Published Jun 02, 2014Label boss, producer and visionary Nicolas Jaar brought his From Scratch concept to EM15 to serve as the ultimate closer to the festival. The show was a gutsy undertaking, as it attempted to improvise everything for five hours, with a selection of collaborators weaving in and out (who themselves were also improvising).
The performance began with just Jaar and sound technician Vance Galloway. who opened with some beautiful orchestral strings and slow rising crackles. Together, they created a harrowing wash of ambience, conjuring up images of vast abandoned cities plagued by wraiths and ghouls. The ambience eventually became punctuated by harsh organ bursts that verged on apocalyptic, all of which ended abruptly. After a full minute of silence, Jaar spun some Latin folk records, haphazardly jumping back and forth between tracks.
At the one-hour mark, From Scratch was greeted by professional dancer Lizzie Feidelson, whose fluid movements accompanied the by then gospel chanting of Jaar and Galloway's music. Her sublime motions were a joy to behold. How relevant they were to the musical performance is unclear, but the task wasn't an easy one — it seems anyone trying to dance to the maddening sounds at that juncture would have been lost.
Shortly after Feidelson's arrival, audio-visual artist Tarik Barri began his contribution to the show. He took images of Feidelson's dancing, cut them up, them multiplied them and added pulsing spheres of light around her body. Just as Barri got going, saxophonist and childhood friend of Jaar's Will Epstein added a Coltrane-esque element to the show. Now with five artists performing off the cuff, From Scratch resembled more of a free jazz show than an electronic one. The mix of styles and influences was nothing short of alienating, making it close to impossible for anyone to grasp.
Then, everything changed. With Epstein making a simple switch from saxophone to piano, Barri's transformation to vibrant colours and the appearance of vocalist Sasha Spielberg, the proceedings eventually started to build in tempo. It's strange to think that Steven Spielberg's daughter would be the one to save a floundering electronic gig, but that's exactly what happened. Her amazing voice was sampled and copiously layered by Epstein, who moved from piano to keyboard in order to focus solely on manipulating Spielberg's voice. This process shifted From Scratch into the realm of cold minimal techno, beneath Spielberg's tortured vocals.
As the group began to gel, their influence on each other got stronger and stronger. Epstein quickly read a perfunctory beat by Jaar, who added building blocks to the track while Barri, through his visuals, steered the performance down a route of his own interpretation; Spielberg piled her raw emotion on top of it all. This delicate process was repeated until some truly awe-inspiring moments were pulled out from the most modest of beginnings.
Unfortunately, as that piece wound down it marked the exit of Sasha Spielberg, which left the show in danger of getting stuck in another avant-garde cul de sac. It was at this point that each musicians' differing tastes seemed to become an issue. Both Epstein and Galloway, whose bread and butter is downtempo minimalism, leaned heavily toward their field, while Jaar, who's perfectly capable of producing a club-friendly track, pushed for a livelier beat. Fortunately, the leading man won out in the end, and Jaar drove the remaining musicians into an area where upbeat rhythms were allowed to flourish — and flourish they did.
The much-needed bite of techno was dropped upon the anxious crowd, who were more than happy to have a manageable beat to work with. This section soared, both musically and visually, but once again it was ground down to experimental pitter-patter, forcing fans to slow to a stop and simply watch as the group explored weird avenues.
For the gig's outro, Spielberg unexpectedly returned to the stage once again to raise the tempo from the clutches of pretentiousness. Here, the crowd were treated to two full build-ups of well-executed dance music, with Barri's visuals swirling into oblivion and the whole event rising to a glorious crescendo.
From Scratch is a courageous performance, and one that not many would even attempt. Five hours of improvisation is no easy feat, which unfortunately makes larger, esoteric portions of the show an utter slog to get through. There's no question that everyone involved is extremely talented, but you can't help but wonder how much better the show would be if it was thought out and rehearsed.