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On October 11 and 12, Latvia’s finest Skanu Mezs festival (Sound Forest) took place for its 17th edition. With it, directors Rihards T. Endriksons and Viestarts Gailitis keep pushing the boundaries of experimental and contemporary music. They both are well-regarded cultural journalists in Latvia, whose knowledge and musical sensibilities have always made the programming of this festival so particular and attractive. Furthermore, they don’t permit themselves to get comfortable with a successful formula by selecting artists for a wider audience. As a matter of fact, it makes them very happy to see that their audience is ready to go with them along with a more difficult selection of contemporary music.

Over the years, they have built a reputation for both the audience but also a word-of-mouth between artists – thus, many contemporary acts and avant-garde composers want to perform at this festival. People like Michael Gira from Swans, Aaron Dilloway aka Wolf Eyes, Manonmars feat. O$VMV$M, Alvin Lucier, Lucy Railton, Patten, and Terrence Dixon among others made a special set for Skanu Mezs this year.

Unlike past editions, this is the first time the festival takes place in the beautiful, newly renovated old train station at Hanzas Perons. “Since the music is already confrontational enough, we said, let’s at least make the environment comfortable”, the directors explained, who also run the EU-financed project Shape, a roster of artists for innovative music and audio-visual art where anyone from the European Union – or working in the EU – can apply. As they like to say, “your taxes matter.”

The two-night festival broke his attendance record this year. About two thousand people experienced this unique opportunity to watch live performances from such a special array of contemporary musicians. Whether these artists are more academic-oriented composers, disruptive or innovative, Skanu Mezs states that they are always looking for adventurous music and art. A one-stage only concert hall with performances never exceeding the fifty minutes, that’s it. Nineteen artists took over the stage this year, and here are some highlights from what we’ve experienced.
W started with violinist Irvine Arditti (b. 1953), who began his studies at The Royal Academy of Music at the age of sixteen and joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1976, becoming a co-concert master at the age of twenty-five. Another artist who has also worked in London but with the Contemporary Orchestra is Chaines, a Manchester-based multi-instrumentalist whose performance was one of the most acclaimed of the night.

American legend Michael Gira – best-known for his role as the founder of avant-garde rock band Swans, and how doesn’t like much performing under his solo name – presented an emotionally intense acoustic solo show, which offered a glimpse of some known works on their initial form. He has done some solo shows, but this performance was a very rare one. After him, White Suns took over the concert hall. The Brooklyn noise trio delivered a brutal blend of hardcore punk with vocalist Kevin Barry throwing some spoken vocals and screaming with an electronic feedback. A rather chaotic yet controlled performance.

Swedish electronic composer Daniel Rozenhall, who had worked with the record label Fylkyngen in Stockholm, did not perform. Instead, he presented his work with various synthesizers, concrete sound sources, and electroacoustic landscapes as the audio of the visual work of Swedish graphic designer and audio-visual artist Sten Backman.
“This festival is fantastic, very well organized, very good atmosphere. We are very happy to be here”, told us Rozenhall in-between concerts. “Our show is all pre-recorded. We have done several films like this for five years and we presented two works here: Dance of the Aberrant was a premier performance, brand new work. We also presented some work from my latest LP, Den Förföljdes Gryning, which we presented throughout Asia last year with a project called LLLSD (Lab for Life-Long Sound Dysfunctions). This is not a band but us touring together with other two Swedish artists, which was showcased around China, Macau, Taiwan, Okinawa and Thailand”, he concluded.

“I’m glad to be here, the festival is fabulous, we are very surprised there are so many people. We live in Stockholm, and in events like this, there are very few people attending”, observed Backman. “For years, I’ve looked for visuals. What I do for Daniel is a need to find things which visually wow me. I use 3D objects with points and track codes, and I play around with them; it’s a plugging for After Effects, and then I destroy it with Cinema 4D and back to After Effects. It is like a journey, coincidence and choice, like Francis Bacon. A beautiful way to work. I try to surprise myself firstly,” he explained.

The closure of the night was held by the Detroit psychedelic minimal techno act by Terrence Dixon, sometimes playing under his Population One moniker. For his show, he used three Roland 303 at the same time – not the classic unit but the ‘90s reedition – whilst wearing his Tresor t-shirt, the legendary techno label where he has released some of his recent work among Metroplex in Berlin. He describes his techno as “forward-thinking ghetto electronics". As a curiosity, guess what was his hotel’s room number? You guessed it: 303. Bingo!
Lucy Railton was one of the brightest stars on the second day. She performed solo with electronics but also with her cello – a beautiful electroacoustic show. “I'm very happy to perform here, the darkness and ambience during my solo show turned out more poetic than I ever thought”, she told us. Railton is a cellist working with modern instrumentalism, hard-edged electronic compositions and expressive musique concrète. Since 2008, she has been a dedicated member of London’s new music scene. She’s also an artist from the Shape platform. Alvin Lucier played after her what probably was his last gig. At his 88 years old, he needed a wheelchair to come on stage – unfortunately, Lucier broke his back a few months ago. Nevertheless, he wanted to attend Skanu Mezs, and the organizers couldn't be happier to have him.

