BARCELONA — People danced past dawn at Sónar, the annual festival of electronic-oriented music, which had its last D.J.s pumping out bass propulsion until 7 a.m. Sónar unites Spain’s late-night culture with the euphoric stamina of fans of techno, house and other varieties of music that use machines to generate sweaty motion. This year’s festival, which ran from Thursday through Sunday, was the 24th annual Sónar and the largest, with 123,000 visitors.
Sónar has built itself into a European institution and a trademark strong enough for spinoffs in, among other places, Reykjavik, Buenos Aires and Tokyo. On home turf, its June flagship is a magnet for laptop-wielding musicians; during Sónar’s long weekend, even performers who aren’t among the festival’s 140 acts swarm to Barcelona to play “off-Sónar” gigs at bars, clubs and warehouses. The festival’s outlook is determinedly futuristic, with a sidebar conference — Sónar Plus D — that has virtual-reality showcases and musicians mingling with software innovators. Meanwhile, its bookings honor both past and present, spanning 1970s disco from Cerrone, 1990s hip-hop from De La Soul and current British grime from Giggs.
Sónar takes place at two decidedly different sites, Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night, both using trade-fair complexes. Sónar by Day’s four stages and tech exposition all fit within a city block near the historic Plaça Espanya. Meanwhile, the gigantic Sónar by Night has multiple arena-size spaces side by side, and presents headliners who can pack them. It’s a festival of the experimental and the crowd-pleasing, the subtle and the unsubtle, scaled from quiet small-auditorium performances to seismic stadium dance music.
Here are 15 of the best sets from Sónar 2017.
BJÖRK Björk brought her laptop, a startling white bodysuit culminating in a mask and a broad-brimmed hat, and a stage full of greenery to her four-hour D.J. set on Sónar’s opening night. It was a tour of an inquiring, encompassing musical mind that traversed tempos, textures, moods and continents. Along the way, in segues that all seemed plausible, Björk strung together melodic meditations, orchestral passages, crisp dance tracks in assorted languages, brutally percussive electronic noise and cheerful pop — an apt preview of the festival to come.
SOULWAX Three drummers slammed home the sheer overkill of Soulwax, a Belgian band with an aggressively sardonic attitude toward pop and technology. Its members also record as 2 Many D.J.s, and the band performed on a stage designed to resemble the group’s recording studio, Studio Deewee, with drummers in separate rooms and all sorts of blinking equipment. The songs strutted and blipped like bubble gum pop grown colossal, carrying glum lyrics like trophies and building up to gleeful, overwhelming drum barrages.
ANDERSON .PAAK AND THE FREE NATIONALS Old-fashioned muscle, not electronics, generated the beat for Anderson .Paak and his band — mostly from the musician who was born Brandon Paak Anderson himself on drums when he wasn’t working the stage like a preacher. With a band that can bear down on a groove or take jazzy excursions, his songs surveyed decades of funk, from 1970s Stevie Wonder to 21st-century trap. His set rode the crowd’s response in ways that programmed beats can’t match.
ARCA WITH JESSE KANDA Arca — the Venezuelan musician Alejandro Ghersi — has brought his electronic music to collaborations with Björk and Kanye West. On his own, Arca became a charismatic, androgynous diva, dealing in extremes. He sang about tragic love in an operatic falsetto, over orchestral timbres laced with sampled screams; he shrieked and cackled and brandished a whip. Unsettling video imagery by Jesse Kanda only heightened the drama.
JUSTICE Justice’s music is made for no place smaller than an arena, where multistory strobe lights can flash on every sequenced synthesizer note, and a basic, blasting 4/4 stomp sounds triumphal. This French synthesizer duo cycled through quasi-classical cathedral-organ passages, anthemic choruses, pulsating synthesizers and walloping dance beats; a big buildup was never far away.
