Entering the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t Ij last Thursday, I was greeted with the swell of a sine wave, and as the water came into view through those impressive windows, a plucked string joined it, in the form of a gong. Arif Malawi was at the decks selecting some music truly fitting of the event about to unfold… the PAN label takeover. There are few labels that are synonymous with innovative electronic music. Warp, Mute and 4AD have all contributed something unique and special to music of an electronic nature. Often marginalised for their unaffectedness on the dance floor or in the charts they have given artists the platform and opportunity to change inflexible ideas about this music, and all have contributed their fair share in the act of moving electronic music to the next step. Another label to recently join the ranks of these prestigious labels is PAN, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. As electronic music was moving into the limelight and a generation of producers sought to conform rather than transform, PAN broke onto the scene at just the right time, and haven’t looked back since.
Founder of PAN, graphic designer and composer, Bill Kouligas took the stage first with a new performance for the Muziekgebouw. Currently in the process of relocating to New York, he is happy to be making music again after a two-year break from the activity. His performance was a mixture of modulated drones and controlled feedback loops, ringing everything out of the small but effective sound system of the kleine zaal. The resonances of the feedback reflecting off the class windows while synthesized pulse waves rattle against your diaphragm. It’s his creative versatility that came as a precursor to the label. Initially formed in 2008 to showcase the musical output of some close friends alongside Bill’s own graphic design work, PAN has outgrown those humble roots and has established itself as a major contender in the field of avant garde electronic music. Bill’s graphic design work brings a pleasing aesthetic back into physical releases today and it accompanies the varied catalogue perfectly. Apart from an innovative attitude, there is no defining characteristic to the music that appears on the label. The output ranges from the Noise exploits of Kouligas and Helm to the synth reduction work of Lee Gamble. The latter’s 2012 Dutch Tvashar Plumes, transgressed the dance sensibilities of its author into a field where sound design played a distinctive role, and rhythms that sought to eschew preconceived musical ideas, held it all together.
The stalwart, who has journeyed through the beginnings of Jungle, has found a perfect home in PAN for the experimental output of his musical identity. And even though someone like Gamble, whose name alone will ensure an audience, PAN still sticks to its main objective in giving friends a platform for their experimental musical output. It is exactly through this personal investment in the artists that Kouligas eventually secured Helm, aka Luke Younger for his, now seminal, Impossible Symmetry EP. This artist took the stage on Thursday night in an unassuming manner that did not act as an accurate reflection for what was a to follow. Mixing drones from a modular synthesizer with musique-concréte-type samples, Helm had the building of the Muziekgebouw shaking in the wake of a sonic wave of immense proportions. Throughout the performance your head swims in the upper frequencies as resonances get amplified in the small space, while the bottom end pulsated away through a series of drones or pitched percussive samples. The rich textures that he provoked from the synthesizer really brought to light the aspects of Noise productions that could only be mustered from analogue synthesis.
Using controlled improvised techniques Helm doesn’t only perform his recorded catalogue, but extemporises it further, morphing their motifs and themes into completely new instances. He balances the merger between composition and performance just enough for it to hold the listener’s attention throughout the course of each song as it develops continuously around the recognisable elements of the recording. The unpredictability of a Helm performance ensures the listener is always thoroughly stimulated and never exhausted.
A recent Boiler Room performance stands testament to that as Helm teamed up with fellow PAN affiliate, Eli Keszler in a captivating performance that combined Helm’s work with the Keszler’s improvised drumming and striking Cold Pin installation. Integrating a visual- with a sonic aesthetic it yet again reflects the foundation of PAN’s objective and their insistence in the two aspects of creativity. It also presents a focus on performance that I find synonymous with PAN. Whether considering the improvised construction of many of the albums on PAN, including Eli Keszler’s Catching Net, or the various events that PAN showcase, performance seems to be a make a big part of the labels purpose. These performance aspects, like that of Helm’s own at the Muziekgebouw, showcase exactly the current situation of the electronic avant garde. Improvisation seems to be currently used as a recurring theme especially in electronic music where a human element is so often absent. It makes PAN all the more note worthy. Where the labels mentioned earlier, like Warp and 4AD are now regularly moving well into a popular dialogue with electronic music, perhaps losing sight of the innovation that first provided a platform for their existence, PAN are definitely still flying the banner for a new generation of artists, producers and audiences. But that is not to say that there isn’t a crossover hit waiting in the ranks.
Heatsick (Steve Warwick), who originally made up one half of Birds of Delay, with the aforementioned Luke Younger, can be considered to have provided the label with this opportunity already, with 2 excellent releases on the label. 2012’s Déviation followed by 2013’s Re-Engineering sums up the Heatsick sound perfectly. It is Lo-Fi construct that captures the producer’s musical adventures on little more than a Casio keyboard and it is as much influenced by a pop-centric attitude as it is by an desire to experiment.
As Helena Hauff closed the show with a techno-informed DJ set on Thursday night, it yet again, brought the versatility of PAN’s catalogue to light. Insisting on four on the floor constructs, Hauff’s productions use skewed electronics built on a foundation of techno and house forms. Her tracks make for interesting and notable inclusions in any DJ set. Her set reflected this diversity on the night and as the crowd milled about the fantastic setting of the Muziekgebouw, I was surprised at the somewhat reserved turnout for this event. The label has certainly seen its fair share of praise and their artists are slowly becoming household names for anybody interested in the more experimental aspects of electronic music. I don’t believe this to be an accurate reflection of the label’s pulling power especially based on the year to follow. I managed to have a word with Bill before his set, and he shared some of the artists he’s lined up for the near future, most notable of which were Beneath, Bass Clef and Valerio Tricoli. If 2013 was not already defined as PAN’s year, I could safely assume 2014 would be. The list of artists and the diversity they embody suggests that PAN is staying the course, and if the takeover of the Muziekgebouw ann ‘t Ij is anything to go by, you better get ready to hear much more from PAN.