Aaron Dilloway aka Wolf Eyes delivered a sick performance of experimental noise using analogue units, passing his voice through eight-track tape loops and vintage echos whilst screaming and making spasmodic movements on a chair. A true legend. The night continued with Manonmars featuring duo O$VMV$M – they are all members of the Bristol-based collective Young Echo. Despite Richardson moving to London, he keeps collaborating with producer duo Amos Childs (Jabu and Sam Barrett, aka Neek, who performed at Glastonbury this year).

They define their sounds as smoked-out ambient, which together with Richardson’s dark approach to the classic swagger that nods to current rap styles but a greater poetic style of observation – “I’m having fun in this festival. We are delighted to be here. It is cool. Our flight was a little bit delayed so, unfortunately, we didn’t get to see everything but so far so good. The venue is very interesting, I like how they are still remittances of how it used to be before it was refurnished. Tonight, we presented some tracks from the project we released together Manonmars and O$VMV$M last year, but we got some other music to share as well.” Another British act followed. 

The London-based project Patten – an artist of the Shape platform – is renewed for his hi-tech, immersive A/V shows and multi-platform approach, and whose new album is out via his own new label 555-5555 – after publishing EPs and LPs with Warp in 2017. His show didn’t disappoint. A complete set for an A/V experience combining moving laser beams with film work. "The Shape Platform run of shows has been cool. The timing with Flex, the new album, coming out was perfect. This show was crazy. Sick production team and up-for-it crowd. All the sets were all-time, from Alvin Lucier to Lucy Railton, Terrence Dixon to Manonmars. Epic programming. It was a special one for sure”, Patten concluded.

Just a bit earlier, we sat with festival directors Viestarts Gailitis and Rihards T. Endriksons to go a bit more in-depth about this year's edition and also get to know the mechanics of the festival after these seventeen years.
It’s been seventeen years since you first started Skanu Mezs. How did the initial idea come about?
Rihards: Very simple: we started to do it for ourselves.
Viestarts: Initially, the idea was not to have a festival but a one-night show. This was in the 2000s, and we liked these music concrète composers and avant-garde electronic music. We didn’t have much money and we found a theatre on the other side of the river in Riga. People were very curious about it, but I would’ve never imagined that it would end up as a festival because of the excessive paperwork. Of course, there were many people interested in this kind of events we really didn’t have here.
So you never imagined yourselves with this festival seventeen years later.
Viestarts: No, definitely not.
I think you both are former cultural journalists, right?
Rihards: That’s right. Viestarts did politics as well, but not me.

Seventeen years is a lot of time for a music festival. Just focusing on this edition, what would you say are some milestones you have achieved?
Viestarts: We have built some reputation and some connections have become more institutionalized. We know more about music festivals now.
Rihards: That’s easy. Last year was the most commercially successful edition in ten years at least, and this year, we sold even more tickets. So this year was the most successful edition – commercially speaking at least. There was an important experiment with that. Previously, it was more easily approachable to get to a wider audience and so it would be more friendly. We could’ve done the same this year, and in theory, we could repeat last year’s commercial success – but then, that’s not the mission of an experimental music festival at all. So let’s see if the same number of people would come to a slightly more difficult programme. I don't know if you agree, but we think this year was a bit more difficult for a wider listener.
I can agree with that. Please describe what is less friendly to a wider listener for you?
Rihards: I don’t mean unfriendly, but it gives you a little more to chew on, pushing it a little further. After these last years, there were people who said that this festival was very nice and that they liked it was going to a wider audience. But also, there were other people who said that this could be even tougher – and we can always go tougher (laughs). So it is very encouraging to hear that your audience is ready to go with you along with a more difficult journey, that’s great. That is absolutely the thing I ever wanted to hear.
As a matter of fact, this year, the festival took place in a much bigger venue and it was pretty much sold out, so it looks like you have succeeded big time.
Rihards: Indeed, we sold more than last year. Perhaps it was kind of organic to move to a bigger venue. Also, the people who wanted to socialize outside of the concert hall, in that venue they didn’t have a lot of space; they were elbow to elbow. And here, you have – I would say – too much room to breath. But that’s better anyway.
Viestarts: We were always trying to switch venues. We first found these old factories, but since there were some sort of sound or safety issues – like a venue freezing in October –, we decided to go for venues which are more comfortable. Since the music is already confrontational enough, we said, let’s at least make the environment comfortable. You don’t find these kind of factories anymore. We moved from the other principal place to do the festival on the other side of the river, closer to everybody.

