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opera

I went to the Ctrl+C festival last night with some friends. I originally went there for a couple of reasons: one was that I really wanted to see Prefuse 73, who was headlining alongside Plaid, and the other was that I wanted to check out the festival as I’m working on a festival-like project of my own and so this could also be treated as field research of sorts.

We arrived a little later than planned and went straight to the venue, which in the case of Prefuse and Plaid’s show was the Teatro Communale, a classic Italian theater in the small town of Carpi, near Modena, where they hold operas, ballets and the likes. Before we’d even got there I had an idea of what it might be like to see Prefuse and Plaid in a space like this, a classic musical environment re-appropriated for electronic music and a new generation of music makers, but it turned out to be even more surprising than I ever thought it might be.

We made it to the Teatro half an hour late (Italian dinner duties obliging, you can’t rush food in this country no matter what), and promptly got ushered by dilligent staff to some available spaces in the booths that form part of the Teatro in a 180 degree arch in front of the stage, and that’s when I realised that this show was gonna be nothing like I imagined. Where I thought the theater space might be reclaimed and turned into a club of sorts, with people standing around, drinking, possibly even dancing, it was actually the music and the performer that were reclaimed by the space. Everyone was sitting in total darkness, whether on the ground floor or in the classic opera booths spread across 4 floors, while Prefuse was on stage, alone with his laptop and effects units (and what looked like a drum controller though our booth was quite far so couldn’t quite see it). Faint coloured lights were shining on a screen behind him and the music he was making was blasting throughout the venue. Surreal hardly begins to describe it.

He finished to a wave of applause and screams of encore and the lone table with all his equipment which had occupied the stage was swiftly replaced by another one with a mixing desk and 2 laptops for Plaid’s live show, in a sense Act 2 of a totally surreal opera. As the lights came on for the break between acts, the classical splendour of the venue hit me. Having been ushered during the first act, it wasn’t until then that I realised just how ‘classic’ the Teatro Communale was. Definitely no reappropriation of the space going on there. Plaid came on, appropriated by the space in a similar way that Prefuse had been: total darkness, fixated, sat-down audience, big sound and in their case visuals playing on the screen behind them. Where Prefuse had given the audience his own take on hip hop and beats, all glitch, repeated drums and edits layered together and weaved into a 45 minute ‘piece,’ Plaid played track after track, stopping at the end of each, which the audience would take as a cue to clap, not doing seemingly much with their equipment and never weaving anything together other than, as one of my friends put it at the end of set, ‘screen saver music.’

Shortly after we found ourselves in a bar near the venue, and talking to a friend about what we’d just seen it all fell into place in my head. Prefuse’s set had ‘worked’ while Plaid’s hadn’t, and talking about it and trying to understand why we both felt this way, it kind of hit us.

This was an event where the space was an integral part of the experience. As my friend remarked, she goes to ballet and opera often but never takes notice of the space. Whereas last night the space never once left her, or my, mind during either live set.

Prefuse makes the kind of music which could be, albeit lazily, tagged or called ‘head music.’ He makes beats and hip hop tracks that can be a very personal experience, music for headphones, for walking around streets and soaking in the urban environment, a new kind of hip hop, one that is often not what people might think hip hop can be. Trying to put his music into a club context is always going to be difficult, and someone I know in London who DJed with him the night before remarked that his set then was lost in the size and hustle of the bar.

What I realised was that would Prefuse have done the set he did last night in a club, especially an Italian club, people would have just looked at each other and most likely walked away thinking ‘what is this?’. But within the space of the theater, with darkness and a focused audience (focused either by choice or physical restriction) his set and his music took on an entirely different dimension, one that worked well, captivating an audience that probably would never have given him the time of the night had they been in a more traditional space or setting for ‘modern electronic music.’ In a sense Prefuse re-appropriated this classic Italian musical space, and to an extent classic Italian culture, as much as the space was appropriating him and his music. The result being that his live set effectively turned into a sort of opera for the beat generation, all rough around the edges, glitchy and skipping with plenty of dub and echoes drifting around the room and pretty much no reaction from the audience for the duration, until the end when people burst into applause for a good few minutes, not unlike what might have happened for a classic opera.

