Ever been to a rave in a swimming pool? Or been inches away from Bjork in a Virtual Reality world? How about hearing first-hand from a leading authority on post-war electronic art music? You've obviously never been to the Red Bull Music Academy, then.
Now in its 18th year, it's not easy to explain everything that the RBMA encompasses. It's a travelling roadshow of-sorts; a programme of workshops; a place to foster up-and-coming talent, leaning towards (but not exclusively) those with a penchant for the electronic end of things. As its title suggests, it is also an academy and a place to to learn and collaborate – but mostly, as cheesy as it sounds, it's a place to expand your horizons.
Each year, the RBMA is held in a different city around the world, and across two two-week terms each autumn, dozens of lucky participants are shipped in to attend lectures and workshops by well-known names. Each multi-cultural group of participants is also equipped with state-of-the-art 'bedroom' studios, as much techie equipment as you could imagine and the guidance of established 'mentors' – all in the name of creating something new and potentially career-changing (or, in many cases with these burgeoning artists, career-establishing).
This year, we were lucky to attend the Montreal edition, held in the Phi Centre which was located in the quaint, historic district of the city, Old Montreal. Along with the daytime programme at the Phi Centre, there are also events on for the participants to attend as well as the public - meaning that RBMA provides events and bolsters the cultural fabric of each city it lands in each year.
Our first night at an RBMA experience in Montreal was quite literally a baptism of fire – or more accurately, a baptism of water and sound. We arrived at the Olympic Park (built for the 1976 Olympics) on the outskirts of the city centre where the Olympic Pool and the city's Planetarium are located for a programme dubbed 'Dans les Cieux, Dans les Abysses' (In Heaven, In the Abyss).
The 'Abyss' element entailed a gig that was quite unlike anything we've been to before. Italian producer/DJ Lorenzo Senni (above) was one of several electronic musicians who had been commissioned to create a soundtrack tailored specifically for the swimming pool, and seeing tens of gig-goers splashing in their togs as it shuddered, echoed and pinged around the cavernous room was somewhat surreal. With a light show to be reckoned with, colourful projections onto mists of water and masked musicians Dopplereffekt (below) playing on the diving boards, it kind of felt as if you'd wandered into an alternate reality.
Having sated our need for an underwater rave, we made our way next door to the Planetarium for the midnight show of 'Dans les Cieux', where experimental musician Lucrecia Dalt (below) created a spacey soundtrack that was as guttural and at times, as nightmarish as Senni's was hypnotic. With an incredible backdrop of the solar system projected onto the ceiling, it was an evocative, dreamlike experience to remember.
Day two of our trip entailed our first visit to RBMA Montreal proper, at the Phi Centre. We were first given a tour of the building, which had been impressively kitted-out by Montreal native and architectural designer Zébulon Perron. There was a beautiful '70s kitsch vibe to much of the building's interior – including the uber-cool bedroom studios, which the participants were free to use at any time, and the RBMA Radio studio, which broadcasted sets and interviews with participants and well-known names over the course of the month-long term. Even the cafeteria area (below), which kept visitors and participants in plentiful food and a steady stream of coffee (and, of course, Red Bull) and the reception area was a nice place to hang out.
However, we weren't just here to hang around and eavesdrop on what the Next Big Thing was plotting – the first lecture of the day took place at 12pm. The aforementioned 'leading authority on post-war electronic art music', 84-year-old Pauline Oliveros (below), was imparting her wisdom in a public interview that was mostly enthralling. Oliveros had also performed an earlier show at 'Dans les Cieux' the previous night, but she spoke about growing up in Texas in the 1930s, and how learning to play accordion from he age of 9 sent her on a experimental musical odyssey that beat a path through the early days of electronic music in the '50s and '60s and eventually led to the development of the art of 'deep listening' – a technique that led her to understand "how radical quietness can be". Inviting us all of us to indulge in a few minutes of the meditative practice with her advice on the "importance of listening in all things", it seemed like wiser words were never (quietly) spoken.
After lunch, it was time for the second lecture of the day – this time, by a name that Irish audiences will be more familiar with. Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards (below) gave a candid interview about her creative process, how she went from living penniless in Montreal – a city that nonetheless "applauds people doing weird shit", to developing her music into a sustainable career and being able to invest in equipment. She also spoke about everything from feminism, gender roles in music and her C.L.A.W. (Collaborative Legion of Artful Women) initiative, which offers a platform to up-and-coming female artists – as well as an insightful conversation about how she uses her unique voice (something that's audible on any Tune-Yards record) and the importance of protecting it.
With participants invited to ask their own questions at the end of each lecture, it was clear to see that these lectures weren't simply 'So, tell us about your life' affairs – but opportunities for them to learn and adopt practices in their own work.
After the previous night's shenanigans and an intense day at RBMA, we headed home for an early night – which was just as well, since tomorrow's jam-packed programme included a visit to Bjork's amazing digital exhibition. Read about that here.