After these many years, you’ve worked on a reputation for the festival. And because of it, I believe more artists want to be a part of the line-up, am I right?
Rihards: There are some people whom we’ve tried to bring to the festival for many years, it is a no-brainer to get them. Like Aaron Dilloway, he’s a family man. When we asked him to come over… His wife travels a lot too, so he coordinates his plans with hers and consolidates them according to his family. It’s been like that for seven years until we finally did it. Same thing with Michael Gira, who in 2011 toured with Swans – although I’ve always personally preferred the acoustic show because he brings the songs to the foreground. So we wanted to do this for the last seven years, of course, and he finally came this time.
Also, we have a list of people who are relevant in their respective fields. Let’s say, within contemporary music, we have a list of composers, people who haven’t come to the festival because it overlaps with some other good festivals in Europe. You always have this idea that nobody knows the festival, but it seems like more and more artists do. I would say we achieved some sort of reputation in contemporary music, seriously, since 2015.
Viestarts: We’ve never been part of the established culture but not entirely underground either, so people are more open to this, I believe. And that’s nice. We respect them for being around these many years. Like good wine, when things age well, the relationships with the city, press, etc. become nicer. We really appreciate people getting interested in what we do.
Do you see more international crowd attending the festival in the following years?
Viestarts: I don’t know if that’s possible. I’m aware some festival in Berlin or Krakow, for instance, get some. It depends on many things, like how easily people from abroad can get to Riga. From Northern Europe it’s kind of easy, but maybe it’s not the same if you have to fly from Spain. I would love that, but it’s hard. We don’t have an aim to hit a number of visitors. The main thing is to make a good programme out of our limited budget. We have some people visiting from abroad though.
I guess you look for both academic and non-academic artists?
Rihards: When we started to invite people like Michael Finnissy or James Dillon, we got into more difficult academic stuff, but it’s not really much of a topic for us. Here’s the deal: with difficult and more experimental academic music, maybe there is more money sometimes because of the commissions. Otherwise, contemporary music in an academic sense is a subculture as much as improvised music or noise.
When they come together, they can make an event that works. Our selection is very intuitive in that sense – subjectively, you have priorities; you know those five people you have to have. Along the year, you keep thinking, and sometimes you find a sort of revelation artist. This year, Viestarts asked, do you know this guy Daniel Rozenhall? I hadn’t even heard of him. I listen to music when I work, and for this record, I had to stop everything and took it all in. That’s how you accidentally end up booking someone.

In addition to Skanu Mezs festival, you also founded the Shape platform. Could you please tell us more about it – what is it about, why did you start it and what are some of its main goals?
Rihards: Shape is an EU-financed project that stretches from 2015 until 2021. The idea is for sixteen festivals to come together. We have Unsound, CTM and smaller ones, and we all come together and throw in four artists and we all vote. You end up with a selection of forty-eight artists who got a ‘yes’ from the sixteen festivals, like a collage vision. For instance, this year, we got these artists Lucy Railton, Chaines and Patten from Shape. It is like a roster of artists. Each festival has to program nine artists out from these forty-eight. You never know, some artists may get one gig and others nine.
This year, we got nearly a thousand applications. It was a lot of work. We split the list in sixteen parts, and even like that, it’s an application we decide whether we want it or not. There is a rule: we need to select at least one artist from the applications, which we did. It is for EU artists only, but they can be originally from any other country and be based in a European city/country – basically, a person who lives and pays taxes in the EU. Your taxes matter (laughs).
Last one: what are you guys more proud of from this year’s edition?
Rihards: I don’t mean to make myself sound very serious, not self-important, but I’ve been thinking critically about what we do here very often. Sometimes, in my head, I judge our events harshly. But this year, it was so good! I think that the harsher choices we made paid off. I really enjoyed the rougher concerts. I don’t think it scared the audience away at all. Actually, quite the contrary, I believe. We got Alvin Lucier – what a legend! –, and it probably was his last gig in Europe (or ever); he’s 88 now. A few months ago, he broke his back and he’s still here at it. When you do what you like, you just do it for the thing that you did.

Words and portraits
Víctor Moreno
Stage photos
Arturs Pavlovs

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