Barcelona doesn't immediately appear a natural fit for a rare live performance of Wolfgang Voigt's Gas project. Gas, which the Kompakt co-founder initiated in 1995 with the Modern EP on Profan, and pursued throughout the '90s on a series of acclaimed records on Mille Plateaux, is famously dedicated to the German Wald; Voigt has said that the records were attempts to recreate in the studio the impressions made by his youthful, meditative walks through the woods. Amassing vaporous soundscapes out of tiny loops of German classical music, blurring the seams until everything dissipated into a slow, tidal pulse without beginning or end, Voigt turned techno's repetitive nature on its head in his quest to evoke "the continuous rustle of the forest."
You won't find many forests in Barcelona. But the Mediterranean city provides a surreal analogue in the form of Park Güell, designed by the visionary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí in the first decades of the 20th Century. It is, in short, a breathtaking place—proof that architecture can alter your very perceptions of reality. (Given the mushroom motifs in Gaudi's work, it's tempting to speculate that they must have played some role in the creative process as well; be that the case or no, Güell and Gaudi's buildings are as close as you'll come to finding psilocybin visions made concrete, as it were.) The park's centerpiece is a surreal complex decorated in broken rainbows of tile; a wide, open terrace surrounded by sculpted hills suggestive of Turkey's Cappadoccia sits atop a grand hallway supported by Greek columns. And it was here that the Red Bull Music Academy wisely decided to set Voigt's debut Gas performance in Barcelona—in a giant echo chamber that felt part cave, part palace, with massive stone columns standing in for the tree trunks of Voigt's imaginary wood.
Photo credit: Pere Masramon/Red Bull Music Academy
Voigt, whose press reticence has at times given him a reputation for aloofness or even severity, but whose ample fashion sense is pure dandy, stepped out of his taxi in top form. Resplendent in a midnight blue velvet suit and white silk scarf, he extended a hand to greet a well-wisher. "You are good?" The well-wisher assented. "I have to concentrate," said Voigt, after a nod. "On my work." And off he strode through the crowd of RBMA students and colleagues sipping cava and nibbling canapés. ("This is a champagne rave!" exclaimed a friend, and I had to agree with him—though without any complaint. Red Bull Music Academy takes care of its guests.)
When the audience finally took their seats, the set-up resembled a sort of baseball-diamond formation, with Voigt at the pitcher's mound and a large projection screen as home plate, flanked by considerably sized speakers; two more screens were placed in the infield, for the benefit of the rows spreading out towards the sides. Huge marble columns, five or six feet in diameter, stood sentinel at regular intervals, dividing the space, while concave details in the ceiling sparkled with broken tile.
The columns, I have to say, were my great hope for the performance: knowing the space, and knowing Gas' backstory, I anticipated they might stand in for trees, and I hoped that the stone would play crazy games with the sound. And so it did, but in the wrong way: the pillars are so enormous that instead of refracting sound in ways that would contribute to its dissolute nature, they simply blocked it. I sat in the row behind Voigt, with a column sitting at two o'clock in front of me, and it was as though there were a sonic blind spot where it stood; only by moving my head could I fill out the stereo field.
Photo credit: landerphoto.net/Red Bull Music Academy
If you've heard the Gas albums, then you know how the concert sounded. The point of Gas isn't the moment or the riff; it's the totality. I'd be unable to tell you the title of a given Gas track, or even the record it came from; to me, the project's pleasure has always been the way it muddies distinctions not only between individual sounds but even tracks and albums. It's an infinitely repeatable process, a way of using sound to achieve a certain emotional and perceptual state. (William Basinski's myriad, similar-sounding albums work in much the same way.) For 90 minutes, Voigt—seated in front of a laptop running Ableton Live, but using only one audio channel and limiting his movements to occasional tweaks of a MIDI controller—immersed the audience in a soundworld without edges or boundaries. Occasionally discreet notes would emerge—the slow flare of bassy horns, or the satisfying sound of a fifth dropping to its root—but overall the impression was of blurring to the point of dissipation. Even in Gas tracks employing a dull, thudding kick drum, there are no beginnings or endings; unraveling a given strand would be like trying to tug a thread from cotton candy, or the Turin Shroud.
If the venue didn't quite transmit the promised forest vibe, no matter: Voigt's visuals did. For the duration of the performance, a series of hypnotic videos translated Voigt's molecular concept into spindly shapes flashed in black, red and silver. Branches and leaves—whether "real" or computer generated, who knew—twisted in a slow jumble of limbs and fringe; leaves and veins blew in and out of focus as surely as Gas' strings dissolved into a yellow-noise rattle, only to reappear as swollen roots sucking life from the bass below. As the forms spun, wraithlike, they begged the question: What moves them, wind, or algorithms? The music asked something similar by doing the near impossible: taking music, perhaps the most time-based artform of all, and scrubbing it of all cause and effect until only a resonant wash of perpetual motion remained.