Various venues, Barcelona
18 - 20 July
Each day, it increasingly feels like we’re tumbling towards uncanny valley. At Sónar, where one of the intended headliners, A$AP Rocky, is currently incarcerated in Sweden with Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and Donald Trump working together to ensure his release, this felt especially true.
As it so often does, technology took centre stage at Sónar. Collaborations between artificial intelligence, music and immersive audio-visual experiences led this year’s bill, inviting hundreds of industry-leading experts, artists and performers out to Barcelona for another year of talks, exhibitions, installations and live music.
Opening proceedings was a conversation between Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and longtime collaborator Andrew Melchior. Their work together within Massive Attack is known to reimagine the traditional live performance format. The pair spoke of their early encounters with Magic Leap – a start-up creating 3D VR headsets – and decoded the complex process behind Massive Attack’s Mezzanine project, where Del Naja and Melchior re-purposed the song’s musical DNA into a can of spray paint.
This year’s musical bookings line up with the festival’s theme of futurism. For a Spanish debut, Berlin-based producer Lotic collaborated with A/V artist Emmanuel Biard in a brand new show, where Lotic pummelled through their fractured productions inside a cyclical lighting rig. Up next, Dutch-Iranian electronic pop producer Sevdaliza seamlessly united music and performance art. Her show The Great Hope Design featured a mesmerising ballet dancer, live cellist and dual-screen visuals, all moving in real-time. Venezuelan producer Arca, who recently relocated to Barcelona, played to a home crowd who welcomed her as one of their own. The two-hour performance, created exclusively for Sónar, boasted a flurry of outfit changes, extended stage runways and an oiled-up man in a minotaur mask, carrying her industrial pop sounds to dizzying new heights.
Friday ushered in Holly Herndon and PROTO, the recently-released album that was a collaboration between herself, partner Mat Dryhurst and their AI “child”, Spawn. Herndon, clad in white drapes and stood fiercely centre stage, dove into a set that felt euphoric, even divine. Joined by a small choir, their voices soared over the glitchy electronic underbed – all manipulated by Spawn. The performance offered a curious glance into a potential future where human creativity and automation could live harmoniously, removed from all the kitsch stereotypes that surround the current conversation.
Soon after, Spanish artist Virgen María delivered a show steeped in subversion. As she sat motionless on top of the decks, her face framed by a light halo, she began reciting a prayer. Eyes bleeding and completely naked, she declares to the crowd that she’s “here to bless you… here to sex you.” The set then rolled through a patchwork of electronic music: trap, PC Music, trance and gabber get the crowd warmed up, but it reached a climax with a twisted edit of Daddy Yankee’s genre-defining reggaeton smash, Gasolina. There wasn’t a still body in sight.
Saturday made way for a triumphant performance from Brooklyn composer Kelly Moran. Moran’s free-flowing piano improvisations put everyone under a spell, while marbled rainbow hues swirled around the screens behind her – visuals I later learned were fuelled by her synaesthesia.
Then came the time for Bad Gyal to close my Sónar 2019. As a festival pledged to supporting homegrown talent, it’s hard to think of an artist more equipped for the task. A trailblazer at the vanguard of neo-reggaeton, the Catalonian singer confidently ravaged the stage with her army of dancers and bass-heavy bangers. Pounding dembow beats, dancehall riddims and her signature Auto-Tuned vocals sounded as crisp as they do on record, and 2016 hit Fiebre (or, “fever”) jolted the already-enthusiastic crowd into a state of pure hysteria.
As an institution, Sónar offers a positive glimpse into future worlds. Here, you’re given a space to expand your reach, drink in new ways of thinking and experience the future in real-time. A celebration of innovation, the festival’s commitment to the advancement of music, technology and art at this scale simply remains unrivalled.