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Sónar Lisboa

Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points
In the playgrounds of a Lisbon night
Roaring afar, the 5th war of Russia

I stare at him heading on stage, low-profile as if a spy. A ninja sliding behind the wall of tech without a word. His alphabet soon displays as beats. The way his soundscapes will inflict surprise, pleasure, dopamine reward-loop and flow to the human sea forming the parterre of the theatre, is his subtle trademark.

Entertainment reporter for The Verge, Jamieson Cox wrote of Sam Shepherd’s work in 2015, ‘his elegant, complex compositions mirror the work he did to earn a PhD in neuroscience from University College London. Shepherd became an in-demand producer and DJ while still spending hours on research, and he’s since left science behind as a profession to focus on his musical career.’

“The science I study, epigenetics — it’s a very new science. And it’s definitely quite subtle, the thing I study. It’s all about modulation and subtle changes in cell behaviours that can have drastic effects. That first part, controlling homeostatic regulation in cells’ daily behaviour — keeping it regular, kicking over, behaving well — that’s a delicate system.”
— Sam Shepherd

Has he really left science behind?
Imagine how precious this experimental lab stretching in front of him? The crowd is an amorphic shape and incredible sample of movable beings hit by his beats. And each individual forming the blue floating points in the dark, could potentially escape the predictable grid of cohesion and alike the 1 in a 1000 lab rats, with an unexpected action lead to an eureka or dark moment.

His sonic waves spread through my brain interchanges.
They relapse a subset of conflicting narratives… A frightening thought layers up coloured by the current events. I look at Shepherd standing there in the silent posture once reserved to godlike rulers and autocrats. A pedestal above the crowd. A hero in the halo of changing lights. Visible/invisible. A ghostlike silhouette mythical and unmoved. Alike the ruler, the DJ is accustomed to the reaction of an already subjugated audience. Somehow all have already voted for him in presence. What an incredible power is held at the fingertips of the DJ when ruling over the body language of a crowd. How many public figures, politicians, champions and at worst dictators can pretend to assemble and master giant crowds into docile and symbiotic cohorts sharing fusional fun – fun no fear?

As a matter of fact, music and politics are not set for the same games. Music has spent the length of its history bringing people together, erasing borders and so often healing wounded souls. Artists and audience worldwide have used music as a loudspeaker for rebellion and social contestation; a vector to express an identity which hasn’t – at least intentionally – seeded violence. Politics on the contrary and particularly when reaching upon extremes, use power to suppress, repress, control, muzzle, corrupt. Today, impossible to not acknowledge this when music and politics play live side by side.

The world is no longer airtight. We all – as in humanity connected, are witnessing live on our solo screens the butcher of Moscow under the spell of a fiction, a ‘bloated historical exegesis’: kill in the open.

Sónar was founded in Barcelona by Advanced Music as a three-day festival in the quintessential year of music: 1994. Labelled Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art, Sónar was fomented by three expert-renegades: music journalist Ricard Robles and musician Enric Palau and visual artist Sergio Caballero.

As a twisted coincidence of events, 1994 is also the year when Russian ruler Vladimir Putin launches his first war in Chechnya. It lasted two years but its makeup was a presage of Putin’s style and choices of politics. An obsession for strategic borders to enhance Russia’s global power using attack as defence with an absolute disinterest for civilian casualties. A seemingly divine mission [a fiction] to restore Russian and Soviet grandeur after its collapse at the closure of the 20th century.

This year, when Sónar expands its reach to Lisbon, it is peacefully with a majestic line-up and a sold-out festival at its launch, 8.9.10 April. In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s fifth war is requiem for a massacre. The 10th of April, a first account of casualties released by the United Nations, counts over 2,500 injured and over 1,800 killed.

Music has always played a political role as a social barometer and a cursor upon which the mood of a neighbourhood, a nation, a race, a youth could be measured in beats and bytes. Music has relentlessly fought and satirised wars and conflicts. It has endlessly promoted peace with an ongoing list of anti-war songs building up on Wikipedia.

At the Coliseu dos Recreios, Sam Shepherd insulates an already overheated crowd with expendable salves of sonic undulations to which the crowd sways in synthesis. Imperturbable master of retained pleasure, Shepherd doesn’t always build music to danse. Instead, the bodies move delicately as if brain oscillations in sensory-cognitive processes or rhododendrons in the wind.

Shepherd’s second single ‘Grammar’ is described by Fader as ‘similar in style to "Vocoder," a propulsive drum machine touring the listener through a soundscape of seamlessly blended throwback vocal samples. It's a far cry from the nearly arrhythmic Promises, which was better built for quiet rooms or long drives than dance floors.’

