Memphis is set to host an experimental electronic music festival unlike anything we have witnessed. Robert Traxler curated a two-day festival, at Crosstown Arts, that showcases Memphis electronic musicians among other national acts. We were able to connect with Robert via e-mail and asked him a few questions about this rare festival.
Check out the playlist that follows the Q&A.
When/How did you start making music?
So, I joined band in high school under the impression that it would get me out of gym. That didn’t work, but it got me playing drums. Later in high school I joined a punk band. I’ve been more or less making music since then.
What is Memphis Concrète?
In the simplest terms, Memphis Concrète is an experimental electronic music festival. It is a bunch of musicians from Memphis and surrounding areas coming together with a wide array of different styles and sounds (ambient, dance, noise, drone, abstract, pretty, atonal, atmospheric) to put on an event where everyone is exploring the possibilities of sound and pushing in their own unique direction. So there’s the performances. There’s also exhibits during the afternoon that are free to everyone: interactive sound installations. There’s a screening of Forbidden Planet (with a live score in tribute to Bebe and Louis Barron’s original soundtrack).
When did the idea for Memphis Concrète come to mind? What was the inspiration?
The idea of a festival like this is something that’s been floating in the back of my head for a while now, at least as a kind of fantasy. Last year I helped organize a Bands for Bernie benefit concert and after it went off pretty successfully, I started to think about it in terms of something I could actually do. And hearing about other festivals later, such as Big Ears in Knoxville, thriving in places you wouldn’t expect, it helped bolster my feeling that this could work in Memphis. I think if people approach new music with an open mind and without expectations or preconceptions, they can appreciate the sounds at face value and enjoy what they hear as sound, even if they don’t have a vocabulary to understand it as music. I think it’s possible for anyone in the right mindset to understand sound on its own terms.
Why is it important to host a festival like this in Memphis?
I think it’s important for several reasons. One is that there hasn’t been anything like it here before. There have been plenty of thriving rock festivals here, which is great, but any music or art scene is only strengthened by new ideas and sounds. I’d like to provide a platform both for people who are into experimental music to find what they maybe don’t see enough of here, as well as people who aren’t into it (yet) to have an opportunity to approach sound in different ways. Selfishly, I’d love to see more of the bands and artists I love come to Memphis more often. Making this city a destination for experimental musicians starts here with the shows and support we give each other here. If we make an attractive and supportive scene for ourselves, then one hopes it would attract outsiders (but by that point, it’s really just a byproduct of something even better as you’ve already created “the world you wanted”). But maybe I just have some Field of Dreams complex. With or without outside artists though, more experimental musicians coalescing into a larger community will serve to strengthen our artistic experiences.
What is the electronic music scene like here?
My feeling is that it’s a bit fragmented. That may partly be on me as an old, out-of-touch guy. The Rare Nnudes label (from which Qemist and minivan_markus are playing the festival) has a pretty big presence in the realm of more beat-centric music, what you might call experimental dance music. I feel there’s a lot more people out there making experimental music than I know about. Even just putting this thing together, I’ve discovered a lot of musicians around town. If doing just a little bit of work has gotten me this far, I’m sure there’s a good number of people in this city making incredible, experimental music that I have yet to discover. My hope is for more and more shows to pop up around town. There’s this series called Sounder that’s being held at Marshall Arts, Aster and Cheap Spirits played that as well. There’s only been one so far, but I hope to see a lot more.
Was it important to include artists from Memphis?
Absolutely. I love that we have a good number of artists coming in from elsewhere, but “Memphis” is in the name of the festival for a reason and the majority of artists are from here. I want this festival to be focused on the community we’re in and what’s possible in Memphis. It’s fantastic to get musicians from other places coming through. I think that sort of “exchange” can help infuse a vitality into a scene and bring new influences and new ideas and new perspectives. But it’s the artists living here that are at the heart of it all. It’s the artists living here that we get to see grow and develop each time they play out. The people here are the people we see (or can or could see) just about every day and entertain us and inspire us anew every day. There isn’t a Memphis without the artists of Memphis. It all starts where you are.
Being the inaugural Memphis Concrète , where do you see this festival in a few years?
As with anything starting out, you hope to see it grow in the coming years. I see Memphis Concrète getting more high profile acts (famous as far as experimental electronic music goes). And while that’s exciting to think about, what’s even more exciting is thinking about the people around town that aren’t playing out now but who might get drawn out to perform at future festivals or shows around town. The bigger acts are going to be playing shows somewhere (whether here or not) no matter what we do. But if there are people here who could be making music and aren’t (at least not publicly), then I find it incredibly exciting to think about them starting to contribute something new and offering a new voice and, just by their presence, expanding what’s happening right here in our city. And I also want to stress that with technology being the way it is now, you don’t need big synthesizers or fancy technology (as awesome as that can be), anyone can get a variety of apps on their phones for almost nothing and make amazing sounds with them. It has the potential to make it all the more democratic and open.
Who are you most looking forward to see perform as a fan?
I have to start out with something of a cheap cop out and say (in all honesty) that I’m looking forward to hearing each and every musician that’s playing. It’s been an incredible experience putting this thing together and being blown away every single time I heard music by someone new added to the lineup. Okay, I know that though my feelgood response is true, it won’t completely fly for this question so I’ll bite and name some names. I’m looking forward to seeing Ihcilon who, full disclosure, is a old friend of mine going back years, but this is really a case where someone you know starts doing something creatively and it’s just so good that it leaves you dumbfounded. His style is quite ambient, very textural, atmospheric, sometimes brushes against something like musique concrète with layers of found sound.
Nonconnah have impressed me live before as well. Their sound is guitar-based but very effects-heavy and very ambient. Whereas Ihcilon’s sound evokes something like anxiety, Nonconnah is more introspective and soothing. Aster has been using synths to make lush, beautiful, ambient textures. I look forward to seeing Qemist perform, his ability to work deep textures into jagged, danceable rhythms is very exciting. Argiflex (from Cleveland, MS) works in a similar territory. Belly Full of Stars (from Nashville) has a soothing, glitch-heavy dose of ambient. manualcontrol’s set is entirely based on light sensors and audience interaction and I know that’s going to be a very special, immersive experience. snwv (from Pittsburgh) has a generative approach to music, that gives his stuff a conceptual sound that I’m really into so I’m looking forward to that a lot. Then there are a few of the artists who have never performed in a live setting before, and I’m beyond enthusiastic to see them bring out something new, into a new setting, that had only existed in the studio or at home. I always look forward to seeing that moment of emergence, when a new voice is added to the noise. There’s a lot to be garnered from established and well-polished artists, but there’s just as much to get from new and inexperienced artists. It’s more of a risk to give your time over to something you haven’t heard before (which is why nostalgia acts are always thriving), but in an area as open as experimental music is, I think it’s easier for new artists to develop a unique identity or fresh approach. Oof. I strayed onto a soapbox. Apologies. Anyway, I’m as much looking forward to becoming a fan as remaining a fan.