When it comes to music, Patti Schmidt has never sought out the next big thing; she’d rather discover the next great thing, and then share it with the world. The former Brave New Waves host and current MUTEK programmer/artistic and content developer has spent years digging up and diffusing some of the best emergent electronic artists from around the world, then bringing them to Montreal as part of the infamously innovative festival. We met up with Schmidt to discuss music, festival life and her must-sees at MUTEK 2017.
What was your relationship with music like before you embarked on a career in the industry?
From a really young age, my mom was a big music fan, so I came to understand at a young age the personal power music could have in someone’s life. When I was 12 or 13, I would start exploring her record collection. At that point I was only familiar with Top 40 radio – Bay City Rollers, the disco explosion, all that stuff.
When I was about 15 or 16 everything started to shift. There was this program on TV called The New Music that was starting to show videos by Duran Duran and Cabaret Voltaire, all this culture I was completely confused by growing up in the suburbs. Then I started to discover that college radio existed – a whole world of secret sounds and late night radio. I was fascinated with what was contemporaneous, like punk rock, new wave and synth pop. It felt like music was this gateway drug to a whole world I hadn’t yet been exposed to.
How did you wind up working in festivals?
Brave New Waves would always play a lot of electronic music before there was a bigger audience for that kind of thing. MUTEK’s precursor was called The Media Lounge, which was also started by [MUTEK founder and director] Alain Mongeau. Brave New Waves started collaborating with him, taping concerts and airing them. I’d always collaborated with various festivals, but MUTEK was amongst my favourites. I had many revelations about my own body relative to music, and about what live electronic music means… it was a big shift for me.
From the very beginning, I had been aware of what was going on, participating in the programming and sometimes giving my advice. When Brave New Waves ended, I went and did a Masters in Art History and Communications. Right in the middle of that degree, I was invited to go join the MUTEK programming team. So I started by contributing my ideas and lists of things, and my role has evolved ever since.
It takes a ton of work and countless hours to make any festival a success. In your opinion, what part of festival organization makes it all worthwhile?
In order to work in festivals, you have to be interested in event production, which is like climbing a really high peak then falling down the other side. There’s a whole emotional rhythm to that one needs to understand and like.
The payoff is, you make this thing. You walk around the festival and you talk to people, you stand in the crowd and see how things are working… the feeling of all of that. When people are touched or moved by that in some way, or blown away by it, the reward is pretty big. You just have to keep your eye on the prize.
Favourite memory at a show or festival other than the one you work for?
There’s been a lot. In the early or mid-2000s, Atom Heart and Vicente Sanfuentes had to fill in for someone who couldn’t make a show at Métropolis at the last minute. I only found out about the backstory afterwards. Uwe Schmidt (Atom Heart) was like, “I need an 808 [drum machine], a 909 [drum machine] and a 303 [synthesizer],” and so people gathered and found all this stuff, then the two of them improvised this amazing set. It was a real moment of understanding how real time unfolding electronic music made on machines can be so affecting and amazing and musicianly.
In order to work in festivals, you have to be interested in event production, which is like climbing a really high peak then falling down the other side.
What are the most important things to take into consideration when curating a festival?
Well, there’s a balance between trying to give people some familiar names to hook them in, but we’re all about trying to introduce new things and be contemporaneous in our choices. These new, contemporaneous acts are usually the subject of great debate.
You’re always looking to be new and novel, but that needs to be balanced with repeat artists, which we do have at the festival, both younger artists and veterans. With veterans it’s about underlining what great craftsmen or craftswomen they are, and with younger artists, it’s about providing a context to cultivate a high level of practice. There’s not a lot of opportunities for audiovisual or electronic artists in Canada to have access to the kinds of stages MUTEK provides; performing at the festival means really great sound, really great production, big giant screens and an attentive audience. We’ve seen that there are big payoffs for having that kind of stage and using it benevolently.
What should festivals be doing to help support local talent?
Part of the job that Brave New Waves mandated itself to do was to dig. Even before I worked on that program, I knew it had a reputation for cultivating, encouraging and airing music from a lot of new, avant-garde and fringe communities across the country. So the work for me was to always be digging to find all that stuff, then supporting and encouraging the good ones. My aim was to use the power and responsibility I had in a productive and nice way.
MUTEK also mandates itself to do that – half of the content is Canadian or local content. It’s been great because I have a kind of pan-Canadian history with a lot of different music communities throughout the country - they still remember me and I still remember them, and that’s made it possible to draw them into the Mutek orbit, if the genre is appropriate. It’s definitely something we talk about as programmers and it’s really the backbone of everything. It’s the future of the future to care about that stuff.
Who are your must-sees for this year’s edition of MUTEK?
I always want people to see and experience emergent artists, and those who are established but kind of on the cusp. My recommendations tend to be the smaller, more experimental things.
There are two showcases that we collaborated with NTS Radio on called the Don’t Assume showcases, which are on Friday and Saturday at the Wilder Building. We’ve got Beatrice Dillion, who has been on lists of mine for the last couple of years. Space Afrika, Helm and Shit and Shine are also on that bill, as well as Shiva Feshareki, who’s a really intriguing young British composer who does a lot of stuff with turntablism, but does pieces for orchestra as well.
The whole last Sunday night of the festival is also a big favourite. Murcof is going to be doing a spatialized sound version of a soundtrack he did for Patrick Bernatchez’s film Lost in Time. Kara-Lis Coverdale has a commission for us as well. Then it’s a kind of trip around the world with Nicola Cruz, Kuniyuki Takahashi and Africaine 808. So Sunday is always a favourite program we all care about. It’s kind of a landing spot after the exhaustion and craziness and overstimulation of the week.
By Kelly Hurcomb
Photo credit: Elise Sarah Apap Finkelstein (Patti Schmidt) + Trung Dung Nguyen (MUTEK)
The 2017 edition of MUTEK takes place from August 22 to 27. Until August 20, use the promo code PHI_MUTEK when you purchase your tickets to enjoy 15% off (not applicable on reduced price tickets and the SATOSPHÈRE series).