Published Jun 01, 2003By dint of our modesty (or our inferiority complex), Canadians have a hard time patting ourselves on the back for anything besides hockey prowess. Volumes could be written about our inability to boast, a tradition whose most glaring current manifestation is the complete lack of mainstream interest in MUTEK, Montreal's techno festival. Easily written off as an inconsequential gathering of electronica's highbrow nerds, MUTEK which will be held from May 28 to June 1 is, in fact, a significant cultural event, one whose impact reaches beyond the musical and into the social and political sphere.
To understand MUTEK's contemporary significance, we must first return to 1977, when Quebec's ruling Parti Quebecois issued Bill 101, a law that restricted the use of languages other than French in the public domain. Since its passing, the legislation has been a matter of spirited debate, with some observers arguing it has caused the widespread emigration of English-speaking citizens from the province.
Now, with a federalist in the premier's office and polls showing support for separation at an all-time low, Quebec is a province reborn into a vibrant post-secessionist era. Nowhere is youthful vitality more obvious than in Montreal's techno community, a scene so buoyant it has precipitated the relocation of several English-speaking producers to Quebec, thus reversing the post-1977 Anglophone exodus. Emigrating from B.C, Manitoba and Ontario, laptop-wielding technoists are rewriting Montreal's cultural code, working with their francophone counterparts to erect the world's newest dance music capital.
Recently cited by URB magazine as "the Western hemisphere's most exciting music franchise," MUTEK unites local musicians, providing a forum for them to display their skills alongside international performers like Matthew Herbert and Thomas Brinkmann.
In early 2002, the prestigious Force Inc. label compiled Montreal Smoked Meat, a MUTEK-approved collection of the city's minimally-minded electronicists. While the comp served as a credible representation of the local sound, it was a truly pan-Canadian document, featuring contributions from Vancouver native Tim Hecker (aka Jetone), Toronto's Mitchell Akiyama and Montreal's own Marc Leclair (aka Akufen). The CD's cross-Canada feel comes as no surprise given that it was spearheaded by Jon Berry, a BC native who runs the German imprint's North American operations from his office near Mont Royal.
"I've never seen so many producers coming out of one city," says the industry veteran. "Maybe it's the cold winters, but I'm hearing something unique from musicians here."
Berry points to the provincial government's generous arts programs as a motivator of the techno scene's emergence, noting also that Montreal has an ineffable vibe about it, a refined sensibility that is particularly receptive to high aesthetic achievement. "People are very sensitive here," says Berry, a belief echoed by Hecker, who moved to Montreal's Mile End district in 1997.
"Some people think I moved just for the music scene," Hecker told me last year. "But more than that, this is a beautiful city that has a pace and a sentimentality more in tune with who I am."
Hecker's invocation of pace and sentimentality gestures at Montreal's Francophone essence. After talking to several of the city's Anglo producers, I get the sense that they are in awe of Montreal's European feel; it's almost as if their English-Canadian upbringing could never have prepared them for Quebec's distinct way of life. French Canada's efforts to assert its uniqueness have long caused friction between the two founding nations, but Berry believes those days are coming to an end.
"I don't think there's such an intense level of collision between the cultures," he claims. "There is a lot of open-mindedness to the fact that things are moving on. This is a new generation."
"There's a huge crossover, especially in the music scene, between the French and English communities," says Force Inc. artist Mike Shannon, a Kitchener native and current Montreal resident. "Ten years or more ago, it was segregated. Now, there is still a little bit of separation within certain genres, but with techno, it's completely crossed over."
The bilingual exchange between Canadian technoists comes in many forms, like the Crackhaus collaboration between Steve Beaupré and Scott Monteith. More fascinating, though, is the subtle sense of scenius underlying Tim Hecker's recent ambient LP, Radio Amor, a distant cousin of Akufen's propulsive FM-radio experiment, My Way. Stripped of any beats and cresting gently to shore on ghostly sine waves, Radio Amor seeps cautiously into the listener's consciousness, a distended echo of Akufen's work, tweaked and remodelled in Hecker's own image. This is how canons are built, and nations, too.