March 31–April 2, 2022
Fanfared as a “celebration of music and diversity,” the Listen Festival mostly revolves around contrasting breeds of electronica, ranging from idiot-bangin’ house to the most diaphanous environmental strokings. Brussels gorges on sounds that, via different routes, are descended from dance floor culture, in all its variegated manifestations. As with many festivals, the individual is able to select wildly divergent trajectories according to taste. This also involves navigating virtually the entire city of Brussels, inhabiting mainstream clubs, lying on stone chapel floors, hanging about at techno-rammed railway stations, or crossing the Molenbeek canal to the almost hippy-ish alternative Recyclart arts centre.
The C12 club, right next to the Brussels Central Station, promised the enticing presence of the Hessle Audio Trio, revolving around the eponymous UK label’s key dubstep pioneers Pearson Sound, Pangaea, and Ben UFO.
Entry was not pleasant. Security staff invariably love body searches and their metal detectors, although scribes could fortunately bypass most of these intrusions. Journalists could be the hottest drug dealers in town! Actually, the Brussels club scene seems to be highly troubled by a degree of substance smuggling, but hasn’t that always been the unavoidable way of the rave, from city to city, and decade to decade?
C12 wasn’t fun. The following night’s Recyclart party really was a party, featuring a completely different type of musical gathering, leaning closer to the festival’s hoped-for diversity aims, attendees relaxed and varied in their dancing moves. The recently nomadic VK venue/organization appears to have a symbiotic relationship with Recyclart’s converted railway station, and they presented a session that combined the new-ish Rebel Up global sounds collective (DJ-spinning sets, live bands, and label) and the veteran Crammed Discs (the mightiest, most adventurous Belgian recording company ever).
The steadily-rising Schroothoop trio opened the evening, playing their recalibrations of mainly African musics (principally Moroccan or Ethiopian-rooted), displaying an amusing array of self-fashioned instruments, using plastic, wood, and metal made to impersonate the likes of the kraar (Ethiopian harp), qraqeb (Moroccan Gnaoua castanets), along with flutes (with plastic plungers), and a complete empty flagon drumkit construction. This illustrates how actual instrumental lineups are also welcome at Listen. Indeed, the opening two evenings of the festival had already featured two gigs by the Dutch combo Altın Gün (drums, percussion, bass, keys, guitars), who wisely have a pair of Turkish members. They originally specialized in Anatolian psychedelic sounds, but are lately concentrating just as much on retro-ethno disco milkiness. These two shows at Flagey (an old Art Deco radio studio that’s another one of the most significant Brussels multi-hall arts centers) were virtually sold out, with the band sounding much tougher live than on some of their more recent recordings.
After Schroothoop, at VK, the aura bent toward the Middle East and North Africa, with a double header from Zenobia and Acid Arab, two of the finest purveyors of electro-Arabic avant-traditional stomping extremity. Both acts have two dudes standing in front of their consoles, keys, and decks, and both duos push their core traditions far into the pumping, bass-loaded zone, maximizing and intensifying the essence of an older music, warping it into magnified electronic realms mightier than mere existence. Big ceiling baffles shape sound well here in Recyclart, banishing any horrid echo-emptiness and welcoming a fully-rounded, organic electronic shapeliness. Bass was sculpted into a beautiful being.
The Palestinian twosome of Zenobia hail from Haifa, Nasser Halahlih and Isam Elias filling their manic tunes with trebly arpeggio keyboard flourishes, courtesy of the latter. They delivered a tight one-hour set, making way for the Parisian duo of Acid Arab. One set bled into the next, with a highly compatible mixture of extreme bass and almost deranged traditional Middle Eastern melodies. Billed as a DJ set, without their band, Guido Minisky and Hervé Carvalho still sounded very much as though they were generating their usual Acid Arab sounds, operating from a techno foundation, with overloaded North African trimmings, injecting reed-flute spirals and bleating goat-skin pipings.
Acid Arab continued well after their two-hour quota, but this grew naturally, without any sense that they were flagging, repeating, or weakening. Indeed, the set’s second hour fragmented into an experimentation with fractured dub, the techno source twisting into a darkened minimalism. Even so, the pair still managed to infuse this soundscape with a mood of Arabic tradition, taken far out and turned inside out. Swathes of friction noise rose and fell, as they manipulated textures over beats, passing through a phase of almost abstract invention, before eventually bringing back the punishing Arabic beats. Acid Arab now needed a smoke, shrouding themselves in photogenic curlings, bounding with enthusiasm, inviting dancers onstage. This was exactly how to throw a party!
Le Bureau Electronique took over Les Brigittines, an arts venue constructed at the side of a chapel, merging performance space and restaurant. Three female artists concerned themselves with a discrete inhabitation of the space, each suggesting a different strategy. Giulia Vismara oscillates between Italy and Belgium, working on electroacoustic music for installations, theater, and video art. She began by capturing the sound of gently caressed table-strings, multiplying towards soft drone harmonics, diligently spreading her atmospherics, until a laptop crash severed the thought processes. This came at a suitable juncture, and it wasn’t clear at the time whether it was a crash or a planned sudden end. Vismara quickly compensated by creating a building-bell sound, perfectly suited to the chapel darkness.
Pak Yan Lau used small metal sticks to make a vibrational accumulation reminiscent of Alvin Lucier’s world, manipulating her collected matter with foot pedals, then venturing across the chapel to her toy piano, taping down selected keys to shape multi-drones. She also promenaded with a skeletal umbrella, tiny bells dangling, a vintage cassette machine taken for a stroll around the mostly reclined audience, issuing a repeated vocal snatch. She left objects to their own devices, once she’d set them rolling, while she constructed the next phase. It was diverting, but also too self-conscious, definitely needing more improvisational tension.
The most potent of the evening’s three performances was given by Tomoko Sauvage, seated on the floor of a mini-stage, surrounded by various water bowls. From Japan, but residing in France, she exuded calm, collecting ceramic-bowl tones—their water-fill not immediately apparent—that gradually rose to prominence. Eventually, Sauvage submerged a crackling electric device, or perhaps a hydroponic microphone, exchanging droplets from one bowl to another. The audience was completely spellbound, as sonic introversion spread in the almost darkness to woo via this shimmering environment. Such are the radical contrasts of the Listen Festival.