Donau festival report, 30/04/2014-03/05/2014

08.05.14

In its tenth year and boasting the tagline "Redefining Arts", Donau Festival is a multi-disciplinary event based in the small Austrian city Krems, which is set on the Danube river and about an hours drive from Vienna. It runs for six days over a fortnight period (though the official line-up also covers attractions that stay open for longer) and we arrive for the second and longer week – which starts on a Wednesday and ends on Saturday.

Aside from the the many performances, exhibitions and installations – including Parsec, a spinning light-emitting machine that creates its own sound through sixteen identical but individual synthesizers working together according to the principles of swarm behaviour – Donau focused on experimental electronic musicians, who mainly played in the afternoon and early evening, then picked up for dance and flirtations with different pop forms during the nights. These two aspects of the festival were broadly split into two main sites a short walk from each other. 

The former was dominated by the impressive Klangraum Krems Minoritenkirche, a re-purposed 13th century church. The large seated venue wasn't a space for taking notes on technique but getting lost in monumental sounds, and Tim Hecker made the most of it with an incredible show on the first evening. In near-total darkness, save for some slits of late sun from the highest windows and subdued stage lighting, it was a sensual but an often uncomfortable listen delivered in massive swathes that gave the feeling of first contouring, then remoulding, then completely crushing your body. Also good was veteran composer Charles Cohen who told a free-wheeling cosmic fairytale in a warm and enriching afternoon performance. Less successful was James Ferraro, whose discordant references to corporate and high culture was sterile in a bad way. He started by repeating a PC start-up sound very loudly and a large chunk of the set was comprised of an automated voice listing vague signifiers over snarling soundtrack in the style of his last album 'NYC, Hell 3:00 AM'. However, without his vocals or much of a beat, it had little direction. Lacking in dynamism, he resorted to flashing a strobe-light at the audience for prolonged periods. 

Of the later performances, New York noise artist Pharmakon stood out for her poised aggression. She loops and layers sounds then screams into the mic, before jumping into the crowd to draw the mic lead around unsuspecting audience members and perform directly in their faces. At the end, she simply nodded back at us, picked up her drink and walked off stage. Forest Swords after her were more meditative, with Matthew Barnes joined by a live bassist on stage who helped to bring out the deep-rooted dub element in his music. Barnes returned alone for an encore and played a work in progress: a track with a familiar sense of mystique but drums that sounded closer to trap.

On the subject, whilst firmly within the context of the experimental music world, Donau did also have some room for rap and R&B in the line-up – most of it scheduled on the same night. Kelela was powerful and engaging, backed well by DJ Total Freedom, and she pleased the crowd with faithful renditions of songs from 'CUT 4 ME' but also sang a re-edited version of Keep It Cool and – intentionally or simply out of utility I don't know – did Enemy over Jay-Z's Fuckwithmeuknowigotit beat. Either way, it was a performance on her own terms, in contrast to the rappers who mostly struggled to find their stride.

Sub Pop-signed Californian trio clipping. combine Daveed Diggs' raps and the beats of Jonathan Snipes and William Huston, who show some good things in their respective roles but haven't figured how to bring it all together fully. A twerk song complete with a wobbly EDM drop and an angry song with call-and-response chant were disjointed but they did hit onto something worth keeping with Work Work, a slow clanging interpretation of the current West Coast bump. Mykki Blanco's DJ opened playing tracks by Katie Got Bandz and Young Thug, suggesting a relationship with rap's core, but the actual show was unneccesarily shambolic and unsure as to whether it was supposed to be pastiche, spoken-word or something else. On the other hand, Peaches made no attempt to nod to recent trends – the 2012 retrospective film Peaches Does Herself screened earlier in the day at the festival ends with her noting the demise of Electroclash and exiting an empty theatre singing Fuck The Pain Away to herself gleefully – but her live show was the most popular and well-received I saw.

Austere techno and electro was the backbone of nights at Donau, Berlin-based Objekt and Samuel Kerridge and the British pairs Karenn and Joy O and Boddika some of the biggest draws. Blawan and Pariah have a close connection when they DJ as Karenn and Joy O and Boddika are generally more open and expansive but they eventually both reached a shared destination: a relentless succession of bangers, slammers and rippers. This onslaught found good counterpoints in DJ Sprinkles' affirmative deep house and particularly in Actress' set on the final night, which imagined dance music through his distinct filter and carried a resonant air that may have been better suited to the church. In his world a single groove, melody or beat stalked on alone, occasionally building to something slightly more extroverted.

On directly after him was Giyani via Johannesburg producer Nozinja, who had no such reservations with his irresistible synthesised marimbas laid over frenetic percussion. You may rightly shudder at the thought of a room of Austrians dancing to Shangaan Electro but there was no doubting the affection and enthusiasm for the performance and, flanked by two singer/dancers, Nozinja's ongoing tour in support of a forthcoming Warp album is in a large part about introducing this culture to unfamiliar audiences. The opening tempo was relatively slow before Nozinja announced that he was going to play faster after a few tracks, dropping it again only once to perform a slower ballad. He closed with his latest single Tsekeleke before returning again briefly to play one more to broad cheers. It was a gregarious but modest farewell, apt for a festival that showed a welcoming attitude to a good range of challenging music.