Music » Local Music

The blurred crusade


We come not to praise nor bury Movement ’04, symbolically still the most important free — operative word: free — electronic music festival on the planet. Nor to neuter the players who entertained us nearly round the clock for just short of 100 hours during the last weekend of May.

We come to hijack it psychologically, apply revolutionary solutions, then get out of the way and watch them work. We rise up from the underground with a signal that all is (obviously) not right in Detroit’s divisive and tangled dance society. But all is not wrong either. Over a 20-year period, this music community has produced a body of work and a party culture so mythologized as to have created its own imaginary place, a DetroitTechnoland of the mind. It is ephemera with a pulse, flowering into orgiastic human matter during each of the past five festival weekends. The incredible total body count resulting from this transformative mega-party is now in the low millions.

This dreamscape fueled by waves of magnetic sound is the perfect foundation for an outsider festival of epic proportions. It is a treasured destination for some of the freakiest musicians and coolest freaks across all oceans; they know the Detroit vibe instantly, and disappear into it as soon as they hit Techno Boulevard. For locals, it’s the sexiest party the city knows, and not just because it gets hundreds of thousands of people dancing on the riverfront. Movement gets them walking: from Hart Plaza to Greektown, from Greektown to Grand Circus, from Grand Circus to Times Square. Parties abound. A social universe is created and a psychogeographical cityscape emerges, with real people — against the glorious backdrop of Detroit’s arcane and beautiful 1920s architecture — the real stars of the show.

But the truth is that after an initial push of adrenalin that lasted for the first few years, the festival (called the Detroit Electronic Music Festival until 2003) is crashing. Inside the dugout everybody is talking, but on the playing field only organizers Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May are admitting just how close Movement ’04 came to striking out. As the clock ticked close to midnight, loans in the amount of $125,000 had to be secured to pay for insurance and security. Because past debts had to be paid to contractors, sound equipment and stages were only installed within 48 hours of the festival’s launch on Saturday. From those stages, microphone in hand, May “begged” (his word) for money on several occasions throughout the weekend, even interrupting German DJ Barbara Preisinger’s set on the Underground Stage on Sunday to put out his hand. It was desperate and undignified, but we forgave it in the knowledge that it came out of necessity. (On the main stage on the festival’s final night, someone threw some bills — totaling $47 — at May. “This is great, man,” he said. “But we need a lot more if this festival is going to survive.”)

Behind the scenes, people were bitching about the lineup that wasn’t announced until two-and-a-half weeks before the festival; then they bitched some more when the lineup was announced, scant as it was with legitimate headline talent or left-field surprises. The few European artists who were promised money and reimbursements for airfare were nervous about getting paid before flying home. But through it all, the overall mood was surprisingly upbeat: Even the unpaid remained gracious, at least for the moment. People were having fun, which seemed to trump all the angst in the end.

How could we not? People buzzed throughout the weekend about Saturday’s performances on the High Tech Soul Stage, which included Amp Fiddler live and Jaylib, with Peanut Butter Wolf and J-Rocc; a program of back-to-back-to-back celestial house on the Music Institute Stage, courtesy of DJs Kai Alce, Marques Wyatt and Joe Clausell; and Monday’s concluding sets by Recloose, Rolando and Stacy Pullen, who pushed the thousands of dancers who squeezed into the Underground Stage area to the edge of delirium.

The Underground, fittingly, is where most of the highlights were. Circlesquare, an eclectic duo from Vancouver, quietly assaulted your nervous system with haunting, desert-like guitars, programmed beats and dark, soft-spoken vocals; percussionist/vocalist Sal Principato of Liquid Liquid and BMG (space disko innovator Brendan Gillen of Ectomorph) beat down and grooved nonstop for 45 minutes; and various Dutch DJs and producers stood out (Orlando Voorn, Legowelt, Joachim, among them), all beneficiaries of Movement’s most unique sponsorship: a partnership born out of an arts grant written by the Dutch Pop Institute and the city of The Hague.

