Le Guess Who?: Utrecht – 21 November 2014

Utrecht's experimental music festival takes over the college town for a weekend in November.

“All the way from New York?” they wondered out loud. They didn’t think the festival was that popular outside of the Netherlands, let alone Europe. Le Guess Who? was founded by Bob van Heur and Johan Gijsen in 2007, and over the last seven years it’s grown from a small gathering (curiously showcasing mostly Canadian acts) into an experimental, drone, and noise powerhouse with some international heavy hitters. So it’s no wonder that I took a mini vacation to Holland to spend an extended weekend in Utrecht. Home to the largest university of the Netherlands, Utrecht is only 30 minutes away from Amsterdam by train, and serves as an ideal travel hub, situated among the century old architecture, picturesque canals, and a very vibrant night life.

Friday’s festivities began around 8pm, with about 10 venues simultaneously showcasing their wares, ranging from hard-edged fearless rock riffs by London-based Dracula Legs, to the gorgeous “androgynous pop” vocals of Norwegian Jenny Hval, to the lo-fi field-noise of the Swedish trio Tape, and the neo-classical piano arpeggios of Carlos Cipa. Yet even after the impressive performance by Dr. John & The Nite Trippers, with its flawlessly pristine New Orleans R&B and jazzy funk, the winning showcase of the night went to Ogoya Nengo & The Dodo Women’s Group, with one of its first performances outside of Kenya. This “unfiltered declaration of the song as an universal language” was conveyed with a raw percussion rhythm laced with a very human vocalization, straight from the folk groups near the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria.

Saturday’s highlights included Hauschka, Federico Albanese and A Winged Victory For The Sullen. At the apse of the Janskerk (a church in Utrecht dedicated to John the Baptist), Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie (of Stars of the Lid) were among a three-piece string orchestra, performing compositions from their latest album, ATOMOS, recently released on Erased Tapes and Kranky. The slow-paced movements reverberated against the Gothic interior, uplifting its Romanesque history with longing and hope. Deep bass penetrated the wooden pews, eventually dissolving along the vibrant piano keys. 20 minutes away Sebastian Plano was enchanting the audience with his take on modern classical sound. A cello with its own mounted controls soared and moaned, as Plano tapped out the glitchy rhythm on its pads.

Back at TivoliVredenburg, Swans was rocking the crowd, while shortly after midnight, Tim Hecker opened for the “24-hour dronefest”. Expecting excruciating volumes, I plugged up my ear canals, only to be drenched in a wash of organic din, attributed to the earlier output of this Canadian artist. Up and down the stairs I went, now running to secure a spot in the closed-doors auditorium for the upcoming performance by Autechre as Don Funcken (of Funckarma) spun a DJ set before the show. The highly anticipated live gig by the acclaimed Manchester duo was a slight regression, and I found myself just standing in a complete darkness in the middle of the dance floor, as Sean Booth and Rob Brown bent and twisted the sonic architects’ perversions with no sign of rhythm or structure.

Back upstairs (stairs again) Emptyset was laying down solid cadence. Not exactly drone-like for the second part of the “dronefest”, but nevertheless a welcome stomp-out of its clear-cut hard-line beats. No wonder Raster-Noton has picked up the duo of James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas from their Subtext dwelling for Recur. A surprisingly gratifying performance. Yet another floor higher, at a venue appropriately titled Cloud 9, Chicago based Hieroglyphic Being began his electro-housy set of techno loops and noise.

On Sunday I traversed the streets of Utrecht, occasionally stopping at TivoliVredenburg for a snoop of dronefest. Among the many single-note continuous drones, my favorite performance of the night was the one by William Basinski. And as St. Vincent charmed the gathered crowds, my festival concluded with a Turkish song and dance by Selda, a political activist previously imprisoned for her words. And with an early morning flight back to New York, I bid the Netherlands adieu, leaving behind many memories, a few dead brain cells, and many new found friends.