The beauty and the beats of RBMA 2016

The Red Bull Music Academy touched down in Montreal this year and among the innovators putting the musicians through their paces were Thundercat, Tune-Yards and Björk

Every year, the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) takes over a city for four weeks of concerts, exhibitions and conferences, with this year’s venue being the Canadian music capital Montreal.

For just over four weeks, a group of musicians, split into two teams and helped by mentors and experts, live and work together in purpose-built studios in the part of the city called Old Montreal.

During my three-day stint there, those dropping by include Thundercat, Dorian Concept, Pauline Oliveros, Tune-Yards and Björk. During the day, visiting artists give lectures and have Q&A sessions with the RBMA residents, while at night they fill the city's venues and clubs – and even its Olympic Pool and planetarium – with music, arty inspiration and experimentation. Björk, of course, takes things a step further with a virtual reality exhibition.

Here’s what we learned at this edition of the RBMA.

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Communication is key

At previous RBMAs, musicians had plenty of questions about gear and the technical aspects of making music. In Montreal, there are few questions about production tricks, but plenty about communication – and specifically how to work with other musicians.

Many of the RBMA participants, selected through a rigorous application process, have made their music in “bedroom studios”, and while the work is accomplished, their actual time and experience spent working in a room with other musicians can be limited.

In the pre-digital-music age, most musicians came up through the ranks by playing in a band and spent a long time working through tunes with other players. They tended to have very little focus on tweaking the finer points of a sound or instrument in a studio environment. The emphasis has now shifted.

Out of the studio

High-quality studio equipment, or the digital version of it, is now available for a fraction of its previous price, so the role of the traditional studio is being ever eroded. Thundercat says he loves getting out of the studio and doesn’t seem to regard it as the best environment for making music.

Björk says she thinks her voice is probably at its best when she is hiking the hills of Iceland. “I got my laptop in 1999 and it liberated me from the studio,” she says. “I could do 99 per cent of the music in my bedroom.”

“Sometimes I think I can sing the best when I’m out walking. I want to make recording facilities that I can take with me on my hikes. Though you don’t want to have to carry that shit on your shoulders while you are singing.”

Merrill Garbus, aka Tune-Yards, is of a similar mindset. “What’s hard about a studio is I know what I need to get done and watching the minutes tick down; I find that’s not conducive to creativity,” she says.

Instead, for their latest record, Garbus and her partner Nate Brenner got some equipment together and decamped to “a cottage in California, and that’s where I get my inspiration: from the sea”.

Building your practice

Many of the artists at the RBMA discuss in detail the steps they have taken to improve their playing or their practice.

“My voice was my primary instrument but for a long time that wasn’t a legitimate instrument compared with playing drums or piano,” says Garbus. “I didn’t feel like I had a fluency or legitimacy based on singing my whole life. Ukulele was one of the first instruments that drew songs out of me. It was less about the ukulele and more about it giving me a framework for songs.”

She also describes how she spends a long time taking lessons and learning from others, from Haitian voodoo rhythms to voice training. Early on she was told she was “using my voice wrong and I might not have a voice left” when she got older. It was an inaccurate diagnosis but it sparked a curiosity; she now takes classical voice lessons to better understand how her voice works.

Björk discusses similar approaches and how getting lessons initially seemed to go against her early punk ethos, but it has enabled her to open fresh musical territory, particularly as she has got older and her voice has changed.

All of this work should lead to better music, but there is a more fundamental reason for Garbus. “If I don’t have my practice, then I’m floating on this wind of other people’s desires of me versus placing myself in my artistic practice, which is totally new for me as a concept.”

Workshops

Two impromptu workshops happen during the Q&A sessions I attend. Merrill Garbus makes everyone stand up, place their hands on their stomachs so they can feel their breathing, and very gently move their hips in a circular motion. It might look like an antenatal class, but it helps relax and warm up muscles the length of the body that are crucial to performance.

Electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros takes things a step further, with an example of her “deep listening” techniques. She describes it as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing”.

As practised in the room, it means calming your mind to an almost meditative state and observing sounds as they occur. On a more everyday basis, it means listening to the world on a deeper level all the time, to improve your perception of sound, people and their behaviour, and the world at large.

That might sound vague and cultish, but even the small exercise Oliveros conducts at her RBMA session shows how perceptions can be sharpened with the smallest amount of focus and how an open-minded change in approach can be revelatory.

The Deep Listening Institute (DLI), which promotes the approach worldwide, is based in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US. The name, though, has less academic beginnings: Oliveros came up with it after making a series of recordings in an underground water cistern.

Music as activism

Oliveros isn't the only one taking a radical approach in her music, sometimes with philosophical or political points to make beyond the music. Merrill Garbus has a monthly show on RBMA Radio called Collaborative Legions of Artful Womxn (Claw).

“It’s been tough from a logistical point of view. The whole premise is women rappers with woman beat makers. It’s been tough to corral people because I think we are all in our own thing, but we feel the value in this collaboration,” she says.

She contacts individual women artists and arranges for them to work together and the results are then broadcast on Claw. "It's about who is not being heard," she says. "It's not about being exclusionary; it's about listening with wider and bigger ears and listening some more."

Less cynicism

Perhaps this is purely my own cynicism, but speaking to the artists at the RBMA, it’s surprising how often spirituality comes up in conversations.

Oliveros reckons that “listening is a spiritual path. The more you listen, the more you learn and the more you can put yourself into someone else’s part. So the more you listen, the less it is about you.”

Garbus says her approach each day is to “worship the creative process. I put my offerings on that table. I say my prayers to the creative gods. Get spiritual about this stuff. Be of service to this thing, the artist’s way. Honour the creative process as something that is valuable. It’s part of being a human, it’s my way of understanding what it is to be on this planet.”

Björk’s music and performance have been tapping into this for decades.

“I’m not exactly a dancer but I know there are certain movements that when they go really simple, they go shamanistic and they can be an entry point into the emotion [of a song],” she says.

“What I’m always trying to do is unite the music and the physical and the spiritual and the emotional. It’s a very ambitious task and once in a while that happens. They all line up and some liberation happens and you get to lose all the luggage and you get to continue the journey.

“Those movements are really simple, really ancient like yoga. They are like keys to your body and something quite spiritual and primordial. If you do the right rhythm, which music is about, it’s like a mantra that you repeat and repeat and repeat and it receives its magic. And you can go to the next level.”

Pointillist trance

At the RBMA you hear all sorts of new and fantastic sounds, but our favourite genre comes from the brilliant and hilarious Lorenzo Senni. His music seems to build endlessly without ever loading the obvious drop, keeping his audience in a prolonged state of mild euphoria.

To do this, he says: “I started with the shortest sound ever. The process was just opening the envelope a little so I could hear the note. This was my starting point. I realised that if I had a very short sound, the shortest sound that satisfies me, then I have more room to open up. So I started calling it pointillist trance.”