. It certainly has a something-for-everyone vibe, but at what cost? While the festival is rich in DJ history, it was startling (albeit understandable) to have such iconic DJs, known for their powerfully lengthy sets, confined to merely two hours. Long, methodical journeys being the nature of house and techno, these bite-sized sets seemed like a commercial move on the part of Nuits Sonores, akin to being handed tiny squares of homemade soap outside a shop, which isn’t so much a-little-bit-of-a-good-thing, but more of a tease. You get tastes of the artists, but you don’t get to see their sets breathe.
The saving grace, and arguably the core of this year's event, was the “A Day With…” parties in La Sucrière. In these eight-hour time blocks spanning three days, much-revered acts Motor City Drum Ensemble, Laurent Garnier and Seth Troxler played with their curated guests and back-to-backers. The sets weren’t quite Berlin-style stamina flexes, but the timing allowed for longer transitions and was met by an enduring crowd that largely kept pumping the whole time. “A Day With…” also included artists and DJs personally picked by the day’s namesake, all of whom were performing in the neighboring venues simultaneously. While it might seem that having overlapping acts playing within 200 meters of each other would be a conflict, it was actually complimentary. If Salle 1930’s day-rave abandon became tiresome, you could take an elevator up to Le Sucre and catch smaller (and more daring) sets.
In a true showing of less-is-more, on Seth Troxler’s day, Seven Davis Jr., Kate Simko & Tevo Howard, and Mathew Jonson laid down live sets on Le Sucre’s much cleaner sound system, sunset rays streaming through the windows on the otherwise grey dancefloor. The venue was also home to more genre-bending live moments, including Garnier’s picks Ghost of Christmas, Arnaud Rebotini & Christian Zanései, and a secret mastermind Chassol. And while technically a satellite of the true festival, Tuesday night’s pop-up clubland was a sensory overload of house, techno, and pro beat-smithery scattered around the city, acting as final word for anyone doubting Lyon’s ability to throw a party. Over at Ninkasi, Aurora Halal laid down sci-fi paranoia amidst a sauna of blue, while outside on the lawn, a funkier (and more brisk) atmosphere kept the crowd bouncing until morning. A friend remarked that he felt like he was in a University party: such was the crowd’s makeup, which including more vomit and petty scuffles than I’ve seen in years. But in the end, the music prevailed and all nausea and hostility was replaced by funk and groove.
A word on sound: full disclosure, I came to Nuits Sonores from Sunwaves, where each stage was pumping crisp stacks of Funktion-Ones. Thus, it was an easy disappointment to be met by muddled mids and soggy lows blasting out of the speakers at the day’s main Salle 1930 and, during the night sessions, Halle 2. It was apparent at the sets in Salle 1930 that each drop was losing its fullest potential impact, likely not helped by the four-corner boxing ring setup ricocheting sound off the walls of the concrete. In the bigger Halle 1, sub basses shook the entire venue and hi-hats cut around, leaving little room for being overly critical. They weren’t quite Funktion-One level, but they made a definite impact. Combine it with the spatially-aware lights and lasers, and anyone standing between the middle of the floor to backstage was greeted by a full spectrum wash of slanted fluorescent tubes, red bank-heist beams, and soft flashes, as well as full screen projections.
The variety of acts, mostly curated according to stage-based consistency, gave one the feeling of visiting many little festivals at once. Halle 3 was the stage focusing on international tastes, where the smallest of the main stages turned into an undeniable force of musical and energetic transport. Night 2 featured Mbongwana Star and Konono N°1, both Congalese groups sporting a wide range of influences, the core of a well-assembled stage of African and African-influenced groups, including Berlin’s Africaine 808. The whole DNA of this floor, enlivened by traditional rhythms and an interesting weave of psychedelic production, was different and more exuberant. At one point, while observing this intimate mass of soulful bodies harnessing their purest, unselfconscious selves, I wrote in my notebook that three humans on a stage were making people move more profoundly than any of the monolithic techno sounds bleeding in from next door. Night three saw a geographic shift to Northern Africa & Middle East featuring DJ K-Sets playing cassette tapes while dancing casually next to his tape decks, as if dancing for his girlfriend in the living room. A-Wa, an Israel group consisting of three sisters and their bandmates, sang reggae and disco-like interpretations of Yemen's traditional music. They were then followed by 47SOUL, a Palestinian group pioneering “Shamstep,” a meeting point between traditional wedding music and a kind of electro dancehall.
Inevitably, trying to write a review about all facets of a festival like Nuits Sonores, let alone even 50% of its performers, is headache inducing. It goes without saying. I often had the feeling one might get at an Asian Fusion restaurant: something about the 30-page menu spanning six different countries and culinary traditions makes each one seem less special, or worse, unsavoury. The opposite reaction could also be had, but it’s hard to argue with doing one thing purely. While this of course begets a narrow audience, it also contributes to a more encompassing, and perhaps enriching, experience. What it really comes down to is how you prefer your festival trip: do you want to be pulled along in the direction of a one-track curation, or do you want to be able to pick and choose, leaving behind the ones that don’t call to you. Now, that being said, the whole of Nuits Sonores is certainly a complete and clean event. There were no monstrous lines, no invasive security guards, no piles of trash to skip over. And while the €8 pint of beer is almost offensive, it never distracted me enough from what was happening, because, in the end, so much was happening that it was hard to focus on any one act. Even now, reflecting back on what I saw (and seeing some full performances on ARTE), I realize how great some parts were, but couldn’t appreciate it as much at the time.
Perhaps the most striking moment of the festival, and certainly the one that was also an antidote to the aforementioned sensory overload, was James Holden’s ode to Terry Riley: “Outdoor Museum of Fractals.” After six minutes watching a spinning cylindrical light-box on a turntable called a dream machine drew everyone’s attention to center stage, Holden arrived. He turned up in a long black shirt, sitting by his computer and modular synth, alongside some paper inscribed with musical notation and a five-pointed star, as well as various words like “chaos” and “goes together.” He was then accompanied by Camilo Tirado on tablas. A soft whirling synth-organ began, as if someone unmuted the hypnotic dream machine, and slowly thereafter, the tablas began with a few soft strokes, working into a raga of shifting melodies and rhythms. An hour later, the audience had been given a full subconscious massage, the trance of which lingered well after the performance: some audience members still stood after everyone cleared out, as if the music was still continuing in their heads. It was an hour that relied on patience and observation, on simplicity and dedication to an idea based in love and listening. James came between two acts of more typical high energy, and fit in the middle of a weekend plenty more hyper than those that bookended his performance. It was the kind of moment that felt not only entertaining, but essential. It communicated a message, both to the festival and to the time period we’re in: dream, dream wild but dream slow, with respect and heart, and let each part of the dream have its worthiest honored moment.
Photos provided by:
Marion_Bornaz (Opening Concert)