Floating Points Live, November 16th, 2019 at Funkhaus, Berlin
As a venue, Berlin’s Funkhaus palpitates a strange energy that is difficult to pinpoint. Between seemingly abandoned pockets, modern UFO-like structures, perfect studios and concert halls lined in rich parquet and DDR architecture, Funkhaus is an ideal location to see how Sam Shepherd a/k/a Floating Points, has carved a trail through the music scene so swiftly and elegantly. It’s easy to understand when you listen to his latest LP, “Crush,” or if you have the opportunity to see him perform his live act in a place as distinguished as Funkhaus.
On first listening to “Crush” it is impossible to ignore the line Shepherd straddles between classical and dance music. A quick listen to ‘LesAlpx’ followed by ‘Birth’ demonstrates the blurring of this line and Shepherd’s engagement with a subject that has undoubtedly been pondered and argued throughout the past fifty years. The interaction between classical and dance genres increasingly becomes blurry as artists such as Shepherd keep quite literally injecting large amounts of fog into concert halls fit for orchestras.
Upon entering Funkhaus’ Studio One, a gorgeous wooden hall that could be a time capsule into the DDR, my initial reaction was that the space was far too academic and sterile to lend itself to a serious enjoyment of ‘Floating Points’ live set, which is his own words, has been increasingly “chaotic, obtuse [and] strange.” It did not help to arrive at Studio One to an opening set by KIRKIS which most attendees sat through. Though my apprehensions did not necessarily change, and I would undoubtedly prefer to experience ‘Floating Points Live’ in a concrete slab of a hall filled with cigarette smoke, cheap drinks, and an ambiance more suited to the rave that would ensue, I still found myself in an unexpected flurry of headbanging, wild arm movements and foot-stomping as Shepherd delivered blow after blow of the aforementioned “obtuse” music he has been perfecting over the past years with the help of his Buchla system.
In terms of sound quality alone, modular synthesizer-based music is incomparably rich within the electronic music world, but mundanity can be easily found within the silt of each sound. By that I mean the character and timbre of a Buchla, for example, can lull a musician into forgetting about an audience or worse yet the rig can end up doing all the work. That being said, Shepherd did not slip into a dull moment at any point.
Shepherd anchored his set with hits such as ‘ARP3,’ ‘Ratio,’ ‘Nuits Sonores,’ and sprinkled in other tracks from “Crush” while mixing in slews of over-saturated kicks and schizophrenic dynamic work pumping back and forth between fast and slow tempos and quiet and loud volumes. Accompanying him were the oscilloscopic visuals produced by Hamill Industries, which ran in perfect audiovisual sync with Shepherd’s every move. Waves, phoenixes, and spacey ovals were among the abstract visuals presented by the minimalist yet expressive visual team.
Some artists tend to rely heavily upon sequencers and arpeggios which can frequently become generic and overplayed, yet somehow Shepherd and the Buchla he masterfully commands, has a knack for creating fresh and ever-evolving melodies that perfectly match his heavy broken beats, jazzy chords, and dense ambiance.
The performance seemed to progress in three acts, starting with an introduction where Shepherd played some hits and warmed-up the now-standing crowd. A second act that would be best described as Kubrickian oppressive obsidian drone music harkening back to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” if not exactly sonically, thematically. During the second act, Shepherd explored subby kicks, mangled sound design, and a calculated hand in feedback resignation followed by silence. A change in tone ensued beginning with a cutesy melodic microcosm of heartfelt lingering mixed with modular breakbeat synth fetishist percussion and a subtlety within these oxymoronic realms that seems nearly impossible to find. The sheer coordination and experimentation it must take to master a simple yet dexterous modular system to create the complexities within Shepherd’s music is impressive, to say the least.
Act three began on a dark note with no visuals and less energy than act two, a great decrescendo marked by tribalesque flutes which seamlessly erupted in broken beats and an impressively sketchy glitch culmination. At this moment the Hamill Industries team drove the crowd to a climax by introducing the first departure from the oscilloscope visuals, which permeated the show with the quintessential liquid rainbow swirl that has become the latest feature of the Floating Points visual proposition.
Shepherd finished his set by giving an already flagrant crowd something to break down to – that is, a concoction of 140+ BPM drum and bass, UK garage, and techno to culminate the first half of a frenzied night. Sheppard stepped off-stage with a humble bow and a gleaming smile and the crowd teetered out and down the marble lobby of Funkhaus in a daze, not exactly sure what we had experienced.
Featured photo by Dan Medhurst