Electronic music that isn’t specifically created for the dance floor often faces a problem of presentation. If rhythm or movement isn’t the primary driving force behind a composition, then when it comes to performance you’re often left with a room full of people standing awkwardly while someone on stage twiddle knobs, hunched over a laptop.
As a result, many forward-thinking artists have been pushing the visual aspects of their work in recent years, drawing attention away from aforementioned knob-twiddling and redirecting the senses by creating immense spectacles. Performers such as Flying Lotus, Amon Tobin and Squarepusher have pursued this approach in order to alter the way their music is consumed and experienced.
There’s also the fact that much electronic music can pull you in two distinct directions: it can either root you in your body and in the present, or carry you to alternate spaces and dimensions. In many ways, the cinema is as natural a home for this type of music as the dance floor, and this may have been the thinking behind last night’s Simple Things Ext. event, which featured three pioneering artists exploring the synergy between experimental electronic music and audio visual performance at Bristol’s Imax.
Kayla Painter’s mesmerising opening set seemed to be governed by an appetite for non-human structures and landscapes. The Bristol-based artist has always had a strong visual component to her work, but utilising the immense scope of the Imax screen helped to amplify its potency. Beginning with stunning geometric habitats, her set traveled through extra-terrestrial formations and kaleidoscopic astral patterns.
Oddly enough, these hallucinatory visuals – which culminated in an epic view of a planet built out of an endless array of pyramids – were also the most comforting. Musically too, her set was the the most accessible. Painter has mentioned in the past how the influence of Garage has shaped her music, and spluttering beats made their way in and out of her set, layered on top of sampled snippets of voices and drones. But it was the complex, intricate sound design that stood out, full of insectoid whirs and crackling glitches that was immensely satisfying to listen to.
If Painter’s set was about being transported to other realms, then the following performance by Fatima Al Qadiri was an abrupt turn to Earth. Pursuing a more brutal and dystopian vision, Al Qadiri seemed to be wrestling with the destructive forces of human nature: her visuals were primarily composed of what looked like drone and satellite imagery, beginning with cockpit footage of bombs and tracer fire. The dominant image was that of an oil refinery billowing black smoke into the sky, the silhouetted bodies of workers grimly visible in the distance.
This was a more ominous performance: distorted Arabic vocals were set against discordant pad sounds, punctuated by occasional rattles of harsh percussion samples. Accompanied by the apocalyptic imagery of environmental destruction, the effect was nightmarish, possibly drawing on childhood experiences of war during the Iraqi invasion of her native Kuwait.
As the evening went on, I got the impression that each performance was drawing ever closer to the human body. While Painter’s performance had been farthest away – orbiting other planets – and Al Qadiri had hovered over a scalded, and damaged Earth, the performance by Berlin-based dancer and performance artist Pan Daijing was the most physically intimate as well as the most disturbing and uncomfortable to watch.
From the start, when a woman’s face became visible from below while she seemingly performed a massage, there was something queasy and sinister about the visuals. Grapefruits being smooshed in an eerily erotic fashion; scar tissue being poked and prodded; bodies photographed from odd angles: all of these hinted to an obsession with the tactile, but also to the strangeness of bodies.
Much of the unease stemmed from the unsettling soundscapes: sampled strings and field recordings of running water were transmogrified into distinctly unnerving, even terrifying sounds. This final piece was too challenging for some: around 10 audience members left as the audio-visual body horror intensified, the auditorium filling with high-pitched sounds of metal scraping on metal. Daijing has stated that she’s interested in the potential of sound beyond the confines of traditional music, and while it was extremely challenging to watch, it was clearly an intensely personal and cathartic work which was electrifying to behold close up.