Behind the Scenes at Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp

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SF Weekly
Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp with Carl Craig, Francois K, Suzanne Kraft, Morton Subotnick
Victoria Theater // Public Works // Monarch
Saturday, Feb. 22-Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014

"Alright, I'm going to put on a record here, it's one of your first remixes," said XLR8R editor Shawn Reynaldo from the stage as he cued up a song. I was at the Victoria Theater and Reynaldo was interviewing New York dance music legend François K. He pressed play, and the disco zaniness of Musique's "In the Bush" momentarily shook the room. The crowd was a rowdy who's-who of local party faces and assorted heads. The reason for the occasion? Red Bull Music Academy's "Bass Camp," a regional preview/symposium for the energy drink company's yearly academy that's slated for Tokyo later this year.

It might seem strange to get excited over a cultural marketing program. However, RBMA has established itself as something of a good example in this regard. Since its founding in the late '90s, it's served as a center for deep information on all things related to electronic dance music and electronic music in general -- in fact, it's sometimes easy to forget that RBMA is even tied to the energy drink company that bears its name. Its lectures and discussions (video archives of which are accessible online) are a useful resource that have helped to ensure that the knowledge of the past is easily available and on hand for the future. (Full disclosure: I've written a few features for RBMA's online magazine.)

Like the yearly academy, the bass camp is a mostly exclusive event. For this year's edition, 30 some-odd people were invited from the West Coast for an all expenses paid trip to San Francisco for lectures, partying, and time spent in a number of makeshift studios set up at the Hotel Zetta downtown. My girlfriend, Avalon Emerson, was invited to participate, which meant I was allowed access to much of the closed-door activities.

Following the lecture, I headed to Public Works with a group of friends. Our destination was an RBMA-sponsored event featuring Francois K., Carl Craig, Suzanne Kraft, and a long list of local spinners. We arrived early, around 10:30 p.m., to try and beat the line. The feeling inside was muted, with the main room support spinning glossy tech-house bangers to an uncongealed dancefloor. Meanwhile, Avalon Emerson warmed up the loft with a more welcoming run of disco-inflected house tracks, like Sound Stream's recent "SSOL 001 A1" and a percussive edit of Yello's "Bostich."

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Her set built a mood and a crowd, which faded naturally into the more meditative explorations of Austin Cesear. He played a short live performance, bobbing his head as he stood perched in front of a worn assembly of gear covered in knobs, faders, switches, and buttons. The music he played was reminiscent of the texturally dense work on There's a Crack in Everything, his recent EP on Anthony Naples' Prohibito label. I'm not generally a fan of gear-laden performances in a club context -- they're too rigid, they lack the interaction and subliminal dialog of DJ sets -- but I've enjoyed Cesear just about every time I've heard him. It's nostalgic but not derivative, recalling a strange mixture of house sounds filtered through the washed-out expanse of dub-techno.

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The big letdown of the night came in the form of François K's set. I ought to preface this by saying I'm a huge fan of his: When I visit New York, I schedule my flights around Deep Space, his Monday night residency at Cielo. At those events he combines his house and disco catalog with selections pulled from Jamaican dub-inspired genres like dub-techno, jungle, bass, and UK dubstep. Part of the fun of that party is in the way he connects these wildly disparate elements together. That combinatory aspect was missing from his set on Saturday, which instead was comprised almost entirely of wobbling and crunchy dubstep. This prompted quite a few quizzical looks from dancers who had to cope with the difficult transition into the genre's lurching rhythms. I imagine it was more confusing considering that he'd just given an hour-long interview that focused on his career as a disco remixer in the '70s and '80s. It just didn't work, but then again, I'm not a huge dubstep fan, so we went back upstairs to dance to the full-throttle house sounds of Ghosts on Tape.

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From there, we split our time between the two rooms. Los Angeles DJ Suzanne Kraft took the reigns in the loft and went in a more cosmic direction, mixing the noodling synthesizers of Soft Rocks "Drums" with classic deep cuts like Pépé Bradock's "Deep Burnt." In the main room, Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig picked up the energy and laid it out for prime time with a barrage of drums and futuristic synthesizers that flowed through expertly timed peaks and valleys. A friend, who was in the throes of some kind of euphoria, kept babbling, "intentional valley leads to intentional peak, intentional valley leads to intentional peak." Perhaps there's some wisdom in his sentiments. Craig's programming was teasing in all the right ways -- it was like a well-designed roller coaster ride. He'd recede to bare instrumental tracks and then drop the crowd into a screaming thrill with recognizable vocal cuts like Inner City's "Good Life" and Octave One's "Black Water."

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Then I was at the Hotel Zetta at 3 a.m. Though the hour was late, the studios were still active, with participants working on tracks late into the morning. It was a little bit of an after party, with people drinking Jack Daniels and eating cold pizza . Each room had a different feeling -- you could walk down the hallway and sample different sounds. In the span of 30 minutes I heard abrasive house, bass-tinged R&B, and almost pop-oriented vocal work. In said R&B room, Mr. Carmack, a Honolulu producer, ad-libbed a funked-out bass riff beneath a sighing vocal hook that repeated, "Catch me when I'm coming down." On his computer screen the Ableton arrangement was like a never-ending wall of multi-colored bricks. "This song is like when you've had so many orgasms that you can't have any more," said someone who was listening along.

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My alarm woke me up at 11 a.m. the next day. Still disheveled from the night before, I made my way to join the group at Monarch for what would be the final lecture in the series: an analog synthesis workshop with performances by Carl Craig and electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick. Of these it was Subotnick's that stuck with me. Reynaldo was back again interviewing him, and the discussion explored the early days of synthesizer technology in the 1950s. Subotnick explained his role in the genesis of the Buchla synthesizer, one of the first modular analog systems. He spoke of the ecstasy of synchronization due to perfect rhythms generated by machines. Then, he sat down at a desk with a modern Buchla analog system -- a Jackson Pollock-esque mess of patch cords -- and proceeded to give a performance that included excerpts from his 1967 piece Silver Apples of the Moon. It was otherworldly. And, for a moment, during a washing machine-like rhythmic passage, I understood the feeling of rhythmic ecstasy he tried to explain. I'm fairly sure everyone in the room did.

-- @derekopperman



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