The oversaturation of after-parties made it impossible to attend but a smattering; thankfully, most were in pedestrian-friendly locations or only a short distance by car. (Bypassing city and state governments, we appeal to the heavens for mass transportation of any kind. Please.)

Some of the best included: Yel 2 at St. Andrew’s, which featured the sublime live ambient technician Biosphere from Norway; on the opposite end, a careening, punishingly loud, live minimal techno set by Rotterdam-based Speedy J; and a decidedly more abstract and crispy live set by Mathew Johnson. The Ghostly International party at the Masonic Temple’s gorgeous Crystal Ballroom ruled. Highlights: live sets from Ann Arbor’s Matthew Dear and a first-ever Detroit appearance by Frankfurt techno duo Alter Ego, who convincingly evoked a post-atomic winter with their clanging sound manipulations.

The most exclusive event had to be an after-after-party Sunday morning at a Greektown loft that included DJs associated with Paxahau — a production and promotions crew that Yel put together — and Helsinki-cum-Berlin superstar Vladislav Delay. The secret was so well kept that fellow Berliner Stefan Betke (aka Pole, co-founder of Scape Records) was surprised to learn that Delay was in Detroit — and also performing a set as his glam/dub/dance alter ego, Luomo, at Times Square Sunday night.

“I had no idea; everybody from Berlin is here,” said Betke, who was speaking from a party at Oslo (on Woodward, not in Norway). Even some of the hardcore who talked their way into the loft party left before Delay’s crunchy, dubwise performance, which kicked off at about the time the sun was rising over the Detroit River.

That sobering image (it’s all relative when the music itself is more psychoactive than any ingestible drug) gives us pause to think about the future of this festival, which needs a dramatic shift in planning and execution if it is to survive.

Organizers need to take cues from Mike Banks of Underground Resistance, who has taken principles of community activism and applied them from the lower Cass Corridor to the Arctic Circle.

Decentralize the festival: Give UR a stage and trust Banks to book it any way he wants; give Minus/Plus 8 a stage and let Rich Hawtin bring out the best of the current Berlin underground; allow Ghostly International, the most ambitious and prolific of all local labels, to plan a program with Cologne’s Kompakt or Traum, labels that should have artist representation at a Detroit electronic music festival. Turn further to the creative left and book more bands that bridge the rock-electronic divide: like Acid Mothers Temple, who were in town a few days before Movement began, Jackie-O Motherfucker, the Krautrock legends Faust, weird American hip-hop trio Clouddead, Erase Errata, Electrelane and more, more, more.

Run workshops. Establish educational seminars for high school and college music students. Coordinate exhibitions of art.

Allow Detroit’s loose constellation of promoters, supporters and online media (,, and, to name but four) to participate in this community project with global reach. The first bleary-eyed meeting should take place June 1 each year, with lineups secured no later than the following March. Tight-lipped central control out of one office (the historically significant, still venerable Transmat) cannot work. The creative capital is here in abundance: Use it or potentially lose it.

How do we do it? We pay for it. Poor frazzled Derrick May is right when he says Movement needs our money to survive. The expectation that cash-strapped Detroit will subsidize the festival again is folly. More than that, it’s vulgar to suggest that public money should be funneled into a weekend of parties — however virtuous and essential to the spirit of the avant-garde — when there is no money.

The festival of the future should be free only to the residents of Detroit. If you live in Hamtramck, Birmingham or Amsterdam, you pay. Most, if not all, supporters of Movement would fork over, say, $10 for a day pass, or $25 for a weekend pass. The logistics would have to be carefully worked through, with organization and communication — two of the weakest links in the Movement brain trust — made paramount. But that is a far less daunting task than going through the same anxious and embarrassing scenarios witnessed at this year’s festival.

The alternative could be no Movement, a diminished electronic music scene, the exodus of more artists from Detroit. A free festival was a capital idea five years ago. Not anymore.

Carleton S. Gholz and Walter Wasacz are freelance writers and members of Paris ’68, a sonic-art collective based in post-historical Detroit. E-mail [email protected]

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