The floor is sticky. It makes it harder to dance anyway. Body temperature, human sweat, and the musk of alcohol blend in a spicy cocktail that recall other nights in other dens and another Sónar by Night. The lack of circulating air forces to hold a steady short breath. It might explain the constant ballet of people swinging alegria between the dark theatre and its adjacent bar through the hallway showered by dirty-yellow lights. People zap through it haltingly or with a quick pause for an improvised group selfies or friend gathering.

I return to the dark theatre now turned red. I look at my neighbours slightly anxious. What if the outer world entered in a blitz? How would the crowd react? Being alone in a crowd with music conceived for reflection can convey an incommensurable sense of loneliness not necessarily dark. Sometimes it calls to rely on others alike when travelling; other times it plunges the self in the most sophisticated meditations.

In just two years, the geopolitical landscape although crippled by a pandemic, has radically emboldened into transgressing all remaining taboos. In 2014, Berlin-based American columnist Jesse Van Mouwerik writes:

“In today’s world, there is no great war, but a splintered stage of conflicting ideologies and intentions that divide us. Technology allows us to exchange many of our physical and political borders for psychological ones. There are no more massive trenches except for the ones embedded in our beliefs. No man’s land is no longer a place on a map, but a corner of the mind.”

Jesse Van Mouwerik, Make Party, not War! In the trenches of the First World War, Christmas and electronic music have more in common than one might think.

Except when one’s ‘corner of the mind’ is paired with absolute political power and ill-fated paranoia. Then the geography of a land turned into a soulless no man’s land, is rewritten arbitrarily. At the frontiers of artificial intelligence and the hyped metaverse, at the archaic and bloody lines of demarcation between Russia and Ukraine where young soldiers kill one another in what seems to others white cannibalism…

At the heart of both, is the beat. The mechanical sound of the cash register of corporate control through the manipulation of brain chemistry. The drums of war to reach out to global power at any costs, no matter how much ultra-nationalism is required to silo people’s brain into controlled propaganda.

And at the centre of it all is the brain.

In Scientific American, Partha Mitra writes, ‘Frontiers are in short supply…
Uncharted territories, both physical and metaphorical, are hard to find. Yet there is one largely unmapped continent, perhaps the most intriguing of them all, because it is the instrument of discovery itself: the human brain. It is the presumptive seat of our thoughts, and feelings, and consciousness.’

Our thoughts, our feelings, our consciousness have lately – assaulted by technology, by a sea of content and its unpredictable tides, forced our brain to regularly shield from the noise. Then the pandemic has forced our bodies to refuge in the comforting and somehow frigid self, more sedentary than ever.

But here in the massive crowd, the sensual warmth rebuilds into heated feelings.

And the acceleration in ‘Grammar’ sounds an alert to wake up perhaps, an urgency bloating into an implosion. Atonal, unnerved, with threatening scratches as if the machine itself was at the limit of its delivery, there is a sudden melodic and airy tone of hope that soothes into a chillout zone as if finally armoured against madness or simply out of danger.

In the Little Fluffy Clouds of The Orb [1991] til Sunset303 [If you believe] of Fatboy Slim & Roland Clark [2020] which lyrics are so terribly timely… There is a yellow and blue flag swinging in the wind. Beyond a two-decade worth of stunning music production despite, within and outside of the corporate and tech giants’ claws], a new buzz word has emerged, the ‘healing sound’.

Could music truthfully be used as an informed healing practice?
If so, who to heal first? The people who carried high the yellow and blue flag now symbol of freedom and were forced to leave, to fight, to fall for their chosen identity? Or the mad nation who will carry the weight of its massacres through several generations?

The worlds in which we live in their geographic, digital, psychological and anxiogenic topographies, are no longer sealed. The reality of war when people are killed in the background of our desktops and our smartphones while recording live music, will somehow get to us, erode our believes, minor our everyday actions and deprive our judgments for being sound, relevant, credible. Whatever we do now and next, simply will be unsustainable in comparison.

In Lisbon, last year BoCA opened its 3rd edition with the catchphrase “Prove You Are Human”. This is the urgency. The one that refutes violence in any form at any cost.
From the machine Shepherd tames with DYI tricks to the brain expandable pathways he studies in his emerging sciences, to the beats of electronic music he distils for the heartbeat to accelerate, his embrace of the experimental in all its configurations, somehow answer what human is today. Let’s embrace the keywords experimental, DYI.

Alike him many artists at Sónar and beyond bring harmoniously humans together. As such there is implicitly the radical refute to accept state-based violence and the escalation of social violence it unleashes everywhere, as an acceptable reality. But what is needed or missing for that strength of togetherness to become actively a peaceful anti–violence movement, is what I was considering ardently while walking back home solo at 4 am that early morning of April 10.

Music and politics are unwilling twins with a similar power, the power to rally. One with public trust, the other with public doubts.

#Lisbon #Music #Creativity & #Technology #Festival
08.09.10 April 2022 @sonarlisboa

Images & text by Claudine Boeglin @dandyvagabond
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