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Electronic music/arts find ready audience at Spark Festival

“He promises to melt people’s faces off with his beats, and he sort of does that. It’s a very fast style of reggae that I like a lot. It’s music that’s made to be listened to with earplugs.”

Ali Momeni was describing Puzzle Weazel, a techno composer and performer from Denmark, one of the 80 or so artists, both visual and musical, who are participating in the eighth annual Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts, a four-day event in progress on the West Bank. Weazel represents the late-night dance-club wing of the new-media arts constellation that is Spark’s reason for being. Appropriately, he and his laptop will be featured in the festival’s Nightlife series — Nightlife III Friday at 11 p.m. at the Love Power Church, 1407 Washington Av. S.

Other events — such as the concert at the same location Friday at 8 p.m. of works of Stockhausen and other High Modernist composers featuring Talea, an ensemble from New York City — will carry the aura of a standard new-music program. This year’s star performer, most would agree, is the English composer-guitarist Fred Frith, who will give a talk Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota and a concert at 8 p.m. at the Love Power Church. All events are free.

There are bigger music festivals, to be sure, but none, like Spark, devoted exclusively to new electronic technologies. (Besides performances, most of them at the Love Power Church, 19 visual installations are on display at the Regis Center.) The budget is small — about $50,000 this year — as is the staff of five, only two of whom are paid — and both poorly, said Momeni, Spark’s artistic director.

“But we program something like 80 pieces, and we bring 14 national and international artists in. It’s a big deal,” said Momeni, an assistant professor in the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota who himself isn’t paid for his work directing Spark, and he thinks that’s legitimate. He considers Spark part of the research aspect of his job. “It’s the most direct way of finding out what’s going on and trying to bring it to the community,” he said.

Momeni, who was born in Iran and emigrated to the United States at the age of 12, earned a doctorate in musical composition from the University of California at Berkeley, having spent three years in Paris researching his dissertation, titled “Composing Instruments: Inventing and Performing with Generative Computer-based Instruments.” Gradually, though he remains involved in music, he made a transition into the visual arts, and has been especially active in the interdisciplinary world of new media art, which would seem to be a perfect background for Spark. He came to the University of Minnesota three years ago and co-directed the 2008 and ’09 editions of Spark with the festival’s founder, Douglas Geers, who now teaches at the City University of New York.

One of the first things that impressed Momeni about the Twin Cities was its bike culture.

“It’s uncanny, all the bicyclists,” he said. “The community is tight, strong and fearless. I couldn’t believe it: Many in this group will bike all the way through a Minnesota winter.”

He soon combined biking with his interest in new-media arts. He formed Minneapolis Art on Wheels, which involves the projecting of live video images onto public spaces by bikers as a way of engaging the community in an artistic dialogue.

He’s doubtful that Spark would work in a city like Berkeley. “Through my teaching, I’ve had a lot of contact with young people here — late teens, early 20s,” he said. “There’s this punk-flavored, rainbow-powered, bicycle-driven, technology-oriented younger community here that I didn’t find in the Bay Area. It also has to do with the climate and the sensibility that people have. It’s not so comfortable here, given the long winters, and so people make their own comfort, and they might do it in a creative space, whether it be in a studio or a workshop. People make time for it in the winter. And even if you don’t produce something great, you become a good audience member.

"People love live music here, whether it’s basic rock ‘n’ roll, punk or electronic. There are so many great venues for bands that stop nowhere between the East and West Coasts except Chicago and here. Look at Triple Rock,” he said, referring to the bar on Cedar Av. “They might present a band as weird as Captured by Robots, where the music is played by computer-controlled robots. This guy shows up on a Wednesday night, and there are 150 people there, screaming and jumping up and down. That’s part of the community for what Spark tries to do.”

Three groups, Momeni said, have formed the audience for Spark: ravers, academics and people in the surrounding community. Regarding the first group, he said, “The word ‘rave’ might be outdated by now, but this is a group that usually starts at dance clubs on a Saturday night, and then they go to the real party that starts late. There may be recreational drugs, but Minneapolis also has an impressive ‘straight edge’ scene. Straight-edgers are these totally marginal, funky kids who don’t drink or smoke or do drugs. They wear tight black pants and have the same tattoos, and they go to these dance parties. This, too, I never found in the Bay Area.”

Given Momeni’s visual-arts orientation, it’s not surprising that visual arts and artists have a larger presence at Spark than in the past. Where 20 submissions for installations and videos were typical, Spark received 70 this year from artists around the world. “Its still pretty tech-y,” Momeni said. “There are a lot of wires, and that’s OK. But there are these younger audience members who don’t see the wires. They just listen to what’s coming out and decide independently whether it’s good or it sucks.”

The tone of much of this art is whimsical. Perhaps it can be called serious whimsy. Michael Calligan, for instance, a member of the Friction Brothers — an experimental trio from Chicago who will perform at the 9:30 p.m. concert Friday at the space known as 1419 (1419 Washington Av. S.) — is listed as a dry ice player.

When asked for some of his own favorites in this year’s lineup, among those he mentioned was Mikkel Meyer, another musician from Denmark, who plays home-made instruments made from broken objects found in dumpsters. Meyer will perform at the final Nightlife concert Saturday at 11 p.m. at the Love Power Church.

Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts. Through Saturday. Free. For schedule of events and venues, go here.

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