JLIN There was no telling where the next beat would land in the hurtling, crackling, skidding, zigzagging music of Jlin — the electronic musician Jerrilynn Patton — but it all happened fast. From her laptop, she deployed percussion samples in meticulous fusillades, often in breakneck six-beat rhythms that were scattered across the stereo field to make things even more vertiginous. Jlin’s mentor, RP Boo, a major figure in Chicago footwork, was also at Sónar with his own gleefully whipsawing set; I was happy to hear them both.
JUANA MOLINA The Argentine songwriter Juana Molina’s albums are full of quiet, near-whispered conundrums; could her songs survive an outdoor festival crowd? Easily. Leading a trio, she built them out of spiky little loops of her voice and guitar picking, often in odd meters, and raised her voice just enough to bring out their sinewy charms.
LENA WILLIKENS The pulse was nearly constant, but nothing stayed unchanged very long in an absorbing, propulsive set of techno by Lena Willikens, a D.J. based in Dusseldorf, Germany. The video screen showed her hands constantly turning knobs and tweaking the music: adding and subtracting percussion, revealing layers of her synthesizer patterns, making sounds smoother or nastier. It was all incremental, all intently focused.
DEENA ABDELWAHED Deena Abdelwahed’s D.J. set was filled with sounds from her home, Tunisia, sampled and layered as she pleased. She had the international beats of house and techno at her disposal, but North African hand drums, finger cymbals and men’s and women’s voices stayed in the foreground — for her, not exotic at all.
CARL CRAIG PRESENTS VERSUS SYNTHESIZER ENSEMBLE The Detroit techno producer got a homage to his catalog this year: “Versus,” an album of orchestral arrangements of his music. Five keyboardists joined him onstage to play them live (along with what sounded like some of the orchestral tracks) while he supplied the beats. The arranger, Francesco Tristano, was on piano, adding some improvisational flourishes; lest anyone forget, techno and classical Minimalism were never far apart.
NONOTAK Nonotak is a visual and musical duo: the Japanese architect and musician Takami Nakamoto and the French illustrator Noemi Schipfer. Their piece “Shiro” had them silhouetted behind an X-shaped scrim that flickered with increasingly complex geometries, all in black and white, working up to dizzying Op Art. It was synced to music that also seemed monochrome at first — hisses, whooshes, buzzes, clicks — but became a world of its own.
NOSAJ THING AND DAITO MANABE A deep undertow coursed through the set by Nosaj Thing (the Los Angeles producer Jason Chung). Slow tempos seemed even slower and woozier, even with flickers of trap percussion; echoey samples went drifting across the beat, in no hurry to arrive anywhere. Visuals by the Japanese artist Daito Manabe only heightened the sense of suspended undulation.
VALGEIR SIGURDSSON There was room at Sónar for classical chamber music that happened to have a penumbra of electronic effects. The composer Valgeir Sigurdsson — who also sat in on an excellent set with the composer and pianist Nico Muhly — used his laptop to accompany Liam Byrne, who was playing viola da gamba, a cello-like instrument generally heard in Baroque music. Mr. Sigurdsson’s pieces floated the viola da gamba’s throaty lines, sometimes echoing Baroque filigree, in hovering, otherworldly electronic tones and reverberations; it was as if a classical heritage was being perceived from some distant perspective, like our own.
MATMOS A washing machine shared the stage with the three members of Matmos; its sounds were the makings of Matmos’s 2016 album, “Ultimate Care II.” Samples of gurgles and motor noise, along with live drumming on its metal sides, made a piece that was sometimes abstract, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes silly.
MASTERS AT WORK I couldn’t stay for the entire six-hour set by Masters at Work, the duo of Louie Vega and Kenny Gonzalez, New Yorkers who have been producing dance music together since 1990. Yet each stretch I heard was a model of house music as the sonic reflection of a hospitable community, a haven where big-band jazz, soul belting, disco thump and Latin percussion all retain their own character while they find common ground on the dance floor.
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