In its first week, the Red Bull Music Academy Tokyo has treated local audiences to a wide gamut of sounds, from hip-hop to deep house to noise, while keeping the capital’s billboards comprehensively smothered in advertising. The two-day EMAF Tokyo (Electronic Music of Art Festival), held under the auspices of the academy last weekend, offered an opportunity to take stock, catch performances by a few RBMA participants, and ponder an awkward question: Could all that promotional muscle convince listeners to drop ¥6,000 on a lineup of largely unfamiliar names?
It’s no coincidence that the most expensively priced gig happening during the RBMA was also its most patchily attended. While Saturday’s event managed to pack in a decent crowd, lured by the likes of Luke Vibert and Lone, on Sunday the venue had the forlorn feel of a seaside resort during the off-season — or, worse, a music industry trade show. It didn’t help that the organizers of established electronic fest Taico Club were throwing a party of their own in Shibuya on the same day, competing for the attention of an already select audience. But the lack of well-known Japanese acts on the bill also probably put a dent in the attendance figures (even if it spared us some of the milquetoast main-stage offerings seen at EMAF last year).
Aside from DJ sets by Ametsub and Tomad, the only homegrown artist who merited a slot in the main room this year was producer Kyoka, and she proved to be one of the highlights. Maybe it helped that she was playing earlier in the day, making it easier for her to shrug off the demand for something vaguely danceable. Bobbing around onstage to a rhythm that wasn’t always immediately apparent, she maintained the tempo of conventional techno while rearranging the familiar landmarks into an array of distant, filtered throbs and crackle. Even when the beats got more straightforward later on, she kept introducing disruptive elements; at one point, it felt like listening to early-1990s rave on a cheap stereo while an elephant moved furniture in the room upstairs.
Holly Herndon’s performance afterward was just as juicy. The Stanford University doctoral candidate injects some weighty themes into her music — witness recent tracks “Voice” (culled from samples collected during her daily online browsing) and “Home” (her break-up song with the NSA). So there was something very apt about her pairing with VJ Akihiko Taniguchi, himself a master of articulating digital discord. While Herndon transmuted her vocal gasps and sighs into great blossoms of sound, Taniguchi responded by cluttering the backdrop screens with swarms of banal household products: boxes of washing powder, cling film, tissues and Amazon deliveries.
On Sunday, the undisputed highlight came from James Holden’s headline set, which bestowed a sense of grandeur that had otherwise been largely absent during the day. While so much live electronic music can — literally — feel like an exercise in button pushing, Holden embraced chaos, wresting sounds from an imposing, wire-strewn modular synthesizer that only intermittently yielded to his control. Tracks from last year’s excellent “The Inheritors” album assumed an even more feral, unhinged feel here: This was music that sucked you right into the guts of the machine.
In the upstairs rooms, the lineup mixed RBMA participants with a selection of Japanese artists corralled by local labels Flau (consistent) and Kilk Records (less so). Daisuke Tanabe, himself an RBMA graduate, fought off a hangover to provide one of the standouts. Bearing a passing similarity to Yosi Horikawa, another RBMA alum, his live set was restlessly inventive without getting exhausting, all shimmering, penumbral tones and feather-touch grooves. Well, except for the sudden detour into full-throttle breakcore during the closing stretch — a brazen, brilliant surprise.
Elsewhere, a prevailing sense of tastefulness, especially on the second day, meant that the sonic outliers often left the strongest impressions. Blackphone666’s searing noise performance and Foodman’s primitive groovebox stomps brought welcome relief from the wan trip-hop being proffered by some of their peers. Meanwhile, instrumental quartet SjQ elicited widespread confusion with what sounded like a traditional jazz band wired into a malfunctioning computer algorithm, spitting out blurts of trombone and guitar seemingly at random. If it was perhaps a little too clever for its own good, it was preferable to the follow-up set by Networks, one of the better-known acts here, who wielded technical virtuosity to drag Steve Reich-style minimalism down to the melodic level of Yanni.
In this company, some of the RBMA participants really shone. I’m still kicking myself for missing Greek producer Larry Gus’ (reportedly brilliant) live turn, but Danish DJ Courtesy and producers Christian Kroupa (Slovenia) and Ah! Kosmos (Turkey) all impressed. With their fellow attendees cheering them on, these performances had a warm, collegial feel. Most of Tokyo may have stayed at home, but it was good to know that someone cared.