SET X CTM, a festival of adventurous music performances in Tehran, sees the European and Iranian electronic scenes joining together to euphoric effect.
Fans of alternative music from across the capital knew that they would be in for a rare treat with the expansive and eclectic lineup on offer at SET – and, judging by the consistently rapturous response from the sold-out crowd, they were not disappointed. The electronic music festival, now in its third year, took over Azadi Concert Hall, buried deep under the iconic Azadi Tower. It showcased some of the best local talents alongside premier performers from the European scene, in what is proving to be a flourishing partnership between the organisers and CTM Berlin.
With six acts performing over the course of the weekend (not to mention a series of sets, panels, workshops and talks hosted by venues across the city over five days), there was a wide range of styles to be heard, from ghostly, ethereal soundscapes to intense levels of distortion, glitch, and live-processed classical Iranian instruments. Several of the performances also incorporated visual elements, adding an extra dimension to what, at times, became an almost otherworldly experience.
As the festival-goers filed into the cavernous underground auditorium – which provided a welcome respite from the baking summer heat outside – there was much speculation but little consensus about what to expect. The first evening’s lineup promised three totally different acts, and it was unclear whether the event would feel more like a club night or a concert.
mHz, an Iranian sound artist based in New Zealand, opened the proceedings with a rigorous, concept-based set that took the audience on an odyssey through various permutations of an x-y grid function. The music was delivered with clinical, computational precision and sonic intensity – skittering tabletop sounds were interlaced with thunderous machine-gun-like beats and crunchy bass, all seemingly in tense competition with one another. The individual tracks would slam into life, overlap, split and recombine, as if the digital data-crunching had taken on a consciousness of its own, shouldering other sounds aside. (x=-y), one of the later pieces, was a particular highlight, full of static hiss and submerged pulses hinting at a never-quite-present central rhythm. All of this was backed by bold, punchy, black-and-white graphics – orchestrated by mHz himself – which perfectly echoed the jittery numerical tension in play throughout the set. Blocks of pure white and black fought for space, annulled each other, and were periodically riven and disrupted by shards of RGB colour. This was cerebral techno at its scratchy, uneasy best – throwing up logical and sonic provocations never fully settled or resolved.
Next up was Umchunga, a Tehran-based composer who works a wide repertoire of noise and drones to sculpt multi-layered, dreamlike atmospheres which envelop the listener. Compared to the previous act’s digital bit-crunching pyrotechnics, the set was slow to get going, involving protracted variations of low- to mid-range drones interacting mournfully with barely present background noise. The drawn-out build-up was worth the wait, however, with the intensity rising, tide-like, to an epic crescendo of earth-shaking prolonged bass pulsation that flatly refused to loosen its continuous, strangling grip, paired with soaring, euphoric samples and overcharged synth.
Closing the first night was Sote, one of the most intriguing prospects. Drawing on his German-Iranian heritage and upbringing, Sote fuses classical Persian instruments with samples, live processing and distortion to create an unpredictable, disorientating mashup. Arash Bolouri and Behrooz Pashaee attacked the santoor and setar, bringing a fascinating, uncanny dynamic to these familiar instruments. Much of the appeal of the performance lay in the way that the audience could observe the acoustic sounds being produced and distorted simultaneously, like the transformation of the dulcimer-like tones of the santoor into reverberating, swampy bass. This cross-cultural experiment veered off in an array of thrilling directions, ranging from technical complexity to driving dance rhythms, from jagged scratching sounds to brash, cacophonous maelstroms of noise. Tarik Barri’s swirling lattice-work visuals, borrowing heavily from Persian design traditions, provided a hypnotic backdrop for this wholly original spectacle.
An overnight breather allowed sufficient time for jangling synapses to recover from these overwhelming sonic assaults before day two. Temp-Illusion opened with classic 90s drum-machine samples smashed up against fragmented breakbeats and cut-up bass. The Tehran-based duo’s set would not have been out of place in a Berlin techno bunker and went spiralling through genres and styles with hedonistic abandon, culminating in an aggressive drum-and-bass finale which shook the foundations and had everyone dancing in their seats.
The pick of the festival, however, came in the form of an audio-visual collaborative project between 9T Antiope and Austrian videographer/filmmaker Rainer Kohlberger. It was a seemingly perfect match between sound and visuals, with each artist’s work sensitively and intelligently enhancing, complementing, and challenging the other’s. An often-overlooked aspect of electronic music is how it can, when delicately handled, structure its own narratives, weaving disparate elements together to form a story. Nima Aghiani and Sara Bigdeli Shamloo of 9T Antiope seek to create landscapes and environments through processed sound, samples, speech, instruments, and vocals. Their work extends into theatre, and those dramatic influences and instincts were brilliantly displayed and brought to life by Kohlberger. An immersive sonic narrative combined with overpowering visuals, making this an experience which managed to be both intellectually and emotionally moving.
After such an intense experience, the beautiful, retro world conjured into life by Robert Henke, performing as Monolake, was like balsam for the soul, and a fitting way to wrap up the night. Performing with his back to the crowd, and his laptop and faders visible, Henke introduced sample after sample, washing the sound from left to right and back to front across the speaker system, calmly and expertly enfolding the audience in the process. His live production skills, as one might expect from one of the creators of the industry-standard Ableton Live software, have been honed to perfection over the decades, and one gets the impression that he could do it blindfolded, or in his sleep. The attentive listeners were soothed, coaxed, and caressed into a blissful surrender, a state of wonder that lasted well beyond the show itself.
When the dazed, satisfied fans emerged into the still-warm midnight air, they might have been forgiven for thinking that the blood-red moon, hovering over Azadi Tower in the process of a perfectly timed and beautifully framed eclipse, was somehow part of the show. This cosmic coincidence, however, merely served to ease their minds gently back into reality, after two evenings of challenging experimental escapism.
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