The Optical showcases were an unexpected surprise at 2011’s Decibel Festival. These showcases, usually kicking off the first music-related event of the evening, featured visuals as a main focus alongside the music, which was often ambient and experimental.
Friday night’s showcase, titled Optical 1: Sine Your Name Across My Heart, began with Brooklyn-band Mountains. Their set was full of dreamy, sleep-inducing, heavily layered and experimental soundscapes. Visual themes included symmetrically-mirrored clouds, shimmering water in sunlight, bees and trees.
The middle act of the showcase was Simon Scott, perhaps most well-known for his work with shoegaze/post-punk band Slowdive. His set featured live visuals that quickly became mysterious and as difficult to pin some type of structure to as the music itself. These visuals were more often than not layered translucent videos of epic nature scenery — paired up with Scott’s at times creepy music made for a mild sensory overload. It was more like a documentary was being made of sound and nature visuals, the purpose being to ponder and philosophize over.
Finishing out the bill was supposed to be Berlin producer Ulrich Schnauss. I think I was one of the most disappointed over his cancellation because of visa problems. Nonetheless, the substitute artist, Ghostly International’s Tycho turned out to be one of my favorites of the festival. His music was warm, upbeat, more structured than the previous artists on the bill and involved visual themes of surfing, knee-boarding and winter landscapes. For me, it was a set full of nostalgia for sun-drenched beaches, reminiscent of Delorean or a warmer Boards of Canada, warm flashed of yellow and read synchronized with the downbeat. It set the stage perfectly for a night of harder electronic music that followed.
Optical 2: Grains of Sound occurred Saturday night, also featuring three-set bill. I only caught the last ten minutes or so of opening act Matthewdavid, a L.A. producer/beat-maker, owner of Leaving Records. What I walked in to at Nordstrom Recital Hall was something I had never heard before — smoldering bass, at times so low and quiet that it was more a feeling of indiscernible tones than a coherent song, left me in a near state of pleasurable trance.
Ghostly International multimedia artist Christopher Willits followed, beginning his set by nonchalantly sitting down on the floor (everyone else had chairs and tables for their computers and equipment) and slowly lighting incense. I thought this genius, a way of extending the purpose of this music, which is to create more of a general atmosphere than merely be a listening experience. His set included violent flashes of light synced with bass, perforated harmonies that ebbed and flowed with ease and seemingly random bass that was loosely attached to a time signature but slightly strayed and glitched off to create a confusing aura. While the set did contain sleepy points, the overall show was incredibly entertaining, the highlight coming at the end when you could hear the bass begin at the front of the hall, move through you to the back of the hall and get sucked back up front — in a way, it was like the soundwaves were actual tangible objects that moved through you. Speaking to a DJ veteran later on in the festival, he claimed to know that these are “data waves,” soundwaves that he claimed can put people in a state of trance. Fascinating indeed.
The conclusion of the Optical showcases was Oval, an artist that is experimental almost to the point of inaccessibility. He gave a barely audible spoken introduction and began his set — from the beginning, it was clear that this man (Markus Popp) was on a different planet mentally and musically. I can only try to describe his music as comparable to a free jazz but electronic — apparently he uses pre-scratched CD’s that produced the clicking sound that characterized his set. His movements were avian-like, every once in a while taking his hands from his table and flapping them down, chest and head protruding forward. At times, it was like he was performing a sonic workout, wincing like he was in pain to staccato muted beats reminiscent of old Battles. It was certainly a dramatic performance, one that relied much less on visuals than the five others. It was perhaps one of the more eccentric and creative performances I’d ever seen and was a satisfying experience to say the least. If you can, catch next year’s Optical showcases — they are an AV sensory delight!