As for Plaid, their set and their music had a much different impact within the same setting. Where Prefuse makes hip hop that is more ‘personal’ and can be more difficult to transfer to a traditional live context, Plaid are much more club friendly, moving between elements of dub, jungle, breakbeat, electro and house, with a much faster overall bpm and a much ‘cleaner’ sound. In the context of the Teatro though, with the seated and fixated audience it didn’t translate as well. Within 15 minutes of their set I was starting to feel really antsy, itching to move and express my appreciation for the music in a way that didn’t involve being sat down and taking it in.

Their use of visuals didn’t help either, giving something other than their physical presence to focus on but also allowing your attention to be taken away from the music and from the space. By the end I’d realised that in their case, had they been put into a club context their set would have worked wonders, especially in Italy, because it fits the idea of what club music should be, high bpm, high energy and not particularly deep or involving. In the context of the Teatro however, the space ended up limiting the music and its impact. Instead of the music being appropriated by the setting, as it was, it should have been the setting re-appropriated by the music, with people standing around, drinking and dancing as they would in a normal club setting but within the traditional space of the Teatro. This isn’t always possible and was obviously not the focus of the night, but ultimately it ended up affecting the impact of their set, especially when put alongside Prefuse’s first act.

In Prefuse’s case, the setting allowed the music to take on another dimension. The Teatro appropriated his music and in a sense amplified it, gave it a new context within which to be appreciated, a fairly ‘arty’ one but one that worked. Plaid’s music on the other hand didn’t feel ‘right’ for the setting, and the process of appropriation didn’t work, it lacked something and the focus didn’t feel right. As much as I enjoyed the more high bpm tracks, I didn’t want to be hearing Jungle while sat in a booth with no possibility to move or express my appreciation for the music and the beat. This difference between the two performers and their music within this unique space and setting bugged me until I managed to put my finger on it later on in the night.

It wasn’t a concert and it wasn’t a club night. It was very much about the ‘art,’ about transposing modern electronic music within a classic setting for the sake of doing so. In the process, one of the artists found a new scope for their music and the other lost it. One thing that really annoyed me during Plaid’s set was the realisation that this event was typically Italian in a sense, where the fixation is put on the art element of the music at the expense of the feelings and pleasures music can give. These two things are related at various levels, and in the case of Prefuse the fixation on the ‘art’ actually highlighted the emotional element of his music more, putting the music forward in a new context and giving it an impact it can often fail to have within the standard context of a club or a live venue. But for Plaid that fixation withdrew any emotion from the music, rendering their ‘club friendly’ set a little dull and difficult to sit through, even though plenty of people seemed happy to sit down and clap dilligently after every track, as if it was totally normal to withdraw any physical element from the music they were hearing.

Beyond the differences the traditional setting highlighted between the two sets, it also made me think about Prefuse’s role within the new generation of beat makers and producers that are currentlyl reclaiming hip hop. Prefuse could well be seen as a precursor, founding father, whatever you want to call it, of the current generation of producers. Alongside Dabrye and others like El-P, he helped shape a new understanding for instrumental hip hop and hip hop productions, an understanding not just anchored in the influences of pioneering producers, such as soul, funk and jazz, but also in more modern sound aesthetics and electronic music. With this in mind, seeing him last night in this surreal setting and thinking about what that implied made me think about the implications for this new generation of producers and their music, whether we call it beats, wonky, lazer bass or whatever else takes people’s fancy. It’s cheesy, but towards the end of Prefuse’s set the idea came to my mind that this was an opera for the beat generation. It’s a shame that a different, more ‘arty’ setting is required to allow Prefuse to really put his music across without driving people away, but in a country like Italy that’s unfortunately what’s needed to an extent because there is little understanding or appreciation within the greater public of what producers like him are doing.

If we take someone like Flying Lotus on the other hand, one of the new generation of producers, his live shows seem much conductive to a club setting, with a high energy put across by mixing beats and productions that span styles, genres and bpms. The same could be said of kids like Rustie and Hudson Mohawke. Speaking to artists and others, it seems that in certain places, like L.A., Glasgow or London, people can relate to beats and ‘head music’ in a club context even though it might not originally be made with that context of consumption in mind (especially if you’re to believe what some of these producers have said in previous interviews). But there are countries, and occasions even in those more understanding cities, where people are going to have a hard time relating to this new evolution of hip hop, and that’s when a new setting and context can help. To find a right balance between the art and the music, especially as a lot of these producers can now easily recreate the music they make at home live on stage with just a laptop and some peripherals tools, is probably the most important in the end, because it’s easy to lose one for the sake of the other, as happened with Plaid. Still the thought opens up a world of possibilities.

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