A few weeks ago, as I entered the Chicago Cultural Center, enormous waves of pulsating sound began to engulf me. The closer I got to the third floor, the stronger and louder they grew, and as I approached Preston Bradley Hall, the sounds practically reached into my core, vibrating my whole body.

Under the venerable Tiffany dome of the Hall (the largest stained glass dome in the United States), most of the floor space had been left open. Some of the audience was strewn about the floor in various positions, others stood, walked or swayed to the trance-inducing sounds which emerged in rhythmic variations as a slender musician manipulated a laptop. He occasionally interrupted this process to walk over to a drum set and play along.

It was José Rosello from Spain, aka Faraón, performing as part of Barcelona’s Sónar Experimental Music Festival that came to Chicago in mid-September. Sónar has been held annually in Barcelona since 1994, and held parallel events outside Spain since 2002, but it came to this country only last year. Ours is the third city (after Washington and NYC) in the USA to have hosted the prestigious event.

After his set, Rosello explained that he has always loved seventies’ drone, folk ambient mantra and kraut rock (a la Popol Vuh, for example), so when he developed his solo project (after ten years as a drummer and co-composer with the pioneer experimental music group 12Twelve from Spain), he became interested in creating a music of varied-colored tones, that would not be nearly as perfect as those that can be emitted by the laptop. Rather, he incorporates diverse frequencies from a synthesizer, as well as environmental sounds within textured, organic layers. When I told him that the music had seemed so luminous as to have had a practically shamanic, cleansing effect on me as lay on the carpet, he responded happily that he indeed had chosen the name Faraón because he wanted to build enormous and light-filled sonic structures, much like the huge pyramids had been built by Pharaohs in adoration of the sun.

Immediately afterwards, I dropped in at the Claudia Cassidy Theater to check out Bradien, An Argentinean quartet based in Barcelona. In addition to playing the laptop, the musicians in Bradien played a number of instruments live, including guitar, trumpet, bass, percussion, drums and unexpectedly, the melodica (a keyboard instrument that is played by blowing through a mouthpiece) and the glockenspiel (a melodic percusión instrument not unlike the xylophone). Bradiens´ played their light, pop and folk-tinged sonic collages while a VJ projected images behind them that looped and repeated in cycles. One of my favorites was a family on a terrace: two young boys about nine and ten jumping about, and one little girl, slightly younger, who danced around. The images had a fifties look, and combined with the melody, evoked a gentle nostalgia, equally tinged with delight and regret. It was not unlike one’s favorite childhood memories, the kind we like to replay over and over again.

Matias Rossi, Bradien´s bass player, told me afterwards that each image was an integral part of their musical creations, and that their compositions sometimes even took off from sets of images they had liked. He described their musical vision as being in a slightly undefinable space, somewhere in the middle of many tendencies – a little bit of pop but certainly more adventuresome, somewhat folk, but with an experimental and electronic panache, neither totally retro, not futuristic but at the same time a bit of both – a musical Rorschach that allows each listener to interpret the music from his or her own point of view. He laughs that the phrases that have been used to describe their music (which they have collected and put on their website) prove just how differently each listener perceives their music.

I went to several more of Sónar’s concerts, and marvelled at the boundless results of creating without rules while harnessing the nearly infinite power of the laptop. From its earliest history, Barcelona has been home to rebels and anarchists, and with Sónar, we had a taste of its most wondrous exports of musical freedom.

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